A table of five smiling panelists watched as the room filled with Old Dominion University students and professors. A room with a 54-head occupancy left people standing, even with the added chairs. The conversation driven event was rooted on African American and LGBT experiences in Hampton Roads.
Avi Santo, a communications associate professor, helped organize Wednesday night’s Queer Intersections event. Santo introduced the invited panelists Michelle Breedlove, Christie Lake, Judah Lamar, Chadra Pittman Walke and Toni-Michelle Williams.
Active LGBT members of the Hampton Roads community, each panelist shared their personal stories and addressed the challenges African-American lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals encounter in Hampton Roads.
“I was honored to be asked to participate in this. I feel like it’s important to talk about what it means to be black and gay,” 40-year-old married lesbian Lake said.
Originally from Los Angeles, Lake is an LGBT activist and founding organizer of Forever, which is geared to ending violence and rape. Highly involved in the LGBT community, she often works as an event promoter and aids charity works.
Published researcher and ODU alumnus, Judah Lamar, connected with the students as he teleported them to the past. He conveyed the lack of a gay community on ODU’s campus calling it “nonexistent” when he was a freshman in 1999.
Times have obviously changed, but Wednesday’s event highlighted the current obstacles the LGBT community deals with today.
The experience based event created a comfortable space for open and honest dialogue, Brushing sensitive topics such as religion, racism, education and their influence on the struggles of “coming out” and self-identity.
Self-acceptance and social standards were stressed throughout the discussion. Breedlove explained how growing up in liberal Atlanta during the ‘80s felt free and accepting, Saying that you could have a million holes in your face or a big mohawk and still be accepted.
However, acknowledging or accepting being gay was difficult for her. She explained how she’d go to church and pray for “the gay to be taken out of her.”
Each panelist urged the notion of being comfortable in one’s skin, and how to embrace who you are. Regardless of what society, religion or anyone might say.
“I’ve been gay since birth. It wasn’t until 38 that I decided okay that’s it. I’m coming out. I’m just going to be me, and not fit into someone else’s identity,” Breedlove said.
Though not everyone in the audience was queer, the crowd demonstrated their appreciation for the panelists and how the event clarified their understanding of the LGBT community.
“The panel was really relatable and made things easy to understand for a straight female who’s best friend is a lesbian,” ODU student Jessica Aguiluz said.
According to Pittman Walke, a tall, thin woman with beaded dread-locks and an earthy-bohemian vibe who is originally from New York City, the narrow mindedness of Hampton Roads was “surprising” and “a bit of a culture shock.” Pittman Walke is an anthropologist, writer and founder and executive director of The Sankofa Project, which is dedicated to remembering and honoring African ancestors.
The free-spirited woman illustrated the fluidity of life and that labels are irrelevant. Such stereotypes and preconceived ideas can become convoluted if a woman marries a man, has three kids and identifies herself as a lesbian like Pittman Walke.
She told the audience how colleagues questioned her sexual orientation, laughing when she said, “What? Did I revoke my L card?”
Pittman Walke believes that love and attraction have no limits, Making reference to an article written by a lesbian about lesbians. The writer of the article, however, married a tall white man.
When questioned about the change, the journalists said that labels are coffin shaped boxes.
All five panelists agreed.
Toni-Michelle Williams, a Norfolk State University graduate and health worker at Access AIDS Care, knows a lot about labels and how to break them. She proudly said, “I am an African-American transgender woman, and there’s nothing y’all can do about that. You need to identify and claim yourself.”
The beautiful Williams sparkled with confidence and grace as she shared the importance of “rocking” and “loving you for you,” regardless of the negative energy you may receive. She explained that people accept and respect you more if you accept and respect yourself.
Racism, not only in Hampton Roads, but in general surfaced in conversation. There was an overwhelming sense that such prejudice is a substantial constraint in LGBT acceptance and self-growth.
One face in the audience felt that the black LGBT community in particular is “200 years behind” the white LGBT community, suggesting that times of slavery and segregation stunted the growth of the black LGBT community.
Williams explained that love is love on a human level, and not just on a black or white level.
Pittman Walke suggested alternating words such as minority or black and white with the words love and diversity thus reflecting the contemporary changes and evolvement of society.
The overall hope is that social diversity and acceptance become the norm of the future.
ODU students and audience members Matthew Taylor and Jazmyn McGhee displayed their gratitude and admired the bravery of the panelists while recognizing their wisdom and tips.
Taylor said, “Being a 22-year-old black gay male, I appreciate them standing up for themselves and sharing stories of what they have been through.”
“Even though I don’t identify as LGBT, I loved this session as they touched on topics of labels which I can relate to as bi-racial. Everyone should be required to attend something like this,” McGhee said.
Santos was very pleased with the event and hopes to continue the offering of this type of events on campus.