Essay: Returning home is hard when GW made me feel comfortable in my own skin

After finishing my last final of freshman year, I sat in front of the Lincoln Memorial with a heaviness in my chest. It was one of my last nights in D.C., and I didn’t want to go back to New Hampshire for the summer. The state lives by the motto “live free or die,” but being there has always made me feel uncomfortable in my own skin.

After completing my first year of college, how I see myself and how I’ve chosen to present myself has changed, and I believe it is because of the diversity at GW and in D.C. Growing up queer and Jewish in New Hampshire is different than growing up with these attributes in a diverse city like D.C. Therefore, since coming to college, I have felt more comfortable expressing myself to others and being open about my identity.

An individual’s experience as a minority is heavily influenced by where they are from and reside, which is why I feel differently about expressing my identity at home versus at GW. While I do not look forward to returning to a place this summer where I am treated like I am different, I’ve learned to feel comfortable because of the diversity and tolerance that I have observed at GW.

Growing up Jewish in New Hampshire was incredibly difficult for me. At 13 years old, I began to embrace my Jewish roots and decided one day to wear a kippah to school. The assistant principal called me to his office and asked that I remove the cap, as he thought it was a violation of the school dress code which prohibits hats. Shocked, confused and embarrassed, I removed the kippah and locked it away with my Jewish identity.

My classmates would also make fun of me by perpetuating Jewish stereotypes, from calling me a “cheap Jew” to telling me that I have a big nose. It felt as though my Judaism was all that others could see in my identity.

In addition to being the only Jewish student in my school, I have also identified as queer since high school – tacking on another minority label that has made me stand out in my town. I questioned my sexuality throughout middle and elementary school, and while I was not open at the time about my sexuality, I felt ashamed for being attracted to the same sex. Because I didn’t know anybody that was out at my school and there was an absence of LGBTQ representation in the media, it always seemed to me that identifying as queer was bad. It also didn’t help that many of my peers used the words “gay” or “faggot” as synonyms for “bad” and “weird.” All in all, I felt like I couldn’t be myself in my home state.

When same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States as I was entering my junior year of high school, I began to see my peers become more open-minded. I would see my heterosexual friends posting on social media in support of the LGBTQ community, and some even attended pride rallies. However, I would still face scrutiny and questions from teachers, peers and my family for being open about my sexuality. I recall hearing teachers gossip about my sexuality to other students, and I constantly had to explain my sexual identity to my parents throughout high school. In a state thats population is roughly 1.1 percent Jewish, and with most of my school appearing to be heterosexual, or at least not openly gay, people had a difficult time understanding my different identities and separating me from them.

When I came to GW, I learned not to be ashamed of my religion or my sexuality. This was due in large part to the many Jewish student organizations on campus, like Hillel, Chabad, Meor and other Jewish groups. Students, as well as rabbis, have invited me countless times to come to their events. Even though I am not a member of any of these groups and have yet to attend my first Shabbat at GW, it was heartwarming to feel welcomed throughout the year. The discrimination I faced for being Jewish in New Hampshire will always stick with me, but with time, I am confident that I will take pride in my religion again.

In my first year at GW, I have learned that it is OK to be myself.

In addition to feeling more comfortable with my religion, I have also felt more at peace with my sexuality at GW. My peers and professors in D.C. have accepted my queer identity and see me for more than my sexuality. D.C. was categorized in 2013 as one of the most “tolerant” and queer-friendly places in America. Having historic areas in D.C., like Dupont Circle, with a dense population of young queers and a great LGBTQ nightlife also gives people a place to congregate and feel welcomed. Even though there are many openly LGBTQ people at GW and in D.C., it took me years of hiding and confusion to finally begin to feel comfortable in my own skin, which, in turn, has left me focused on returning home.

In my first year at GW, I have learned that it is OK to be myself. As I get ready to go home for the summer, I am finally ready to take pride in my identity. I am nervous about returning to a place where my identity was stifled, but I am ready to truly be open about my identity and will not let others define my experience.

Jared Bach, a freshman, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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