Straight allies are voices, advocates of LGBT community

by YEVGENIYA KOPELEVA

“Allies are those who are willing to be vocal and advocate for equal opportunities,” said Whit Hollis, director of the Olpin Student Union, in a short video presented at the beginning of “The Straight Ally: Putting the A in LGBTQ” panel at the University of Utah on Oct. 17, 2007.

In support of the LGBT Resource Center’s Pride Week 2007, U students and faculty filled more than 50 desks in a classroom at the Union building to listen, learn and ask questions about what it means to be an ally of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer community. “You have the choice to help everyone, but you don’t have the time or resources to save the world so you choose your passion,” said Esther Kim, a panelist and student at the U.

A straight ally is someone who accepts, supports and respects members of the LGBTQ community. An ally also can be someone who is an activist for equality, fairness and justice.

“As a student of color, I have always felt comfortable making connections with a minority group and my experience has been that I am the voice and advocate for the LGBTQ community,” Kim said.

While Kim appreciates the ally to be acknowledged as part of LGBTQ, panelist Matt Basso, a professor of gender studies, feels uncomfortable because it’s “normalizing” something. “It is a reminder for ‘normal’ individuals to remember to be activists, but the ally tag should remind me to not walk in life easily,” Basso said.

Allies can be some of the most effective and powerful voices for the LGBTQ community. Not only can they assist in the coming-out process, but they can also inform others about the importance of mutual respect and acceptance. “Allies are people who take the time to consider how other people affect them and their identities, and work towards a better understanding of people who might be different than themselves,” said Bonnie Owens, staff intern for the LGBT Resource Center.

When it comes to creating awareness of LGBTQ issues, Octavio Villalpando, a panelist and the associate vice president for the Office of Diversity, believes one of the failures in the education system is not exposing students to inequality and issues of diversity. “Students going to school for 12 years and still not knowing about LGBTQ issues until college is a problem,” he said.

Kari Ellingson, associate vice president for student development, shared a personal story with the audience. While driving her son and his friend to West High School, Ellingson overheard her son’s friend say “that’s gay.” When she pulled the car over and asked what the phrase meant to him, he was speechless and didn’t realize how his words had impacted someone else. “It’s for us parents to take action and advocate our children on issues they may not face or hear about in high school,” Ellingson said.

Panelist Becky McKean, who works as an administrative assistant for the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs, believes everyone needs access to education without barriers. “I am LDS and when I accepted my current job, I was honest and asked permission to ask questions about the people I would be working with,” she said. “I discovered how many things I take for granted. For example, I rarely have to question being accepted or go to a place where I feel unsafe.” As an ally, she supports the idea of allowing individuals to be who they are and encourages people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes before making assumptions.

Although Pride Week is a step toward celebration and forming conversations, “there never is only one issue and if you open up conversations, you will get new ideas from everyone,” McKean said. Ellingson admits that there still are battles to fight, but she also recognized the LGBT Resource Center for doing a great job at reaching out to students, faculty and the community.

Basso believes it’s about finding common ground and knowing that you can somehow relate to everyone you encounter without having any expectations. “At universities, it is easier to be an ally and have those discussions, but we need to create more dialogue and awareness,” Basso said.

Owens says allies are a growing part of the community and represent new theoretical terrain for the fields of gender and sexuality. “I thought it was important to host the straight ally panel because it shows dedication and commitment to our ally community on campus and it reaffirms our relationship to academics and the growing awareness of our communities and identities,” Owens said.

Respect, accuracy key to coverage, GLAAD strategist says

by YEVGENIYA KOPELEVA

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation offered a presentation on media essentials on Oct. 16, 2007, in support of Pride Week at the University of Utah. Adam Bass, the Northwest media field strategist for GLAAD, encouraged aspiring journalists to recognize and write effective pro-LGBT messages.

“A good example of an effective pro-LGBT message could be something like this: University of Utah Pride is an opportunity to showcase our diverse student body and let every student know he or she is valued as a member of the community,” Bass said.

GLAAD’s media field strategy teams provide training to help lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people and straight allies illustrate more effectively the power of local media to encourage respect, inclusion and acceptance. In addition, the teams work closely with organizations and individuals to develop strategies and contacts, create news coverage and train spokespeople. Bass’ role is to be a community and media resource for whoever is writing or speaking about the LGBT community.

He encourages people to correct misrepresentations and factual errors in the media by responding with a message that will educate and inform others. “When you respond to a story or an article, do stay positive and be for, not just against something,” Bass said. “Don’t make it us versus them.” He believes it is vital to stick to what you know, since the message must match the messenger, but also said not to be afraid to be on the offensive. Bass told the audience to remember to reclaim facts and valuable statements with proper language and not to repeat the opponent’s negative message.

For example, when writing letters to the editor, Bass said it’s essential to respond to the defamatory coverage by clarifying the misconception or inaccuracy of an opponent. “The strategies for writing a letter to the editor are: making a strong affirmative statement, tell your personal story, support your statement with facts and strengthen the existing positive message of your organization,” Bass said.

Once you have created an effective message, the next step is knowing your audience. Bass said there is no such thing as a general audience; rather, individuals need to speak to the “movable media,” those who will be affected by the issue or subject. “It’s important to tell your personal story and to let your message come from experience, but to also know your boundaries,” Bass said. He encourages people to use “buzz” words like freedom, justice, democracy, love and commitment to build bridges with readers or the audience. The goal is to convince your audience that your position is reasonable and persuasive.

“It’s simply about taking the personal story and making it a universal message. For example, try using the Oprah effect; ask someone to sit on a couch and tell you their story,” Bass said.

On the other hand, the goal of writing an opinion editorial is to summarize an issue, develop a persuasive argument and propose solutions. The strategies behind writing an opinion piece are: Begin with your personal story, include facts and make the complex issue clear. “Whether it’s a letter to an editor or an opinion editorial, it’s essential to keep it short and concise, to be specific in the response and to not assume audience knowledge,” Bass said.

He said he approached the editor of the Daily Utah Chronicle at the U about publishing the word “homosexual” in a story. In response, the staff committed to altering their pre-existing style rules to appropriately address the LGBT community. “The explanation of the term as a scientific branding propagated by a number of anti-gay publications made it clear to me that we should include more specific instructions on use of the word in our own style guide,” said Matthew Piper, editor-in-chief of the Daily Utah Chronicle.

GLAAD, the third largest LGBT civil rights group in America, strives to change hearts and minds by altering the way media portray the LGBT community. “We are a media advocate and watchdog for the LGBT community,” Bass said.

The organization was founded in New York City in 1985 in response to the defamatory anti-gay media coverage during the beginning days of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States. GLAAD’s mission is “to promote and ensure fair, accurate and inclusive representation of people and events in the media as a means of eliminating homophobia and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.”

GLAAD strives to meet people where they are and to foster broader conversations with anyone and everyone. “We talk about stories to open hearts and minds,” Bass said.

Stuck in the middle: Some bisexuals struggle to overcome stereotypes

by MISSY THOMPSON

They are called fence-sitters, undecided or confused. Generally they are not accepted by straight or gay people, although the straight community lumps them in with the LGBT community.

Bisexuals have been marginalized for many years because they are underrepresented within the LGBT community. Stereotypes surround them like a cloud.

One misconception is that they are promiscuous because they are attracted to both sexes. However, many don’t fit this stereotype because they believe in monogamous relationships, whether it’s with a man or woman.

“There is not a lot of respect for bisexuals,” said Bonnie Owens, a senior at the University of Utah and an intern at the campus LGBT Resource Center. “Some people believe it’s just a transition period.”

Bisexuals are included in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) acronym that has become the most widely accepted term for describing members of this population. But, the problem with bisexuality being part of the LGBT acronym is that they are not accepted by either gays or straight individuals, Owens said.

“There’s a saying: ‘Bi now, gay later,'” she said, referring to the misperception that bisexuals will eventually become gay or lesbian.

Owens and LGBT Resource Center Director Cathy Martinez are working to reaching out to misrepresented LGBT communities — including bisexuals — by making them feel as if they are part of the community. Although no definite plans have been made, Owens believes they need to be included considering they are part of the acronym.

“We are bringing bisexuality into a light of inclusiveness,” Owens said. “[The media] have sexualized bisexuality.”

But making bisexuals feel included in the LGBT community will be difficult because they are looked down on by gays, lesbians and straight people.

“Female bisexuality is more acceptable,” Owens said. “For males it is more of an issue of if you are [gay] or aren’t. A man is questioned more and thought of as testing the waters. It’s much less accepted.”

Bisexuality in younger males is questioned even more. Tom Campbell, 17, a senior at Tooele High School in Tooele, Utah, has been out about his bisexuality for a year. He has seen some people be completely supportive of his lifestyle, while others are less inclined to treat him the same as they did before they learned he is bi.

“There are a lot of people who treat you different in high school,” Campbell said. “Kids give you a lot of crap [for being bisexual]. My doctor even put me on anti-depressants.”

Campbell believes it’s difficult for people, especially high school teenagers, to understand that having equal interest in males and females is normal for him.

“I’m asked if I’m gay a lot and I say, ‘No, I’m bi, there’s a big difference between the two,'” he said. “I have a strong attraction to both [men and women]. I like variety.”

He has also seen the difference in the way bisexual women are treated compared to bisexual men.

“When you’re at a dance club and two girls are dancing together in a cage it’s OK,” Campbell said. “But when I’m up there with another guy, it isn’t.”

Campbell is a member of the Tooele High stage crew where he helps build and design scenery for the plays the school produces. Some of the crew members who know he is sexual orientation have treated him differently.

“It’s funny because when you’re with [stage] crew it’s like your family, but I’m not myself,” he said. “It’s the people you’re around that make you feel comfortable and OK with your sexuality.”

Although lesbian and gay have overshadowed the ‘B’ in LGBT, it is a lifestyle that bisexuals accept despite pressure from both the LGBT and straight communities.

For instance, Wendy Lynn, 43, an environmental studies student at the U, never questioned her bisexuality and has embraced her lifestyle.

“I didn’t realize I was different,” Lynn said in the Ray Olpin Union building over a cup of coffee. “I thought it was acceptable if men were with men and women were with women. I reasoned this as an 11-year-old.”

Lynn was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and during a
Primary lesson — a Sunday school-like teaching session for children — challenged a teacher who couldn’t give her the answers she wanted. She was taken to the Bishop, who told her not to vocalize her thoughts.

“I didn’t realize I was voicing an anti-opinion,” she said. “I stopped attending church at age 12.”

Her sexual orientation didn’t come up again until after she was married at the age of 18. When she was driving with her husband one day, Lynn saw a woman who she believed was beautiful. Lynn didn’t think twice about telling her husband that they should ask the woman to go out to dinner with them. Later, she wondered, “What was I thinking?”

“I was in a marriage and at that moment [of seeing the woman] all I wanted to do was spend time with her,” Lynn said. “A time came when it was clear to my husband that I was different. But I didn’t plan on pursuing it.”

Lynn and her husband divorced after three years of marriage. Eventually she began a 10-year relationship with a woman. Lynn said they would still be together if it weren’t for her partner’s alcohol abuse.

The only time Lynn felt accepted by the LGBT community was when she was with a woman. Her life revolved around this community while she was with her girlfriend. She hung out at bars that her friends frequented. But, once she began a relationship with a man, Lynn lost the majority of her friends.

“[Gays] have their own social network,” she said. “It was my social life. When I chose to be with a man [my life] was gone and now I have very few friends. [Bisexuality] is not a choice for most people,” she said. “Because it was for me, people can’t accept that.”

Lynn has been in a relationship with the same man since 1998. They were married, then divorced. Now, they are living together again, but are no longer married.

“For me, I grow more spiritually when I’m in a committed relationship,” Lynn said. “You don’t learn enough about yourself when you’re not. You have to find a partner who mirrors you, it’s easier to survive that way. I commit everything I can to one relationship, otherwise I get lonely.”

Since she has been with a man, her parents have been more supportive about her sexuality. Because they don’t see Lynn with another woman it’s as if they can pretend she is straight.

“I can be honest with who I am,” she said. “My boyfriend doesn’t care what [other people] think. He will always support who I am.”

Ultimately it doesn’t matter to Lynn whether her partner is male or female.

“I will never stop being attracted to men and women,” she added.

Lynn’s philosophy is that in any population, 10 percent are gay and 10 percent are straight. Everyone else – mainly bisexuals – fall in the middle. That large gray area is where she, and many others, fit in.

“Some people who are bisexual may just be experimenting,” she said. “Sexuality is fluid and more people are deciding that it’s OK to be different.”

Because Lynn is older, she has seen many of the hardships bisexuals have faced over the years. Most of the time, she said, they weren’t necessarily persecuted, but definitely had a hard time fitting in with both the LGBT and straight communities.

Lynn has lived in Utah, California and Montana, but the only time she felt her life was threatened was in Wyoming where LGBT individuals have been killed because of their orientation. On another occasion at the gay club, Sun, in downtown Salt Lake City, a group of men surrounded the exit. Lynn, unaware they were there, nearly walked out but was pulled back inside before she could get hurt.

“I look conservative, I’m never dishonest,” Lynn said. “I’m not one of those in-your-face people. I feel safe sitting here in the Union when a few years ago, I never would have.”

Nevertheless, bisexuals still have to fight for approval from society.

For instance, the Utah Bisexual Support Group was only recently allowed to hold meetings at the Utah Pride Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

“We are viewed with as much suspicion in the gay community as in the straight,”
Lynn said. “Bisexuality for me has very little to do with who I choose — whether male or female. I don’t take sex seriously, but there has to be a serious attraction. In that case I don’t want to limit myself.”

Campbell and Lynn are just two of many bisexual individuals living in Utah who don’t feel at home in the gay and lesbian or straight communities. Until one, or both, sides decide to accept them, bisexuals will continue to live in limbo.