Out of the Campus Closet

As soon as Donald Picket became a freshman at Wright State University, he made it a point to become involved with Lambda, the university's officially recognized gay student group. Two years later, the Milford, Ohio native is now its president."What attracted me to Lambda," explains Picket, 21, "was that it was my first opportunity, since leaving high school to meet other gays and lesbians other than the stereotypes I saw on television." Before college, says Picket, his only exposure was to the "overdramatized" media images of gays made up of either "feminine" acting men or "butch" women. "So, because that's what I thought being gay was all about, I denied being gay for a whole long time."However, after Lambda that all changed. "What I met were students, like myself, perfectly normal men and women who weren't conforming to any present stereotype image formed by society. It allowed me to finally take pride in myself, in who I really am."For six years now, Wright State's Lambda organization (named after the Greek letter "L" and the symbol of an ancient Greek regiment of openly gay soldiers) has served students as both a social club and support group. It's been a forum to discuss multiple topics of interest to its members: the problems of gay residents moving off campus, coming out to parents, trying to understand themselves and other people's prejudice toward them. Some of their other activities have included outreach to the larger, "straight" campus community such as a weekly coffee house-styled meetings that would be open to both gay and straight students.It seems easier, say the Lambda members, to be openly gay on campus than off. Openly gay on campus, they explain, could mean different things: walking hand-in-hand with or kissing someone you're with, wearing a T-shirt or button with a gay political slogan or symbol, or just being seen with someone else who’s gay. Doing any one of these things, they tell me, could most probably make you the target of anti-gay abuse or attack. Yet on campus they feel more comfortable than they would back in their own home towns.Members of Lambda, though, do not have to be openly gay. "It's never the group's intention to force anyone to come out,” says Jennifer Williams, 20, a second year criminal justice major from Hamilton. "But rather to support you in what is always a difficult time and a tough decision."Being openly gay on campus is not without its dangers. Last year, numerous gay students received bomb threats and other menacing messages through their campus e-mail. While this harassment didn't result in any physical violence, the threat of such violence has its effect. As one student said, "You've still got to watch your back. There are people out there who will hurt you.""I think that the more visible we are, the more people on this campus who see and hear us, the more accepting of us they'll be," explains Weeza, 22, senior in communication and host of her own radio show, "Out Loud," on WWSU 106.9 FM on Mondays from 5-7 p.m. "It's essentially a forum for gay and lesbian views.""This campus is not perfect," says Weeza. "It's not bad but not perfect. Those who aren't accepting of us are that way because they don’t know us. They have no clue. They're not stupid, just ignorant." It's past 10 a.m. on a weekday morning in a noisy, basement cafeteria at Sinclair Community College in downtown Dayton. Hoards of half-awake students are catching a late breakfast between classes. At an empty table, in the corner, the members of Open Doors -- an officially recognized gay-student organization of Sinclair -- hold their third meeting of the school year.Open Doors defines itself as a lesbian, gay, bisexual-friendly club offering individuals a chance to meet those like themselves. Its purpose, they tell me, is to promoted awareness and education about homophobia, to dispel myths, and to provide a safe forum for members to express themselves.It's a small gathering: three students and an advisor. But, as the students explain to me, Sinclair is a commuter campus. Because nobody lives on campus, people come for classes, then rush out again to get to work or to home. These people, unlike the students at the larger universities, rarely -- if ever -- have the time to participate in non-class related activities.After 13 years of Catholic School, Jane (not her real name) was told by her parents that if she came out as a lesbian, she would be disowned and her mother would commit suicide. "You see they know, but they just don't want to know," says Jane, 19, a computer science major from Dayton, enrolled in her first quarter at Sinclair. "All my life, I questioned my sexuality. I always thought that was normal."Jane's coming out as a lesbian has been, to say the least, a difficult experience. Over a year ago, while attending a major university upstate and living in an all-woman's dormitory, Jane came out with devastating consequences.First she lost all her friends. No one in the dorm would talk to her. If she went to take a shower, all the other women would leave. Her roommate even refused to change clothes in their room if Jane was present."My perception of straight women is like this," shares Jane with a hint of cynicism. "If there are gay men around, well that's okay with them. But if there's a lesbian around it's Oh-oh! She wants me! That's so crazy. For all the years I was straight, it's not like I went after every guy." So, Jane left that school, came back home to Dayton and started classes at Sinclair.Jane remarks on the feeling of vast "anonymity" that she feels at Sinclair. "It's good and it's bad," she tell me. "Because it's a big, commuter campus, people seldom get to know each other. You can really get lost in the crowd here. And, for me -- at least for now -- that's okay.""I've dealt with a lot of homophobia and it's getting easier. But it's not easy yet. I still feel funny walking down the street with my girlfriend. I’m constantly afraid and thinking, Oh my God! Someone's going to know we're gay. Then, we'll get beat up or something."Jane and the others discuss doing outreach programs where members would go into classrooms to relate their experiences to others and show that they're "not all that different." They also talk about forming a weekly support group and organizing an area-wide conference of all the gay college and high school groups.Just before I go, Jane stops me and says, "Tell people this: We're not going away. We're not an epidemic. We just want to educate people. We want to make this community more tolerant of people with different sexual orientations." FAG POWER. OUT'S WHAT IT'S ABOUT. HOMOCORE. SAFE SEX IS HOT SEX. QUEER BOY LUST. Painted in big "I-dare-you-to-ignore-me" block letters across the walls of the "safe space" -- the official office, meeting place and social hub of the student-run LGBC (Lesbian Gay Bi-sexual Center) -- these forceful slogans accurately gage the impassioned attitudes of many GenX, gay, college students across the Miami Valley.It's early evening, Sunday night, on the second floor of Antioch University's Student Union Building in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Because it's close to the end of the semester only a few of the LGBC's 25 student members have shown up at the safe space for a planning meeting. They're young, fresh faced and full of ideas and enthusiasm."It's important to reclaim the language," explains 2nd year theater, dance and women's studies major, Andie Lawton, 19, of Columbus on why gay students would choose to use such pejoratives as "fag" or "queer" or "homo" in their own catch phrases. When you reclaim the language, says Lawton, "the words won't have the same sting anymore. When they're used against us, they won't hurt as much anymore."Petite and toned, sweaty and tired from an entire day of dance rehearsals, a still exuberant Lawton -- who's been involved with the group since she came to Antioch and who had the leadership of the group recently thrust upon her because "no one else would take the job" -- outlined some of the activities of the LGBC. As it turns out, they're a highly active student organization that works to eradicate "homophobia" and "heterosexism" from their community. They do this by bringing together students of various sexual orientations who share a common interest in promoting "awareness" of gay concerns through education and social activities.Some of the activities they mentioned were campus-wide dance parties, an annual "Drag Ball" (an outlandish "guys in dresses, girls in suits" event were gays can "celebrate queer culture"), and a February affair they call Valentines Day the S&M Way. Another activity was the regular showing, on campus, of gender-bending and stereotype-breaking films.Acting as a support group for one another is also a primary function of the organization. Among the students, the most poignant concern always seems to be about coming out -- to family, to friends, to school mates.The group credits its success to the strong support that gay students receive from both the school's administration and the general "straight" student body. "It's safe here," says one of the students. "You can walk hand-in-hand with someone and not be afraid. Homophobic behavior is simply not tolerated on this campus. Also, if there ever are problems, the administration and the student government always insures that there is a very public dialogue on the subject." "The University of Dayton has come a very long way," says Kelly Driscoll, 25, environmental biology. Driscoll's time at U.D. has given her a distinctive perspective on how the university has changed dramatically in its relations with gay students over the years.Driscoll started school at U.D., the first time, when she was 19 back in 1991. At that time there was a combined gay support group that included U.D., Wright State and Sinclair."At the time," says Driscoll, "we thought it was necessary." There was a great fear that someone would come just to find out who was in the group and spread that information around campus. There had been incidents, she says, of lesbian students being harassed and even beaten by other female students at Marycrest, one of U.D.'s dorm complexes."Now, we're not anywhere near as secretive," Driscoll says. "Though we do like to meet people beforehand. But it's not even a safety issue now. Because it’s scary when you first come out and you have to walk into a room and you don't know anyone. So, its reassuring to have at least one face you can identify."For Drew Bell, 19, from Cincinnati, his "coming out" experience was appalling. Bell, a student at the University of Dayton, majoring in secondary education and communication, was forcibly outed. Last year, an unknown person -- who found out that Bell was gay by spying on him and reading through his personal papers -- proceeded to call Bell's friends and tell them what he'd found out.So against his will and long before he felt ready, Bell had been outed. He was afraid. His greatest fear was the not knowing how the 45 other males of his floor would now react to him. Not knowing what to do, Drew Bell to his trusted religion teacher."He gave me the name of Sister Kathleen Rossman, the advisor to B-GLAD [Bisexuals, Gays and Lesbians At Dayton]. Later, I gave her a call. She told me that I could either talk to her or a student. So, she and I had a great, hour-long conversation about everything going on for me. She recommended that the group would be good for me. I started going and it's been like a support family, people who knew what I was going through."And as it turned out, his worst fears were never realized. It was "no big deal" to either his roommate or the others in his dorm. "I think," said Bell, "everyone has this worst case scenario of what would happen if they came out." Yet, as Bell added, while most of his friendships remained the same, some old friends did "drop off."Since that time, Bell had become very visible in the U.D. community. This past fall, along with another openly gay student and B-GLAD member, Shawn Beem, they began writing a column for U.D.'s student newspaper, The Flyer News. In it they discuss what it's like to be gay and Catholic, or to deal with harassment and homophobia on a college campus.Some B-GLAD members, though, are strongly critical of the university's policies toward gay students. "Here you're going to have to fight to get anything done," says John Lynch, 20, from Cincinnati with a double major in journalism and philosophy."We're not equal to heterosexuals in their eyes. There should be something in the [University of Dayton’s official] Non-Discrimination Policy [about gays] but it's not there," Lynch says. "They should institute policies and make sure all students are aware of them, make sure that discrimination is not accepted here."Homophobia is pretty frightening to those who aren't already out," says Lynch. "There are a number of people in B-GLAD who are not out. Who don't want to have to face the complete and total antagonism of the people around them. There's a fear that if we make a very large scene, people who are normally ambivalent about gays, by having their little world disturbed, will react violently."Many gay students have been forced by circumstances to become politically active in their campus community. They've had to speak and work and fight to just be on an equal footing with other students. Perhaps Kelly Driscoll, of the University of Dayton, summed it up best, "This is who I am. And, I have been through so much, so many challenges that their not liking me and their not wanting me isn't going to be enough to get rid of me."


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