They came to learn the ins and outs of AIDS advocacy, but in addition to lessons in attracting media attention and lobbying politicians, some NCSU students gave them an education in intolerance.
Institute participant Brett Calka was sitting outside the dorm where his group was staying for the week, smoking a cigarette with a friend and minding his own business on the third day of the conference.
"We began to hear someone yelling from another building in front of us," said Calka, a 23-year-old from Chicago. "At first, I couldn't hear what they were saying, but then I heard the words 'faggot' and 'sissy.'" Calka could not identify who was yelling because the blinds were drawn over the windows.
Some of the participants, ages 13-26, are openly gay. Others are not, but believe the abuse stemmed from an ongoing stigma that AIDS is just a "gay disease."
NCSU was chosen to host the third annual youth conference because the South has a rapidly growing number of new HIV infections and a general lack of support organizations, says organizer Charles Long.
Quintana Lane, a 20-year-old from Miami who has been infected with HIV since birth, ran into resistance trying to explain the group's presence and educate two students with whom she had a negative encounter.
"I wanted to let them know why we were there," said Lane. "After I told them, they said they didn't want us bringing HIV and AIDS into their community. Then one of them said, 'And I don't like gay people, either.'"
Lane told the young men that for at least 10 years, the infection rate has been dropping among gay men while rising among African Americans and Hispanics. Lane says as a colleague hailed her to rejoin the group, the men said, "I guess you have to go. Your faggot is calling you."
"I think they saw the AIDS posters we had up and just associated it with homosexuality," says Lane. "It shows how much work needs to be done."
Long said that he was not surprised to encounter homophobia while working onHIV/AIDS related issues.
"However, it was surprising to encounter so much of it on a college campus," Long says. "People are there to expand their minds, and you'd tend to believe that when they don't know about something they'd want to learn about it instead of just dealing with it in an ignorant way."
The participants say hateful remarks were directed at them in the dining hall and the gym as well as in the dorm.
"Almost everywhere we went, we were made to feel uncomfortable," said Calka. "I have never experienced so many people being so negative. It was shocking to see homophobia to that extent, especially from people who go to school and are educated enough to know that being gay is not a disease."
The incidents around the July 4-8 conference reflect N.C. State's struggle to establish a culture of tolerance regarding LGBT issues. The school recently ranked 17th in the Princeton Review in the category of "Alternative Lifestyles Not An Alternative." And although Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill both have campus LGBT centers, NCSU has been slow to establish one. Advocates working to do so last year confronted strong and hateful reactions from students and staff.
At a meeting of the LGBT subcommittee of the University Diversity Advisory Committee last year, the need for a center was identified, and a proposal was drafted for submission to the student and faculty senates, as well as campus officials.
The center would serve as both a haven for the LGBT community and an organizational headquarters for programming and events to educate the campus at large about LGBT issues.
The proposal was unanimously approved by the faculty senate, but the student senate was not as easily persuaded, though the plan was eventually approved over the objections of 14 dissenters. After a story about the vote ran in NCSU's newspaper, The Technician, there was such an outrage among the student body that the student senate held a town hall meeting to discuss the issue.
"The meeting was one of the most hateful events I've ever been to," says Celeste Richie, assistant director of diversity for the College of Natural Resources. "There were a lot of students there from the LGBT community, and other students were saying such hateful things. Some people quoted from the Bible. Some had prepared statements about why they were ashamed of the university."
Some of the dissenting students were so adamant that they started a Facebook group, "Students Against NCSU LGBT Center," which has more than 1,000 members. (An opposing Facebook group, "Students For NCSU LGBT Center," has 568 members.)
Members posted opinions online, and a heated debate continued throughout the school year. Much of the disagreement was about the center's funding, which could be taken in part from student fees.
Sophomore Justin Stewart posted: "I think I speak for a lot of people when I say it's pretty disgusting and sad that N.C. State wants to take money out of my pocket to fund something that I strongly oppose and am against both biblically and morally. If such a thing does happen, I'll be bound for another school that will not do such a thing. I mean, I haven't seen a straight center."
Other students also cited religious reasons. Junior Ishma Pinckney wrote: "We as Christians have a obligation to be soldiers for Christ and fight against anything ungodly.... If we stand by and say nothing just to get along instead of being evangelists for Christ our faith will be the same as all sinners not just the LGBT."
Some students didn't have a concrete reason. Sophomore Eric Dobbins wrote: "I think the real purpose of this fag house is to pass out anal lube. I'm mad that N.C. State was the 17th most unappealing to homos, I believe we should strive to be first."
In spite of this reaction, Vice Provost for Diversity and African-American Affairs Jose Picart says that the majority supports diversity.
"There are a lot of people, for religious and other reasons, who have negative feelings, but that is not the norm on our campus," Picart says.
Deb Luckadoo, activities director for Talley Student Center, where the LGBT center would be located, believes that the homophobia on campus mirrors a conservative society.
"This is the South," says Luckadoo. "This is the heart of Southern Baptist country. It's hard for students to disengage from their backgrounds. That's exactly why we need an LGBT center here. We need to change the overall climate of our university."
Vice Chancellor Tom Stafford agrees. "The center is very much needed," he says. "It's something I've personally been working on for 20 years." Stafford says that, although the center has been approved by the senate and the provost, funding has not been decided.
Although key members of the administration support the center and LGBT issues in general, Richie is still dissatisfied with the university's response to the blatant discrimination that surfaced during the debate.
"You can't just want to support a group," she says. "You have to take action. It's great that we're getting support from the university, but I'm still waiting to see results. We still don't have a center. NCSU is still a hateful climate for queer and transgender people."
Richie says the problem lies in the fact that many of the people who are making the decisions have never experienced the discrimination that LGBT students face at NCSU. Jeremy Hall, executive coordinator of Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Allies, says he regularly experiences homophobia.
"There's apathy everywhere at N.C. State," says Hall. "You walk around and you hear the traditional 'that's gay' or people calling other people fags. I feel much safer walking around downtown Raleigh than I do on campus."
For the Youth Action Institute participants, the conference brought lessons that were unexpected, but useful.
"It didn't detract from the Institute because it fueled a conversation," said Long. "It gave them more courage to go back into their communities and do something proactive."