Gay it Forward: Midwest Queerness in Academia
I went to college and became a lesbian. Yep, you read that correctly. Your parents were right. School makes you gay. Nah, I’m just kidding. I’ve always been gay and there are no less than a million embarrassing stories of “Not Gay Ashleigh™️” that would support that statement. And it’s not exactly like I stepped onto campus and by osmosis was filled with great homosexual potential. In fact, my journey to who and where I am now was very slow and then incredibly fast. (I promise you we’ll get to the Haley Joel Osment reference, just stick with me.)
Prior to and during part of my college career, I worked at a Christian camp formerly known as Rainbow Christian Camp. Apparently, the confusion and “appropriation of the rainbow by homosexuals” became too much for the camp administration to handle over time. The irony, however, is invaluable. Us summer staff slept two-by-two in a 1/4 model of Noah’s ark and played worship songs on our acoustic guitars by campfire. We built fires, power-washed, weed-wacked, split wood. We were campers’ lifeguards, archery instructors, and high ropes leaders. Nearly every skill that makes me useful today, I learned from this job. In a roundabout way, it was because of camp that I graduated early from high school and moved to New Zealand for a missions internship. My early acceptance to Johnson Bible College in Tennessee was the key my being given permission to skip a semester of senioritis. This is to say, my life before college (if you can ignore the immense amount of plaid, cargo shorts, gender neutral sandals, and carabiners) was ideal for a Christianity pamphlet.
The day before I was due to leave for the southern hemisphere, I filled out an application to the university 30 minutes down the road from my parent’s house. This was in part to be closer to my best friend and as a back-up plan in case I hated being a missionary. Most of my schoolmates were staying in Indiana which makes sense considering that its main exports are Bob Ross’ happy accidents, Garfield, corn, and liberal Hoosiers (we don’t know what that means either. Please don’t ask).
Just around the time I realized that missionaries had day jobs, I got an acceptance letter and waved goodbye to Tennessee. I registered for college during the summer of 2009 and will graduate for the last time with my doctorate this July. If you do that math, that’s 10 years at the same institution and roughly a third of my life. If that’s a little mind-blowing for you, imagine how I feel. I never intended to graduate school and I certainly never intended to finish a dissertation. I absolutely never expected to do both as an out and proud, suit-wearing lesbian. Where I came from lesbians were deviant whispers — they were people we didn’t talk about. They were sinners, degenerates, and their lives had been ruined by their choices. Lesbians were also tall basketball players with long hair and deep voices. We didn’t mess with them but we (I) also didn’t argue when they picked us (me) up and swung us (me) around. Like I said, Not Gay Ashleigh™️ moments are many in number and spare me no dignity.
As an undergraduate, it helped tremendously that I was white and came from a middle-class family who could help foot part of the bill. There’s no good in ignoring the obvious. My parents, however, never went to college even though they are wonderful minds in their own right. So, while my family was helpful in a financial way, there was still a whole world that none of us really understood. On top of that, I was realizing that I was very, very gay and wouldn’t be able to hide it much longer.
I had survived a premature lesbian witch hunt at the summer camp for having a close, platonic relationship with a female staff member and knew that gay panic drastically changed relationships. Staffers I had looked up to interrogated me about what others had “witnessed.” Innocent interactions were twisted into acts of perversion and tossed at me for explanation. Truly baffled, I scrambled to make sense of the stories, withdrew emotionally, and remained cognizant of the many watchful eyes. This was a full year before either of us would realize we had grown to love one another and even longer before we would share a chaste kiss that ended in my breakdown into a gasping-for-air, ugly sob. It was, without a doubt, a real mood ruiner. The thing about denial is that it is a river that will fill your lungs as you try to climb out of it. If I were to ever fully pull my body onto the riverbank, I knew my life could easily transform a vacuous void of former friends, co-workers, and very likely family members. This is where Gay It Forward came into play.
“Gay It Forward,” as I have experienced it, consists of an unspoken web of queer folks who make introductions to other queer people who may be able to help with the next steps of coming out.
During the fallout of my eventual coming out, I desperately need some form of income. I saw a listing for a teaching assistant for a psychology class and applied in person. The administrative assistant called the professor’s office and immediately I recognized the name. The professor in question had been introduced to me at a department event by her wife and had complimented my bow tie. Too eagerly I shouted at the woman on the phone, “Tell her I wear bow ties!” I got the job and the professor became a mentor and her family became my and my partner’s chosen family. She helped my with graduate school personal statements and curriculum vitae and was a welcoming ear when my personal life felt like a dumpster fire. Her family was also there with invitations to Ground Hog’s Day celebrations, pumpkin patches, and church services. They kept me and my partner feeling supported and wanted.
This kind of thing happened again and again. Students, professors, and administrators, we always seemed to find each other. Some were more out than others, some less like family and more like colleagues, but they were all there with introductions and advice. For me this led to doc school, teaching at a community college, compiling my dissertation committee, mentors, and having valuable resources on campus. Unlike Pay It Forward, this isn’t something that’s done for you; it’s an opportunity for more work. It’s taking advice, asking for help, and surrounding yourself with successful people who have been there. It’s fam looking out for fam.
I owe a great deal to my network not only for helping me get where I am but also for making me who I am. The church and camp had taught me a lot of skills but it was only by watching these individuals that I learned self-love, self-acceptance, kindness, humility, vulnerability, strength, and selfless generosity. These wonderful people are married, partnered, single, happy, quirky, funny, thoughtful, creative, loving, and successful beings. They are everything Not Gay Ashleigh™️ thought she could never be. As a gift to myself for finishing my doctorate I bought a suit. My first suit, actually. Years in school means living just above the poverty line if you’re lucky. I’ve made do with second-hand shops and discounted clearance racks to fulfill my love of menswear but not this time (okay it was a discount store, but I’ll take it.) In that dressing room, I felt fully realized.
You see, how you feel has a lot to do with how you are perceived. As an undergrad in bow ties I learned to look straight ahead and give the impression of confidence when I was really trying to avoid seeing people’s reactions. As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown more settled in myself. Better rooted. So when I was offered my first class to teach, I was genuinely excited. I knew I would likely be the first gender nonconforming instructor some of them had ever had and that thrilled me. At first some students weren’t sure what to make of me but then one would ask for fashion tips and instantly we had something to bond over. I adore this. I adore my students. I love that we can change each other’s minds about how people are supposed to be.
This summer I taught an early start class for incoming freshmen, which helps students acclimate to college. I participated in this program myself when I returned from New Zealand. It was such an honor to be trusted with these students’ first experience at the university. Just recently I saw one of those students and was pleased that she seemed to be doing well. Somewhat embarrassed she admitted that she had left our class and immediately called home: “Mom, there are real lesbians here!”
It’s simple things like doing something nice and being our genuine selves that can change the world. This can be especially true in a place that thinks it can assign potential and value. So, let’s use what we have and make every space, regardless of its history, somewhere we can all aim for success and improve ourselves along the way.