What is it like to be gay in Aggieland? Much of how that question is answered depends on your perspective. After interviewing several undergraduate and graduate students that either identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, I found that there where shared experiences but different opinions on being a member of the GLBT community at Texas A&M. I interviewed several people from across the spectrum of the GLBT community.
Texas A&M University is known as being one of the most conservative universities in the country, and it is also known as one of the least tolerant universities of alternative lifestyles. In the Princeton Review's most recent college rankings Texas A&M ranked as the campus with the most conservative students and the fifteen least accepting of alternative lifestyles. Although, over the last three decades Texas A&M has made strides in becoming a campus more accepting of alternative lifestyles. Some of the most important improvements have been made in the resources available to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) students.
I sat down with one of the most active members of the Texas A&M GLBT community and discussed his experiences. Lowell Kane has been the program coordinator of the GLBT Resource Center since it opened in September of 2007 and is one of the advisors for the student organization GLBT Aggies (GLBTA). One of the most knowledgeable people not just about the current GLBT community, but also the history of the GLBT community at Texas A&M, he provided me with a wealth of knowledge and perspective about being gay in Aggieland. Kane came to Texas A&M for graduate school in 2005, and described his experience as a member of the GLBT community in Aggieland as “a mixed bag.”
More Below the Fold…“There was no apparent community for my age group,” said Kane. “There certainly was an undergraduate student organization.” When Kane arrived at Texas A&M there where two active GLBT organizations, the GLBTA and the GLBT Professional Network (GLBTPN). However, both organizations where relatively small, and while GLBTA was predominately undergraduates the GLBTPN was predominately faculty and staff. As a twenty-five year old graduate student who moved from a city with a large and active gay culture and community in New York, Kane struggle to a find a place in a community with very little of either. Then after quitting his teaching assistant position Kane found a home as a programmer at the Women and Gender Equity Resource Center (WGERC), an office that was designed to provide support for women, survivors of sexual assault, and members of the GLBT community.
“I feel like there are two distinct parts of my life in Bryan-College Station: night and day.” After transferring to Texas A&M for graduate school, Kane found that his personal life and social life was not what it was in the more affirming atmosphere in New York. However, once Kane began working for the WGERC and planning and coordinating GLBT projects and events that changed. Kane noted that he “got plugged into the rather difficult to find but always present GLBT population here.” Then the WGERC was split into two different entities, the Women's Resource Center and the GLBT Resource Center, Kane become the program coordinating of the GLBT Resource Center. “That has been an amazing experience,” Kane said about being the program coordinator. “I have seen so much change in just two and half years…and that's been really wonderful to see.”
I interview Michelle and Alex about their experience as members of the GLBT community in Aggieland. Michelle, a senior who recent came out as bisexual, noted that while she has never experience anything specifically hostile she did lose two friends because of her sexual orientation. Alex, a senior who is gay, also never experienced any specific discrimination, but had his friends have experienced moments in classes when the subject of homosexuality would be discussed and students would regurgitate the idea that it is “against the Bible, it's an abomination.” Both agreed that whether or not someone experiences that type of experience has a lot to do with what types of people or what “groups that you travel with.” While neither has experienced a significant amount of overt homophobia, they did experience the repetitive use of the phrase “that's so gay.” The phrase has become popularized to refer to something that is undesirable, and despite a campaign to educate people on the offensiveness of the phrase it is still widely used. Alex explains that “it's perpetuating the belief that homosexuality is bad, and that it's wrong, and it's stupid…It's creating more homophobia.”
“Being gay in Aggieland is really interesting.” Richard, an undergraduate student shared his thoughts with me about his experience being gay at Texas A&M. “The number one thing I have noticed is that when you come in as a member of the GLBT community, and you're looking for a safe space you find it readily.” Although he felt that it is not always the best idea to be “fully out and about” on campus. However, he has found the environment to be much better than from what he has been told it used to be like at Texas A&M for members of the GLBT community. During the end of the fall semester an opinion piece was published in the student newspaper, the Battalion, which was considered by many in the GLBT community to be homophobic and offensive. But Richard noted that the response from the community was impressive, “it was really in favor of the community and really surprised me and gave me a lot of hope.”
Chelsea, Shelby, and Casey sat down with me and discussed each of their experiences. When I asked them about what it was like being members of the GLBT community at Texas A&M Shelby, a senior who is a lesbian, shared that she feels that “in some ways it's good, and in some ways it's bad.” How much harassment you experience has to do with your “degree of queerness.” Casey, a recently graduate and bisexual, noted that because being gay is something that you can hide. “I think sometimes people feel pressure to do that on Texas A&M's campus,” said Casey, “just because it is known as a conservative school.” Chelsea, a junior who is bisexual, said that it was not as bad as she thought it would be, but you do here offensive comments in classes. “You hear homophobic comments in classes,” Chelsea said. “But at the same time, you hear a lot of misogynistic comments too, and you hear racist comments. People don't think before they speak.” Despite these experiences there seemed to be an understanding that much of those types of comments come from ignores and inexperience with members of the GLBT community. Also, they acknowledge that faculty, staff, and students will challenge comments in class, and open up a dialog about issues arising from them.
As far as seeing improvements in the acceptance and tolerance of the GLBT community there was not a complete acceptance of the idea that there have been improvements. “I'm going to be honest, since I got here I haven't really seen a change,” Chelsea said. “I haven't seen an increase in the acceptance of GLBT people here.” Although Shelby feels as though there have been improvements on campus, “overall there have been some improvements since I've been here, and I have been at A&M for three and a half years.” But she also feels that there is still much more that needs to happen, “I don't think there has been this significant huge amount of change. There's so much work that needs to be done.”
Riley had an interesting and unique perspective. The senior shared his experience of being gay and being a member of the Corps of Cadets. During his freshman year Riley became a member of the Aggie Allies, an organization that supports members of the GLBT community. “That sparked a lot of concern with people within the Corps,” Riley said. “Just because on my door it said I was a support of a safe space for people that are from the GLBT community.” The Aggie Allies placard, that all members receive and place on their doors or other visible places, would get torn down from his door several times a day.
Then Riley describes coming to terms with the desire to no longer wanting to lie to himself and his friends, and eventually came out to his close friends. Although, within only a few days the entire Corps band knew that Riley was gay. Fortunately many of the close friends that he came out to where supportive, and Riley feels that the experience brought them closer together because it fostered discussion about homosexuality and created most honest friendships. However, as far as many of the upperclassmen where concerned, Riley sexual orientation was not compatible with the Corp of Cadets. There was regular harassment from upperclassman, but Riley shared that the most significant incident of intimidation was against another gay cadet who was threatened to be lynched.
“It's a senior's privilege to be gay.” The Corps of Cadets is an organization deep in tradition, and part of that tradition is the number of unwritten rules and privileges of cadets. “It's not from the Commandant's office,” Riley said. “They're not written down…These are the unwritten rules that have been passed down.” These rules include things that would be expected. Freshmen are not allowed to have first names in the Corps, and freshmen are not allowed to have rooms and are only allowed to have “holes.” Freshmen are not allowed to walk on grass or gravel, while a junior is allowed to walk on gravel, and a senior is allowed to walk on grass. Also, include are peculiar rules that include freshman not being allowed to know about homosexuality, while a junior is allowed to know about homosexuality, and a senior is allowed to be gay.
Many students I interviewed came to terms with their sexual identities in college. “Now that they're kind of in their own world, they can feel more free to be themselves,” said Brad Dressler, the chairman of the executive board of the GLBT support group Aggie Allies. Many of the students who did not come out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual until college because of either family background, or because they simply where not exposed to the idea that being other than heterosexual. Some students knew very early on in their lives that there was something different about their sexual identity. However, what many of the students seem to share in common, is that when they arrive in college and find open and affirming support groups and communities they have been more able to embrace their sexual identities.
Despite the challenges that students who are members of the GLBT community face in Aggieland, there has been progress that has been made. “I think in the time period that we're living in, we are seeing tremendous work being done in the areas of social justice. One of the biggest ones that is a feature of the media, and constantly talked about in public is the GLBT civil rights movement,” said Kane. “Even here in Aggieland, it is very present. We have seen just three decades ago an institution that was willing to fight up to the United States Supreme Court to prevent recognition of a student group that was GLBT.” In 1976 Texas A&M University officials denied official recognition to the Gay Student Services Organization, and almost ten years later the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case. This upheld the ruling of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and what is now known as the GLBTA was founded. “Now in the 21st Century in many ways we are actually leading GLBT progress,” said Kane. “In this country right now, there are only about 150 GLBT resource centers. Most of them are on either the East Coast or the West Coast. So this one blip in Texas, people are often surprised that it's Texas A&M and not that other school down the road, but we're here and A&M has made a commitment to diversity.”
If there is one thing that I took away from interviewing students and staff about what it is like to be gay in Aggieland, it is that in many ways they have become as much a part of Aggieland as practicing yells at midnight or playing taps for fallen Aggies. The members of the GLBT community at Texas A&M have made it their home, and through doing so have pushed Texas A&M to become not simply tolerant but accepting. Each battle that is fought for the GLBT civil rights movement is not just fought in court rooms in California or in legislative votes in New Jersey. The battles that are fought for the GLBT civil rights movement are fought during conversations with friends and families; they are fought in classrooms and dorm rooms. If you want to meet the people that are pushing this generations civil rights movement forward, then spend and afternoon with the students that are gay in Aggieland.
Political and Social Thought…
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