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CNN correspondent and author Don Lemon joined the opening session of the 14th annual Diversity Conference at Weber State University Davis on Thursday night.
The social at the Davis campus marked the opening of the two-day conference, themed LGBTQ: Changing the Conversation. Lemon will be speaking on Friday for the conference’s opening keynote at 8:30 a.m., but stopped by at the end of the opening. The theme for his speech is “Being Transparent in Our Communications.” Lemon elaborated on what those attending the conference can expect from his address.
“I just hope that people learn something, quite honestly, about me and my journey and then they can learn about themselves,” Lemon said, “because the only person’s story I know for sure is myself and when I realized that I was gay, and the struggles that I went through.”
Lemon said he wants to be an example to other members of the LGBTQ community in the WSU community who come and listen to his address on Friday.
“I think if there is anyone out there who can understand that you can be and do whatever you want to do, and be whoever you want to be, and be successful and be gay or be straight or bisexual or transgender or questioning and that it’s OK to be visible, that I’m visible in front of the world every single day, and that’s what I want people to get out of it,” he said.
Lemon also talked about why he felt it was important to speak at the WSU Diversity Conference, particularly regarding this year’s chosen subject.
“Because of the subject matter and why they asked me to speak,” he said, “and I thought it was unique that most people who ask me to come to speak about diversity, and they’re talking about African-Americans and Hispanics and about ethnicity. This was a chance to talk about diversity and sexuality, and I thought that was great about being (LGBTQ). So I think it’s an important subject.”
Before Lemon’s brief talk at the opening session, the focus of the evening was David Parker, the associate director of the National Foundation Community of Caring. Parker gave a very interactive speech featuring music, sign language demonstrations, and the topic of being and acting as an ally to the LGBTQ community.
One of the focuses of Parker’s session was the loss of a close personal friend who inspired him to become a staunch advocate for the LGBTQ community. Parker had a friend named Ricky throughout high school and college, and one day his friend decided to confide in him.
“Now, I’ve been friends with Ricky for years and years and years, and we’ve talked about everything that you can imagine,” Parker said. “And he said to me, ‘David, I think I’m gay.’ And I didn’t say anything, you know, I didn’t condemn him, I didn’t support him. I just figured, OK, it’s Tuesday, Ricky’s gay, no big thing.”
Several years later, communication between the two abruptly stopped when Ricky stopped calling and sending letters to Parker. Concerned, Parker traveled back to New York City, where the two had grown up, to find out what had happened.
“And I learned that, on that trip to New York City, Ricky had committed suicide,” he said. “And I felt angry, upset, horrible — all those words I felt.”
Parker talked about what he felt he could have done differently.
“I started thinking to myself, ‘Could I have done something differently when he told me he thought he was gay?’” he said. “I didn’t say anything when he said it. I just, in my head, accepted it, and we’d been such good friends and communicated so clearly for years (that) I just assumed he knew it was OK, but I don’t know, because he died.”
Parker stated that, after this loss, he decided to begin working as an ally to the LGBTQ community, as opposed to just calling himself one. He encouraged audience members to consider what they say and how it affects the feelings of other people. He also encouraged allies to support and encourage LGBTQ people and stand up for them in the face of discrimination.
Forrest Crawford, assistant to the president for diversity at WSU, hosted the Diversity Conference and encouraged the audience to participate in other portions of the conference the next day.
“We’re looking forward to hearing Mr. Lemon’s keynote address that will kind of set the tone for some of the things that you will hear throughout the day tomorrow,” he said. “I think you’re going to have an excellent time and, by the end of the day, you’ll know more leaving than you did when you came in.”