By BRIAN BUFORD | Your Voice Contributor
Three years ago, a few days before Thanksgiving, my friend Tommy Arnold asked if he could stop by and meet some of the students I serve through the Office for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Services at the University of Louisville. Always eager to connect students to the community, I arranged for Tommy to join a group of young people for lunch and spend time listening to their stories. What he heard that day changed his life forever and lit a fire of activism inside that is making life better for those around him.
A few of the students who gathered around the lunch table that November day told Tommy that they had nowhere to go for Thanksgiving because their families did not accept their LGBT identity. In spite of the incredible progress we have made in recent history with the passage of the Fairness amendment, hate crimes legislation and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the reality for many of the young people I serve is still bleak. LGBT students continue to be bullied in school so harshly that some would rather commit suicide than face another day. Twenty to 40 percent of the youth who are living on the street identify as LGBT, and they still find themselves having to choose between maintaining their family’s love or coming out of the closet to live an authentic life. Losing your parents’ support leaves a hole inside that “Glee” and the “It Gets Better” project just can’t fill, at least not right away.
I’m proud to say that I work for the most welcoming, inclusive campus for serving LGBT students in the Commonwealth. Here at UofL, we have taken some bold steps to make sure that we live up to our vision for a campus environment that “empowers us all to achieve our highest potential without fear of prejudice or bias.” The office provides support and resources to students who are coming out or struggling with family rejection, training to help faculty and staff become better allies, leadership development and coaching, and a host of events and experiences designed to send the message that LGBT people belong here and are a valued part of UofL. It is a personal joy for me to do this job: I’ve been a member of the campus community for 24 years. I remember how terrified I was when I came out as a UofL graduate student in 1988. I didn’t know where to go for help back then, and that memory keeps me focused on making sure that nobody ever suffers alone and that students who come here see the signs of safety and support everywhere they go.
During a workshop last year, one of my students talked about her family’s brutal rejection. After learning she was LGBT, her family threatened her with physical violence and threw her out of the house. After listening to her story, an audience member asked her what it meant to have the Office for LGBT Services there during her time of difficulty. I will never forget her answer. She said, “I can tell you that if the office weren’t here, I wouldn’t be here either.”
But back to my story about Tommy. After hearing stories like these and learning that there were students who would be spending the Thanksgiving holiday alone, Tommy decided that something had to be done – and fast. He called his friends and in just a few days threw together a potluck Thanksgiving dinner for students who might not otherwise have one. We hoped for 30 people but over 100 showed up that first year, all moved by Tommy’s mission and eager to be a part of the solution. The next year we served about 250 students, friends, family and community members. Everyone who heard the stories felt called to action and showed up with casserole dishes and hugs for the students. It’s hard to describe the spirit of those dinners unless you were there, but something magical happened. No matter how they felt about LGBT issues politically or philosophically, people seemed to agree that everyone deserves a place at the table for Thanksgiving.
This year, on top of the usual potluck meal for students that Tommy coordinates, he’s also organized a special evening for community members who want to support the work of the Office for LGBT Services. Called the Feast on Equality, this elegant dinner and program will help raise the funds needed to ensure that future students at UofL are supported and encouraged on their journey.
If you are like me and agree that LGBT young people deserve to be surrounded by people who love them, I hope you’ll join us at the feast Friday, Nov. 16, at 7 p.m. at the Mellwood Arts Center. Even if you can’t make it to the dinner, consider making a tax-free donation to send a message of support to these amazing and resilient students. The details for the Feast and more information on how you can support the office are online at www.feastonequality.com.
Brian Buford is the director of the Office for LGBT Services at the University of Louisville, the first office of its kind in Kentucky. In that position, he helped update policies to include LGBT people, added gender identity to the university’s nondiscrimination policy, and initiated new organizations and programs to enhance campus life. In 2010, Buford was selected as one of Leadership Louisville’s “Connectors,” people who achieve remarkable results through their unique style of trusted leadership.