In college, identities are discovered and identities are changed.
Members of LGBTQA+ community often experience the most drastic changes. Sometimes these changes are accepted and welcomed. Other times they are ignored or rejected.
It is not uncommon for college students to encounter new and unfamiliar identities in college. As the conversation surrounding sexuality and gender identity grows, so does the understanding of what is possible. Pacific University and other accepting campuses work hard to make sure students of all identities are accepted.
But how does this impact the lives of these students? If a student comes from a small town, there can be a culture shock. Words like Demisexual, Nonbinary and Pansexual might not be in their vocabulary.
For Cyn Keloha, the words were there, just not quite the right ones. Keloha had never met a nonbinary person before coming to Pacific and now uses they/them pronouns. Pre-Pacific, Keloha identified as bisexual. After a couple of months, they realized that the term bisexual did not quite match what was inside.
“I realized that I liked people of all genders when I was in middle school, but I didn’t know about the term pansexual,” Keloha said. Keloha’s partner, Mat North, took some time before he was able to fully come out to everyone.
“Only a couple of people knew how I identified before I came to Pacific,” North said. “It was a little scary not knowing if and how this environment would be different or more accepting.”
Being a transgender person even on an accepting campus like Pacific is not as easy as one might think. The process of changing your name in the official systems is a difficult one. It can be challenging to get professors and friends to use your correct pronouns and name.
Hookup culture is a common phenomena on college campuses and Pacific is no exception. For asexual or demisexual students, dating can be awkward. With the general ignorance surrounding more obscure sexual and gender identities, it can be almost impossible for some students to navigate the romantic scene.
College is often a complete escape from toxic environments for LGBTQA+ students. For sophomore Nicole Servin, coming to Pacific was, “so liberating. It was a breath of fresh air. Before, even the possibility of me connecting with my identity was not an option. Here, I’ve had the chance to do that, which is so meaningful to someone like me.”
Things are different for students that are members of multiple minority communities, like Servin and senior Gabie Mbenza-Ngoma. Their sexualities are not the first thing people see.
“Growing up I dealt with a lot of racism and sexism,” Servin said. “I was a low income brown girl and people definitely viewed me as less for being a woman, and especially for being a woman of color.”
For Mbenza-Ngoma it is hard to notice the discrimination against her sexuality.
“I am so much more aware of discrimination that occurs because of my race than anything else that happens, because my sexuality is not really that big of a deal for me,” she said.
Even though great progress has been made, there are still a lot of misconceptions and stigmas surrounding the LGBTQA+ community.
“Right after I cut my hair, some of my really religious family members wrote in their Christmas Cards to me that ‘this is just a phase and it will pass,’” Keloha said. “They didn’t name what this ‘phase’ was.”
It can be difficult for parents and family members to understand different identities and the importance that they hold.
“My dad was really unaccepting of me being transgender and refused to accept it for a long time,” North said.
Again, change makes for awkward situations on and off campus. Communication is key, but it is not always enough.
For some students, like Servin, the reality is that they will never come out to their families.
“My biggest struggle with identity in my home is identifying as queer,” Servin said. “I’m not out to them, I’ve accepted that I will never be out to them. It’s just not an option for me.”
Fully coming out is not a possibility for junior Carly Taff either.
“I know they will be ok with it, but I can’t help but imagine the worst,” Taff said. “I know they’d be ok with me being gay, but not so much about how I identify more as being non-binary.”
Some families are just as accepting as the most progressive university environments.
Freshman Shane Hoefer at the University of Oregon said, “I was scared and didn’t want things to change, but my parents were very supportive of me once I finally came out.”
Some families suspect before students have a chance to come out to them.
“I was super nervous to come out to my family but when I did, they told me that they already knew,” Mbenza-Ngoma said.
Heteronormativity pervades every aspect of these students lives. Because straight is the norm, it is common for members of the community to hear derogatory comments directed at their sexualities. Other students, and sometimes staff members, assume the everyone them are heterosexual and cisgender and do not think about the consequences of their words.
Sometimes discrimination is not even hidden by the guise of humor.
“Once people saw that I believed in a higher power and all that, they assumed that I must be straight,” Servin said. “They would begin rambling about how being LGBT is a sin and how wrong it is.”
It is also common for LGBTQA+ students to be forced to represent the entire community.
They become the only example of their identities. There is a pressure to say all of the right things when they have to be the face of their entire community.
Mbenza-Ngoma often hears comments mocking obscure sexualities.
“A lot of it is about how people with my sexuality, demipansexual, don’t exist or are just making things up,” Mbenza-Ngoma said. “When things like that happen I usually try to educate people.”
There is advice and guidance out there for anyone who might be questioning either their sexual or gender identity.
“Gender and sexuality can be very fluid; if you aren’t sure, it doesn’t mean that you were wrong before, maybe your identity is just changing. Questioning your identity is healthy,” North said.
Keloha offered advice as well.
“Pacific tends to be really accepting so hopefully you feel free to explore, and if you do not know anyone that is queer or anyone that you would be comfortable talking to, then you should try going to Rainbow Co meetings so you have a safe place to talk,” Keloha said.
Hoefer hoped others could learn from his experience.
“You do not need to be absolutely certain of your sexuality, you just need to be comfortable with yourself,” Hoefer said. “Don’t worry about the negative things people might say about you, just be yourself.”