Three years ago this week, I remember sitting at dinner with Kristin, one of my oldest friends. Suddenly, after a question from her, I just blurted out, "I am gay." I still am not sure which one of us started crying first, but I definitely remember that most of the people sitting around us in the packed restaurant suddenly became very interested in our conversation. I went on to tell her that I was struggling with severe depression and that only four days earlier I had stood on a bridge considering suicide.
At first, I shared the information with only a few individuals. Each coming out experience was easier than the one before. I think that was the part that I never really thought about before coming out, but something that I regularly discuss today. I can't even begin to estimate how many times that I have disclosed the personal details about my self-identity with individuals.
I ultimately came out publicly after one of my students verbally accosted me over my perceived sexual orientation at a West Virginia University football game. I am an instructor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at WVU, and about six months after coming out to my friend Kristin, I came out publicly with an essay titled "Enough is Enough" that was published in WVU's student-run newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum. I decided to come out publicly to raise awareness to the fact that in many places, including West Virginia, the mere perception of being gay is enough to compromise your safety.
I vividly remember the morning that my story appeared in the paper. I walked into Ming Hsieh Hall on our main campus, and less than ten feet down the hall, I was met by the first student reading my essay. I walked into my class and found several students reading it. The stares were there, but the slurs never came. I would go on to teach four more classes that day, and the response was resoundingly positive and kind. I had students asking to shake my hand, give me a hug, or merely say thank you as they left their respective lectures. Over the day and the next several days I shook many hands, gave many hugs, and received hundreds of calls, handwritten messages, emails and social media messages. The response was nothing like what I had anticipated.
The WVU administration responded quickly and supportively and has since empowered me to help them evaluate the culture of our institution. Former President James Clements and Provost Michelle Wheatly vowed to work diligently to improve the climate at WVU and I definitely believe they held true to those promises. The university has created an Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion with a Chief Diversity Officer, in addition to a Commission for LGBTQ Equity and the first LGBT Alumni Group. The university has also hosted two town hall discussions on bullying and many nationally recognized LGBT speakers. WVU now has three student organizations devoted to LGBT concerns and will be hosting the 1st Annual Lavender Graduation later this month.
My personal life changed after coming out to my friend Kristin, but my professional life was turned upside down after coming out in The Daily Athenaeum. I was no longer the "liberal sociologist" or the "guy with the Mohawk." I was suddenly the "gay guy who teaches Sociology." I would say that I probably held that title with many people prior to coming out, because in West Virginia being perceived as gay is really the same as being gay. The unofficial title is one that I both celebrate and abhor. I hate the fact that my master status for many is my sexuality, but it is most definitely not something that embarrasses me. However, I celebrate the fact that I am at an institution where an openly gay male can have a career in teaching. I welcome the fact that students feel safer knowing that I will be an advocate for them and that I am willing to fight for their rights and their inclusion.
Last semester a former student submitted an editorial to the student newspaper referencing, among other things, how I helped him understand the privilege that he experiences in society. That is what I consider my greatest accomplishment. This young man was from a small town in southern Virginia, with very different values and beliefs from my own, and yet was able to learn things from me that he may have not been able to if I were still hiding in the closet.
At the beginning of last semester a former student from southern West Virginia asked to film my story and submit it to the Campus Movie Fest competition. Our video didn't win at WVU, however, we were placed in the nationwide wildcard contest. Over the course of about four weeks my survivor story was viewed over 18,000 times, earning us a wildcard into the festival in June. However, the response to this video has been the most rewarding experience as it allowed me to reconnect with people who I had lost touch with over the years, and people who had really disappeared after I came out in 2011. I think the "Enough is Enough" video allowed them to better understand what empowered me to walk out of the closet, off of that bridge, and be an openly gay faculty member at West Virginia University.