It begins like a crude joke.
Over 30 queers from UCSB pile out of three vans into the parking lot of a sleazy motel in Riverside. They walk around, stretch their legs and survey the parking lot around them.
A middle-aged woman, heavyset and stumbling, spies the group and begins to shout, “That’s sick, you all are sick!” before zigzagging behind one of the dumpsters.
The students laugh, flashing the rainbow stickers and pins fastened to shirts and backpacks with pride and honor. It’s hardly a warm welcome, but they don’t seem to mind. This isn’t a time for them to be afraid; they’ve come to be with family at the 14th annual University of California Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association Conference.
The event, which drew over 700 people from 55 universities throughout the nation, took place last weekend and offered a wide variety of workshops, speakers and films. The festivities opened with a performance by Margaret Cho and included keynote speaker Faisal Alam, the founder and director of Al-Fatiha, an international organization devoted to Muslim LGBT issues.
The conference lasted three days and included six workshop sessions, each offering 10 workshops, in topics ranging from safe sex and drag to hate crime legislation and problems queer youth face when coming out to family.
The UCLGBTIA rotates the conferences annually throughout the UC system, swinging around California to keep the balance between the northern and southern campuses. Last year, UC Berkeley hosted the conference; it came to UC Santa Barbara the year before that.
This conference marked the 10th anniversary of UCR’s LGBT Resource Center.
The conference itself is just one of the functions of the UCLGBTIA, which also plays an important role in establishing queer-friendly policies in the UC system, ranging from establishing domestic partnership programs to creating LGBT Resource Centers on every UC campus.
Every year, the hosting campus selects a theme for the conference. Nancy Tubbs, the director of UCR’s LGBT Resource Center and one of the organizers behind this year’s conference, explained that the theme for this year, “Coming Home Queer,” was a celebration of the connections established between queers.
Coming Home Queer
The theme of the conference also acknowledged both the problems that queers face with their families while honoring the new families established in order to find support when life at home turns ugly. Rebecca Chapman, the assistant director for UCSB’s Resource Center for Sexual & Gender Diversity, said, based on the students who use the RCSGD, that families who have a difficult time accepting queer children after they come out are still in the majority.
In spite of the progress the LGBTIQ community has made in terms of establishing respect and legal rights, many still face rejection and derision when they come out to parents at home. These problems often lead men and women to find new families composed of people who share a similar experience.
“We create families of choice,” Tubbs said. “We create families for ourselves and ask, ‘What can we offer each other?'”
These chosen families fill the void left behind when parents react negatively to their child’s sexual orientation.
“Students use each other for support networks,” Chapman said. “They keep an eye on each other from small things like financial aid and tests to big [things], like emotional support.”
Feeling at Home
At UC Riverside, the conference participants create a home for themselves where they feel comfortable and safe. A walk through the campus reveals same-sex couples curled up on the lawn together, sleeping in the afternoon sun. Two men sit under one of the many large trees dotting UCR, embracing and discussing the workshops they attended earlier in the day.
During the lunch, students laugh as one woman gets up and holds high a massive gift package of assorted lube she just won in a raffle.
“It’s for my friends,” she shouts at the crowd, and they laugh and applaud in reply.
As Saturday evening wears on after the first day of the conference, students drift in and around the Super 8, dragging the sense of community established by the conference into the city of Riverside itself. Many students talk about the workshops from the day, highlighting their favorites and discussing problems with others.
Regardless of the nature of the workshops we attended, our opinions and the new ideas formed there help us connect with each other and turn the motel into a new home. The small chosen families we have established back home expand to include brothers and sisters from Santa Barbara City College to Washington State University.
I spend a good portion of the evening discussing the conference with a woman from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. The conversation ranges from the casual to serious politics, and as the talk draws to a close, signaled by a few last desperate drags on a cigarette, she suggests the queer communities from each of our campuses do more together.
I agree and she smiles, flicking the cigarette butt into the parking lot and disappearing back into her room. The evening rolls on; people make plans to meet up the next day over brunch or to attend workshops together.
The cold stares and disapproving looks from the other motel patrons have all faded into the background like static on a muted television. A lesbian couple walks down the street, holding hands in search of food. A gay couple, standing outside their room, embraces and kisses. The woman who shouted at us early meanders down the parking lot again, staring daggers at the two men.
“Do you read the Bible?” she shouts.
No one answers her; she’s an outsider – an insignificant protester to a family of more than 700 members.
The van ride home for the UCSB students brings a nasty surprise to some and a familiar ache to others. The home we established for our queer family reunion is now vacant, over 200 miles behind us.
When I attended my first UCLGBTIA conference last year at Berkeley, a friend of mine warned me about the withdrawal most students go through when returning to UCSB. He told me that reentering the straight world is hard to do, even after spending just three days in a space the size of a university.
He was right, and I start to feel the way I did then. It’s a slow, sorry ache knowing that I have to return to the rules of a world where I still can’t marry, where I can’t give blood, where I could be killed for showing affection in public.
On the way to depositing students at their doorsteps, the van passes by a man and woman kissing in the Isla Vista twilight.
“They must be bi,” one student says before realizing his mistake. We make the rest of the trip in silence, listening to the radio, and my mind drifts off to more basic matters like homework and laundry.
The one thought that keeps me sane is that there are others, not just at UCSB but throughout the nation, who know how I feel.
Just then, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” comes on over the radio, and I can’t help but sing along and smile.