By Yameen Huq
This past Sunday was the culminating ceremony of Seven Straight Nights for Equal Rights, a nationwide event dedicated to social justice and equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender/transsexual (LGBT) people. Seven Straight Nights was created by Soulforce, an LGBT rights group, and Atticus Circle, a coalition of straight allies for LGBT acceptance. A non-partisan, apolitical event, it emphasizes social change through conversation and dialogue over proselytization, in order to foster better understanding between diverse peoples.
Previously, this ceremony was hosted outside of campus at the King Center and was designed for an older audience. However, head organizer Billiee Pendleton-Parker, the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Tech, decided to shift audiences for the second year. Pendleton-Parker has been involved as a straight ally for years, helping to change the previous focus on parents of gays to a broader group of straight friends and relatives. “The involvement of young people is important,” Pendleton-Parker said. This year’s event also reached out to students from other colleges, such as Morehouse, Spellman, Georgia State, and Emory, with over sixty students in attendance.
On the student side of planning is Matt LeBrun, a second-year ME major, who became involved this year with the hope of influencing college students towards progressive ideas. A member of socially tolerant family and nephew to a gay uncle, LeBrun plans on spreading the ideas of social acceptance that he grew up with. At the same time, he and Parker designed this project to cater to the traditional values of the South by appealing to religion and family. LeBrun was reluctant at first to get involved with the project, fearing ridicule from his peers, but he soon realized that this would not matter if he could positively influence the lives of others. This realization encouraged him to head the Seven Straight Nights endeavor.
This year’s event was designed with a youth-oriented focus, featuring guests that college students could relate to and be interested in. This included Dale and Mary Lynn Merkle, members of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), who spoke of their unconditional love and acceptance of their two gay sons. Dale Merkle was also a professor and researcher who stated that homosexuality is genetic and argued that the current laws oppressing gays violate freedom of expression and marriage, thus violating freedom of religion. Ultimately, they spoke of emotional issues and their efforts to encourage diversity, tolerance and equal rights in their own community and public school.
The next speaker was a Tech associate professor, Peter J. Ludovice, performing a brief comedy act that satirized aspects of Georgian life, particularly its collision with modern progressivism. He also poked humor at subjects familiar to residents of Georgia, such as Southern living, abstinence-only education, the peanut industry and Georgia Tech engineers. This light-hearted act was followed by a seminar on the Bible’s views on homosexuality.
Daniel Helminiak, a professor at the University of West Georgia and author of the book What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality, discussed controversial topics in the Bible, arguing for a more historical-critical method- view instead of an ambiguous, literalist interpretation. His primary argument involved cultural relativism and the idea that many of the passages on homosexuality deal with culture rather than right or wrong.
His presentation, while lengthy, was engrossing and involved the audience in a classroom manner through methods such as question and answer.
Ashley Newton was the final speaker. She discussed the turmoil that can come from being a straight ally to a closeted friend, especially when one comes from a religious, conservative background. Like those before her, she discussed her unconditional love for her friends and her acceptance of the diversity.
Pendleton-Parker ended the ceremony with a few words of wisdom from great leaders and minds, such as Mother Teresa, Shakespeare and Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as encouragement for the greater idea of hope and progress. After this, the ceremony ended with a performance by the Georgia Tech Glee Club and a vigil for the adversity and struggles of the LGBT movement and the straight allies tied to it.
LeBrun described this event afterwards as a success, citing his belief that the people who attended, while not a massive amount, will tell others and spread the ideas discussed. He stated that he would like to continue leading the program and expand it to a wider range of events. LeBrun hopes to get people thinking in a new ways. LeBrun, Pendleton-Parker and others involved in this organization plan on spreading the word of tolerance. “After all, sometimes you just have to get in the way to do the right thing,” Pendleton-Parker said, quoting Congressman John Lewis.