Speaking up about coming out
Alums and current students describe lack of gay culture at Santa Clara
By Katie Powers
Originally published: 1/29/09 at 2:07 AM PST
Last update: 1/29/09 at 2:22 AM PST
When alumna Jennifer Jigour walked up to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance table at her first club fair, it was the first time she could look at someone and know they were gay, too.
Upon joining the group, she imagined a sea of gay and lesbian people where she could find both support and dates. Though the dating option wasn’t quite what she had imagined, she did find that support.
Jigour, a panelist at Wednesday’s “Coming out and coming back” panel, was one of five alumni who are out who came back to share their experiences of being gay, lesbian and bisexual at Santa Clara.
Each alumnus had a different story to share with the audience in the St. Clare room, with subjects ranging from making the classroom more inclusive to when they felt most threatened on campus.
Juan Carlos Guzman, a 2004 graduate, said about staying in the closet, “I wouldn’t want anyone here to do the same thing I did. It’s dangerous. When you isolate yourself and internalize those feelings, it’s damaging.”
Kelli Dragovich didn’t come out until after she graduated in 2000. During her time here she was busy playing a sport and in a relationship with a man. Her senior year she had a secret relationship with a female friend.
“It was a secret that still haunts me. I just don’t think that it’s fair,” she said. “That’s part of the reason why I’m here is to come to peace with that. You can’t turn back the clock, but you can help others.”
For the most part, the panelists agreed that they were safe at Santa Clara. Most of the struggle was internal, some said.
Amber Cameron, a 2005 graduate, said at Santa Clara she felt safe, but at the same time was uncomfortable. She said when she began dating a woman her sophomore year, she felt isolated from her friends.
“It’s not something to talk about or be open about. I felt pretty uncomfortable being here,” she said.
Manuel Perez, class of 2004, described the one time he felt unsafe on campus. His senior year, five students, all of whom were gay and Latino, received hateful e-mails with homophobic and racial remarks.
“For the first time, I realized I’m not as safe as I thought,” he said.
The panel, hosted by resident director David Daniels, began as a training workshop for community facilitators. However, upon receiving positive feedback, Daniels decided to open another panel session to the rest of campus.
Santa Clara students are still dealing with the same issues of coming out and being open in such a small community. Some of the issues the panelists described to an audience of about 60 members still face gay, lesbian and bisexual students.
What dating scene?
When Nick Sanchez logged onto Facebook one day, he found a friendship request from a male student he didn’t know. Intrigued, he accepted. A few weeks later, the student sent him a message explaining why he requested Sanchez’s friendship without meeting him.
It read, “Oh hey, sorry about the random add. You probably don’t know who I am, but I thought you might beâ?¦” Sanchez knew the missing word from that messageÂ — gay. The sender wrote that maybe Sanchez wanted to hang out.
Sanchez was impressed with the courage this student had to take the initiative. He responded that he would love to hang out, including, “Yes, I am gay. I am assuming you are as well? Either way, that’s fine too.”
A few weeks passed without a reply. When a response came, the tone had changed. He wasn’t really into labels, he wrote, adding a vague remark about maybe seeing Sanchez around.
Recalling the situation, Sanchez’s brown eyes shift. “I don’t want to say he chickened out,” he says, “But (he) recoiled.”
At a school just 40 minutes away from one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, being gay is tolerated, but some lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) students feel it could be better.
The university promotes increasing ethnic and cultural diversity, but the LGBT community at Santa Clara is an often-neglected minority group looking for acceptance.
Staff psychologist Don Capone said there are reasons to be optimistic.
“The campus seems to be increasingly receptive and hospitable to discussion about same-sex attraction and about people who are in same-sex relationships,” he said.
But even the active participants in the LGBT community are unsure. Aaron Cator, a youthful and earnest junior, sits across from me on a couch, his blue eyes bloodshot from a night of late studying, expressing frustration as a gay student.
“Although Santa Clara preaches itself as an intellectual progressive community, I think in some ways, it’s very backward,” he says. “It preaches this notion of a compassionate community where we’re diverse in race, gender and sexual orientation, but I feel like this school really struggles in that.”
Cator winced as the baseball whizzed by, just missing his face.
Last winter, Cator was walking to Domicilio apartments along the sidewalk by the baseball stadium with two friends when a baseball was thrown at him from a moving car. A group of male students driving by had thrown it. Bewildered, Cator turned around and saw the car screech on its breaks, turn around and drive back by him. They yelled “faggot” one more time before speeding away in their sedan.
The three friends stood in shock. “It’s like, oh my god, we’re in the Bay Area,” says Cator. “This shouldn’t be happening.”
It was one of those moments, Cator said, when he knew being gay wasn’t accepted here.
“There’s homophobia everywhere. Why would we be immune?” said Professor Linda Garber, director of the women and gender studies department. “Homophobia is very real, and it’s still happening.”
Capone said homophobia can be clear and hurtful. Using the word “gay” as a synonym for dumb, Capone says, can be equally if not more damaging than language like “fag” or “dyke” because it sends a message that some groups should be seen as inferior.
Another aspect Capone mentioned was the suspicion that people are gay. “When students are suspected for being gay, they might feel an increased sense of isolation,” he said. It’s not saying cruel things, but being set apart from the dominant group in an obvious way, that affects these students.
Stepping out of the closet
“When you’re in the closet, you feel inferior. You feel like it’s not your place and you don’t deserve to be out and treated equally with straight people,” Sanchez says. “We’ll always be sort of second class.”
In 9th grade, Ricky Alexander realized that he was gay and not a one-of-a-kind abnormality. But he was terrified. He closed himself off from the world. He had no close friends, because he figured they would ask which girls he liked. The thought of that mortified him.
When Alexander arrived Santa Clara, he again isolated himself. He didn’t develop any close friendships and spent most of his time in his room. He was gaining weight, and subconsciously, he knew he was doing it to push people away.
In his junior year, Alexander studied abroad on the Scholarship, a ship that took about 200 international students around the world. For the first time, he felt liberated. In a mixture of tears and laughter, he came out to a friend in the program.
The psychology of being in the closet is hard for heterosexuals to fathom. The fear of losing the perception of belonging to the majority group can be one of the biggest fears, said Capone.
But the list of fears doesn’t stop there: There’s the fear of rejection, the fear of loss of admiration, the fear of abandonment and rejection from friends and family.
“There can be feelings of guilt, because essentially we’re all programmed from an early age to sort of try to meet society and our families’ expectations,” said Capone.
“It really just depends on what the level of trust and safety in particular relationships, particular environments,” Capone said, “because we’re not in a world where it is safe to be out no matter where you are .”
The first week back at Santa Clara, Alexander knew he would have to change people’s perceptions of him. At first, it was difficult, but then he started to get the hang of reaching out. He joined Fine by Me and GASPED.
Now you would never believe Alexander was the same, reclusive person he portrays himself as before going on the ship. Extremely chatty, warm and endearingly sincere, Alexander transformed after coming out. It changed his life.
Ricky says he sees people around campus who are going through the same thing he did. It’s hard, he says, because he can’t just grab people he knows and talk to them, because if someone had done that to him, it would have been the worst thing ever.
“There are definitely a lot of people in closet who are on their own journeys,” he says. “I want to be available for people so they know they can talk to me and come out to me.”
And you don’t even have to talk — these days, Ricky is always up for singing to the Spice Girls.
“I missed all those years in high school. I missed friends in general,” he says. “Every once in awhile I remind myself I can be totally goofy. Now it’s like, I can listen to the Spice Girls, and I just want to dance to it!”
In a relationship
People were playing beer pong in the corner. Music was playing loudly. It was a party. Kristen Fry* and Samira Howard* were dancing and kissing like any normal couple. But a guy wouldn’t leave them alone.
“Two drunk girls making out! Can I join?” he spatters.
It’s not exactly like that.
The two women have been in a relationship since their freshmen year, but when they are out at night, they are often mistaken for drunk girls kissing for attention.
“If we go out to a party, guys definitely assume we’re on display, and they don’t take us seriously at all. We don’t get the same respect that any other heterosexual couple would,” said Fry.
At a table at Frozo’s, Fry brushes her curly brown side-ponytail that sweeps over her shoulder and leans against the bland white wall. Sitting beside her is Howard. They fondly recall when it all started.
“It started as random attractions that we didn’t really know what to do with,” Howard explains. “We started joking with ‘Oh my god we’re soul mates, too bad we’re not attracted to each other.'”
Fry affectionately brushes Howard’s shoulder.
“After a few months of hardcore denial, and then after a while, it gets to the point where you can’t really deny it anymore. You have to address it,” Howard says.
Even after they first kissed, neither wanted to admit it meant anything more than frustration with the opposite sex.
Fry says, “We were like, ‘Oh, we’re just bored, but then we’d go into our own rooms and think ‘I’m attracted. Is she attracted back?'”
Once they grappled with their feelings, they only acted like a couple behind a closed door. “It put so much pressure on our relationship,” Howard says.
Fry agrees. “It was really isolating.”
It took a few months after the pair had made their relationship official before they had the courage to tell their friends.
Their friends had mostly good reactions, except for one. “She was very religious, very conservative,” Fry says. “She basically told us we were going to hell, but she was still super nice to us. She was more worried, out of concern.”
A minority on campus
When Paul Whaley walks in on Thursday nights for the Fine by Me Meetings, it’s the one time a week where he can guarantee he won’t be the only gay person in a room.
Not that this is a problem — it’s just a fact. In his freshman year, he was the only out gay man in his residence hall. He was the first gay friend for a lot of his Santa Clara friends.
It’s OK to be gay here, Whaley says, but no one actually is.
He doesn’t mean this literally, of course. But he sees a discrepancy between the number of people who are out and open with their sexuality and those who probably would identify as he does.
“Obviously you can’t admit more homosexuals because that’s a box you check or anything you’d want to check,” says Cator, “but I wish there was a more prevalent gay community.”
The number of LGBT students at Santa Clara is impossible to quantify, but National Gay and Lesbian National Task Force estimates that 3 to 5 percent of the U.S. population identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
There are groups for LBGT students. There is GASPED, GALA (also known as Fine By Me) and Spectrum, a support group that meets weekly. But over the years, the popularity of these groups fluctuates. The small size of the community affects other parts of college life. For one thing, the dating options are scant, to be sure.
Fry thinks the LGBT community here is fairly invisible.
“I don’t think most people have any idea how prevalent it is,” she said. “When they’re walking to class they don’t think about it. But there is a good number of people they walk by everyday that are in same-sex relationships or have those attractions.”
When I ask Sanchez about the gay dating scene here, he laughs.
“What gay dating scene?”
Sanchez tells me a story from his freshman year. He met a guy at a Halloween party. They were hanging out, talking, drinking and dancing. By the end of the night, they had kissed.
But afterward, he grabbed Sanchez and said, “You better not tell anyone about this.”
Gay students at Santa Clara feel more invisible here than in the world outside of Santa Clara.
“I feel like part of the college experience is preparing yourself for the real world,” Cator says, “and I feel like homosexuality in today’s world is such an issue and is going to continue to be an issue.”
He pauses, “I think it’s a shame we don’t reflect today’s contemporary society in a more true fashion.”
*Editor’s note: Two of the names in this story have been changed to maintain the students’ privacy.
Contact Katie Powers at (408) 554-4546 or firstname.lastname@example.org.