Coming Into Safe Spaces for Coming Out
In honor of National Coming Out Day this Thursday, we’ve decided to run a series of blog posts from staff and volunteers about coming out. Our first one is from intern Ricky Carter.
I began my “coming out” process at the age of 13, although I don’t usually like to call it that. You see, I have a tendency to wear my identity on my sleeve ― I felt like it was unnecessary for me to come out, because I was kind of forced out by always being true to who I am. I always wanted to avoid the inevitable conversation with my dad; when we finally spoke about the pink elephant in the room, I was 18 and he had known for years. He took solace in this confirmation; I am very fortunate to have had a positive experience.
Luckily for me, I was brought up in a safe environment where being true to oneself was encouraged. When I got to the University of Florida, I immediately joined Pride Student Union, because I had an appetite to get involved in the movement ― attending a private Catholic high school will do that to you.
With a campus containing a population of over 50,000 students, the University of Florida, as a whole, seemed to me to be a pretty safe space. But, I had surrounded myself with like-minded individuals, and even though the campus is LGBT-inclusive, there will always be people who don’t believe in your very being.
Pride Student Union had a very small, often cluttered, office on the third floor of the student union, a low traffic area compared to the rest of the campus and the rest of the union. Offices up there were mainly used as meeting places for executive boards or for new students to discover student organizations. The office of Pride Student Union often served a separate function: the first place some would ever come out.
The first time I experienced a complete stranger coming out to me in that office, it threw me off. I was used to people walking by and refusing to look into the window, or the opposite, someone coming in to take a break from classes, looking to hang out. When someone walked in with instant tears running down their face and the doors closed behind them, I felt unprepared for this scenario but I was able to clear my shock quickly and be supportive.
After that moment, I became obsessed with the idea of having someone in that office from the moment that building opened to the moment it closed. The only other space was across campus, on a higher, unpopulated floor with few signs. I was afraid of what could happen if another stranger needed someone to come out to. We know that this can literally mean life and death to some students.
Colleges and universities have a responsibility to create safe, inclusive spaces for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students. They also have a responsibility to better understand other marginalized identities, such as those who are questioning, asexual, intersex, or pansexual.
How do we meet the needs of these students when such spaces are difficult to find even on LGBT-inclusive campuses, especially when some can’t even feel safe walking into a bathroom? For starters, there should be more explicit dialogue during orientation. Many campuses touch on LGBT issues, but don’t really discuss different scenarios. Instructors can do something as simple as add a paragraph about an open door policy for LGBT students to their syllabi. Administration should participate in LGBT events and aim to create larger safe spaces that students don’t need to feel shy about entering into. Creating gender neutral bathrooms has been a topic of debate for many campuses, but can really help. Make them happen! Finally, it’s important that every campus have a place where people know it’s safe to come out.
Visibility is key for the LGBT community, and you can’t see with the lights turned off. Keep them on.