For Brandon Merritt, attending the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Asexual College Conference (MBLGTACC) offered a number of benefits. As a doctoral student from Elizabethton, Tenn., studying speech and hearing science, Merritt hoped to use the conference to learn more about the experiences of members of the transgender and non-binary communities, whom he aims to serve through his academic and professional work. However, in attending the conference, Merritt found even more: a space where, as a gay man, his personal experiences were shared and reaffirmed.
“I was struck by the bravery and the strength of college students,” Merritt said. “When I was that age I was not confident at all, so for me to go somewhere like that and be comfortable expressing myself publicly, talking about my problems and issues so publicly, was really empowering.”
Merritt was one of three Indiana University students to attend the 2019 MBLGTACC, the largest and longest-running conference for LGBTQ+ students in the United States. Held this year in Wichita, Kan., the MBLGTACC gives LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff a weekend-long space to share their stories, learn about the experiences of others and organize in ways to empower the Midwestern LGBTQ+ community.
“A lot of activism is fueled by dedicated college students,” said Doug Bauder, director of the LGBTQ+ Culture Center. “The value of this conference is to see the larger world and the various issues we face, particularly as queer people, and put it into context. To realize that we’re not alone.”
For years, Indiana University and the LGBTQ+ Culture Center, a center supported by the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs, has sent groups of students to the MBLGTACC. With this year’s conference taking place beyond the distance of a typical bus ride, however, interested students turned to the LGBTQ+ Culture Center’s James D. Fielding Student Advocate Training Award to help fund their travel expenses. Gifted to the center by former Make-A-Wish Foundation CEO and IU alum James D. Fielding, the award helps students cover the costs of conferences, professional development opportunities, and advocacy trainings across the country. With the help of the award, three students were able to able to attend this year’s MBLGTACC largely cost-free.
Throughout the conference, students participated in a variety of presentations and activities that broadened their understandings of LGBTQ+ experiences and identities. Between caucuses with other Indiana schools, workshops on a wide variety of identities and forms of activism, and keynote speakers who discussed everything from Black Lives Matter to intersex activism and the intersection between stand-up comedy and diversity training, students were able to share their experiences with others and learn deeply about the different issues members of the LGBTQ+ community face.
For Dillon Lyons, the friendships formed during the MBLGTACC did not disappear at the conference’s end. As a winter storm descended on the city, Lyons, a senior studying supply chain management, information systems and Chinese from Somerville, Tenn., found himself stranded at the airport along with many of the other conference attendees. However, Lyons soon ran into two other attendees of the conference, and the three students decided to return to the hotel. There, they waited out the storm by discussing all they had learned from the weekend and sharing their personal experiences as members of the LGBTQ+ community.
It was this sense of friendship, Lyons said, that has remained with him even after leaving Wichita.
“Even as I was stuck in this unfamiliar place, and even as the conference was ending, I was still feeling like I was surrounded by people I felt comfortable with, people I was having a good time with and shared experiences with,” Lyons said.