Friday, September 20, 2013

Not a Straight-Forward Science

(Bailey was one of the two students who worked on the Experiences of LGBTQ Adolescents and Young Adults in Rural Appalachia:  Identity, Risk and Resilience project with faculty mentor Dr. Angie Dahl during the 2nd annual Freshman Scholars Program in summer 2013.)

by Bailey, Freshman Scholar and Guest Blogger

For Peter.

When I heard of Dr. Dahl's study for the Freshman Scholars Program, I thought I was a perfect candidate. As someone educated and open-minded, I thought I was someone who would never judge someone, especially not about his or her sexual orientation. It is only now, looking back, that I see how ignorant I was of my own ignorance. I was guilty of making many of the same assumptions that others do.

In the weeks preceding the Freshman Scholars Program, Dr. Dahl asked myself and Hannah, another Freshman Scholar on our team, to read a book called "The New Gay Teenager." Before I was even on campus, I was learning more about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth than I had ever thought possible. I learned through my readings that research in the past has focused far too much on the negative qualities of being gay and have ignored many of the positive qualities of being gay and the resiliency of those who identify as LGBTQ.

In high school, I had a friend named Peter. We met in 8th grade at a debate about the pros and cons of The Twilight Saga.  I didn't see him much after that until high school. We talked every once in a while throughout high school, bonding over My Little Pony and the musical groups we were a part of, and even though we weren't extremely close, I still considered him a friend. One day, I heard rumors through our school that Peter was wearing a skirt. I stumbled upon him in the cafeteria, and it was true - he was wearing a pink-striped shirt with a pink skirt. I was proud of him for his courage (he definitely pulled it off). I learned later that he did it for three separate purposes:  first, to honor a friend of his; second, to gain self-confidence; and third, to determine how people would react.

There was a mixed reaction to Peter that day. To my surprise, I saw a lot of other students who made nice remarks toward him. However, there were negative remarks as well; I saw my friend being called derogatory names, and even though he didn't show it, I worried that he was hurt. The scary thing is, it also seemed like he was being judged by some of the school staff members. Overall, it was sad to see my school's reaction to Peter that day. There were other times when I saw him teased, and I thought that I was someone who completely understood him and who was completely non-judgmental, but I was wrong. When talking with him recently, I finally asked how he identified since I had not asked before. I had made the assumption of him being gay, and even though I was right, it wasn't proper of me to just assume without asking.

Since working in the Freshman Scholars Program, I have learned something about my assumptions. I now know that there is a difference between sexual orientation, sexual identity, sexual behavior, and gender identity. I now know that there are so many other terms besides lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and realized that individuals who identify as a sexual minority might not want to be put in a box with a label. The people in the gay community are no different than any other human being. They are just people. Peter is not simply a gay male. Peter is a male who is wonderful and funny. He is understanding and strong. The fact that he is gay doesn't define him - it's just a part of who he is, and I'm proud to consider him my friend.

I worry about Peter now that I have left home. I worry that people will try to label him; I worry that he will be misunderstood and that people may treat him badly. But I also know that he is a strong, resilient person who can survive and will thrive.  Yet, I shouldn't have to worry. Peter should be allowed to be who he truly is, without any fear.

During my work with the Freshman Scholars Program, I felt slightly separate from the other scholars. My work wasn't a straight-forward science. I didn't get to trap and track turtles or use fancy machines like some of my peers. My work didn't produce results as quickly as some of the other projects in the program - my work takes time. To be honest, there was a point where I thought my study wasn't worth it and that what I was doing wasn't as important as working toward understanding tuberculosis or finding the effects of urbanization on the turtle population of our local ponds.

Dr. Dahl helped me acknowledge that I was doing good work and helped identify the relevance of my study. However, the person who helped me the most was Peter. When feeling down, I asked for his help, which he readily gave, and when I told him of my study, his reply brought me to tears. He said that I "rocked for writing something so important."  He also shared his excitement when he said my study would help "change the world." That's when I realized - I wasn't doing this for Dr. Dahl, for the three credits, or even for me. I'm doing this for Peter, and for people like him, who deserve the chance to be who they are.

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