Being queer in Student Affairs at times doesn’t seem like an abnormal occurrence. I remember sitting in a graduate class of twenty with two gay classmates beside me. But, as the old adage goes, “it’s all fun and games until…” Until you’re the only out staff member around? Until you feel threatened by your identity? Until you worry about how your new, budding professional life will be if you come out. How colleagues, administration, and students will view you and treat you.
I crossed a line when I came out to my new staff in my first professional position – literally. We were doing a team builder where you stepped over a line, then turned to face those on the other side if you identified with the phrase that was just read. When “Step over the line if you are the youngest in your family” was called out, I dutifully stepped over, and upped the stakes when called to step over if I knew someone with a mental illness. Then at the very end of the team builder my feet moved independently, and I stepped over the line when the question of an LGBT identity was called. I turned to look at my brand new staff I had met a day earlier, and saw the looks register on their faces and others down the line. It was the first time I had come out publicly anywhere, and as time has passed, I have been both happy and not, in my out-identity.
My sexual orientation is a central part of my identity, as strong as my identity as a proud Texan, a huge literature nerd, or as a blonde. Yet no one has ever asked me to hide where I was from, pretend that I didn’t read so much, or change my hair color. Yet I, and other professionals I know, have been reprimanded and advised on matters of orientation many times. A necktie on a woman earning sneers, being told to be careful about how people might react to your orientation, to NEVER let an interviewer know that you are LGBTQ, and you should not be out if you do not want students to always come to you with their issues, or that you should not speak to students who you do not have usual contact with as they are not your“responsibility”. These are just a few examples of a larger issue that is not uncommon.
One of the best things that has come from my being out on campus is the trust students have for me. I have had a number who have confided their own identity struggles, or encouraged their friends to come speak to me. On the various campuses I have visited and worked at, I have rarely come against students that have had an issue with my identity, but I have found a number of professionals that do. I am left wondering how we can support students if we cannot support professionals in the same way.
There are many different environments and cultures across our institutions, some liberal, some conservative. But we in Student Affairs should be a place of acceptance, a place where people can find a safe harbor, both students and employees. The safe haven of equality that we promise to our students should be extended to all who walk our campus, faculty, staff, administrators, and students. We need to be the model for our campuses, and help guide the change from within; our institutions and we, can only benefit.
I have chosen to live an out life, it’s a promise I made to myself and to the students who I know need someone to see themselves in. I do not wear a button that proclaims “I’m a lesbian” (though I have been tempted) but there is a picture of my partner on my desk, and a rainbow PRIDE bracelet on my office shelf. I take pride in who I am, the university I work for (conservative and exceedingly welcoming), and in the students I have met. Pride is special in that it is a movement that begins inside, and shines to where all can see it on the outside. In our offices, we need to start having pride, we need to start that glow from the inside where everyone outside the office, then outside the university, can see. We have the ability to start taking pride in all different types of diversity, not just LGBTQ students, staff and faculty. So start celebrating and accepting those that are different, and have pride in those around you.