Growing up in Cary, N.C., Sage College of Albany senior Joshua Hewitt didn’t have many opportunities to be involved in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
He came out as gay at age 13, as a freshman in high school. Although his family supported him, he found that most of the people he was surrounded by didn’t want to talk about it.
“Living in the South, it sort of — you don’t talk about it,” Hewitt said. “A lot of people don’t talk about it. I don’t know of many programs there that support the LGBT community — places like shelters for children, especially for teens who’ve been displaced because they decided to tell their parents, ‘I’m a lesbian,’ or, ‘I’m gay.’ ”
After high school, Hewitt moved to the Capital Region — he has family living in Saratoga Springs and Glens Falls — and soon settled in the Albany area. At Sage College of Albany, Hewitt found more acceptance and more ways to be involved with the LGBT community, and became involved with the college’s gay-straight alliance organization, SPECTRUMS.
Keynote speakers at the Northeast LGBT Conference
All keynote speaker events take place in the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the Russell Sage College campus in Troy.
-- Kate Clinton, 8 p.m. Friday. $30 (doors); $22 (advance).
-- T.J. Jourian, 9 a.m. Saturday. Free.
-- Dona Ann McAdams, 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday. Free.
-- Daniel Hernandez Jr., 7 p.m. Saturday. $10.
-- Bebe Zahara Benet, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 31. Free.
-- Shane L. Windmeyer, 10:30 a.m. Sunday, April 1. Free.
MORE INFO: 244-2000, www.nelgbtc.com.
Even still, Hewitt has had to deal with prejudice, and being a newcomer didn’t make it easy for him to come out all over again.
“I joined the men’s tennis team — so it was like, very macho men, so it was kind of hard,” Hewitt said. “And finally, somehow we got on the discussion of, ‘Are you gay?’ And I was like, yeah. . . . But they were pretty accepting; we didn’t really talk about it much. But I think the Albany campus, I felt, at least for gay men, it’s — I don’t know. It’s almost like, I really think there are some people who are sort of off to the idea that we exist, just because, I don’t know.”
Hewitt is one of the student representatives involved with the preparations for the 17th annual Northeast LGBT Conference, taking place at both Russell Sage College in Troy and the Albany campus from Friday, March 30, through Sunday, April 1. The conference, which originated at the University at Albany in 1995, aims to create awareness for issues within the LGBT community, and bring together community members throughout the Northeast and the country.
Opportunity to learn, grow
“I really feel like these conferences are a safe spot for people to kind of begin branching out into the rest of the community,” said Kyle Byrer, a senior at Russell Sage College and president of H.E.A.R.T., the campus’ gay-straight alliance organization. Together with Hewitt, she has been involved with planning the conference for the past year.
“And even if you are incredibly active in the community and have tons of experience and are very comfortable with LGBT, it’s still a great place to learn and grow and develop more. Just as it’s necessary to have conferences for any other minority or any other academic group, it’s just as important to have it for the LGBT community.”
This year, the conference has been expanded to an entire weekend, with an added adviser conference on the Albany campus. It’s the first year the conference is being held at the Sage Colleges, and the third year the conference has moved to a different school other than the University at Albany — in the past two years, the conference was held at the State University of New York at Buffalo and SUNY Binghamton.
The student conference has already closed registration, with all 400 slots filled. With an additional 100 registered for the adviser conference and another 100 volunteers, the conference is the largest NELGBT Conference to be held yet.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been having to turn a few schools down,” said Vincent Porfirio, assistant dean of students at The Sage Colleges and co-chairman of the NELGBT Conference Executive Committee.
“We wanted to bring the conference to the next level,” Porfirio said. “In 16 years, it’s always been at a SUNY school, with 200 to 300 people maximum, and it was usually just on Saturday, with maybe a Friday night, late-night activity.”
Porfirio has attended numerous NELGBT Conferences in his six years as assistant dean, bringing different groups of students to Buffalo and Binghamton. About two years ago, he put in a bid to have The Sage Colleges host the event.
“We were skeptical, too — this is a very, very small college, not a huge SUNY institution,” Porfirio said. “We were shocked and amazed when we were accepted.”
In past years, the conference has been entirely coordinated by a student committee. Due to the size of this year’s conference, and the smaller student registration at The Sage Colleges, the administration has been more involved with the committee. However, the students were still heavily involved in choosing keynote speakers and other day-to-day organizing for the conference.
There will be six keynote speakers at this year’s conference, including the transgender documentary “TransGeneration” star T.J. Jourian; AIDS Ribbon creator Dona Ann McAdams; Daniel Hernandez Jr., the gay college student credited with saving Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ life in the 2011 shooting; Bebe Zahara Benet, winner of the first season of the show “RuPaul’s Drag Race”; and author and LGBT activist Shane L. Windmeyer.
Buffalo-born comedian and LGBT activist Kate Clinton heads the list of keynote speakers. Besides Clinton’s speech Friday night at 8 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center, which has limited tickets for the public at $22, all of the keynote speeches are free and open to the public. Originally a high school English teacher for eight years, Clinton began her career in stand-up in 1981, focusing on her Catholic upbringing and lesbianism. Her stop at this year’s NELGBT Conference will be her first at this particular event, and coincides with her “All Fracked Up” tour of the U.S.
Over the years, Clinton has seen the LGBT community enter further into mainstream consciousness over the years. With more and more states legalizing gay marriage — including New York last year — knowledge about LGBT continues to increase, but Clinton still feels that conferences like these provide a way for community members to continue to further their understanding.
“People just aren’t as ignorant about gay people as they were — certainly they’re in the media more, from Lady Gaga to ‘Modern Family,’ and have been for a while,” Clinton said from her home in New York City. “I’ll notice myself doing a show, and I don’t feel like I have to explain everything. People have a knowledge of it. What I don’t think is changed — you might think it’s marginally easier for people to come out, but basically it’s very difficult still for people to come out as gay or LGBT, and as many legislative successes as we’ve had and human rights victories we’ve had, it’s still really hard.”
The conference also helps to highlight other LGBT issues that don’t receive as much media attention as gay marriage. Workshops at this year’s conference include everything from bullying gay athletes, to equal employment opportunities for LGBT community members, to homelessness.
“It’s wonderful news that probably we will get marriage equality, and certainly if President Obama gets a second term, I think we’re much closer to even a federal marriage equality act,” Clinton said. “My worry is that’s where the energy has gone for so long, yet it’s not a youth issue — it’s not a concern of youth. They’re more worried about homelessness, HIV, bullying and transgender issues.”
Through just helping to plan the event, Hewitt and Byrer have learned more about issues that they didn’t know about before, such as LGBT teens who are kicked out of their houses and end up homeless.
“I just recently found out that there’s a lot of teens who are — not only are they kicked out of their homes, but then they’re also kicked out of shelters that cater to them because of their sexuality,” Hewitt said. “There’s so much I didn’t know about.”
“And it just doesn’t come to light,” Byrer added. “You wouldn’t necessarily think of that, but it’s an issue within this country.”
Byrer, who is originally from Massachusetts and first became seriously involved with the LGBT community when she began attending Russell Sage College, has appreciated the ability to network with other community members from across the country. This year’s conference has been attracting attendees from as far away as Philadelphia, Ohio and even California.
“I’m really excited just to hear everyone talk about what they’re passionate about within the community,” Byrer said. “The community itself is so diverse, and it’s easy to kind of get stuck in one core group of LGBT, especially when you’re in an area like the Capital District. So to sort of branch that out and meet up with other people from across the country, that’s pretty cool.”
She’s even discovered new LGBT resources locally, as different groups have teamed up with The Sage Colleges to present the conference. The Albany Gay Men’s Choir, for instance, will be opening up for Clinton, and the Theatre Institute at Sage and Troy Night Out! are both involved.
“So we’re not only showing other members what we have to offer as a region, but we’re also introducing people who may live here to stuff they didn’t know was happening,” Byrer said. “I didn’t know Albany had a gay men’s chorus; that’s kind of cool.”
For Hewitt, the conference is another step toward showing people that sexuality should not be an issue.
“I think that’s what we need this for, so that one day we can get to a point where — not to say that we don’t need them, but we get to a point where people are just like, it’s not a pressing issue,” Hewitt said. “[For example] I can go down the street and I can say to my brother, who has a child now — he can say to his daughter, ‘Those two men are holding hands,’ and she doesn’t have to say, ‘Why are those two men holding hands?’ It’s just OK; it’s just normal for two men to hold hands.”