Over the Rainbow conference highlights issues facing LGBTQ youth

Lauren Caruba

Students from Northwestern and Chicagoland high schools came to campus Saturday for the first-ever “Over the Rainbow” conference focusing on LGBTQ issues confronting young adults.

Nearly 40 students attended the series of speakers and workshops. Project ShoutOUT, a student group that serves as a resource for members of the LGBTQ community, organized the conference. Representatives from Rainbow Alliance, NU Active Minds, the NU Division of Student Affairs and Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators hosted the conference’s workshops.

The events drew about a dozen students from five different high schools, including Evanston Township High School. Caroline Dean, a co-founder of Project ShoutOUT, said “Over the Rainbow” presented a chance to form relationships with high school students.

“The idea was just to be able to show kids what the LGBT experience in college is like, because it is extremely different,” the Weinberg sophomore said. “It’d be great if high school kids can get a lot out of it and take it back to their high schools.”

The day’s events opened with KrisDeLaRash, a 24-year-old LGBTQ activist, slam poet and artist from Chicago.

DeLaRash talked about growing up as a lesbian in a conservative family of Jehovah’s Witnesses and performed slam poetry and original rap songs.

In one of her songs, she incorporated a speech by former Republican presidential nominee Newt Gingrich in which he said “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working.”

“As a black, queer woman, I have these matrices of oppression,” DeLaRash said. “Economic oppression, gender oppression – they’re all related.”

Following DeLaRash’s performance, students were allowed to choose from four different workshops that dealt with various LGBTQ issues.

Tiffany Gonzales, area coordinator for Foster-Walker Complex and Seabury Apartments, hosted one of the workshops in which she educated students about microaggressions-common slights experienced by marginalized groups like LGBTQ individuals and women.

“Microaggressions are everyday intentional or unintentional insults,” Gonzales said. “So educating people on what they are in the hopes that they can prevent them, they can stop them, they can confront them when they see them is something really important.”

Another workshop dealt with the portrayal of LGBTQ identities in the media. Students and Rainbow Alliance executive board members discussed the recent proliferation of gay characters on shows like “Glee” as well as the implications of having gay actors play straight characters and vice versa on shows like “How I Met Your Mother.”

“We were hoping that they (students) would watch TV with a little more intelligence and spark an idea that people hadn’t thought about,” said Communication freshman Frankie Bennett, a member of the Rainbow Alliance programming committee.

The conference concluded with keynote speaker Jessica De Leon, a transgender comedian, crossdresser and blogger from Florida. Wearing high heels and a fitted dress, De Leon stepped up to the microphone in the ground-floor forum of Harris Hall.

“My name’s Jessica Who, and yes, I’m a dude,” De Leon said.

De Leon, a male who identifies as heterosexual and cross-dresses in female clothing, spoke about the struggles he had with gender and sexuality from a young age. De Leon related how during his childhood he secretly dressed up in his mother’s dresses and later went through periods of self-loathing and confusion about his “somewhere in between” identity.

“I didn’t understand why I liked girls and also wanted to look like them,” he said.

Now married to his wife, De Leon said he has learned to love himself and rejects the labels often assigned to members of the LGBTQ community.

He accomplishes this through his blog “Jessica Who?” which he started just over three years ago to relate his personal experiences as a transgender individual.

“I wanted the world to know about people like me, and I wanted people like me to have someone to relate to,” he said. Ryan Lim, one of the founding members of Project ShoutOUT, said he hopes the conference will become an annual event on the NU campus.

[email protected]