I'd never heard of the Point Foundation until I received a call to mentor a Point Foundation Scholar a few years ago. He was a trans law student at a New York area law school, receiving a scholarship through something called the "Point Foundation." A scholarship for an LGBT student? Awesome. It sounded like a good idea to offer a scholarship to help an LGBT student.
When I looked up the organization, however, it turned out they were giving scholarships to forty LGBT students. These are young people studying all kinds of things - philosophy, economics, mathematics, architecture, design media arts, genetics, law, medicine, fashion design, neuroscience, sociology, Spanish, political science, gender studies, communications -- a dizzying array of stuff. They had mentorship programs for the scholars, support services, local get-togethers, and conferences. I was blown away.
How did they do all that, and I'd never heard of them? No one I knew had heard of them either.
This past weekend, I was invited to speak at the 2011 Point Foundation Scholar & Alumni Leadership Conference. The organization's executive director since 2007, Jorge Valencia, pictured on the right, put together an amazing conference for the scholars. It was the best-managed and most interesting conference I've ever attended.
The organization has grown and prospered. Now, there are about 70 scholars. 50 alumni were in attendance. Some alumni are now mentors and Trustees of the organization, a demonstration of the power of this work. Speakers included keynotes from Rea Carey, Task Force Executive Director, Point Regent and Emmy-Award winning (and 2011 Tony-nominated) actress Judith Light, Academy-Award winning producer Bruce Cohen, and Friday night dinner at Chicago's beautiful Field Museum was hosted by MSNBC anchor and journalist Thomas Roberts. But the elitist tone that one might sometimes find associated with people of this status and caliber is almost entirely missing.
There were also other speakers well-known from the blogosphere speaking at the conference, including Pam Spaulding of Pam's House Blend, Andy Towle of Towleroad, and Janet Mock of People Magazine. The documentary "Becoming Chaz" was shown Saturday evening, introduced by filmmaker Randy Barbato of the well-known production company World of Wonder films. The scholars weren't shy about asking questions and raising issues about the ethical and social dimensions of the various presentations. They didn't let the speakers get away with much, and while "raked over the coals" isn't quite the phrase I'd use, on occasion they showed their mettle in disagreeing with the presenters. I was proud of their willingness to question authority, even as they were benefiting from its largesse.
But the conference is not a public conference, and is only open to Point Scholars, staff and board members. It's not designed to make money or get members or tout the organization. It's designed solely to provide these young students with tools to help them to succeed in a world that is often uncaring and cruel to LGBT people and a culture that is too elitist and self-promoting. The staff and the board members spent their entire weekend focused on these young people. I was particularly surprised and moved to see Point Regent and celebrity actress Judith Light sitting through every session, taking notes and giving her undivided attention to the proceedings. It's extremely unusual to see someone of her status interested and willing to participate in this way. It's a sign not only of her dedication to this cause, but also of the organization's compelling mission and ability to execute on that mission. The conference was better organized and managed than any I've ever attended, and there was no wasted time or fluff, although, fortunately, there was plenty of unstructured social time so that I could meet informally with the scholars. I was blown away by every one of them. These young people were serious in purpose, knowledgeable and interested in everything, with little ego or pomp that one sometimes unfortunately finds in the very intelligent, but also had the spirit of fun and sense of humor befitting well-rounded human beings. It was quite a diverse group in terms of race, sex, gender identity, class, geography and subject of study. They are light years ahead of the staff and board members, a somewhat less diverse group, in terms of understanding today's LGBT culture and politics. And perhaps that is not unsurprising, as the previous generation strives to create a new generation that outstrips its own, to the best of their ability. I have found, as my own son gets older, that I seem to know less and less, and of that I am glad.
In its own quiet way, this organization has created a culture that is producing larger and larger ripples in the LGBT pond. Former Point Scholars are now mentors to new Point Scholars, joining the various Boards and local organizations of the Foundation, and also making wider contributions to the world and creating change by simply having the confidence to be themselves out there.
As I noted, the speakers were wonderful, providing fascinating insight into our culture. Rea Carey, Executive Director of the Task Force, recalled her "elevator summer," when the blogosphere and LGBT community were going crazy about how LGBT advocacy organizations weren't accomplishing enough. ENDA and DADT weren't moving, marriage equality was moving backwards, with ballot initiatives rolling back progress. She got on the elevator at her office building, where a man from the Air Traffic Controllers Association, another tenant in the building, congratulated her on how much the LGBT movement was accomplishing, with marriage being recognized in DC, the White House hosting high-ranking meetings with the community, and more and more non-discrimination ordinances being enacted all over the country. She felt as if that elevator were in an alternate universe. Her speech nicely illustrated the paradoxical nature of what it means to be a leader in the LGBT world today. I, of course, had my own iconoclastic thoughts about her speech. I was happy to see that the scholars raised some questions that echoed my own.
Point Regent and former Point Scholar James Derek Mize, now a trial attorney, talked about feeling that he had to conform to others' expectations in a heteronormative world. He came out at age 20 as a competitive swimmer, and the pressures made him leave the sport that he loved. But he also talked about the homonormative pressures to wear certain clothes, have an apartment in the right neighborhood, go to the right bars, move in the right circles. He suggested that he went through a process of "coming back in," in which he learned to put aside those pressures, whether heteronormative or homonormative. I thought it was an important lesson for the scholars -- dealing with pressures to conform on all sides, including pressure from our own community to fit certain norms.
It was truly an intergenerational event, with people in their teens and people in their seventies, and every point in between. Point Regent Herb Hamsher, who is in his sixties, a former professor of clinical psychology and now a television/film producer and artist-manager, told about his youth, coming out and suicide story, illustrating in a poignant but humorous way what it meant to be gay in the past, how far we have come, but also how similar the environment still is in terms of the pressures on our young people. He was surprisingly current on LGBT issues, noting the ways in which the trans community is teaching us to expand our understanding. He rightly pointed out that coming out is not an act of speaking about sexuality, a single moment in time, but a process of refuting the world's expectation that you be the way you are not. That's an important lesson that I'm still learning. He also pointed up that the powerful part of the mission isn't the provision of scholarship money, but intergenerational mentorship. The most courageous and meaningful part of the conference, he noted, is that "we are hanging out together, with a spread of six decades, telling our stories, giving our strength to each other. We are an honest to god intergenerational community. The importance of knowing the history of our community is to truly embrace the knowledge that we are heroes." It was inspiring and moving, and it reaffirmed some important lessons for me, as well as the scholars.
There's a lot more I could write about this conference and this organization. I look forward to getting more involved. Our youth is our strength, and the Point Foundation is creating the next generation of leaders. If you're looking for someplace to put your efforts, talents and money that will continue to make a difference over the next fifty years, this is it. You can donate to the organization here: pointfoundation.org