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Come as you are: Chalk the Quad event, campus resources help students express sexuality

Autumn Elniski was afraid that her best friend, a “church person,” wouldn’t accept that she was attracted to women.

But once Elniski finally decided to come out to her, she was surprised by her friend’s reaction.

“I’m like, ‘I like girls’ and she’s like, ‘Finally! I’ve been waiting for you to tell me since high school.’ I’m like, ‘You couldn’t throw a bone my way?’” said Elniski, a senior paper engineering major at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Elniski was one of many ESF and Syracuse University students who shared their coming-out experiences at Coming Out Stories and Chalk the Quad — an annual event that promotes messages of support for students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. The university has a high ranking for LGBT support due to different resources and initiatives. Still, places such as the LGBT Resource Center are working to improve acceptance on campus.

Unigo, an online college resource site, ranked SU the fifth best LGBT campus “where there’s pride and no prejudice” for 2013, citing the You Are Not Alone initiative, STOP Bias campaign and minor in LGBT studies.

But even with top rankings and campus support resources, LGBT students still face many issues in campus life.

For Chase Catalano, director of the LGBT Resource Center, creating an inclusive and supportive campus environment for LGBT students is a work in progress.

He said he wants Coming Out Stories and Chalk the Quad to create an environment of support, rather than make students feel pressured to come out.

“Coming out is not for everyone. It’s not required,” he said. “It’s not the only way to be part of communities, and so I think our slogan has been kind of, ‘Come out — or don’t.’ We still love you, we still value you and there’s lots of reasons why coming out isn’t tenable for a variety of people.”

Tyler Sliker, program coordinator at the Q Center safe place in Syracuse, said sharing coming-out stories could raise individual self-esteem, as well as build a community by connecting LGBT students across racial and socioeconomic boundaries.

“I would love it if society and communities and universities and what have you would celebrate the fact that queer people exist. I wish that it wasn’t like, ‘I’m OK with it’ or ‘I accept it’ or ‘I support it,’ I wish it was, ‘I love the fact that you’re gay because you’re gay it makes my world better,’” he said. “I love that attitude.”

Sliker said LGBT students face many of the same challenges as other students — such as balancing schoolwork and preparing for a career — but through an LGBT lens.

“Thinking about careers or moving on into the workforce, you have to think about things like, ‘Is my field accepting of queer people? Will I come out at work? Do I come out in classes?’”

Catalano said students often feel the need to choose between their LGBT identity and other social identities.

“Students sometimes feel like they have to choose between their different social identities, so ‘Am I a student with a disability and I’m queer?’” he said. “How often do we intentionally make spaces for students to be simultaneously both. Are we doing our part here for them to feel included as a student of color who’s trans?”

Other students might struggle with their identities if they don’t see themselves within the strict delineations of heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or transgender, said Roger Hallas, an associate professor of English and director of the LGBT Studies Program.

As he grew up and entered higher education, he said, he witnessed the struggle to expand pride communities to include those who identify as bisexual, transgender or queer. Now, he said, work continues to include those “who might not necessarily identify with ‘L’ or ‘G’ or ‘B’ or ‘T.’”

Midge Scully, a junior illustration major, struggled to find her identity as an asexual woman because asexuality is not always thought of as sexual orientation in common culture.

“But I just was never really sexually attracted to anyone,” she said. “I thought I was broken.”

When Scully came out to her mother, she struggled to accept it and suggested therapy.

“She didn’t get it. She had no idea what asexuality was. I feel like a lot of people don’t,” Scully said.

To continue to help students who identify as LGBT, Hallas said the resource center and University Senate Committee on LGBT Concerns have been working hard to put more gender-neutral restrooms on campus. He said gender-neutral restrooms are crucial if you want to create a truly accessible community on campus.

He also said that the heteronormative cultures of greek life and athletics can sometimes make LGBT or queer students uncomfortable with expressing their identities.

“Particularly since SU Athletics is so important to our campus culture and to the institution,” he said, “I would really like to see more initiatives that address issues around homophobia and transphobia and issues around marginalized genders and sexuality being addressed more fully in the culture of SU Athletics.”

In other ways, faculty and students are still working to increase visibility, accessibility and support for LGBT students on campus. The LGBT Studies Program is one of those initiatives.

“By 2006, we’d established a minor, which is very successful interdisciplinary minor in the college across the university,” said Hallas, director of the program. “Our two core classes are incredibly popular well beyond the students who are taking it for the minor.”

He added that many students enrolled in the program’s courses do not self-identify as LGBT or plan to pursue a minor in LGBT studies, but felt that a deeper knowledge of LGBT history and dynamics would help them in careers such as social work, media or in their personal lives.

Other initiatives to expand LGBT visibility on campus include almost a dozen events throughout October that the LGBT Resource Center has organized for Coming Out Month.

Among these events, Catalano, the director of the LGBT Resource Center, said students should try to create a supportive environment for LGBT students in small, everyday ways.

“Your actions matter,” he said. Students who make or laugh at casual comments can affect those who identify as LGBT, Catalano said.

“I think people just assume that ‘That’s not my friends, that’s not my family, that’s not mattering to me,’ and people hear it,” he said, “And it matters.”

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