Christi Sessa, a sophomore peace, justice and conflict studies major, represented Goshen College in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 2nd as part of “A White House Convening on Advancing LGBT Progress in Rural America.”
This conference was organized by the White House Rural Council, a committee created in 2011 to strengthen rural communities and promote economic growth. The Council has focused on providing events and opportunities to hear from minority rural communities, specifically women in agriculture, low-income families and LGBTQ+ communities in rural settings.
Sessa was invited to the conference by Faith Cheltenham, who is in charge of BiNet USA, a group that is dedicated to the advocacy and visibility of bisexual people.
“BiNet started the #BiStories project, in which they invited bi+ people, people who identify as bi, pansexual or queer, really anyone attracted to multiple genders, along with their friends and families, to tell stories of discrimination,” Sessa explained. “I participated, telling the story of how I spoke in a city council meeting in August 2015 on an LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance.”
This story was the catalyst for Sessa’s involvement with this group and others. After being further interviewed and profiled for pieces being presented by BiNet and Freedom for All Americans, Sessa became a known figure in the organization, allowing her to be invited to D.C.
“As far as I know, I was the only undergraduate student there, as well as being the youngest person there by quite a few years,” Sessa said. “It was rather surreal. This wasn’t a student conference – this was a group of the best of the best of LGBT activists all around the country, and I guess I am now one of them.”
The conference focused on tools the attendees could take away to improve civil rights and organizational advocacy in their own communities.
“In rural areas, like where we were all coming from, there is a lack of resources for the LGBT community,” Sessa said. “The fact that Goshen has a place like Mosaic, for instance, is an incredibly privileged anomaly. When I told people we had an LGBT-focused health center in my town, it was met with a lot of excitement, simply because that kind of service is so rare. So us rural LGBT people, we’ve got to work together to create those resources.”
After the initial lectures, the conference broke into smaller groups with different focuses on various parts of LGBT experience in the rural U.S. Sessa attended a session on LGBTQ+ youth, a discussion emphasizing the stories of those who work in youth centers in rural areas. As a young student, Sessa found that she was able to listen to a wide array of experiences, challenges and opportunities.
“These were people with a lot more experience than me, so I listened to what they had to say,” Sessa said. “But I also had many people come up to me and talk to me about my experience, and that was really amazing. I was the youngest person there, but I was also treated like an equal among equals.”
As an advocate, Sessa has been able to come back to Goshen with an understanding of the specific challenges facing the LGBTQ+ community in rural areas.
“The biggest issue remains the need for education about LGBT issues,” Sessa said. “With education comes understanding and humanizing. The fact is, people are more likely to be supportive of LGBT causes if they know an LGBT person. Visibility and education are what is most important and key as a nation.”
This outlook is important for shaping a community, as Sessa has already begun to do around Goshen. Advocating for LGBTQ+ people at Goshen College needs another layer of understanding and collaboration.
“A part of that is the history of the damage done by this school’s hiring policy and previous homophobic actions,” Sessa said. “For a school so focused on reconciliation, Goshen needs to reconcile the damage it has done and reach out to those it hurt. A change in policy is not the answer until we see the spirit of those who fought for that change carried out in that policy.”
As for the ways Sessa can see policies changing, there are a number of specific changes that would facilitate Goshen College becoming a welcoming space for all.
“There is the issue of the dorms,” Sessa explained. “I understand why we have dorms divided by gender. But I am not female, I’m genderqueer. But I live in a girl’s dorm because as an underclassman there are no co-ed options. There’s also the issue of bathrooms. There are buildings on campus without bathrooms where trans people can feel safe and comfortable. That needs changing. I am aware that a large part of GC’s lack of action in these areas is due to the current discourse within the larger Mennonite Church, but as a place of higher education we have an opportunity to be a leader in that regard.”
Despite these issues that continue to constrain the progress of being welcoming to all people on the Goshen College campus, Sessa says that the conference still imparted a sense of direction.
“For me, the most fulfilling thing was the sense of hope,” Sessa said. “I feel a lot more ready to organize and create change. I now have access to resources and people I did not previously have. That’s incredible. So, in the end, it’s all about resources.”