(THE PICKET) – More than a quarter century after lesbian and gay rights were celebrated with a march on Washington, Shepherd University continues to create a safe environment for the campus lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, or LGBTQ, community.
“More people come out in college than in any other time in their life,” said Mitchell Woolley, a senior sociology major and president of the campus Gay-Straight Alliances.
“For some people it’s the first time they can actually think for themselves,” Woolley said, “I started going to Allies before I came out to try to figure everything out.”
Shepherd GSA, or Allies, according to RamPulse, is “devoted to building an inclusive and accepting community on campus for all students, faculty, staff, and community members.”
Woolley said that attending Allies meetings is an eye-opening experience for some people.
“By coming to meetings people who are trying to come out have the experience of meeting more people like them,” Woolley said.
“For example, someone who is coming out as trans who has never met another trans person before will come to our meeting and meet someone who is trans and they can have that real connection with somebody else who knows where they’ve been and knows what they’re going through.”
According to the American Psychological Association, the term transgender, or trans, is an “umbrella term used for people whose gender identity, gender expression, or behavior doesn’t conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.”
Rhonda Jackson, a counselor and the organizer of Shepherd’s “Coming Out Panel,” said that overall she feels like Shepherd University is a supportive environment for members of the LGBTQ community.
“Although we have those incidences that are heart-breaking,” Jackson said, “I think that Shepherd and Shepherdstown is a pretty inclusive and supportive environment for the LGBTQ community. It’s certainly not perfect but I think primarily what I hear from folks in the community is that they feel safe and supported here.”
Every year, Jackson collaborates with Shepherd’s GSA to organize the annual “Coming Out Panel,” which took place on Oct. 14.
According to Jackson, the purpose behind the Coming Out Panel is to help Shepherd’s campus community understand more about the coming out process and how people have different experiences with it.
“I’ve been involved with the panel for the last seven or eight years,” Jackson said.
“I think people have this misconception that people just come out once and it’s done and don’t really understand that each time someone discloses to someone that they are from the LGBTQ community that it’s a coming out experience each and every time,” Jackson said.
The panel was made up of three GSA officers and one graduate student. According to Jackson, the main focus of the panel is to target nursing majors so they can better understand how to appropriately address and help someone who is under their care that identifies in diverse types of ways.
“I think when we hear somebody else’s story it helps us be more connected and more passionate and accepting and embrace diversity,” Jackson said.
Harrison Hatcher, a senior nursing student who attended the panel, said that he was glad he attended.
“I think it was cool to understand their perspective because the gay male on the panel said that we live in a hetero-normative culture which is where everyone assumes that everyone is straight or prefers the opposite gender and that impedes on all people as their experience as human beings.”
Although Hatcher was required to attend the panel for his major, he said that he thinks everyone should take the time to attend at least one similar event to broaden their horizons.
“One thing that stood out to me in particular was how the majority of the speakers had an experience where someone had ‘outed’ them to either their parents or someone else,” Hatcher said. “I think it’s really important to let people have their privacy.”
For freshmen students like Danielle and Buck who wished to not use their last names, GSA meetings are their “safe place.”
“I grew up in Western Maryland, which is very Republican and conservative, and we fought for years to have a GSA in my high school,” Buck, a chemistry major, said.
“It never happened because it was really unsafe for us to have one to begin with,” Buck said. “I got bullied a lot in high school and I got pushed down the stairs so we didn’t have one because of the safety concern.”
Danielle, a graphic design major, said that although she was home schooled through high school, she still had to deal with bullying.
“I actually had intended on going (to public school) one day until I heard this girl that I had a small crush on look at me and say ‘that’s disgusting’ and I didn’t want to go anymore.”
Both Buck and Danielle agreed that GSA is a necessary organization to have on college campuses.
“It gives people a sense of worth that they need because a lot of people don’t have that anywhere else,” Buck said.
Recently, the transgender community at Shepherd received threatening comments through “Yik-Yak”, a social media app that acts as a bulletin board that allows college students to anonymously post comments.
A study conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force showed that 20 percent of college students worry about their physical safety based on their gender identity or the sexual orientation.
In addition to GSA and the Coming Out Panel, Shepherd University also offers Safe Zone Workshops on campus for students, professors, administrators, and staff to become better allies to LGBTQ students and more aware of gender and sexuality identities and issues.
Emily Ewoldt, a graduate assistant for disability support, was one of the two facilitators for the workshop that took place on Sept. 29 and Sept. 30.
Ewoldt has been in Shepherd’s two-year graduate program since August of last year and has been working with her co-facilitator, Andrew Price, and Jose Moreno, the assistant dean of multicultural affairs, to organize Safe Zone projects.
“Andrew and I took a class this summer in our grad program called Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Higher Education,” Ewoldt said, “Andrew and I were the two facilitators and it was interesting to do but it turned out pretty well.”
Ewoldt said that although Shepherd has had a Safe Zone, it was time to retrain.
“I think just redoing the training every couple of years is important because just like any school, people come in and out so you want to refresh it and make it a priority on campus,” Ewoldt said.
“Shepherd is a pretty inclusive campus from the signage you see and I think that was something that really drew me here for grad school.”
Although the workshop was for campus faculty and staff, Ewoldt is hopeful that in the future there will be a workshop targeted for students.
“I think if we were to do a training for students and student leaders instead of staff, it would be a little different in terms of how we would tailor it but I think the message is the same,” Ewoldt said.
Jackson said she thinks Safe Zone Workshops for students is necessary too.
“I would love to see a Safe Zone training for students,” Jackson said, “I think the training is absolutely crucial for faculty and staff but I do feel like we need to open the dialogue more with our student population.”
For students like Danielle and Buck, having a “safe zone” or “safe place” on campus makes them feel like they can freely express who they are.
“Here at college I don’t feel like I have that much of a problem anymore,” Danielle said, “I feel more accepted. When I go to Allies, I feel like everyone loves everyone and it’s much more like a family than a group.”
“I think it’s important to know that even though there are people who struggle when they come out, there are people who accept you and coming out is something you’re going to have to do repeatedly throughout your life,” Danielle said, “everyone is going to react differently but I live for the people who react in the way of ‘I love you no matter what’.”
In honor of National Coming Out Day, Facebook posted a report documenting that 800,000 people came out on Facebook this year alone.
Shepherd’s Gay-Straight Alliance meets on Tuesday evenings from 6:30-7:30 in the Cacapon Room on the second floor of the Student Center and is open to all Shepherd University students and staff.
Hayley Butler is a staff writer for The Picket. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @haybutler.