On Monday night, October 28, Ford’s Theatre patrons gathered in the historic theatre for the last Lincoln Legacy Project event of the 2013-2014 season. The panel, titled To Achieve and Cherish a Just and Lasting Peace: Envisioning a World Beyond Hate, reiterated the progress and unity that the LGBT community has experienced since Matthew Shepard’s death in 1998. The discussion was split into two separate topics and moderated by BuzzFeed’s legal editor Chris Geidner. Each discussion focused on how panelists’ experiences within the LGBT community have inspired their personal fight against social injustice and how the panelists are making change within academic settings.
The first discussion, Innovative Paths to Change, featured: Thomas Hill, student poet and junior at Magruder High School, who advocates for LGBTQ youth in D.C. through spoken word; Kye Allums, former college basketball player at George Washington University (GWU) and the first openly transgender NCAA Division 1 college athlete; Jeremy Johnson, Sailor and one of the first people to re-enlist after being discharged from the Navy under ”Don’t Ask Don’t Tell;” and TJ Brown, current GWU student and NROTC member who serves on the executive board of GWU’s student organization Allied in Pride. The second discussion, The Importance of Allies and Safe Spaces in Academic Settings, featured: Diana Bruce, DCPS Director of Health and Wellness Office of Youth Engagement; Chris Obermeyer, Woodrow Wilson Senior High School science teacher who coordinated the first DCPS Youth Pride Event; and Sasha Jarvis, president of Damascus High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).
Thomas Hill kicked off the first panel with an original poem where he discussed issues he faces as a young, black, gay man in Washington, D.C. He tackled religion, politics and other social topics in his piece. His performance was followed by an insightful discussion about making lasting peace within the LGBT community, where he described how he hoped his use of poetry would inspire his community. “I want to use poetry and the youth voice in D.C. to change the community. I want poets to do more than just perform our words,” Hill explained.
During the discussion, transgender activist Kye Allums stressed the importance of community, and of others being accepting of transgender individuals as a part of the larger LGBT community. “To walk into a room and be recognized as a person and not a thing is the best feeling. Labels and boxes are for shoes, not people,” Allums said. Allums has spent the last few years sharing his story with student athletes and others nationwide in an effort to increase understanding of the transgender community among young people, and to promote self-love and respect. Since coming out in November 2010, he has been traveling to high schools sharing his story, educating many about being transgender people, and starting conversations to foster understanding about the LGBT community.
At the conclusion of this panel, all of us in the audience had a better understanding of how each panelist started their own path to advocate for change in the LGBT community. Despite waves of adversity, each person remains focused on bringing acceptance and unity to those who are often made to feel “less than” because of his/her sexual orientation or gender identity.
The second panel of the evening, The Importance of Allies and Safe Spaces in Academic Settings, explored approaches to LGBT issues within public school systems. The panelists emphasized the importance of training teachers so they can avoid alienating students in health classes, and the role of school administrations in the fight for acceptance of LGBT students. Woodrow Wilson science teacher Chris Obermeyer kicked off his remarks by discussing how he struggled as a gay teen. He explained, “When I was in high school I hated myself. There were no safe spaces; no one talked about being gay. I just knew I was different.” Using his own life experience to connect with struggling teens, Obermeyer leads by example and encourages students to be themselves and to be comfortable in their own skin, regardless of their sexual orientation. He has created an environment where students feel comfortable discussing their concerns with the curriculum and/or with being teased and bullied. D.C. Public School’s Director of Health and Wellness Diana Bruce applauded Obermeyer’s efforts, saying, “Students need to be able to see their realities in the classroom. They perform better in comfortable, safe environments.” She explained the importance of supporting the students not only in the classroom but in public settings well. “It’s important to be an ally, but even more important to be a visible ally across the district and DCPS,” she elaborated.
I found this fall’s Lincoln Legacy Project panel series extremely informative, and know that I and others walked away with an immense amount of knowledge on efforts to encourage equality for the LGBT community. With panels discussing equality, first-hand accounts of Matthew Shepard’s and James Byrd, Jr.’s deaths, and an evaluation of the work that has taken place since 1998, Ford’s both celebrated and honored Matthew Shepard’s legacy. With each event, Ford’s contributed to dialogue in our nation’s capital in hopes of eradicating hate by offering a chance for us all to better understand.
Marjon Wolfe has a BFA in Theatre Arts Administration from Howard University. She is a former Marketing and Communications Intern and an assistant house manager at Ford’s Theatre.