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'Creating Inclusive and Welcoming Communities': Seminar at Bemidji State University explores LGBT issues

From left, Moderator Patrick Lochwood, Gretchen Pickeral, Rev. Vernon Nelson, Andy Mundt, Jini Lawless and Gina Bernard participate in a panel discussion about the "Joys/Challenges of Coming Through the Closet Door" during the LGBT cultural competency seminar sponsored Saturday by the Bemidji State University Social Work Program. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

Authenticity, honesty, relief - these were some of the feelings members of a panel said they experienced when they acknowledged their sexual orientation and revealed their true selves to others.

Six members of a panel discussed "Rite of Passage - Joys/Challenges of Coming Through the Closet Door" during a "Creating Inclusive and Welcoming Communities" seminar Saturday sponsored by the Bemidji State University Social Work Program in partnership with United States Census 2010, RAAN, PFUND and OUTFRONT Minnesota. Other presentations during the day-long event included discussions of empowerment, challenges of living with HIV and developing safe school climates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

"Our purpose is not to invade your family, your agency, your community," said "Rite of Passage" panel moderator Patrick Lochwood of Bemidji. "We are the people you already know."

He pointed out that every child is raised and socialized according to his or her physical gender and under the assumption that he or she is heterosexual.

Lochwood said he "came out" when he was 18, the spring of his senior year at Bemidji High School. However, he said he knew from childhood he knew he was gay, without having the vocabulary to describe his feelings.

"Any information I received from society or the church was to be gay is very, very bad," he said.

He was relieved when he at last understood the significance of the phrase "sexual orientation" and that "I'm not dealing with a sin - I'm dealing with an orientation. That was my aha!"

Panel member Gina Bernard, a Bemidji High School English teacher, introduced herself as a "trans-woman," who just learned last week that her health insurance will cover her sex-change operation. She said she also had no vocabulary to talk about her orientation, and that coming out was emotionally and professionally costly. She had been married to the mother of her two daughters, but is now divorced. She became emotional when she told the audience of about 50 people how fortunate she is that her daughters were young enough when she came out that they accept her for who she is.

"They call me 'she' and 'her' and 'Daddy' all at the same time," she said.

Panel member Jini Lawless said she realized she was bisexual when, as a Northfield High School student, she fell in love with another girl. She said her high school colleagues were accepting of her and other LGBT people, but Bemidji State University is not a safe environment for people of those sexual orientations. She said her relationship with her family is still rocky, but she is now engaged to a man.

"I knew I couldn't have made that decision if I hadn't experienced my bisexual side," she said.

She added that with coming out, she felt relieved not to have to watch everything she said and that she could be honest with others.

As did several other panel members, Andy Mundt, president of the Itasca County LGBT Alliance, told the audience that his joy is just being able to be himself. He said he is proud that the Grand Rapids City Council appointed him to the human rights council. He also said he is happy he can give other young people an example of a gay man as they grow up.

"Andy's story is really encouraging," said Rev. Vernon Nelson, a retired Lutheran minister from Bemidji.

However, Mundt said his frustration is that because of marriage and immigration laws, he can't be with his Jamaican fiancé.

Nelson said he has been heterosexual since 1922, "and still working out what that means." He said he believes everyone struggles with sexuality, LGBT or not. He noted that his denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is also struggling with the issue since a 2009 ruling that LGBT people in committed relationships can serve as clergy.

Sexuality is not the basic issue, he said. "It's whether I, as your brother in Christ, can trust you, and you can trust me."

"The challenge for me now is trying to be a faithful voice of reason," Nelson said, including for those who can't deal with the LGBT concept.

Rev. Gretchen Pickeral, an Episcopal priest from Grand Rapids, said some people quote scripture to condemn LGBT people. But, she said, no biblical passage states, "Judge your neighbor."

She said she is also heterosexual, and an ally to the LGBT community.

"My joy as an ally is realizing I can have an authentic relationship with people," Pickeral said.

Such honest connections are impossible if people have to live behind masks, she said.

Lochwood closed the discussion by passing around photos of his "test-tube daughter." One family picture taken at her baptism includes her biological and adoptive mothers, grandparents and great-grandparents, along with Lochwood and his partner.

He said when his daughter was 3 or 4 years old, she liked to run up to people and say, "My name is Evelyn, and I have two mommies and two daddies."