I don’t think I could have imagined last fall just how challenging and, at times, frustrating returning to school would be once I actually set foot in class this January. After nearly four years of absence, I decided last fall to finish that elusive bachelor’s degree I put off when in September 2007 I was offered and accepted the position of editor at Charlotte’s QNotes.
Excitement and anticipation ruled the day in January and it continued throughout the semester, even as school and professional work piled on to make my life more stressful than it’s probably ever been. While I’ve enjoyed the renewed college experience (though my experience of “college life” is mighty different now that I’m a little older), I have one major, frustrating regret: I closeted myself.
Yes, me: Big queer activist since the age of 14; gay blogger and citizen journo since college; editor of an LGBT newspaper; volunteer and grassroots organizer; the “most ﬂamboyant, outspoken queer teen Winston-Salem had ever seen,” or so I wrote in my chapter in 2008′s “CRISIS: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America.”
It wasn’t an intentional closeting by any means. LGBT subjects — save ancient Greek pederasty, and I don’t think that counts — never came up in class; had they, I’d likely have spoken out. I simply went to class, took notes, studied for exams and left campus to head back to my office or home when the day was over. But, seemingly out of no where, I was forced to face prejudice and hate I hadn’t experienced first-hand since high school, or, at least, my earliest days in college.
“That proctor guy is a faggot,” the boy sitting behind me said of the young male student assisting our professor that day.
I, along with about 200 other students, sat in an auditorium-style classroom awaiting our instructor and her assistant as they prepared to administer our exam.
“Who?” the boy’s friend asked.
“That guy. That faggot. He’s been staring at us since we sat down. He’s a fag,” I overheard behind me, each instance of the slur stressed, pointed and dripping with hate.
I froze. I did and said nothing. My heart began beating faster.
“Should I turn around and say something?” I asked myself. “What would I say? How would I say it?”
It didn’t turn out to be a very good exam day for me. I panicked — memories from high school bullying flashing back to my head. It wasn’t until later that evening, once I was home and had related the day’s events to a friend, that I came up with what I thought could have been a witty response.
“The next time you call someone a faggot, make sure the person sitting in front of you isn’t one.”
I thought about putting it on the back of a T-shirt and wearing it the next time I had the same class. But, I decided to ignore the comment.
“I don’t need a confrontation in the middle of a class full of students,” I told myself.
I was lucky enough to be working with Campus Pride last fall when they released their landmark report, “The 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People.” The in-depth, first-of-its-kind study documents the experiences of some 6,000 LGBT students, faculty and staff across the nation’s institutions of higher education. Though much attention is often given to anti-LGBT bullying, harassment and discrimination in K-12 schools, and campaigns like “It Gets Better” promises good days to teens who simply “stick it out” ’til college, Campus Pride’s report drove home a sobering point: anti-LGBT harassment and prejudice doesn’t magically disappear once a student crosses the stage to receive their high school diploma.
I found myself reflected in Campus Pride’s various key findings (emphasis added):
- One quarter (23%) of LGBQ staff, faculty, and students reported experiencing harassment (defined as any conduct that has interfered with your ability to work or learn). Almost all identified sexual identity as the basis of the harassment (83%). An even greater percentage of transgender students, faculty, & staff reported experiencing harassment (39%) with 87% identifying their gender identity/expression as the basis for the harassment. The form of the harassment experiences by transgender people was more overt and blatant.
- One-third of LGBQ (33%) and transgender (38%) students, faculty, and staff have seriously considered leaving their institution due to the challenging climate.
- More than half of all faculty, students, & staff hide their sexual identity (43%) or gender identity (63%) to avoid intimidation.
- More than a third of all transgender students, faculty, & staff (43%) and 13% of LGBQ respondents feared for their physical safety. This finding was more salient for LGBQ students and for LGBQ and/or Transgender People of Color.
Why didn’t I ever say anything? What was it that scared and intimidated me so much? Shouldn’t a 25-year-old, outspoken gay man like me have had the courage to enforce my own zero tolerance attitude toward anti-gay harassment?
What happened to me in class this semester reminds me of my friend Brian Murphy’s similar challenges when dealing with families, friends and other close relationships:
I do not do that which I know I should do. She says something insulting and I let it slide. He calls me Peter’s “friend” and I don’t correct him. They make jokes which aren’t really funny and I chuckle enough to not attract attention. It seems that family, friends, and closer relationships impede the cause of justice by compromising our words and actions, by elevating relationships over rightness.
Such insecurity and uncertainty, as I can attest, isn’t limited to personal relationships. In my case, complete and perfect strangers stopped me dead in my tracks.
As my first semester back at school wraps up, I’ve determined to make a new resolution. When the fall semester rolls around and I again find myself in class, I’ll not let my inner meekness get the best of me. I’ll take a chance, gulp down a shot of courage and confront the bigotry and ignorance that will (hopefully not) drift my way.
All-in-all, though, the experience served as a mighty important personal lesson. No matter how comfortable I think I might be. No matter how accepting or welcoming an environment I think surrounds me and no matter how much I’ve nearly insulated my daily work and personal life with LGBT or LGBT-friendly people and causes, I’m never truly comfortable. There’s still an awful lot of work to do — in high schools and colleges, in neighborhoods, in states and in our country and world. Silence can’t be an option.