A recent conference meant to empower LGBTQIA students was marked by student disruptions and direct action protests against what many perceived to be a lack of diversity and inclusion.
The Lavender Empowerment Summit — a three-day conference hosted by the VCU Office of Multicultural Student Affairs at the Jamestown 4-H Educational Center Sept. 28-30 — was criticized for its apparent exclusion of events focused on LGBTQIA people of color. According to the event’s website, one of the six workshop slots, titled “Racial Justice,” was dedicated specifically to race-related issues, and at least one other individual session was geared toward queer and trans people of color.
Khudai Tanveer, a student on the Lavender Summit planning committee and organizer of the protests, said students protested by way of a rogue workshop and panel, in which they expressed their frustrations with the Lavender House — one of VCU’s living learning communities.
“We insisted it was needed and decided to do it ourselves,” Tanveer said.
Tanveer also included vacant time slots in the conference’s schedule — which she described as “decoy workshops” — out of concern that OMSA did not provide adequate space or time for race-focused discussion groups, which she used to hold the extra workshop. Tanveer said the Lavender Summit organizers were “unsupporting” of the “guerrilla workshop.”
“At the ‘rogue panel’ we called out Lee Biggs, the [resident assistant] of Lavender House,” Tanveer said. “He didn’t come to the racial justice workshops, even though as an RA you have to go.”
Biggs, who is white, was accused of racism by some attendees of the summit for skipping those sessions — and for an incident last semester when he designed a sticker, featuring a transgender person of color, and sold it online.
“He made a sticker featuring black and brown bodies and sold it for a profit,” Tanveer said. “He was asked by a black person to take it down, and he didn’t.”
Biggs declined to comment due to a Residential Life and Housing office rule instructing RAs not to speak to media outlets about their position.
“I worked closely with Lee Biggs, and he is not a racist,” said a student who wished to remain anonymous. “The whole situation has kind of gotten out of hand.”
The student also described the sticker incident in detail.
“For an assignment last semester, he decided to display trans bodies on a sticker. He made a whole range of skin tones. He asked his professor, who is an indigenous person, which of the stickers he should print,” the student said. “The professor, recognizing that indigenous people don’t get a lot of representation, said, ‘Make it look like me.’”
They said Biggs sold the extra stickers online to offset the printing cost. According to the student, attending every session at the Lavender Summit is not always required.
“If you want time for self-care and need to skip a session, you can,” the source said.
The event’s schedule allotted several blocks of time for wellness in afternoons and evenings, according to its website. Director of Communications and Marketing for the Division of Student Affairs Matthew Lovisa said RAs are generally expected to come to programs with their residents, though he could not comment on the Lavender Summit policy.
OMSA is currently working with students to find ways to make future summits more inclusive, according to Camilla Hill, assistant director at OMSA. Hill said she spent the week after the summit meeting with concerned attendees and Lavender House residents.
“I really love [Lavender] Summit because it gives students a chance to be away and be themselves,” Hill said. “We are trying to find a way to make sure everyone’s concerns are addressed and everyone feels included.”
Hill said she holds out hope for the future of the summit, and says that this year, many things were still done right, such as discussing mental health, an issue affecting the LGBTQIA community.
The problem — according to some Lavender Summit attendees — goes beyond the summit, and is symbolic of gatekeeping and lack of diversity within the LGBTQIA community as a whole.
“This is bigger than [Lavender] Summit and OMSA,” Tanveer said. “[Lavender] Summit was a wreck this year, but it was a necessary wreck for people who feel like they are not being heard.”