In my high school, there was no such thing as an LGBT+ studies class. There was a sparsely populated Gay-Straight Alliance, which I didn’t gain the courage to join until my senior year. Once I started dating my girlfriend, I became hyper-aware of my actions. Being in the closet isn’t simply hiding–it’s constant vigilance to not tip someone off. Our relationship wasn’t completely hidden–select friends and family whom I could trust were in the know. Cape May as a whole is politically conservative, and the fear of rejection and social ostracization only fed into my ongoing anxiety. It wasn’t until senior year that I felt comfortable enough to let down my guard in regards to my relationship. I figured the majority of seniors knew anyway as gossip spreads like wildfire, and it wasn’t until graduation that we became the infamous “Facebook official.”
During the college selection process, one of my biggest priorities was finding a school that was respectful toward people of other orientations. Arcadia made the cut, along with a few other universities. What solidified my choice in Arcadia was Scarlet and Grey Day, when I had a fateful conversation with Professor Garcia, who at the time was the head of the Sociology Department. I went to the sociology panel, and I knew that the department fit me well, but did the social climate?
As Professor Garcia went around chatting and shaking hands with prospective students, I caught her attention and sheepishly asked her if she thought Arcadia was a friendly environment for gay students. She smiled and told me that she had been open with her partner since she began to teach here, and even though it may not be perfect, the Arcadia community has taken great strides to make people of all backgrounds welcome. And with that conversation, she made me feel welcome, too. Truthfully, I was in awe. I had never met a woman in my life who shared with me that aspect of my identity, let alone a professor. I know that there are other gay professors at other colleges, but the inexplicable feeling of support, reassurance, and comfort I gained from that conversation alone will always stay in my heart. I knew immediately that this was the university that was meant for me.
Now, in my second semester, I still feel just as welcome. I’ve had the awesome opportunity to take a class called “Coming Out,” which focuses not only on the coming-out stories of gay individuals, but also other topics such as mental illness, poverty, addiction, and similar issues. These past few weeks, our class has had panelists share their coming-out stories with us, so that later we can write profiles and create visual representations of their experiences for our “Coming Out Show.”
It has been an eye-opening experience. The courage of these panelists, all members of the Arcadia community, is inspiring. As they shared their stories, I found myself surprised every time, thinking “I would never have expected that to be their story.” It was the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” personified. The panels were not only a learning experience, but one of healing. Some of the panelists had never come out about their identity before, and I saw the nervousness in their eyes that I embodied every day through high school.
Coming out can be a liberating experience, and a frightening one. In my own life and the experiences of others, not everyone is fortunate to be received with a supportive reaction every time. It’s a risk that one needs to feel courageous enough to take, and brace for the consequences–good or bad–in exchange for liberty and validation. Coming out will always be nerve-wracking. But we do all have stories, some of which we might be afraid to tell. I’m so thankful that Arcadia gives us a welcoming community to share them.