The first thing guests of Kenyon’s inaugural Queer and Trans Studies Conference might have noticed as they arrived at Kenyon on the morning of Saturday, April 6, were the flags: dozens of colorful trans pride flags lined Middle Path. As the day wore on and attendees participated in everything from presentations exploring queerness in Dungeons and Dragons to workshops where they role-played politicians during the AIDS crisis, the flags guided them up and down the campus.
One hundred thirty registered attendees checked in that morning, around eighty of which were non-Kenyon students. The attendees spanned a wide variety of experiences and identities: 33 percent identified as people of color, 40 percent identified as trans or non-binary and 10 percent identified as people with disabilities. The conference aimed to provide academic opportunities for students to discuss LGBTQ+ identities and interact with queer students from other institutions, as well as provide attendees with practical resources and support in queer-specific issues.
For many of the attendees, this conference was an opportunity to meet people in a larger queer community. “I was being exposed to identities I didn’t even know about,” Emma Reasoner, a Denison University graduate attendee now living in Athens, Ohio, said. Students from 15 different schools, some as far away as Connecticut or Michigan, had the opportunity to get to know each other throughout the day. The conference concluded with a general meet-up, as well as networking events specifically for femme people and for people of color.
“I think it was really important to bring communities from different schools together … it’s easy to be like, ‘Oh, the community is so small, there’s barely any of us.’ But to see that there’s such vibrant communities at each school was very inspiring,” Grace Harris ’20, an attendee, member of the organizing committee and presenter, said.
Timothy Bussey, the assistant director of the Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI), created the conference, but he emphasized how student input was the most important factor in its development, and that it was only made possible by through support across campus.
“The whole idea for the conference, the whole reason it started was because students shared that this was something they would be interested in,” Bussey said.
Participants highlighted the practical resources available at the conference, such as the gender and name change clinic and free HIV testing, as incentives to attend. “There’s a lot of legal documents; it’s really hard to navigate yourself when you’re trying to change your name and especially your gender,” Fredi, a senior from the College of Wooster said. The commitment to accessibility, including free registration and meals and the utilization of physically accessible buildings also made attendance easier for many students.
The keynote speech, delivered by Sa’ed Atshan of Swarthmore College about his experience as a queer Palestinian and the need to expand intersectional queer studies, received sustained applause. The numerous sessions were likewise well-received, with presenters and attendees alike remarking on how much they learned from and enjoyed them.
To maintain the student-centric nature of the conference, all of the presenters were undergraduate or graduate students. “We wanted to be very intentional with making sure that this was an opportunity for students to showcase their knowledge and their research abilities,” Bussey said. Presenters ranged from Kenyon first years to a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Connecticut, and their presentations encompassed a wide variety of topics from art to politics.
A number of students expressed how included and comfortable the conference made them feel. “[It’s] really valuable to find those spaces, where it can be personal but not … like I’m the only one with this experience in this room,” Benny, a senior from Wooster said. Bussey noted that the feedback he has received has so far been overwhelmingly positive, with some students even reaching out to him for advice on how to start similar programs at their own institutions.
Looking forward to the next iteration of the conference in 2021, Bussey emphasized his desire for the event to continue to be student-driven and plans to base the next conference on the feedback he receives. Besides that, he couldn’t think of anything major that needed improvement, “Apparently the conference T-shirt was very popular,” he added. “I think we should find a way to have some of those included [next time].”