Out at CWRU: students’ perspectives

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Out at CWRU: students’ perspectives

Denton Zhou

Denton Zhou

Denton Zhou

The recent highly publicized suicides of several LGBT youth have illustrated the difficulties of being different in often hostile environments. Homophobic bullying and harassment was a common denominator in many of these cases. The bullying these individuals suffered through appears to be the norm rather than the exception. The 2009 National School Climate Survey showed that nine out of 10 middle school and high school students who identified as LGBT were harassed because of their sexual orientation. People have the right to live their lives and express their sexual identity without fear of reprisal or bullying. In honor of National Coming Out Day, held on Oct. 11, We chose to detail the stories of students who identify as part of the LGBT community. These four students agreed to share their stories about growing up knowing they were different, coming out, and living with their identities.

Gillian Seaman, News Editor

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Senior English major Brennon Ham considers himself to be queer. “I identify myself as queer because there’s a difference between orientation and social identity when it comes to sexuality. If someone asks me if I’m gay, I’ll probably say yes. But I also identify as a bisexual. So I guess queer is an all encompassing,” he explained.

While Ham grew up in what he considers to be a “liberal suburb of D.C” that was very accepting of different sexual identities, he admits the schools he attended had much more of a “small-town feel.”

From sixth to ninth grade Ham suffered extensive homophobic bullying. “I remember hearing the word fagot one or 200 times a day. Mostly [directed] at me,” he said. “I was really tall when I was younger, so I stood out.”

It was during sixth grade, when he was 11 that Brennon first came out to his father. “I just told him I thought I liked men and women,” he said. His father attributed his feelings to hormones. “I’m pretty sure he said ‘You’ll pick women.’ I was like ‘Oh okay, cool.’”

Ham would not come out again until he was seventeen. But this did not mean that he identified with the LGBT community at his school. Citing the community’s perceived promiscuity and his own fears, Ham admitted to finding difficulties in carving out his own position within the community.

“It was weird because I didn’t want to be labeled as that bi kid who comes out later. I didn’t want to be stuck with the gays if I came out as gay. It was uncomfortable,” he said.

His situation improved somewhat with his arrival to CWRU. “CWRU was good because there were lots of open people. I found a group of close friends right away, so I was very lucky,” he explained. “That group like, one other person everyone was just in this space of understanding and curiosity were it was totally ok to be yourself. That was what was wonderful.”

The discriminatory language that Ham encountered during high school did not entirely disappear from his life, despite CWRU’s open and supportive atmosphere. “I have seen it and I’ve heard, even some of my orientees would say, ‘that’s so gay’ which is something carried over from high school,” he said.

But Ham attributed much of what he encountered to immaturity rather than maliciousness. “Your freshmen year is the only time you’re going to have a really difficult time, if at all just because everyone’s still scared and uncomfortable in their own skin coming from high school. That language that comes with it comes with your age I guess. It peters out.”

While Ham has become increasingly comfortable with himself, coming out to his parents was a difficult process. Ham admits that his mother is still coming to terms with his self-identification. “She still struggles with it but she’s getting a lot better. She used to say go have fun with your gay-bi thing.” But Ham noted, “That’s her own process with becoming comfortable. I’ve been mulling it over in my head for years and years before coming out and it’s only fair that I give her the same amount of time.”

His father also expressed some sadness but is “ok with it” now. His stepmother’s reaction was much more positive. “She gave me the biggest hug ever,” he said.

Working as both a member of SPECTRUM and as a student assistant in the LGBT center, Ham encourages students to be honest with themselves about their sexuality and not be afraid of others reactions

“If they drop you as a friend because of what you’re going through then f**k them. You don’t need them.”

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“I don’t think I ever really did an official ‘parents, family, friends I am out’” recounted second year archaeology and English major Jaq Evans. “I’m pretty sure I came out to my parents by just informing them I had a girlfriend in ninth grade.”

Finding acceptance at school was not difficult for Evans. Growing up in liberal Charlottesville, V.A., she was rarely disrespected for identifying as queer. “We always had a Gay Straight Alliance. I was actually co-president for my senior year. There were teachers who were gay. And most teachers had that little tolerance sticker on their door,” she said. While there was some taunting, Evans describes it as not very pervasive. “There were some groups who would yell insults. But that’s really as far as it went.”\

Her father was also supportive of her choices. “My dad has always been very quietly supportive of everything I’ve done. So if he had a problem with it I never heard about it.”

Being a student at CWRU has not always been easy for Evans. She still has to cope with immediate judgments stemming from her appearance as well as her choices in partners.

She states that people’s assumptions regarding her sexuality that stem from her appearance is one of the most irritating aspects of her life. “I have really short hair. I dress fairly androgynously, I don’t do skirts I don’t do dresses. And so I get a lot of people, if they see me they assume off the bat that I’m a lesbian,” she said.

Being involved in a long-term relationship with a male student at CWRU has exposed her to what she refers to as “invisible queer syndrome”. “The immediate assumption in our society still is if you’re dating a guy you’re straight,” she said.

Her relationship also generated difficult conversations with her mother. Upon being told Evans was dating a male student, her mother responded with, “So are you straight now?” which inspired a discussion between the two about what defining herself as queer means.

“It would have been easier on her if I said I was a lesbian because she has gay friends and understands what that means. I’ve had a lot of many hour long conversations with her about it,” explained Evans.

Evans prefers to identify as queer because she believes it provides a degree of fluidity that other identifiers lack. “I’ve landed on queer and it can also imply a certain fluidity. My sexuality, I am never straight that’s fair to say but it really fluctuates between who I am interested in be it a guy or girl or gender queer people,” she said. “I would really like it if people could remember that sexuality is fluid. How you identify now doesn’t have to be how you identify later.”

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Attending high school in Beaver Creek, OH, third-year biochemistry major Marshall Lukacs was frequently the subject of homophobic taunts. .“I got called fa****t and a** pirate,” he said.

Complicating matters for Lukacs was his position in the Christian club at his high school, where his inclusive opinions regarding homosexuality where met with derision and frequently subject to attack.

“I got an e-mail once from the leader of a Christian band that sang at one of our concerts and he was commenting on something I’d written on facebook about how ‘G-d should be fine with gays’ or something like that. And he got on me and said as a leader of a Christian group I shouldn’t have these opinions and I should resign,” he said.

His forced outing by a confidant also complicated his process of coming out. After confiding to a lesbian student that he was gay during his sophomore year in high school, he discovered that she had informed many students without his knowledge. Hurt and terrified of others’ reactions, Lukacs admitted to prematurely ending his coming out process.

“I started denying it. I thought I would be able to come out sophomore year but I was scared s***less. I went running back into the closet until my senior year of high school.”

During his senior year, Lukacs did come out to another one of his friends. “I came out to my best friend in the middle of our senior year. I trusted him and I knew he wouldn’t tell anyone.” Still some trepidation lingered. “It took twenty or thirty minutes for me to actually say the words, ‘I’m gay,’” he said. But after this incident, Marshall felt more comfortable identifying himself as gay. “It was this rapid explosion, I got all this confidence,” he explained.

CWRU, with its culture of acceptance and presence of a strong LGBT support system, also helped encourage Lukacs to be more open.

“CWRU is a huge step up from my high school. At my high school we didn’t even have a Gay Straight Alliance. Straight people, gay people, they’re just more open.” Lukacs also attributed the degree of irreligiousness to the considerable tolerance present on campus. “There isn’t an expectation to be ‘Christian’” he explained.

But Lukacs did not identify himself as gay to his parents until his second year at CWRU during winter break.

“We were all up at 2 in the morning. My dad was eating chicken, turned away from me. My mom could tell it was something serious. So I told them I was gay and I said ‘I’m gay yay!’” he explained laughing.

Lukacs’ mother was immediately accepting of his choice, but his father’s reaction was more muted.

“My dad didn’t talk about. I didn’t talk to him for like a week. Then it came time to go back to school and he hugged me.”

While his father originally expressed discomfort with his son’s sexuality, Lukacs stated that he is making progress.

“He’s making jokes about it so that’s good. He made a joke last week about how I bet you can’t wait to have Chinese babies or something like that,” he chuckled, “Love wins.”

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“My coming out story really isn’t tragic or anything. It’s just really long and definition heavy,” explained fourth year English Major Fatima Espiritu. Espiritu still considers herself in the process of coming out. “I’m still coming out because I keep coming out as different things.”

Preferring to label herself as queer, Espiritu is actively involved in the LGBT community at CWRU. Working as a student assistant in the LGBT center, she encourages individuals to buck the stereotypes that surround sexuality. “There isn’t a script. Because you’re dating a woman, you don’t have to say you’re a lesbian. Don’t let other people define you for you. It’s a process,” she said.

Espiritu’s process of coming out began early on. Recognizing that she felt differently when she was seven, she was labeled as a tomboy. “People called me a tomboy because I used to wear hats backwards. So my parents bought me a pink hat so I could still wear hats but it would be pink and feminine,” she said.

Her process of coming out was catalyzed by her relationship with a girl her freshmen year at CWRU, which caused her to evaluate the constructs surrounding gender. After originally coming out, Espiritu did find significant support within her family. But one family member, described by Espiritu as an evangelist, was considerably less than proud of her choice.

“He very politely tried not to tell me I was going to hell,” she explained. “He does the whole hate the sin not the sinner thing. I try to teach him every day it’s not a sin.”

Espiritu has found that some people react viciously to both her appearance and sexual identification. “People objectify you immediately if they can’t classify you immediately,” she said.

The issues with her appearance were readily apparent while studying abroad in Egypt and travelling in the Middle East. Espiritu described the atmosphere as rife with constant verbal sexual harassment. Her androgynous appearance also resulted in rather interesting situations. While at a bus stop in Lebanon at night, she was approached by man who believed her to be a gay male.

Espiritu also enjoyed reaping the benefits of her androgynous appearance. Passing as male, she was able to enter the male section of a Muslim mosque.” I got a few looks but for the most part I passed, which was interesting. I think I’m lucky to be a little more androgynous than some other people,” she said.

Still, there were times that Espiritu had to take caution with her personal presentation. “It became very problematic for me when I was in groups because I didn’t know who thought I was what. So I kind of had to examine every little detail. The adjectives I used, the way I walked…If I’m acting in a way that’s messing with someone’s worldview, I could get hurt,” she said.

Espiritu’s frustration erupted when travelling in Syria. While walking with a friend, she noticed that many of the male passerby were staring at her.

“I couldn’t take it anymore. I just started like snapping at people. I was just like, ‘What? What the f*** do you want?’…It really can get to be too much,” she said.

But there were also moments abroad when Espiritu felt accepted. When she was in a bazaar in Egypt a woman in a hijab who did not speak English gave her a thumbs up. “I knew what she meant. It was really wonderful.”