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about 5 years ago
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State Speaks: Gay at Penn State

Sometimes, you just need to speak your mind. Today we have Tom Bierly talking about his time at Penn State.

I am gay.

Those are the hardest words I have ever had to say. Through elementary school, middle school, and much of high school, I had been taught that homosexuality was a negative aspect of society. I was told time and time again, ”Gay people don’t want to be gay. They would be straight if they could but they can’t. They’ve caught a terminal illness that they will never recover from.”

I guess I didn’t wash my hands enough.

I grew up in Bellefonte just 10 minutes from campus. I think my first memory of being gay in State College was walking down College Ave holding hands with my then boyfriend and having beer bottles thrown at us from a group of intoxicated students on the street.

After that experience, I found it very hard to fault people for staying in the closet. Penn State has a large and vibrant gay community, but what so few people see are the hundreds still hidden. I’d often have closeted boys reach out to me on Facebook, Skype, or AIM and we’d chat for days, sometimes even weeks, about their feelings and what they want from life. Eventually they’d find the courage (or simply no longer have the strength to continue denying so much of their existence) and want to meet me behind dumpsters, under bridges, in narrow alleyways, all under the cover of night. They’d be ever so careful to make sure no one saw them, thereby avoiding speculation about their sexual orientation.

While living on campus many of my closeted friends were scared to visit my dorm for fear that someone would see them. I always laughed at this notion thinking, “Lots of straight people visit me in my dorm. Surely no one cares if a gay kid comes over occasionally.”

Then one day, while giving a tour to a prospective student, we walked through the halls of the IST Interest House and heard somebody shout out, “Tom’s brought back another faggot.” I was floored. Apparently the student I was showing around was used to dealing with this sort of immature behavior, as he quickly yelled back without missing a beat, “Really?! Get a life.”

That was the last time I gave a tour through the IST Special Living Option. The student chose a private school in Rhode Island instead of Penn State.

I know so many gay students who remain in the closet, and others who have transferred, failed, and dropped out of Penn State because of the way they were treated on this campus.

Later that same year things in the IST Interest House took a scary turn. One night shortly, after I resigned from my position as President of the Interest House in order to assume the presidency of the IST Student Government, I returned to my room after 2:00am to find a death threat written on my white board. To scared to enter my room, I spent my first night sleeping in a hidden corner of the IST Building.

Similar events continued happening through the remainder of the semester.  I’d wake up in the morning and leave my room to shower. Upon returning, I’d find a new death threat or gay slur on my door. With only a towel around my waist and a bottle of soap in my hand, I felt so secure…

One would think that after receiving so many threats, they would stop bothering me. That sense of security never came. Each threat scared me over again. For a few short moments, my heart would stop and my fears would consume me. Eventually I’d regain the confidence to trod on by telling myself that if it’s my time to die then such is my fate.

What bothered me more than the threats against me was the negative effects these threats were having on the other LGBT students on the floor. Two men had attempted suicide and ended up in counseling, a third broke up with his boyfriend for fear of being outed in such an unaccepting environment. These attacks against me weren’t just isolated examples of prejudice, they were nothing less than acts intended to inflict terror upon an entire community of people.

Everyone from the RAs to Housing Officials to the Dean of my college knew about the situation, but due to a number of extenuating circumstances, no one knew quite how to appropriately deal with these incidences. For this reason, in the end, nothing was ever done about it. After three years of living on the floor and having a leadership role within the college, I fled from the dorm in search of safety and comfort, so that I could live out my life without the fear of it ending the next time I return home.

Unfortunately, attending classes was opportunity enough for me to be the target of prejudice. All homophobic comments and unfriendly interactions with peers are deplorable. For so many LGBT students going to class is about whether we possess the personal strength to persevere and tolerate the intolerant attacks of so many. It truly is a testament of the LGBT community that so many graduate after all the time they spent holding back fists and tears.

But through all the unfortunate acts I have lived through, I can still look back on my time at PSU as being one of great growth and accomplishment. So many allies have come forward to support me, and the queer community here has welcomed and accepted me with open arms. I truly have a family on this campus and I will never forget the amazing people I’ve come to love.

Recently, I took part in what is considered by many in the queer community to be a great celebration… I performed as a drag queen. I have been attending drag shows since my freshman year on campus. I clearly remember an announcement at the first one I attended encouraging students to use the buddy system to make sure no one walks home alone.

The organizers were fearful of attacks against the queer community after putting on such a controversial event. During last semester’s student drag show (in which I was crowned) we were informed that this year was our largest crowd yet. The drag shows are one of the most popular Late Night Penn State events. With such an outpouring of acceptance, I had let my guard down. After getting dressed in drag and looking quite sexy in my 6 inch heels, I set off down College Ave for a quick drink in Chumley’s. As I walked down the street I got several whistles and a few looks of confusion (as is common), but then there were two guys who were really getting into it. Cat calling and whistling and talking about the things they wanted to do to me… until they got closer of course. They quickly realized I was a man, and unable to deal with the fact that moments ago they wanted to bed a guy they acted out in violence and both lunged at me. One completely missed me, but the other knocked me into the bushes, leaving over 7 bloody gashes in my arm, 5 of which can still be clearly seen two weeks later. They ran away before I could plant my 6″ heels in their testicles. Once again, I’m reminded just how dangerous it is to be gay at PSU. What if I hadn’t been on College Ave, but in a side road without anyone around. Would they still have ran?

As usual, the queer community was there for me. They helped to dust me off and I went out and danced. Despite experiencing terroristic acts of prejudice, I was still able to have an extraordinarily fabulous night.

The LGBT community isn’t the only group on campus to be targeted. Each day people are discriminated on this campus for their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender expression, disability, religion, and even for their veteran/military status.

It’s for this reason that this year I proposed a policy to have a statement of inclusion and non-discrimination, such as PSU Policy AD42, placed on every syllabus. Many students don’t know that such a policy exists on this campus. Putting a statement of inclusion on every syllabus would create an avenue for students to come forward with concerns and for faculty members to initiate conversations about the types of behaviors that are expected in their classrooms.

This policy was voted into practice by a unanimous vote in the College of IST. It was picked up by the amazing ally (and current UPUA President) Christian Ragland and taken to the floor of UPUA, where the student body said they quite emphatically wanted this to be put on every syllabus across the entire university.

The proposal was then sent to Faculty Senate, where a final vote would have made it policy. However, the Faculty Senate claimed academic freedom and refused to enact such a rule.

Having grown up here, I understand and have a great deal of appreciation for academic freedom, but this policy in no way infringes upon it. Already there are rules about what must be included on syllabi and already there are rules governing what and how professors are permitted to teach in their classrooms. This policy doesn’t govern the topics of classrooms, it simply ensures that students know that they are to be dealt with in a respectable manner.

By refusing to pass this legislation, in my opinion, Faculty Senate is saying that they know these intolerant acts are occurring in their classrooms and they want to ensure that they continue or that they are at very least indifferent about it.

This university has an obligation to its students, staff, and faculty to provide a safe and effective learning experience. It’s time they keep their end of the deal and promote an accepting environment.

I’m here, my LGBT friends are here, all our allies are here, and more and more are joining us on the right side of history each and every minute. We aren’t going anywhere. We Are Penn State! We are NOT STRAIGHT!

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