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LGBT conference to feature panel on safe spaces in schools

In high school, Liam Fitzpatrick struggled privately with the realization that he was gay. The anxiety of this realization caused him to leave school.

This experience was one of the reasons why Fitzpatrick, who was a Syracuse University student at the time, co-founded the “Life Gets Better Together” conference, which addresses issues facing those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.

“It was such a terrible place to exist in,” he said. “And I wanted to make it so that no one else would have to live in that place.”

The conference will be held on April 13 at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. This year’s conference includes workshops, a keynote panel on creating safe spaces in schools for youth who identify as LGBT, and an a capella concert all to benefit the Trevor Project, an anti-suicide hotline for LGBT teenagers.

“We want to reach out to parents, teens and kids around the community,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re starting to equip people with the skill to deal with people who are growing up LGBTQ.”

The keynote panel, titled “LGBTQ Youth in Schools,” will look at the challenges LGBT youth face in school settings, as well as how to create safe spaces for these students.

Speakers will include Jason Cianciotto, co-author of “LGBT Youth in America’s Schools” and director of public policy at the Gay Men’s Health Coalition; Cindy Squillace, student assistance counselor at the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central High School; Tyler Sliker, program director at the Q Center in Syracuse; and Deqwan Green, a Syracuse high school student.

Brenda Wrigley, an associate professor of public relations, will be the moderator.

One of the reasons Green was asked to be a panelist was because last year’s panel had several LGBT advocates, but was lacking panelists who actually identified as LGBT, said Deanna Payson, co-founder of the event and graduate student in public relations.

“We thought we should not only talk about this group of people, but talk to them as well,” she said.

Workshops will “run the gamut,” Payson said, addressing topics such as religion and anti-LGBT prejudice, LGBT relationship violence, bullying and HIV/AIDS risk. Many of these workshops, she said, will invite participants to share personal experiences.

The event will start with a “basics” workshop in the morning, designed for those unfamiliar with LGBT issues, then focus on more “niche” topics as the day goes on, Payson said.

One workshop, “The Call is Coming from Inside the House,” will examine bullying from within the LGBT community, such as transphobia and biphobia, said Nicki Zamoida, a junior writing and rhetoric major who helped plan the conference.

Biphobia and transphobia both question the legitimacy of bisexual and transgender identities and their inclusion in the LGBT community, Zamoida said.

“People will say, ‘That’s just your step until you come out as a lesbian or go back to being straight,’” Zamoida said of biphobia.

This way of thinking affects how policy is formed, Payson said. For example, anti-discrimination laws for schools and workplaces do not include gender expression, leaving transgender people vulnerable to being fired, she said.

A challenge of planning the conference is providing equal coverage of the various issues within the LGBT community, Payson said.

The conference will conclude with “AcaEquality,” an a capella concert featuring Groovestand, Orange Appeal, The Mandarins, Main Squeeze, Volta and Otto Tunes. The concert is free, but a $5 donation is encouraged. Proceeds will also go to the Trevor Project.

Janine McElhone, president of the A Capella Council, said conference organizers approached the council in October and asked if any a capella groups were interested in performing at the conference.

“The interest was pretty much unanimous,” McElhone said. “It was just a question of availability.”

For members of the planning committee, some of whom identify as “allies” of the LGBT community, the conference is important to them personally.

“I want to be on the right side of history,” said Cherice Permaul, a sophomore television, radio and film major who helped plan the conference. “I think sitting back as people who you personally know are being disenfranchised and hated is sickening.”

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