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Kyler Urban, of Finksburg, had never really felt comfortable around girls growing up, but it was during his sophomore year at Westminster High School that he finally had his epiphany.

"I played field hockey my senior year and I had a boyfriend for like, a second, and then I was like, 'I don't feel comfortable with any of this,'" he said. "I took a psychology class and before that, I didn't even know [being transgender] was a possibility. I started researching it."

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The story of how Urban, now 19 and identifying as a transgender man, began to identify and dress as a male during high school is part of what he plans to share as a panel member for the Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality Embracing Our LGBT Community conference on May 16.

A nonprofit dedicated to fostering understanding, the Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality has sponsored a free annual conference dedicated to promoting understanding among different groups for the past five years. This year, the organization has brought together members of the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community as well as guest speakers, in an effort to foster conversation about what McDaniel College Adjunct Professor and event facilitator Pam Zappardino said is often a hidden minority.

"One of the goals of [Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality] is to promote ... dialogue among all groups, whether they be different racial groups or gender identity groups," Zappardino said. "Last year we did a conference focusing on the Latino community in Carroll, and we've done one focusing on the different Native American populations in the state and one on diversity in the workplace. [This year] it seemed like it would be good to focus on a group of people in our community that are often invisible."

The 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. conference will be open to the public and, according to Zappardino, will feature a panel discussion, a keynote address by Michel Eselun, the founder of an anti-homophobia speaker's bureau as well as a discussion with former U.S. Administrator of General Services and author Martha Johnson about her novel, "In our Midst." There will also be a free buffet breakfast and lunch.

Space at the conference is limited to 120 persons and advanced registration is recommend and available by contacting Gary Honeman at

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The guest speakers will bookend the panel discussion that will include Urban, representatives from Carroll County Parents Families and Friends of Lesbians And Gays and the Rev. Dr. Marty Kuchma, pastor of St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Westminster, the mainline Christian church in Carroll County to perform same sex marriages.

"I really do it with absolutely no intention of changing anyone's mind, but just creating a context where people can speak honestly about things we don't discuss all that often," Kuchma said. "To get to know personal stories and look each other in the eye and come to understand that we are all complex creatures."

Judy Gaver, a member of Families and Friends of Lesbians And Gays since her son came out to her in 2001, will bring the perspective of a parent of a gay child to the panel and said while she is approaching the conference without expectations, she hopes the panel discussion will have a ripple effect through the community.

"I think it's a wonderful opportunity for some exposure for the LGBT community, and I think it's extremely timely in light of our recent successes with marriage equality," she said. "My hope is that we will get some people whose minds are not made up. So often with these events we are preaching to the choir."

While the exact format of the discussion panel is a work in progress, Zappardino said she plans to ask some prepared questions and then open the discussion up for audience questions, and that she welcomes questions from those with deep concerns about the LGBT lifestyle.

"We would love to see people that have differing opinions be present at the conference and ask questions," she said. "It's a dialogue we think needs to be happening everywhere and certainly needs to happen here as well. People really need to get to know each other. That's what builds connections and it's also what breaks down misunderstandings."

Kuchma perhaps had the most experience in addressing LGBT issues in Carroll County, having shepherded his congregation through the process of becoming an "open and affirming" church four years ago and he said that despite the deep disagreements expressed by some members of the community, and some members of his congregation, interpersonal relationships remained entirely civil.

"In a public way, we've really not experienced any backlash at all. I don't want to invite it, but it's also the truth," he said. "When this becomes detached from the sort of political issue it is, I think people are generally not as troubled ... Once it becomes not an issue, but a personal relationship, it all becomes simple."

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For Urban, who is presently pursuing gender reassignment surgery, people have generally treated him with respect since his coming out, even in high school. He said that being transgender is new even to him but that once people get to know him, they tend to work through that initial difference in order to relate as people.

"I don't recall too many instances of anybody being anything but supportive. I got a couple of weird looks in school," he said. "Everybody at my church has most likely never had to deal with a trans person before, but they love me."

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