Let's start this off with a little story. You and I live in Smallville. There are only 2 restaurants in Smallville—a burger place and a Chinese buffet. Now, everyone usually goes to the burger place cause it's all-american, and they like the food. Most people like the food enough that they don't even go to the Chinese restaurant. But you and I, we go to the burger place, and try it, and we don't like the food at all. Nothing against burgers, but it's not for us. So the next day, we go get chinese food instead. And it's really good. Especially when compared with the burgers. So, while everyone else gets burgers we get fried rice. They may think we're a bit weird, but whatever, we're all happy. A few weeks later, I go on a vacation to metropolis, and WOW—they have ALL kinds of restaurants. So I go to a Japanese restaurant, and a Thai place, and a Korean restaurant, cause I know that I like Asian food, so I figure I'll try some more kinds out. And it turns out that Japanese is nice, but it's no Chinese, and I'm not really a big fan of Korean, but WOW, Thai is truly amazing—it's my favorite so far. So I go back home, and I tell you about Thai food, and you're intrigued but you don't understand why I'm not so hot on Chinese food anymore. Because you can't have tried Thai food, so you can't know if you like it or not. You just don't have the opportunity.
Well, this past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's conference on Creating Change as part of the delegation of the NWA Center for Equality. I was expecting that what I would get out of it would largely be training—this is how you lobby for this, this is how you respond to this kind of discrimination, this is how you get your center operating efficiently. To this respect, I was not at all disappointed. I received all forms of helpful training.
But that wasn't what I took back from the conference. The name of the conference, "Creating Change," is as much about changing the people who come as it is changing the world they come from. All of the bathrooms at the conference are gender-neutral, to create the most comfortable environment for transpeople. However you may feel about a Gender-Neutral Restroom, it is truly a different experience walking into a bathroom and seeing a row of such different people. You just don't see that in Fayetteville.
But, let's get to the workshops. I tried to split my time between workshops that interested me (mostly on queer youth) and workshops that would benefit my leadership as a newly-elected member of the Board of Directors for the Center (mostly on volunteering, leadership, etc…). Very first workshop I attend, they ask me to introduce myself, where I'm from, and my preferred gender pronoun (PGP). Not quite sure what a PGP is and being the first person to speak, I introduce myself as "Mister Jon Cox." I feel like everyone is looking at me weirdly. They probably weren't, but I was right to feel odd: everyone else introduced themselves, saying "I go by she/hers, he/his, they/theirs, vi/hir." By the end of the conference, it seems that most of us had pencilled our PGPs onto our name tag. I went by he/his.
It was odd to me. We don't do that in Fayetteville. It's not that we don't have transpeople here, as I know a few, but we just don't think about it—we're not to that point yet. (Now, I don't think that when two New Yorkers meet, they ask what the other's PGP is, but I figure two queer New Yorkers very well might, whereas two queer Arkansans probably wouldn't.)
Furthermore, there were many workshops on sexuality, and not just the various dichotomies of straight, gay, bi, whatever. There were workshops on leather, on polyamory, on kink. My initial reaction to these was rather conservative: "Wow, I can't believe they're having workshops here on polyamory." After all, people frequently say that gay marriage will lead to polygamy (among others). Shouldn't we be avoiding these hot-topics?
Of course, I soon came to realize that the answer is absolutely not. Think back to my story about burgers and Asian food. Burgers represent heterosexuality. Most people try it, because it's what's generally expected, and they find that it works out for them. They're happy with burgers, so they don't try anything else. Some people don't like burgers, though, so they try the other option—Chinese food (representing in this case, homosexuality). Chinese food, they realize, is what they prefer to burgers. They stick with their Chinese food.
That's where we are in Fayetteville. We're pretty small, we've got (mainly) the two restaurants.
Of course, when you go places that are bigger, there are more restaurants. You've already figured out that you might not necessarily like what you have more than everything else, so you try other food. You might realize that you've been eating Chinese this whole time, cause you like it, but once you have Thai food for the first time, that's your food. You could never have it before, so you never thought about it.
That's what Creating Change was for me—a bigger selection of restaurants. I never really thought about the other types of food, because they were never there for me to think about. But in bigger cities, they are. And so it suddenly makes sense to me that there would be sessions on polyamory at a conference on LGBTQ rights: it's not that queer people are more likely to be poly, it is that we have had to experiment from the beginning to find out who we are. Some of us are poly. Because most heterosexual people aren't dissatisfied with their first experiment, they have no reason to try anything else. They could just as easily find themselves as polyamorous. They're just not used to finding out which options fit them best.
As a caveat, my restaurant analogy makes it sound like you pick whichever orientation you like the most—that's not it, at all. You don't pick. It's who you are. You just discover it.
When I went to Creating Change, I had a pretty standard LGBT view of sexuality. I didn't use the word 'Queer,' which you will now notice me using. The change? Queer isn't really found much in Fayetteville yet, because most of us didn't know too much about it. My experience at Creating Change has shown me what queer is, and I've come to realize queer aspects of my own personality.
I have come out of the conference with a new look at myself (and others), and a renewed commitment to serve the center, this time in a way that is much more open and which will hopefully allow others to realize whoever they are.