Last August, my office decided for the first time to include LGBTQ Safe Space training as a Welcome Week program. Although the number of attendees wasn’t as large as I’d hoped, the training was well received and I was content that good learning had taken place. We had just finished when a young woman spoke up. She’d been a great participant, actively engaged, thoughtful, vulnerable, even outing herself as pansexual in the process. At some point during the training, I noticed that she was studying me with a subtle degree of curiosity. Now she just had to ask:
“I think I remember you from Orientation.”
Yes, I said, you saw me at Orientation.
“But… you were talking about… religion?” The tone in her voice was uncertain, incredulous, confused.
I smiled, and explained that yes, I’m the Spiritual Director for the university, and that my role involves many areas: Spirituality, Gender and Sexuality, and Multiculturalism. Her eyes got big, and her face brightened with amazement, admiration, and hope.
“I’ve never met anyone in a position of authority who was out before!”
The weight of her words hit me with an unexpected force, and I had to choke back tears.
Looking at me, no one ever guesses that I’m part of the LGBTQ+ community. I’m a cisgender bisexual woman married to a cisgender male. I “read” to most people as straight, both because bi erasure is a very real thing, and because they assume that anyone who works in religion is more than likely homophobic. And so, as is the case with many of us in the bi community, coming out for me is far from a one-time thing. It’s an ongoing process, and something I take seriously. It began as a way to make sure that LGBTQ+ students who were wary of coming to a Spiritual Life office — and who could blame them, given how much hate spews from supposedly religious people? — would know that mine is a safe and welcoming space. Over the years, as I grew more at ease with my own identity, I came to understand the larger importance of being out.
To be out and proud is to be vulnerable, revolutionary, defiant. It is to dare to be our true selves in a world which still tells us every day that we are not wholly welcome. Micro- and macroaggressions abound, even within our own community. Transphobia, biphobia, asexual erasure — the list goes on and on. Safe spaces are vitally important when we find them. They offer us refuge from the storm.
Then there are days like today. Days where we are vividly, violently reminded of the dangers around us, and that even our safe spaces aren’t always safe and can be breached in a moment’s notice.
Marriage equality may be the law of the land, and well meaning but uninformed non-LGBTQ+ people may see this as a sign that our struggle is over, but we know the truth. In the face of discrimination, persecution, and even death for simply being ourselves, community is crucial. When we hurt, where do we turn? Who understands us, our pain, our fears? LGBTQ+ student organizations are wonderful and important, but we cannot leave it to students to always and only find support among themselves. They also may not be a realistic resource for students who are struggling to come to terms with their identity, or who feel unwelcome, or who cannot risk being outed or even seen as an ally. As student-centered spaces, they also do not serve our colleagues. Unless we’re at a rare campus that has an LGBTQ+ affinity group, we pro staff have no corresponding groups where we can find support.
Trusted out staff and faculty are critical in times like these, when students and colleagues are hurting, soul-weary, and afraid. Our visibility matters. Living our truth matters. Whether we want to be or not, we are role models. And we need each other. Recently, I shared my coming out story on another site; in response, a colleague told me, “Stories like yours matter so much to those of us who haven’t found the voice to tell ours yet.”
I mourn the scores of lives lost to hate. I also feel tremendous love and gratitude for the many LGBTQ+ Student Affairs colleagues in my life, in whom I’ve found solace. And in honor of those who cannot yet do so, I’ve renewed my commitment to living my life boldly and with full authenticity long after June ends.