Stories from professors and administrators on National Coming Out Day

Media Credit: Photo courtesy of Acquaviva

Photo courtesy of Acquaviva

It’s the 25th annual National Coming Out Day on Friday – a day of reflection, celebration and remembrance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. We asked five gay and lesbian GW faculty and administrators to share their coming out stories.

Robert McRuer – English Department chair

I grew up in an extremely religious family – a family that was, and is, Fundamentalist Baptist. For that reason, when I came out in the late 1980s, it was not particularly easy. I had just started graduate school at the time, and was no longer particularly religious myself.

But rumors of my sexuality started to make their way back to my family, who were were convinced that I was either lost in sin or very sick. Of course, these are sort of incompatible models – being sick is one thing, being a “sinner” another – but homophobia is not particularly logical, especially in some of its entrenched forms, such as the forms it takes in conservative religions.

I was in the process of coming out to graduate school friends, and was also in the process of starting to date guys. But my own family was not accepting of me as gay, and in many ways, still is not, even more than 25 years later. For more than a year, my mother couldn’t talk to me on the phone without crying. But, as with many – or maybe most – young people, I did have a gay uncle, and that helped a lot.

English department chair Robert McRuer with his partner, Cristhian. Photo courtesy of McRuer
English department chair Robert McRuer with his partner, Cristhian. Photo courtesy of McRuer

I survived that very difficult time and went on to write a dissertation on contemporary gay and lesbian literature, which became my first book. At this point, after almost 17 years at GW, I’m most known for teaching and writing about what has come to be called “queer theory.” I teach classes, actually, that I never would have had a chance to take when I was in college because they didn’t even exist. I have been fortunate since the early 1990s to be part of wonderful and diverse communities and friendship circles, including the D.C. and GW communities, where I don’t really encounter homophobia in direct ways.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t always around us lots of indirect ways: I’ve been told even by some relatively progressive folks that my minority difference wasn’t “visible” and thus not really important.

After the Supreme Court decisions of the summer striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, my boyfriend and I decided to get married. Since he is from Colombia, the decision affords us protection in terms of staying together that we did not have before.

Still, this is not an easy story simply suggesting “it gets better.” Most members of my family were not happy about my marriage, and some of my family members encouraged others not to come to my wedding. I’m also very aware that my own queer experience has been one privileged by race, class, gender and ability, not to disregard its painful moments and the structural difficulties that straight people do not always face.

For the vast majority of binational same-sex couples, being together is a challenge or impossible, and Cristhian and I feel extremely fortunate in that regard.

Kim Acquaviva – Associate professor in the School of Nursing

As a 41-year-old faculty member looking back on my coming out process, two things strike me: how fresh the memories still are and how much better life is today than I ever imagined.

I struggled throughout my adolescence to reconcile my attraction to both girls and boys with the more “traditional” expectations of my family, church and community. And that struggle eventually led me to a very dark place in which I felt lost, hopeless and completely alone.

Photo courtesy of Acquaviva
Photo courtesy of Acquaviva
A failed suicide attempt at 15 pushed me further into the closet because I couldn’t bear to cause my parents more pain. I dated guys throughout high school and college. My attraction to women remained a central feature of my college years, but I never considered coming out in college for two reasons: I was fearful it would make my sorority sisters uncomfortable, and I was sure the news would kill my parents – my mother in particular.

Ironically, my mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer when I was 21 is what finally freed me to come out. When I finally told her over the phone, there were a lot of tears, but the news didn’t kill her. In fact, she lived for four more years and our family was able to come to peace with my sexual orientation before she died.

Probably the hardest part of the coming out process for me was figuring out what exactly I was coming out as. I was attracted to both men and women and had positive relationships with both, so what did that mean in terms of my label? Technically I could have embraced the label “bisexual” but ultimately I didn’t – I felt as though my primary orientation was towards relationships with women, so I decided to use the term “lesbian” to describe myself.

The take-away message is this: You are the person who defines who you are. Labels are imprecise at best. Don’t stress yourself out over them.

My experience as an out member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community at GW has been overwhelmingly positive. Within the School of Nursing, my sexual orientation is such a non-issue that it’s almost surreal. My dean and colleagues show the same degree of interest in and support for my family as they do for everyone else. When my partner, Kathy, and I got married, they recognized this milestone in my family’s life with a cake, cards and hearty congratulations.

Being “out” here feels more like finally being “in” – “in” a community of people who truly see me for who I am and value me as a human being.

Be patient with your family and remember that coming out to your parents rarely looks like it does in the movies. If you have parents who were sad or angry when you came out, give them time and space to sort out their feelings. You’ve had awhile to come to terms with who you are. Give them a chance to catch up.

Jeffrey S. Akman – Vice president for health affairs and dean of the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences

National Coming Out Day is a day for me to remember and express my deepest gratitude for all of those who are no longer here and who were central to my personal journey.

As a confused, questioning student arriving at GW for medical school in 1977, the closet seemed like the safest place as I embarked on my path to becoming a physician. Even with Winfield Scott, Ph.D., the openly gay associate dean for education and Benny Waxman, M.D., the openly gay associate chair of the OB/GYN department demonstrating that one could be out and successful in medicine, I dared not inch out of the closet.

Hatchet File Photo
Hatchet File Photo

However, early in my psychiatry residency the world changed with the identification of the first American AIDS case in 1981. As young gay men were admitted to GW Hospital, I was drawn to hear their stories.

At a time when the fear of contagion and the stigma of AIDS were at their height, when death announced itself with unexpected pneumonia or dementia, I searched out these patients and sat at their bedsides. I learned that I had much to offer as a physician, healer, educator, friend and witness. HIV/AIDS became my calling.

Ultimately, Winfield and Benny became friends and mentors. In 1985, I joined the GW psychiatry faculty and taught in Benny’s human sexuality course for medical and health sciences students. Upon his death from HIV/AIDS, I became the course director. Soon after Winfield was stricken with HIV/AIDS, Dean Robert Keimowitz appointed me to an assistant deanship to assume Winfield’s responsibilities as dean.

The opening of Essex Hemphill’s 1989 poem “When My Brother Fell” perhaps best expresses how I felt at the time and has continued to be a touchstone for me.

When my brother fell
I picked up his weapons
and never questioned
whether I could carry
the weight and grief,
the responsibility
he shouldered.

With so much illness and death among my patients and friends, with so much education required to get health professionals comfortable taking care of patients with HIV/AIDS, and with so much work to do in building a community response to the epidemic, the closet became irrelevant.

Nikki Usher – Assistant professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs

My coming out story is a classic “it gets better” story. I knew I was gay by 6th grade, but I kept it a deep, bottled-up dark secret.

As if to compensate, I tried to excel in everything I did. I was the captain of my tennis team and a state finalist in high school. I was on my high school student government. I was an editor of the school paper. I was social and dated boys.

But I never said anything about my sexuality to anyone because I didn’t have any of the examples we see now of successful lesbians.

When I went to college, I was fully convinced that there was no way I could be gay and be successful. I had a happy existence – attending parties, rising to become an editor on the school newspaper, doing well in my classes and having fun – but in time the façade wore thin. After a long trip to Southeast Asia, I headed back to college convinced I wanted to kill myself because I couldn’t handle the idea of faking it anymore.

Before classes started, I told one of my best friends I wanted to commit suicide. He dragged me from my dorm room in the middle of the night and took me to our infirmary.

I don’t remember that night that well, but it was indeed the start of a new life. I slowly came out of the closet. My family was confused but generally supportive, and I experienced nothing but love from my friends at school. I also made many new friends. Though I still lacked lesbian role models, I started to see that I could have so much fun just being me.

When I left college, I moved first to Chicago, then Los Angeles, and finally to Philadelphia. There, I continued to explore the vibrant gay culture – from pride parades to drag queens to piano bars – and I met my wife. Though I was excited to discover such a varied gay community, I still preferred a more conventional, albeit assimilationist life, and so did she. Now, nearly a decade later, and my wife and I live in the suburbs, spend our free time surrounded by a diverse group of friends and enjoy whitewater kayaking, triathlons and running.

As a professor at GW, my sexuality is a non-issue. Sometimes LGBT issues come up in class – such as when the Associated Press has been arguably homophobic in its style guide – but for the most part, I try to set an example in more subtle ways: a picture of me, my wife, and our dog is my screen saver on the giant monitor in my office, and my door is always open to students as they discover their own adult identities.

Cayo Gamber – Assistant professor of writing and women’s studies

I have been teaching at GW for more than 30 years now. But in my first few years of teaching, coming out in the classroom was not an easy process, especially because sexual orientation was not included in the University’s policy on equal opportunity in the early 1980’s.

There were times when being out as a lesbian professor felt precarious. One semester, a female student in a class I was teaching asked to drop the course – after the add-drop date – when she learned, some weeks into the semester, I was lesbian.

She told a University administrator that being in a classroom with me made her uncomfortable, and she was allowed to drop the course.

When I learned what had happened, I was outraged. I asked the administrator, “Would you have allowed her to drop the course if I were African-American and she said that my race made her uncomfortable?” He looked at me puzzled: He honestly didn’t get the point of the comparison or my sense of indignation.

Periodically, I was unsettled when I would hear that parents called to complain that their sons or daughters were being forced to read a text authored by an out gay or lesbian. For example, from time to time, the department’s administrator would inform me, “we received another call today about you teaching Paul Monette’s ‘Borrowed Time’” or “another parent called to say she doesn’t think her daughter should have to pay for a book of poems by Minnie Bruce Pratt.”

Today such responses would be unthinkable, at least here at GW.

A decade after the inclusion of sexual orientation in the University’s policy on equal opportunity, GW began offering benefits to same-sex partners. When that day came, I felt that the University not only supported my right to identify as lesbian, but the University also recognized me as a full employee, as someone who deserved access to the same benefits as other employees.

I have no sense of apprehension today in being out as a lesbian professor. Now when I tell students I am lesbian it is just another point of introduction.

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