A fresh crop of first-year students filed in for their first class of the semester yesterday morning. They are eager, expectant, excited to start their college careers. As I, their professor, stand in front of them, my mind wanders back to my own first day of college almost 30 years ago. Are these students thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same emotions that I did? For the gay students entering college, are their experiences anything like mine? Is it easier or more difficult for gay college students today?
When I entered my first college classroom, being gay was something that was hush-hush and hidden. There were no gay-straight student alliances, no gay role models or icons to emulate. Ellen had not yet appeared on the cover of Time announcing, "Yep, I'm Gay." Will & Grace had not aired. L, G, B, and T were just letters in the alphabet. I came into college knowing that I was gay, but I had never spoken the words aloud to anyone. I had no knowledge of what a "gay life" would include. I was away from home and my family for the first time and was prepared to "find myself," but what did that mean? I was vulnerable and felt alone. After a few months of secretly searching for help, I discovered a hotline for gay students and nervously dialed one night (and, yes, we had rotary phones back then). The boy on the other line listened and cared, and we set up a clandestine meeting for the next day. At the time, being gay was like being in a spy novel.
Today, gay issues, people, and events swirl around students on a daily basis. Many of them attended high schools that included gay student groups and programming. For today's gay college student, information about sexuality is just a mouse-click away. They have dealt with their sexuality at much younger ages. Some arrive at college fully out of the closet.
Is it better to be this open and aware? I had no perception of gay issues when I entered college, but is it better that today's 18-year-olds have heard horror stories like those of Matthew Shepard and Tyler Clementi? The threat to their own safety is present and real for them. They are acquainted with people who have been bullied and beaten because of their sexuality. They are familiar with Fred Phelps and his "God Hates Fags" signs, Chick-fil-A Appreciation Days, and ballot initiatives designed to revoke their rights. These gay students are out and may be proud, but America is much more openly hostile to gay people than in my college days. Back then, "gay" was a word that was whispered more than spoken. Today, it may be screamed loudly, but the backlash can be severe. Persistent, vocal, negative messages in the news or on campus may damage self-esteem and confidence at the time when a gay student is forging his or her personal identity.
I imagine a gay college student today shares some similar thoughts to mine from my college days: Should I tell my roommate? Will s/he accept me or freak out? Where do I find other gay students on campus? How "out" should I be? How "out" can I be and still be accepted? But today's world brings new challenges for these students. On Monday I spoke with a young woman who shared with me that although she is comfortable being out, she does not want to be categorized as the "gay kid" or the "lesbian down the hall." She is so much more than that, but the openness that we have come to accept in our society may lead to a diminishment of her identity. Because of labels and the persistence of stereotypes, she may have to fight harder to be who she is. She is able to be more "out" than I was in college, but does that make her life any easier?
My heart goes out to these gay students, because in spite of all the strides the gay community has made in recent decades, these kids are still struggling. I am thankful that today's gay students do not have to be secretive and uninformed, but I worry about them having to navigate their way through the contemporary, harsh pressure cooker that will be their four years in college. The out student today is required to be dauntless, defiant, impervious to judgment. When I was 18 and on my own for the first time, I did not possess this defense shield. I admire these students today, who can be so out and so strong, but I do not envy the turbulent and aggressive atmosphere that they live in.