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Commentary: Reaching out, one panel at a time

SAN DIEGO -- At the University of California San Diego, the LGBT Resource Center aims to provide a safe space where conversations and discussions about LGBT-related issues can happen.

After all, one way people learn is through conversation and dialogue. However, these conversations do not happen exclusively at the Resource Center. They can happen anywhere at any time, even on a UCSD shuttle late one evening. That is the setting of an interesting conversation between two young men that I overheard.

Their dialogue would not have caught my attention had it not been about gay people. One guy had a very laid-back posture, leaning comfortably against the back of his seat; the other rather nervous-looking, hunching a little, clinging to his skateboard.

It started with the laid-back guy talking casually about his sister and how her relationship with her boyfriend was going. He then jokingly mentioned that he had questioned her sexuality - he thought she might be bisexual.

This was when the conversation took a more serious turn. The guy with the skateboard then voiced his objection to gay people. Apparently, it disturbed him that his friend’s sister’s supposed bisexuality reminded him of homosexuality.

I turned away and leaned back, but continued listening attentively, fearing another unwelcome gay-bashing dialogue in public. Surprisingly, it was very uplifting to hear what the friend had to say in response:

“You know. I wouldn’t mind my children being gay.”

“Dude, seriously? Why would you ever want your children to be gay? I would never. No.”

“Well, you know, many of the greatest minds have been gay. When gay people have equal rights in the future, I’m sure their lives wouldn’t be as hard.”

“Well … I saw two guys holding hands the other day by the bridge. I was like, dude, that was so gay, literally. So gay.”

“Yeah, I once saw two guys holding hands while walking down Library Walk. This one other guy was skateboarding super fast. He was trying to get in between them, I think. But when he thought that wouldn’t work, he veered away.”

“That’s funny. How can you ever skateboard between two people holding hands, seriously.”

“I know, right.”

“No, but I’ve always wondered, dude. How can these gay people, like, find other gay people to date and stuff, you know? Like, do they just come up to someone and ask whether they’re gay and want to date like that? That’s just so weird.”

“You know. I think it’s the same way people find other people of their own nationality in a foreign country. Like, there’s the Internet and stuff.”

Here, the conversation then shifted to a new topic. I, however, still lingered on what I had just heard. Clearly, much outreach work remains to be done to educate straight people about sex and gender issues.

To fulfill this demand, the Speakers’ Bureau -- an outreach program from the resource center currently managed by Michelle Strange -- organizes panels of different kinds to provide opportunities for groups to interact with the diverse panelists from the LGBT community. They may ask questions and have fun learning about the panelists’ own experiences within and outside the UCSD campus.

So far, the Speakers’ Bureau has received panel requests from groups ranging from an international students class to residential halls where first- and second-year students live. Each panel ends with more knowledge gained by the audience. The outreach work keeps going on at UCSD, one panel at a time.