GVSU alumnus launches LGBT diversity documentary

By Ashlyn Korienek | 3/16/16 11:17pm

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GVL / Courtesy - Gregory Mason LGBT College

by Gregory Mason / Grand Valley Lanthorn

With limited amount of funds, Gregory Mason graduated from Grand Valley State University focused on creating change around diversity issues within the LGBT community. As society focuses predominantly on white voices, Mason decided to take a stand by forming LGBTCollege.

In 2012, Mason launched the initiative to provide a forum for multicultural LGBT education and expression – both in Grand Rapids and nationally.

After graduating from the Detroit School of Arts, Mason arrived at GVSU realizing a difference in diversity on campus compared to his original school, along with how his identity fit into the larger picture.

Over the years, diversity and LGBT issues have become more prevalent on campus. Overall, Mason said there is still work to be done.

The results for the 2015 Campus Climate Survey indicated 16 percent of students on campus identified as racial minorities, and 84 percent identified as white. Only 8 percent identified as LGBT, and 1 percent as transgender or other.

In 2005, the survey results entailed that 61 percent students felt GVSU is committed to diversity. Since then, that number has only increased by 7 percent, at 68 percent for 2015. However, the total for "all community members" said 62 percent felt GVSU was committed to diversity in 2005, and 70 percent for 2015, with an increase of 8 percent.

“When I grew up in Detroit, it was all black folk,” he said. “Then I went to Grand Valley and it was different. I was one of few black students on campus. Back home, it was the opposite. It was definitely a change for me, but it gave me an awareness on race and within the LGBT community.”

Mason was taken out from his comfort zone at GVSU, but it influenced the idea for LGBTCollege.

To make this happen, Mason had little funding from outside resources. As a result, he decided to take on the challenge and start an online web page, which focused on LGBT diversity, and then later become a nonprofit organization.

Today, the initiative provides resources, media and articles inclusive to all races and backgrounds within the LGBT community to the public.

“It is important within the LGBT community and in society, to represent all races and backgrounds,” Mason said. “We need to take in consideration intersectionality, which is not popularized in media, in order to do more.”

Stoyan Francis, GVSU alumna and director of community engagement and outreach, said LGBTCollege highlights stories and experiences of others to create footsteps for change. Intersectionality is important, she said, as it provides an understanding of racial minority experiences.

“People don’t see my sexuality, they see my color,” Francis said. “Each day I have to deal with a predominant heteronormative white culture that doesn’t allow my experience to be validated. My history, experience or visibility is white-washed into assimilation so that people can feel comfortable.”

Perspectives and experiences similar to Francis’ are one reason why LGBTCollege was created. Francis helps to conduct the "Learning Curve Lectures" to those interested in LGBT race and cultural competency.

“There are not many positive roles of people of color today,” Francis said. “The focus of LGBT of color is to be seen as humans, and have that experience validated before we engage in conversations about our sexuality.”

The initiative, which became a nonprofit in November of 2015, says the LGBT rainbow signifies: Different sexualities, cultures, ethnicities and socioeconomic status interconnected to make a unique population.

This ideal influenced Mason to document different LGBT perspectives, along with combating these issues that LGBTCollege stands for, or against.

Creating the “LGBT for Racial and Cultural Equality (RACE)” documentary gave Mason the chance to interact with different races and cultural perspectives, while documenting the history and current state of the LGBT community or movement.

“The main purpose of the documentary is what LGBTCollege is all about,” he said. “I want to explore what happened in the past to get us to where we are today. Also, to see what we can do to be more inclusive in the future.”

The documentary took about a year to complete, but Mason’s first challenge was finding interviewees, as he lacked an established background in film. The documentary was completed early February of 2016, and will premiere on March 21 at the Wealthy Street Theater in Grand Rapids for $11 a ticket.

To create the documentary, Mason sent hundreds of emails — only a few people would reply to them. Those individuals were from Los Angeles, Detroit and New York City. Taking the time to film the interviewees in person took Mason months to complete.

In the documentary, Curtis Lipscomb, executive director of LGBT Detroit, states: “Many of us are uncomfortable, you know we are, and I mean on both sides. We like the ways things are, but things cannot stay the same. They really don’t stay the same. The world spins, things change.”

Before Mason could finish the film, he needed more local voices. Lipscomb's extensive work with the LGBT community of Detroit hit home for Mason, so he contacted him later in the process. His addition to the film added an alternative perspective on diversity within Michigan.

To target a younger audience, Mason interviewed Nicholas Tamborra, community organizer for LGBT 20 Something in New York City. Other interviewees included: Ted Freed, from Men of All Colors Together in New York, and Harlan Pruden of the Northeast Two-Spirit Society.

“Today, organizations that have a lot of funding are mostly focused on policy,” Mason said. “There’s not a lot of work up front as far as social issues within the LGBT community. After marriage equality became legalized, a lot of attention focused on policy; but we still have issues ingrained in society we need to change.”

Currently, LGBTCollege operates exclusively online. However, Mason said the growth of the nonprofit will lead to funding more local events. Half of the donations made to LGBTCollege will go to Motor City Pride and Grand Rapids Pride, and the other half helps Mason continue his work.

For those at GVSU who want to get involved, LGBTCollege launched the “P3Project” Campaign for community advocates to express their own experiences or public knowledge. Mason hopes this opens a forum for diversity shared in a positive light, and allows the movement to become national.

To find out more about LGBTCollege, visit www.lgbtcollege.org.

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