Ally dinner honors LGBTQ+ community

The 25th annual Ally Dinner was held on April 17 and staff, faculty, students and community members gathered in the Stearns Performance Space to honor members of the LGBTQ+ community and its allies. It was two hours of acceptance, friendship and food.

The night featured keynote speaker, Jane Langner, who is the statewide youth organizer for Outright Vermont. Her speech focused on two aspects of LGBTQ culture, the Outright organization’s mission and words of advice for young activists.

“There’s still a long way to go,” said Langner. “From what happened here a few weeks ago to what you can see on the news in the last few months and years, we have a long way to go. People are feeling a lot more acceptance but they’re also feeling more pushback and sometimes it can be really scary. That’s why we still exist as an organization.”

The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey was cited as a way they could pinpoint the differences between cisgender and straight students versus the experiences LGBTQ+ students faced in school with the inclusion of sexuality and gender based questions in the survey. Langner said certain risky behaviors were very prevalent in LGBTQ+ students than in peers.

“LGBTQ+ students have significantly higher risk of depression, much more likely to have skipped school in the last month because they felt unsafe, much more likely to abuse substances, and a bunch of really scary trends,” said Langner. “That tells a story, that people are feeling isolated. People are feeling not part of their community, because when people are connected to their community and have healthy adult role models and have healthy friends, they don’t engage in those behaviors. They take care of themselves. When you feel isolated, when you feel like you don’t matter, you’re not going to take care of yourself. That’s what we’re striving for with Outright.”

Donations taken at the door went to Outright Vermont.

According to Langner, Outright Vermont was founded in 1989 to start an organization that provides more support, structure and safe places for LGBTQ people to go. Fostering a sense of community is prevalent among the services they provide, with a Friday meeting for LGBTQ+ people aged 13-22, a group for gender-creative and gender non-conforming children, and support services for parents or family members of an LGBTQ+ child.

Moving on to talk about activism and encouraging students to get involved, Langner shared a story about a friend from high school who taught her the most about activism.

“At one point I asked him, what do you think of me being gay?” said Langner. “And he said, ‘I mean I love you, but I honestly think you’re going to hell.’ And I was like, I guess that’s okay because I’m Jewish and I don’t believe in hell. Should be fine. We moved past it because we already had this foundation of love and respect for each other. I remember talking with him at the kitchen table for six or seven hours about abortion and why we thought the things that we thought. We weren’t challenging each other. We were pushing each other to grow in our thinking. I walked away from that conversation thinking I would’ve never learned this anywhere else. I would’ve never learned this much detail about somebody else’s viewpoint in this safe way.”

Discussion in a safe place builds trust and is an important step in Outright’s activism. The message is to not put yourself in danger, but get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The event was hosted by NVUnity, and both its president, Tory Higley, and Hannah Miller, faculty advisor and assistant professor of Education, spoke. Higley’s message was one of the inclusion and support he has found during his time attending NVU-Johnson.

“It wasn’t until I entered college that I got involved in the LGBTQ community,” said Higley. “I attended my first pride festival two years ago in Burlington and it was life-changing. I felt a sense of belonging that I had never experienced before. Around me were individuals who were being true to themselves and supporting each other. This is the environment I want all members of the LGBTQ community to have and this is the purpose of NVUnity.”

Miller’s remarks focused primarily on the students of NVUnity who have worked to help bring an inclusive atmosphere to campus.

“I think about the role of students in the task we have ahead of us,” said Miller. “We can have laws and we can have policies that say we need to include and welcome everyone, but it’s up to community members to make sure that actually happens. I think that the students on this campus are doing an amazing job of making sure that happens. So that when things like hate speech shows up in our dorms, we have a plan and we can come together as a community and we can have positive ways to move forward.”

Allies who are curious are welcome to attend all future pride events, regardless of how much they currently know about the community.

“Everyone’s welcome, even if you don’t know what ally means,” said Miller at a subsequent interview. “I think a lot of people are at different stages of understanding what it means to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. One of the best ways to know what that is is to show up and participate and go to a pride event or go to a drag show or go to an ally dinner. Just start to hear what people are talking about, what’s important to them, and that’s the way they can become a good ally, so I hope they know that they are always welcome.”

Additionally, Miller said that this event is a tradition that shows the strength of the
campus’ culture of acceptance.

“Coming to a community that already established a culture like that on campus was one of the reasons I decided to come here,” said Miller. “Before I even came to Johnson, it was influential in my decision to come, and now that I’m here, I’m realizing how important it is and how much work goes on in keeping that culture going. Even in the face of challenges, and knowing that there’s a lot of work to do, it feels really good to me that there are dedicated people on campus who have kept that going for 20 years and that’s amazing.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Student Government Association, with catering provided by Sodexo. Miller hopes that NVUnity can host many more events in the years to come.

“It takes strong leadership from the NVUnity club, and right now we have that, which is phenomenal,” said Miller. “I would encourage anyone who has even thought of joining NVUnity, [to] join. Because they could be the people who help organize it next year and pass down this tradition to future NVUnity members.”