I didn’t see the governor talk.
I know, I know. Every other writer who attended the True Colors Conference went to the opening ceremony, saw Dan Malloy talk, and then spent a page or two talking about it. Where was I, you ask? What was I doing that was so important I couldn’t drop everything and attend the first governor who has ever responded to a True Colors Conference invitation in eighteen years?
Volunteering. That’s what I went for, isn’t it?
I’ve been volunteering at the True Colors Conference with CCSU’s gay-straight alliance for five years now (and will continue to do so after graduation!). Every year, I tell the “Pride kids” that I’ll leave without them if they’re late to our designated carpool meet-up spot; every year, I am the last to arrive. A quick impromptu dance party in the rain while we count off, a scattered visit to BOTH coffee shops off campus, and then it’s off to Storrs in one long queer caravan.
Being a fifth-year volunteer comes with certain perks (or maybe obligations)—I don’t even check into the volunteer registration table before I am thrown a shirt and placed behind the table myself. A few minutes consulting a checklist I promptly lose, a couple box-laden trips across the Student Union, and a lost bagel sandwich later, I find myself in the lobby of Jorgenson, where things are about to get hectic.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in college, it’s how to direct lost-but-well-meaning people using my big mouth. Before long, I have a purple shirt stationed at each double door and a line of them in front of the main registration table to catch anyone who escapes the first crew. Our job is to receive and direct the crowds of eager-excited-nervous-ecstatic kids and what-have-I-got-myself-into adults as they come in: to the right for pre-registered, to the left for walk-ins, to the back for presenters, and downstairs for bathrooms. We had about ten minutes to get used to the job as buses filed in one at a time; then, high schools and carpools appeared in waves, and it took the teamwork of every volunteer in the room to keep us all afloat.
Registration is my absolute favorite place to volunteer at True Colors. I know people who love being a building manager because they get a walkie-talkie, and others who love being backstage making the magic of the show happen. Registration is the best part to me because there’s nothing like being the first real interaction someone has with the True Colors experience. Sure, you answer the same question a thousand times in three hours, but it’s always asked by one of the happiest faces you’ll see all year. Kids are dressed up in every rainbow item they own, from leggings to scarves to hats to gloves; they’re wearing beads and skirts and make-up that they’d never be able to wear to their high schools, and you can tell that they’ve been planning this perfect outfit for weeks to months. Some kids are wearing fairy wings or car ears, some are wearing home-made “free hugs!” signs, but every single one of them is expressing themselves in a way they may not be able to during the year. Many of the things True Colors is about—pride, acceptance, self-expression, belonging—are evident simply from the way people dress for the day. It seems like every youth that walks through those doors has been looking forward to this day for the whole year because of it; I know that’s what it felt like when I attended the conference as a high school student.
The theme of this year’s conference is “ibelong,” a theme that calls to mind online social networking and stresses the importance of human interaction. The registration tables in the lobby are the first place a volunteer can really see this interaction. People who haven’t seen one another since last March are shouting over heads and tackling one another (I lost my second attempt at breakfast to a friend that way); kids who have only met on Facebook are introducing each other to friends-of-a-friend before they even get into the auditorium to start the day. Kids feel welcomed and accepted even by strangers here; we all share a common respect for difference, a common celebration of identity, and a similar hope for the future. Even the “grown-ups” are susceptible to the magic in the air; social workers, high school teachers, parents and presenters can’t help but be swept up by the mood in the room.
The beautiful thing about True Colors, which is encouraged by every opening and closing ceremony and almost every workshop at the conference, is that this feeling of affirmation and happiness can last well after the weekend. The comments left on True Colors’ Facebook page after and even during the conference were just as telling as the faces of the youth during the event. Professionals who attended ‘grown-up’ workshops left comments like, “Great conference. My staff and I learned so much and made great connections,” while youth thanked the organization for the conference with phrases like “You rock my purple polka dot socks.” Drag performers ‘tagged’ the page in status updates like, “I’m completely exhausted from the True Colors conference, but very happy,” while volunteers thanked True Colors “for a fabbbbulous weekend!” Arguably my favorite Facebook post about True Colors came from comedian Christine O’Leary, who performed at the conference: “blissed out on the power of True Colors and 2,500 warriors changing the word. CT is incredible because True Colors is in it.”
The “ibelong” theme of the event was certainly carried over into the social networking world from which it took its name. There are more status updates about “AMAZING new people” and wishing it happened every weekend than you could probably count even if you cared to. The most revealing and heartwarming aspect of Facebook updates about True Colors is probably the notes that some attendees took the time to write, some of which are available on True Colors’ Facebook page. My favorite talks about the empowering experience of volunteering to facilitate part of a workshop. The experience allowed the writer to realize that leading and creating change is a doable, and exciting, possibility of the future. The youth stated that “my experience today really changed my life… it was so amazing to feel so accepted just for being me, no matter my size, orientation, gender, or race.”
If reading for reactions isn’t your thing, you can always check out YouTube. Livestream.com is the place to go to watch Friday’s opening ceremony in its entirety, but YouTube will give you the highlights in five minutes or less. You can see Governor Malloy thank Robin for the invitation to the conference, adding, “I instantly knew I had to be here.” You can laugh and cheer along with the conference attendees when Senator Bye laughs about the fact that she can kiss her wife in public at the conference and nobody would mind. The best part of the videos, though, is the way they capture the reactions and feelings of youth attendees. You can’t watch the youth dancing in their seats or good-naturedly debating the actual definition of the word ‘genderqueer’ and not smile. If those videos don’t give you an idea of what “ibelong” means, nothing will.
So no, I didn’t ACTUALLY see Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein tell 2500 queer or queer-friendly youth to keep their expectations high, “stand straight—that’s a joke—and tall, and know that you are awesome.” I didn’t actually hear Comptroller Kevin Lembo say, “You can’t see what we can see, but when you look out over your faces, these beautiful hopeful faces… it’s a sunny day in the state of CT.” I didn’t hear it because I was living it. I was registering latecomers, directing performers backstage, and listening to the cheers of about 2500 queer youth and their allies learn that they do, in fact, belong.