Dr. Towuanna Porter Brannon’s second year of “Tea with Dr. B” couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. The Virginia Peninsula Community College president facilitated a discussion on making the College a welcoming place for the LGBTQIA+ community. About 50 people attended the Oct. 16 event in person, and another 10 participated via Zoom.
Brannon was “happy to see how many participants were willing to share their personal stories or ask questions from a place of vulnerability. This demonstrates the commitment of our students, faculty, and staff to create a sense of belonging on campus.”
Invited panelists were Cathleen Rhodes, director of the department of women’s and gender studies at Old Dominion University; Joshua Lockhart, associate director of multicultural student affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University; and Jessica Thompson, a biology professor at Christopher Newport University who works with the university’s center for effective teaching. All work in some fashion with the LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual) community. The event coincided with October being LGBT history month.
The hourlong discussion covered, among other topics, the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation, how to make members of that community feel welcome, and how to make the campus more inclusive.
Thompson said it’s important to understand gender identity and sexual orientation aren’t the same. Gender identity is about who you are or identify as (i.e., male, female). Sexual orientation, on the other hand, is about to whom you are attracted.
“Those identities are very complex and they’re not always visible (but) they’re still important,” she said.
Rhodes agreed understanding there are differences is vital.
“I think we still get confused and think sometimes they’re the same thing or that one tells us something about the other,” she said. “Mixing the two of them up is something that we still do.”
Perhaps adding to the confusion is the language used for the LGBTQIA+ community is constantly evolving.
“There are a lot of terms, and you are never going to know how to define all of them right off the bat,” Rhodes said. “We have to come to terms with the fact we’re going to make mistakes.”
Admittedly, it’s something Rhodes, who is part of the LGBTQIA+ community, struggles with.
“There’s a lot of new language,” she said. “I learn a lot of this from my students who have corrected me. Everybody in this room is going to be new to some language at some point.”
The trick, she added, is figuring out how to get used to it.
Thompson is not part of the LGBTQIA+ community, per se, although her children are. There are many terms that can be paired in infinite ways, which can be overwhelming.
“It’s very important to listen to people first,” she said. “It becomes very important to use the language that an individual feels comfortable with.”
For people who are not cisgender (meaning they don’t identify with their birth gender) or who do not identify as heterosexual, finding a term they are comfortable with often provides a sense of belonging, which is something everyone hopes to find.
Even with all of this, mistakes will be made, and people will be misidentified or called by the wrong pronoun. Thompson’s first reaction is to assume it was an honest mistake and tries to use it as a learning opportunity.
“It doesn’t have to be a big deal,” she said, adding correcting someone on how you want to be addressed is a good first step.
However, when people show their bigotry, “that’s a very different situation” and it’s best to try to remove yourself from the situation.
Lockhart said if you are offended, it’s important to take care of your mental health first.
“Do some self-care for yourself,” he said. “Don’t feel like you always have to educate. You don’t have to be the spokesperson for an entire community.”
Rhodes stressed use whatever response works best for you and noted often it’s different depending on the situation. She also said in a perfect world, there wouldn’t be constant talk about gender or sexual identity.
“But we still live in a world where gender is very much a part of everything that we do,” she said.
Lockhart added: “There are opportunities when we need to address it, and there are opportunities when we don’t need to address it.”
When it’s addressed, Thompson said it should be done in a welcoming way.
“You take your cue from the individual,” she said. “The simplest thing is we listen to the person in front of us, but we are welcoming to every single person in front of us.”
Everyone, not just those in the LGBTQIA+ community, can take small steps to create that welcoming and inclusive environment.
When creating lesson plans, professors can make sure to represent all spectrums of people in their words and images. Rhodes is in favor of creating a safe space committee and creating goals for the faculty, staff and college. Lockhart said an effortless way to be welcoming is adding your preferred pronouns to your email address.
The group message was respect people by addressing them with how they want to be addressed.
In addition to the great turnout, Dr. Brannon was pleased with the interaction from audience members.
"The level of participation highlights their desire for members of the LGBTQIA+ community to feel welcome and safe," she said.
The next “Tea with Dr. B” is scheduled for Nov. 8, being sponsored by the College’s Military and Veteran Services department. John H. Davis,. A combat veteran, will discuss his book “Combat to College,” and the transition from the military to college.