Ally dinner promotes openness


Jacob Greenia

Marcus Pizer

With a limited number of reserved seats left for the 22nd annual Ally Dinner at Johnson State College on Wednesday, April 13, students, faculty, and special guests trickled into Stearns Performance Space for an evening of reflection and celebration of the LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Plus) community, centering on the stories of keynote speakers Penny and Marcus Pizer.

The dinner, which was co-sponsored by Johnson’s Pride Alliance and the Student Government Association and catered by Sodexo, welcomed donations of five dollars for students and $10 for guests and faculty at the door. All proceeds collected will benefit the Trevor Project, a national crisis intervention and suicide prevention service for LGBTQ+ community members aged 13 to 24.
President of Johnson’s Pride Alliance Chantel Haslam greeted her guests as the evening’s moderator and stated the purpose of the dinner.

“Every year we have the Ally Dinner to celebrate the work and dedication of allies in our community,” said Haslam. “Allies help us to get where we are. They help fight for our laws, our freedoms, they help us with our pronouns, [and] they really help advance our communities so that we can get to where we need to be.”

Haslam introduced Pride Alliance Secretary Emily Mixon as the student speaker, whose message for the night revolved around the progress she views as necessary to build an open community at Johnson. “To me, being an ally means I work towards the equality I think everyone deserves, and I’m supporting the people that I care about,” said Mixon.

Shortly after dinner, Dean of Student Life and College Relations Dave Bergh was welcomed by Haslem to the stage to discuss the history of LGBTQ+ relations at Johnson.

“I first stepped foot on this campus in 1997, when I interviewed to be the new Students Activities Coordinator,” said Bergh. “The students I met with represented a number of different clubs and student interests; one of them identified as being in the GSA, the Gay-Straight Alliance, a forerunner to today’s Pride Alliance. I found this notable. The fact that this was notable shows that things were a lot different in 1997. But it did show that this was a campus that was already a bit ahead of the curve.”

Bergh’s speech lauded the Johnson community for its early awareness and progress regarding acceptance and tolerance, both of which were a reflection of the times and were not the end result for which he strove.

“Soon enough I saw celebration, or at least more of it. Campus events sponsored by the GSA grew ever larger audiences; regular drag balls were especially popular back in the late 90s,” Bergh continued. “And of course, this event, going 22 years strong, became established as part of the College’s annual calendar.”

Bergh reflected on the campus’ celebration of the landmark Dec. 20, 1999 Vermont Supreme Court decision on Baker v. Vermont nearly 16 years ago, which made Vermont the first state to recognize that same-sex couples are entitled to the same protections and benefits as opposite-sex couples.

Gay rights activist and Vermont State Legislator Bill Lippert, who was unable to attend the dinner, was also thanked alongside the Pride Alliance Index for Johnson’s designation as an LGBTQ+-friendly campus.

“This external recognition is a big deal, and so now we can celebrate knowing our work here is done now that we’ve reached the promised land, and there’s really no need for a 23rd annual Ally Dinner, right?” Bergh said to a round of laughter. “Or maybe we celebrate our accomplishments tonight and tomorrow we’ll roll up our sleeves and get back to work, and do what we need to do to turn those three and a half stars out of five into five stars.”

Before the vibrant rainbow cake was served, Bergh concluded his speech by quoting the new mission statement devised by Johnson’s diversity task force with special emphasis on the absence of the words ‘tolerance’ and ‘acceptance’ from the statement: “Acknowledging the universality of our shared humanity, we embrace, appreciate, honor, and actively celebrate the backgrounds and beliefs that make us different, and seek to broaden our own worldview by learning from each other’s stories.”

The evening’s keynote speakers, Penny Pizer and her son, Marcus Pizer, have already been featured in Kids VT newspaper and on WCAX-TV, channel 3 news, chronicling Marcus’ transition from female to male, and the Pizer family’s creation of the temporary home for teens who are in transition, called Safe Harbor for Trans Teens.

Marcus’ speech urged his audience to see gender and sexuality as a spectrum, not as a traditional male and female construct. “One point I want to stress immensely is that gender is a spectrum. You don’t have to be just one thing, and this was something I didn’t know,” said Marcus. “I didn’t know I could be a boy until I started looking into these issues more online. When I had realized that I was trans, it was like a lightbulb popped up over my head.”

He reflected on his anxieties in coming out to his family as he wondered if they would be accepting of their new son. “I had never expected my parents to be so supportive, either. I was terrified that they’d disown me or completely invalidate me,” said Marcus.

“I think the hardest part is waiting, wanting to be out and be who you are. I know that it is the worst feeling in the world, to feel so stuck,” Marcus continued. “This is one of the many reasons I wanted to start Safe Harbor for Trans Teens; everyone deserves the right to feel happy with who they are, and be able to express themselves without feeling so isolated. That is why we started this foundation.”
Penny Pizer and her husband, Chuck, were recently awarded the Bill Lippert Award from Outright Vermont to honor their contributions to the betterment of queer youth in Vermont.

“It doesn’t come out pretty,” said Penny Pizer, beginning her speech. “It was a tough time in our lives, and we didn’t know what to do to get help. We knew that we needed to let Marcus go to have Marcus come back.

“It’s tough, you go through a process, you go through ‘did I do something wrong?’ people stare at you, [and] you go through a lot of judgement. Marcus is a lot stronger with that than Mom is,” Penny said with an emerging smile. “We said, if we start Safe Harbor for Trans Teens that we believe that, if parents and teens have time to have the separation they each need to figure things out, then the family is going to come back together.”

Penny said that after a substantial boost in support on Facebook and Twitter, her family is currently working on launching a new website, alongside the alternative school, Big Picture, in South Burlington, Vermont, to gain resources for Safe Harbor for the teens they will be taking in.

Overall, Penny emphasized that transitioning is an arduous process for both teens and their families, and urged that patience and perseverance are essential to maintaining unity.

“It is truly a big process, and those of you who have gone through [it] know what it’s like. It takes a lot of strength and courage,” Penny said. “So I’m going to be LGBTQ+ trained this summer in Rhode Island. That’s the path that I’m going to take. I said that this is what I need to do, so thank you Marcus — at 56 I finally know what I should be doing.”