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In the closet: Some students mask LGBTQ identities at Whitman

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Graphic by Katie Berfield

Junior Marcos Garza* is in many ways a typical Whitman student:  he’s studious, a member of a fraternity and active in campus clubs. Yet there’s a part of him that only a small number of his friends know about:

“I guess, to tell you, I’m gay,” he says hesitantly.

Garza’s experience of being in the closet at Whitman may not be as atypical as it seems. While Whitman is a purportedly accepting campus––one of only 33 colleges in the country to earn a perfect five-star rating from “Campus Pride”‘s 2011 rankings of LGBT-friendly colleges––there are also many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students who do not feel comfortable coming out.

Given that closeted students are not out, it is hard to know exactly how many are at Whitman. Three spoke with The Pioneer for this article, all on the condition of anonymity. Several people wrote of their private struggles with being gay or with questioning their sexuality for last November’s PostSecret exhibition in Reid Campus Center. And three came to the counseling center during the 2010-11 school year with sexual orientation or gender identity issues as their presenting problem, though Associate Dean of Students and Counseling Center Director Rich Jacks cautions that students may wait until after a few sessions when they trust a counselor to bring these topics up.

Closeted students said they often experience subtle cues that hold them back, such as seeing a friend be surprised when two guys make out at a party or hearing jokes that call into question people’s masculinity. Jack Pikes*, a first-year student who knows he is not straight and thinks he is bisexual, was hanging out with two close friends earlier this year when one of them expressed frustration at Whitman’s atmosphere of political correctness.

“Basically he was talking about making racist or gay jokes, and how he’s had to cut back on them, especially because there’s a gay guy in my section,” he said. “These are supposedly the people I should be comfortable around and that if I told them ‘I’m gay’ or ‘I’m bi’ that they would love me for who I am.”

Stopping at political correctness can be a limiting factor in making LGBTQ students feel comfortable. Assistant Professor of Politics and GLBTQ advisor Susanne Beechey said that Whitman students often tolerate sexual orientation and gender diversity rather than embrace it.

“There may not be a lot of homophobia or overt slurs, although there’s still some, but that’s not the same as acceptance,” she said. “That may create another barrier for folks in that they may not feel accepted [by roommates or communities on campus], so they have to push against the idea that Whitman is accepting when that doesn’t match the experience they’re having.”

However, there are times when Whitman does provide the kind of affirming environment that supports closeted students. Junior Jake Thompson* is transgender and prefers to dress in female clothes, but only does so about twice per week in the privacy of his own room, as he is not out to anyone––including his girlfriend––about his gender identity. But for one night a year during Dragfest, Coalition Against Homophobia’s annual cross-dressing dance, Thompson feels comfortable enough to wear his preferred clothing in public.

“You don’t have to be afraid, and nobody assumes that that’s what you do,” Thompson said. “I found out that it was an event before I came here. I’m not going to say that it was something that swayed me to go here, but I definitely perked up.”

Thompson, who has known that he is transgender since he was 12, fears that a reaction would be markedly different any other day of the year.

“A lot of people have slip ups,” he said. “I think coming out would spread really quickly; it’s a small campus. I think people would talk; I think it could be pretty nasty.”

Garza also found himself being cautious.

“I try not to put myself in positions where, you know, you have to identify yourself as gay or straight. Like when guys talk about girls and stuff like that,” he said.

Pikes found himself being careful in a different way. Even though he knows he is not straight, he wants to be sure of exactly what his sexual orientation is before coming out, especially since friends and family do not suspect he is anything but.

“It’s almost like if I brought it up, they’d think I was kidding,” he said. “I kind of just wish I could talk with someone on my floor, in my section. And I’m sure I could . . . I just feel like if I were to tell . . . friends or family, I’d want to be more sure about it.”

Pikes said he does plan to come out while at Whitman, and has taken steps toward that goal by meeting with a GLBTQ student intern and going to the counseling center. Thompson said he does not think he will come out at Whitman.

Garza had started to come out at Whitman by going to a few GLBTQ and Coalition meetings and telling half a dozen of his fraternity brothers. However, he felt tension with his cultural upbringing and ultimately halted the coming out process.

“I feel like I still need to struggle a little bit in order to come out,” he said. “I came from a place where it’s not okay to be like this, and to come to a place like Whitman where it’s okay, it kind of twists feelings, and I really don’t know how to deal with it.”

The way he has dealt with it thus far is to focus more on academics and avoid thinking or talking about his sexual orientation––he said he hadn’t talked about it in almost a year-and-a-half. Though he hopes to eventually come out to his family, he no longer plans to come out at Whitman.

Beechey wonders whether students in the closet have the institutional support they need in order to come out.

“There’s not a clear infrastructure for students who may be struggling to know where they might go . . . . I think one of the places where Whitman could be better is that we don’t have a staff person in student services who is dedicated to LGBTQ issues,” she said, noting that some students may be reluctant to talk about these issues with a professor.

Sophomore Molly Simonson can attest to the lack of guidance. She came out as bisexual last fall, but wasn’t aware of resources such as GLBTQ or the counseling center during her first year.

“I [di]dn’t really know who to talk to at Whitman,” she said. “There’s also this idea that going to the counseling center is for serious problems, and I don’t know that I would have felt that it was a big enough psychological issue, and I didn’t know that you could go there for anything.”

Sarah Gremer, assistant director of residence life and housing, is looking to improve resources for LGBTQ students. She is spearheading a Trained Ally program to provide the skills to be a resource about LGBTQ issues. About 35 people are expected to come to the first training tonight; she hopes to offer trainings every semester.

“The training . . . probably makes [closeted students] feel good, makes them feel like they have people who they can go to and want to support them,” she said.

Little touches like these can go a long way.  Pikes was encouraged by the dialogues from the first-years’ gender and sexuality workshop and the recent publication of the “Queering” zine, while Thompson was thankful for the school’s initiative for gender-neutral bathrooms, and said he used the bathrooms whenever convenient.

Simonson said she saw more of these little touches after coming out.

“I did become more aware of other people who did identify as GLB and who do have experience talking to people who do identify as that,” she said. “It’s not that visible, ’cause most people don’t go around saying ‘I have a gay best friend, talk to me!'”

Thompson noted that, while he wishes he had more role models, and often feels guilt about his gender identity, he still finds the support at Whitman to be encouraging.

“I have a really solid support group, even if I didn’t tell them, even if I just said I’m having a bad day, they’re there with me,” he said. “The future’s still pretty uncertain with what I choose to do, but I feel better about it, definitely, since coming here.”

* Name has been changed

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In the closet: Some students mask LGBTQ identities at Whitman