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Finding liberation at CMU

LGBTQ students date in college for the first time, but struggle to balance the clashing climates of two homes.

By early middle school, Markie Heideman realized his attractions differed from most of the boys in his class. He wasn’t attracted to women, and because of the climate and values of his hometown’s atmosphere, that wasn’t OK.

The sophomore graduated with 12 other students at his small public high school. The rural area of his hometown, Twining, did not facilitate an environment where youth felt comfortable to be openly gay, but it did allow for gossip to dominate the community.

When Heideman was a high school sophomore, he found inspiration after witnessing an openly gay actor perform in a neighboring high school’s theater production. Seeing him exhibit such confidence and joy made Heideman want to make similar changes in his own life. 

Heideman started coming out to close friends in his community. However, in a high school with only roughly 50 students, word traveled fast.

“I ended up going to my teacher and she told me I should probably tell my parents before they find out through someone else,” Heideman said. “I was not ready to do that. She ended up coming out to my mom for me. I let her do that because I just could not do it.”

It wasn’t until he came to Central Michigan University that he realized how comfortable he could be by being himself.

“I didn’t realize how bad the climate (in Twining) was for me and how miserable I was in high school until I got to experience something better,” he said. “I’m not saying that it’s perfect here, but the experiences I’ve had have been pretty positive.”

Despite finding an open and accepting community at CMU, Heideman finds it difficult to visit home now as he faces challenges in balancing two different lives.

He is not alone.

Coming to college, many LGBTQ+ students at CMU experience new-found liberation in exploring and accepting their sexual identity as they start dating for the first time. However, while college campuses tend to be more accepting of the community, the attitude in the hometowns of many students remain stagnant. Shannon Jolliff, director of the Office of LGBTQ+ Services, said the office see’s about 40 new and consistent students a week — many concerned with managing the balance of living separate lives.

Remus senior Kyal Lalk said coming from a small town, dating as an openly gay student wasn’t possible in high school. Even if he had met someone he was interested in, he didn’t think dating would be a good idea.

“People talk. Rumors fly. The entire town would know about it, and it would become everyone’s business when it really shouldn’t be,” Lalk said.

However, Lalk found acceptance in the CMU community.

“No one cares who’s dating who,” he said. “There’s so many more avenues to meet people, with things like Spectrum, the LGBTQ+ organization on campus. Students can even go to the bar and meet people.”

Because both Lalk and Heideman had trouble finding other students to relate to at home, they felt stifled within their identity. But after being exposed to a large LGBTQ+ community at CMU, they felt free to date for the first time in their freshman year.

“It was almost like I was in high school again, starting from the beginning because I never got to experience the dating world until (college)," Heideman said. "I was boy crazy for a little bit, so freshman year I went on a lot of dates. I met a lot of people.”

Heideman, who now interns at the Office of LGBTQ+ Services, said he ended up becoming good friends with most of the people he dated that year. Establishing those friendships was critical because he said new students benefit from finally being in a community with people they can relate with.

Jolliff said student organizations such as Spectrum and Transcend, the transgender support student organization, are important because they help individuals in the LGBTQ+ community build homes and find a community.

Lalk, who is the co-president of Spectrum, described the group as an educational social organization. They have a social hour for mingling before their meeting every week, where they discuss relevant topics in the community, he said.

“Our goal is to be a safe and welcoming place, and also to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes and reduce discrimination on CMU’s campus,” Lalk said.

Boyne City junior Sydney Griffin said Spectrum allows students who come from backgrounds where their identity wasn’t accepted to be themselves around each other. She stressed how at meetings, students stop needing to define themselves by their sexual orientation while still celebrating the diversity in their identities.

“We don’t need to put up that mask of what we want the public to see us as — we’re just us,” Griffin said. “It’s nice to just drop that mask for one night a week, knowing that we’re all OK with each other.”

Griffin is bisexual. Although she’s known this for several years, she didn’t come out until she transferred to CMU in Fall 2015. She realized she was attracted to both women and men while attending community college, but didn’t tell anyone because in that environment “you just weren’t gay there.”

Because Griffin was home-schooled, she hadn’t dated anyone until she transferred to CMU.

At first Griffin felt confused — being new to the dating world and trying to figure out how to identify herself, before she even had her first kiss.

“At this point I’m totally laissez-faire about it. Whatever happens, happens,” she said. “But in my first semester, it was an intense romantic world.”

In the same month Griffin had first dates with both a man and woman, and was relieved to discover nothing changed based on who she dated — she was still herself.

Because of the noninclusive environment in her hometown, Griffin was nervous about her first date with another woman.

“The experience of a same-sex date — we didn’t get hate, we didn’t get dirty looks. We got ice cream and it was great,” she said. “It was so (liberating) to realize, it’s not so bad. You’re not a bad person, you’re not dirty or creepy or anything like that. You’re just on a date.”

Both Heideman and Griffin said dating apps such as Tinder are a prominent dating tool in the LGBTQ+ community. Heideman said it’s easier to find people because you can’t always tell who is LGBTQ+ on a first impression, and it can be uncomfortable to ask.

Griffin said dating apps are helpful but problematic for bisexual woman, because there is a clear and present stigma as others tend to sexualize her identity.

“People will assume you’re really into threesomes,” she said. “So, on one hand it’s nice (to be open), but on the other hand I feel like I can’t really date with that title. A lot of straight people I’ve dated make assumptions like that.”

In the first week of this semester, Griffin posted a video coming out to all her friends on Facebook. 

“I had a lot of people interacting with the post saying 'we support you,' really saying lovely things on the post itself,” Griffin said. “But you really notice who isn’t there. Who isn’t there is your grandparents, who isn’t there are your up-north friends. You notice the silence.”

Since coming out, Griffin hasn’t gone home. While curious about what it would be like, she’s hesitant to visit — fearing family and friends will respond by saying they’ll “pray for her.” Griffin isn’t changing.

Visiting home is already difficult for many students after experiencing the freedom of college. However, Jolliff said it can be especially daunting for students who identify as LGBTQ+.

Especially before Thanksgiving and winter break, Jolliff said many students come to the office because of insecurities on how to manage a visit back to their hometown.

“There’s a lot of stress that comes up for students,” she said. “If they are dating someone (they worry) ‘am I on my phone too much’ or ‘am I talking about this person too much.’ They’re balancing their happiness around trying to hold either a secret if they aren't out, or not wanting to create an environment at home where their family is making them feel bad about who they are dating.”

Lalk said Spectrum always hears this concern as well.

“Each year we have this meeting called the 'Big Queer Bowl,' where students are allowed to ask anonymous questions,” Lalk said. “Some are fun questions and some serious. Almost always with our serious questions we have several alliterations of ‘how do I come out to my friends and family?’”

At the Office of LGBQ+ Services, Jolliff stresses to students seeking help the importance of staying connected with the community they’ve established at CMU and to prioritize proper self-care, whether it be yoga or Netflix binging, to help reduce their stress while balancing two drastically different atmospheres.

When students come to Jolliff for advice, she thinks it's important to work with them to make a plan for when stressful situations arise at home. 

“It’s hard on your mental health (which is) hard on your physical health because you start to feel what you’re internalizing.”

Heideman said when he returns home he finds himself sub-consciously “watering-down” his personality. He tries not be as visible with his true identity because he doesn’t want to draw unwanted attention his way.

Although Heideman thinks CMU’s campus hosts a good climate for the LGBTQ+ community, he said there is a long way to go and people still need to educate themselves about different identities.

“A lot of people know what gay and lesbian means, but there’s so many more identities on the spectrum,” he said. “I’m friends with a lot of people who fall in those different identities, so I think educating yourself on them is important. I know there’s been a lot of stuff on the news about trans folks in the past year, so I think being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes before making a quick judgement is important.”