Out on Campus

Bethel SGR members Nadalie Poole, Sabrina Fiester, Mark Edinger, Bekah Schneider, and Megan Urness. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Fiester.
Bethel SGR members Nadalie Poole, Sabrina Fiester, Mark Edinger, Bekah Schneider, and Megan Urness. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Fiester.
Ah, college—the “best years of your life.” Whether you’re looking to start school, are currently a college student, or can fondly reminisce about college times gone by, one important aspect of college is finding your identity and sharing it with others. Depending on the school, being out on campus can be liberating, exciting, or downright scary. But one thing is certain: being out and proud allows people to form a sense of community, provide support for others, and work to improve the experiences of GLBT people on campus. The following staff, faculty, and graduating students came out and spoke out about their experiences on campus and everything they’ve done to make college campuses into more welcoming environments.

Thomas Haakenson from Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Photo courtesy of Thomas Haakenson.

Thomas Haakenson
Minneapolis College of Art and Design
As the Chair of and full Professor in the Liberal Arts Department at Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), Thomas Haakenson enriches students’ experiences in the classroom by reminding students that he is simply human. “Sharing information about my personal life, including my same-sex relationships, is always an important part of humanizing myself to my students. I do not do it aggressively nor immediately, but only gradually. Sharing my sexuality is a personal matter, but I share information about myself in a professional and comfortable way so that my students see me as I try to see them: complex, multi-dimensional, caring, loving beings.”Haakenson feels fortunate to work in such a welcoming environment where “the GLBT population is supported by the whole community.” For Haakenson, this support comes especially from the personal connections he builds with students. Haakenson notes, “Studies have shown that college students actually learn more if they see their professors as humans, rather than one-dimensional individuals who only exist in a classroom or during an office hour.”But what is most exciting, he believes, is that students are creating clubs that “focus on particular forms of cultural expression independent of sexuality, race, or class…these groups allow the institution, its students, and its community to transcend issues of sexual identity in ways that are quite productive, if often indicative of a younger generation who more readily accepts non-heterosexual relationships.”

Haakenson advises students to be open with their sexuality despite any fears of losing family or friends. “I have found great friendships and even more supportive family members by opening up to these individuals. They know more about me…and feel I’ve invested more in them, too.”

Finally, for people in the work force, Haakenson notes, “The job market is a tough place right now, so don’t think that hiding your sexuality is going to make finding a job easier. It’s tough for everyone. But a job isn’t the only thing you should be thinking about or living for. Sometimes the best way to make the world a better place is by making small, everyday gestures of kindness. Smile at people more. Be friendly. Say ‘thank you’ a lot. Hug. Karma has a way of finding you, and thanking you for it.”

Jessica Flatequal from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Photo courtesy of Jessica Flatequal.

Jessica Flatequal
Minnesota State University, Mankato
When thinking about GLBT-friendly colleges, many colleges outside of the Twin Cities tend to get overlooked. One college that’s impossible to overlook is Minnesota State University in Mankato. MNSU Mankato has the second-oldest GLBT organization in the nation and was voted by The Advocate as one of the top 100 campuses in the nation for GLBT students.

As a long-time resident of Mankato, Jessica Flatequal knows how important it is for the GLBT community to have resources and support in a smaller town. Now the Director of GLBT Services at MNSU Mankato, Flatequal works to educate the campus on GLBT issues and provides support for the GLBT community, encouraging students to “tote their rainbows.” Flatequal truly feels that the MNSU community is very supportive. “I feel like my work here is supported by the President of our college, and I feel a lot of support on the campus for the work we do. I don’t have to spend a lot of time justifying what we do. People seem to understand our purpose and really be on board with it.”

MSU Mankato offers several unique programs to better service the GLBT community. Flatequal notes, “A lot of the work we do is based on educating the whole campus.” A mentor program allows students newly-out or questioning students to meet up with currently out students. Flatequal hopes to spread the message that students aren’t alone, especially in the college environment.  Another group, Being Ethnic And Queer (BEAQ), focuses on the intersection of sexuality and race. Not only does Flatequal plan programming for the GLBT community and its allies, but she also runs one program that actually focuses on informing perpetrators of harassment in order to promote tolerance and acceptance.

Flatequal feels fortunate to work in the college environment. “I have the privilege of sometimes finding students in a really dark place, and I get to be a part of their growth and their coming out. For so many students, they become active in our center; they go on to do their own positive activism in their communities wherever they end up. I’m just so proud of their journey that I got to be a part of.”

For students who are applying to colleges, Flatequal recommends that they do their homework. “Going off to college is scary enough, and if you have these extra things you’re going to have to work through, you might as well go to a place where you know you’re going to be supported. It will help your college career greatly, and you need to feel safe where you’re at. Find the place that’s right for you and all the parts of your identity.”

Finally, it’s important for people to find the environments they want to be in and shape it to work for them. Flatequal says, “You don’t have to be in the big city to feel valued or be who you are.”

Linnea Stenson from Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Photo courtesy of Linnea Stenson

Linnea Stenson
Minneapolis Community and Technical College

As the Associate Vice President for Acadamic Affairs and an academic dean at MCTC, Linnea Stenson shows her support for the GLBT community by being out and open about her sexuality. With such a huge leadership role at the college, Stenson stresses how important it is to be proud of her identity. “It’s important for all of us who are able to do so to be out. I never made any attempt to be anybody other than who I was. I went into my interview my butch self. It was a brave choice for the college to bring me there.”

MCTC is a very welcoming community, and Stenson notes that young people really appreciate faculty and staff who are out on campus.  Stenson encourages people who feel comfortable being out to be out and advocate for the GLBT community. She says, “I have had young people come up and say thank you for being out there…you never know how just living your life can such an effective and positive thing for young people.” She also suggests that GLBT students research prospective schools for GLBT support services and make connections with student groups in order to find support.

For students graduating from college or others who are in the process of finding jobs, Stenson notes “The job market is really rough…but don’t be afraid to ask for informational interviews in places where you think you might want to work. You can figure out if organizations have GLBT affinity groups. It can be hard to do the cold call, but I really recommend that people ‘screw their courage to the sticking place’ and make the calls. Those people, I find, are very generous with their time. They will take the time to talk to someone who’s interested in the field or the company.”

Finally, Stenson advises people to “remember to breathe, wag your tail as much as you can, be grateful for what you have, and help others where you can.” As for her own life, she definitely walks her talk.

Matthew Antonio Bosch from University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Photo by Sophia Hantzes.

Matthew Antonio Bosch
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

As the new Director of GLBT Ally Programs office, Matthew Antonio Bosch’s main goal is to train people at the U, host events, and get other University offices to participate in institutional change work that improves the experiences of GLBT students. He notes that the “biggest one is that now we have trans-inclusive student health benefits. On the University of Minnesota’s student benefit plan, there are now provisions that remove the exclusion of transgender individuals. Previously, the plan was not as open as it could be for people of all gender. Now there are different services available. This is huge for us.”

Bosch can’t stress enough how welcoming the U of M is for GLBT folks. He says, “I’m really unapologetic about being out.” Not only can people comfortably be out on campus, but there are countless resources available for every GLBT-related issue under the sun. There are 40-plus GLBT groups or initiatives at the U of M, and the resources are not limited to University students. “We will get calls from all over, people who want to know about resources.”

In Bosch’s opinion, students should get connected quickly to GLBT support groups and become acclimated with the services provided at a college. “You don’t always necessarily have to come out because sometimes that’s risky. Be aware of your surroundings. But get connected to folks so when something does happen…you have someone to talk to. If you’re in an environment that makes you feel uncomfortable, make sure you have numbers to call and people you can contact.”

Bosch also encourages people to ask future employers lots of questions, particularly about domestic partnership benefits, the GLBT environment, and any harassment policies they have. He also urges people to “Be unapologetic about who you are. Just go. Be yourself. There’s nothing else you can do. I want students to not second-guess themselves and not second-guess their identities.”

Angela Nichols, Chancellor Black, Paula Pedersen, Helen Mongan-Rallis. Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota, Duluth.

Paula Pedersen and Helen Mongan-Rallis
University of Minnesota, Duluth
As Professors in the Education and Psychology departments at University of Minnesota, Duluth, Helen Mongan-Rallis and Paula Pederson are active in GLBT programming on campus as well as including discussion of GLBT issues in their classrooms. While Pederson teaches psychology courses such as Human Sexuality and Gender in Society, Mongan-Rallis incorporates issues of GLBT adolescent development into her education courses in hopes to give future teachers the tools to be allies. One thing that drew Mongan-Rallis to UMD was a clause included in the discrimination policy that protected GLBT people.
Initially not open about her sexuality, Mongan-Rallis submitted an anonymous entry into a public journal that she was a new faculty member who was afraid to come out as a lesbian. “A student appealed to me. She said, ‘Please, if you can,  be out as a lesbian faculty member. It would mean an enormous amount, not just to GLBT students but to all. We desperately need role models and need to know we are not alone.’ It had an enormous impact on me. I realized how important it was for those of us who were in a position of privilege to be out.” Pederson notes that her work with students is  a “reminder of how much of a struggle it can be for young people still today in 2012!  I can lose sight of that reality and the students help me to realize the privilege I have–as well as my need to at times be more intentional and overt in the queer parts of me for their sake.  At times, simply being comfortable and normalized is NOT enough to help them to feel seen and honored. I have countless students who have lived major parts of their journey to sexual identity discovery and congruency in their four years at UMD.  Witnessing the blossoming of their identities is powerful (sometimes painful) and an honor.”

Mongan-Rallis wants students to know that “I will stand beside them every step of the way.” She encourages everyone to live in a way that is as real as possible, and live according to one’s own principles–not someone else’s image. Mongan-Rallis and her partner raise their daughter in this manner, and ten-year-old Kaitlin has chosen to be open and active in the equal marriage rights movement without any pushing from her mothers.

Pederson offers a message of acceptance and hope for students. “Realize that your classmates come from a variety of different places and experiences around difference. Allow them their journey of discovery and understanding as well. If we can ALL try harder to meet one another with compassion, curiosity, and a true willingness to listen, learn and understand – I think that some of the problems that college students face around difference would be able to be managed a bit more easily.”

Trung Nguyen from Hamline University. Photo by Mike Hnida.

Trung Nguyen, Studio Art Major/Art History Minor
Hamline University

Taking advantage of the positive and comfortable environment of Hamline University, Senior Trung Nguyen spent his four years at Hamline being involved in many organizations that support GLBT students and ethnic students. As a member of Spectrum (Hamline’s LGBTQ student group), the Safe Zone Advisory Committee, Asian-Pacific American Coalition, and many other organizations, Nguyen’s positive influence has been felt by a large group of students on campus.

As a first-generation college student, and “first-and-a-half” generation immigrant, graduating from college is a very big deal in Nguyen’s family. “There was so much pressure…this is the culmination of a lot of years of sacrifice, and I really have to do this.”

But what was even more of a big deal was coming out to his family, who are political refugees from Vietnam who escaped religious persecution for being Catholic. “They have a good sense of what is a real problem because they’ve been through a lot of really terrible things.” Although Nguyen’s family is now supportive, he still recalls the difficulty in coming out to a traditional family. “It was sort of complicated because there was no word for homosexual in Vietnamese, so I had the complicated and somewhat mixed blessing of describing my attraction.”

Nguyen recognizes how fortunate he was to have a positive college experience. “Being out on campus is really comfortable. Being a cis-gendered gay male on campus is easy.” He encourages students to engage in a broader community and “learn to be a good ally instead of just being caught up in whatever it is that makes you feel oppressed.”

He also recognizes the privilege of attending schools in the Twin Cities that are mostly queer friendly. “It’s really easy to become comfortable and relaxed in your safe college environment, and then when you get out, you realize that there’s a whole lot of awful things going on, and you need to pay attention and not get too comfortable.” He encourages people to get involved in the broader community in order to take advantage of the freedom of being out in the real world.

After graduation, Nguyen will build his art portfolio with the hopes to attend graduate school. Regarding how his work for the GLBT community will affect his future, he notes “It’s never in a way that I can put a title on it or add it to a resume, which I think is really fantastic because I want all those issues to become sort of second nature to me so I can incorporate that into my work and different areas of my life without it being its own separate insular thing.”

Taylor Foster from Augsburg College. Photo by Hubert Bonnet.

Taylor Foster, Sociology Major/Criminal Justice Minor
Augsburg College

As one of Augsburg College’s first out trans students, Taylor Foster knew he couldn’t keep silent about who he was. Coming out as trans while at Augsburg, Foster used his experience to help promote a safe and inclusive environment on campus. “I think it’s very safe being out at Augsburg.” Foster notes that people, both students and faculty, were very aware of learning to using proper pronouns.

Foster has been one of the most influential queer students on campus. As the co-president of QSU, Foster was able to raise awareness of trans issues on campus–issues that had never received much attention. He organized Augsburg’s first Trans Day of Remembrance, bringing in speakers to talk about trans issues and getting permission to change most campus bathrooms to gender-inclusive bathrooms. “We had specific bathrooms that were still gendered in order to respect everyone and not try to force anything on anyone. One of the places trans people face the most discrimination revolves around bathrooms. On campus, we have only eight gender-neutral bathrooms, and I wanted to show others how inconvenient it was to try to go and find one of them.”

Most notable, however, was Foster’s leadership after a shocking incident where a gay student was assaulted near campus. He started a movement (which he “didn’t mean to start on purpose, it kind of just happened”) called Stand Up Against Hate where he encouraged the Augsburg community to speak out against the incident and not condone violence against GLBT people. “I asked what I thought was going to be just a group of our friends and a few others to wear the colors of the rainbow during the week, and the group expanded up to over 650 people including alumni and family…it kind of blew up, and what I liked most about it was that Augsburg didn’t quiet it. They were just like ‘Alright, what do we do now? Let’s talk about it. Let’s work together to create a safer space.’”

Foster also helped organize GLBT-friendly housing on campus, which is now called “Everybody Loves Everybody,” in order to create an accepting community in the residence hall. Students living on the GLBT-friendly floors find an immediate sense of support and family. “It’s just a safe space for people to live in community. We all hang out. Someone is always blaring Lady Gaga. We are a family. For a lot of us, this was our family.”

Foster hopes to spread the word about trans issues and bullying of GLBT youth. He hopes to become an openly trans and queer school resource officer, a police officer within a school. “I want to promote acceptance and love to all, and I want to work in the Anoka-Ramsey school district where a lot of the bullying is going on.”

Simply put, Foster was able to grow into his identity at school, and he encourages others to do the same. “College is where you find yourself. Well, do that. It’s not going to be easy. We all want to hope that there’s this one day where it will all be unicorns and rainbows, but right now, it’s just not. We need to know that it’s going to be a fight, but it’s a fight worth having.”

Bethel SGR members Nadalie Poole, Sabrina Fiester, Mark Edinger, Bekah Schneider, and Megan Urness. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Fiester.

Straight-Gay Reconcilers at Bethel

Nestled away in the suburban area of Arden Hills, Bethel University attracts students for its strong evangelical Christian mission and its seclusion. For firm believers who are straight, the campus is a protective buffer from the outside world, allowing students to focus on their educations and their faiths. But for other students, this buffer does nothing to protect them from the struggle of being GLBT on a less-than-welcoming campus. Though most people assume that GLBT life at Bethel is minimal–why would people attend a college that blatantly doesn’t support their lifestyle–the Straight-Gay Reconcilers (SGR) are making noise and not allowing anyone to stifle who they are.

So how do GLBT students exist on a campus that refuses their identities? Levi Kotas, a transman who left Bethel one semester before he graduated, saw that he could help meet the need for a GLBT community on campus.  “In 2005, the Equality Ride came to Bethel…they told me I wasn’t alone and instructed that I should go out and try to find more of a community. So I did that the only way I knew how. I wrote a letter to the administration and sent it to every single member of the board of directors, as well as the faculty and staff, and got the attention of everyone immediately. I said that whether they like it or not, there was going to be a Gay Straight Alliance on campus, and due to whatever rights I had as a human being, they couldn’t actually stop this group from happening.”

And happen it did. Though the original group consisted of just Kotas and four of his friends, the group’s Facebook page now hosts 128 members, about half of which identify as allies. The site allows the students to plan meetings, share advice and GLBT news, and form a sense of community and belonging. SGR states on its Facebook page that it “seeks to foster a community of love, service, and mutual respect that is intentionally devoted to providing a Safe Place for GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgender) students, as well as providing a Safe Place for open dialogue around the issue of sexuality.”Though SGR exists, Bethel refuses to charter the organization and does not allow them to advertise their group on campus. Junior Mark Edinger, one of the group’s current members, notes that SGR events, particularly ones involving discussion about GLBT issues and theology, are not approved by the college. “They don’t want us talking about theology or politics that much.” Edinger also notes that if events “gain too much of a crowd or get too problematic, they can shut us down.”
Edinger was drawn to SGR due to the Safe Place signs they made for professors to hang on their doors to promote a space free of homophobia–a huge statement on campus. For Edinger, “Bethel is a scary place to be out. It’s not safe everywhere.” The Safe Place program provides support and opportunities for open and safe dialogue about sexuality. But Edinger says that they have to be careful when involving faculty. “We don’t want them to get too involved where they could lose their job. We just need support.”

With regard to the administration’s reaction to SGR, Junior Nadalie Poole, a transwoman, says that the “administration generally is very crafty. They’re outright geniuses when it comes to knowing just how much to give us and just how much to take away and block us. The official wording by our Provost is ‘welcoming but not accepting.’ So they allow us to speak but they don’t kill us.” Edinger adds, “We’re allowed to exist. Students can hold their own opinions, but they still have to follow the covenant. I don’t know how they’re going to chase us down for that.”

In order to attend the college, Bethel students are required to sign a “Covenant for Life Together” which dictates the acceptable Christian behavior they are asked to exhibit. The covenant covers many issues such as alcohol consumption, biblical beliefs, and sexual practices. Included are two statements about homosexuality. First, “The Bible also identifies character qualities and actions that should not be present in the lives of believers. For example: destructive anger, malice, rage, sexual immorality, impurity, adultery, evil desires, greed, idolatry, slander, profanity, lying, homosexual behavior, drunkenness, thievery, and dishonesty [5].” Also, a more general statement about everyone’s sexual behavior notes, “We believe that sexual intercourse and other forms of intensely interpersonal sexual activity are reserved for monogamous, heterosexual marriage. We recognize that sexual purity involves right motives as well as right behaviors.”

Straight ally Sabrina Fiester notes that students bring strong values with them to Bethel and sometimes don’t know how to react when they experience diversity, particularly regarding gender and sexuality. “A lot  of the students grew up in private Christian schools and went to church all the time and believed whatever their parents told them. Then they get here and are like ‘Wow, gay people actually exist.’ It’s kind of the first time they’re even forced to think about it.”

The students are very vocal about their opinions of Bethel. Kotas says, “I will openly say that Bethel destroyed my faith. Not necessarily in Christianity, but in Christians. There is zero faith from them anymore.” Edinger says, “It’s hard to support an organization like Bethel that doesn’t support me.” But these views don’t hinder them from being out and active. Fiester notes that as an ally, she sometimes gets negative responses, but “everyone knows where I stand.”

One way SGR raises awareness about GLBT life on campus is through a yearly event called “GLBT at Bethel,” where current GLBT students share their experiences with a public audience. This year’s event was Provost sponsored, and over 300 people showed up to hear Edinger, Poole, and others tell their stories. Poole’s story about her transition touched quite a few audience members, and she notes that lots of people came up to her with positive (and negative) feedback.

When thinking about future Bethel students, straight ally Sheldon Carlsted hopes that students “Come here. We need people in this group so we can break the mold. You’re outside of your comfort zone, so you brush up against other people. Make them think in the right direction. It just raises a more tolerant and loving environment.” He hopes students come to Bethel to rock the boat. “But I understand why they don’t,” he adds.

Edinger believes that “If you really want to change the world, start at the places that are most conservative…be brave going in. It may not be the most comfortable place, but you will survive.” The SGR is doing more than just surviving; they are mapping uncharted territory at Bethel for the benefit of future GLBT students.

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