Coming out in the Heartland: 8 college students tell their stories, share advice

the voice and vision of a new generation

Coming out in the Heartland: 8 college students tell their stories, share advice

October 11, 2018

Midwestern, Mountain, and Southern states are home to the majority of LGBTQ people in the U.S. Yet, this reality is not often reflected in popular culture, as LGBTQ life is portrayed as a culture far from the heartland of America. 

While historically, coastal cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles were some of the only havens for LGBTQ people, recent nationwide progress won by LGBTQ activists, on the national and grassroots levels, has led to more LGBTQ people staying in and—in many cases—moving to Midwestern, Mountain, and Southern states

When the largest generation of LGBTQ people are younger than 35 years old, it is especially important to hear from youth living in the Midwest, Mountain regions, and South to see what unique barriers they may be facing in terms of coming out, family acceptance, and access to safe spaces.

LGBTQ young people should not be forced to leave their homes or expected to pursue education in limited regions in order to feel accepted and safe in their community. This National Coming Out Day, GLAAD celebrates the stories and experiences of 8 LGBTQ youth who are looking to change the narrative and culture around being LGBTQ in the Heartland. 

Grace Chambers

University of Nebraska

What is your ‘coming out’ story?

In high school I participated in my school's Gay Straight Alliance, and I have a sibling who is a part of the LGBTQ community, but I had a boyfriend, so no one ever asked me about my sexual identity. I secretly struggled with my sexual identity, but I determined for myself that it was better left unexplored for the time being. When I got to college though, I met someone. She and I became friends, and eventually I realized that I saw her as more than that, but I was scared to admit it to myself or anyone else. Luckily though, I had an amazing support system. I went to an LGBTQ support group on campus, and eventually built up the confidence to "come out." We started our relationship on National Coming Out Day of 2016, and instead of "coming out" as anything, I just let everyone know I was dating a female now, and that I love who I love based on more than just biological sex.

What is your advice for LGBTQ youth in Nebraska?

Stand tall, and proud, there is nothing to be ashamed of. Advocate for what you believe in, and make the change happen that you want to see.

What is your favorite part about being LGBTQ in Nebraska?

The best part about being in the LGBTQ community in Nebraska is that the community is very small, so it is a very tight knit community.

Dion Copeland

University of Louisville

What is your ‘coming out’ story?

I really don't have a coming out story. I was never really comfortable with my sexuality throughout middle school. In high school I started to embrace myself and all that made me who I was. I began telling people that I was bisexual and eventually that spread like wildfire and everyone knew. It was definitely a weight off my shoulders. 

What is your advice for LGBTQ youth in Kentucky?

BE YOURSELF! Do not let anybody steal your shine. I regret all the time I trying to meet society's standard. Don't expect acceptance overnight, it will come gradually as will the respect from others for being genuine.

What is your favorite part about being LGBTQ at the University of Louisville?

My favorite thing about being LGBTQ at my University is that I can be myself and still be a prominent figure on campus. I hold various leadership positions and I am not judged, overlooked, or belittled for being who I am. Thanks UofL.

Zipi Diamond

St. Olaf College

What is your ‘coming out’ story?

In middle school, I really loved Glee. There was an episode in which the characters sang Born This Way by Lady Gaga while wearing t shirts that expressed an aspect of their identity that they were born with. Kurt's shirt said "Likes Boys" and when I went to a Glee concert, I bought a "Likes Girls" t shirt. I came out to my parents by holding up the shirt. As I've grown up and realized that my sexual orientation is actually broader than just liking girls, I've had to come out to my parents again and again. I think they were more surprised when I told them that I like boys too!

What is your advice for LGBTQ youth in Minnesota?

Attend OutFront Minnesota's LGBTQ Youth Summit! High school LGBTQ youth get to attend workshops and speak with state legislators about supporting LGBTQ issues. It's a wonderful opportunity to meet people who work with OutFront to advance LGBTQ equality in Minnesota, as well as other students from all across the state.

What is your favorite part about being LGBTQ at St. Olaf College?

I love seeing how people at my college express their identities. Students are so creative in how they share aspects of who they are. Some students are organizing an open mic event for queer people of color to share coming out stories and a senior founded a clothing company called Gay Apparel so LGBTQ people can express their identities through clothes! It's wonderful to be at a place where people can be open about who they are and create a space for other LGBTQ people to find acceptance and community.

Noé Monárrez

University of Tennessee

What is your ‘coming out’ story?

I first came out to a couple of close friends during winter of my junior year. And by a couple, I mean like 3 before immediately driving out to Panera and announcing it to another 12. I was still afraid to tell my family anything; I mean c’mon, a Latinx family living in the Bible Belt? Spooky. However, later after the Proclamation™, I was driving my sister to Kroger but before we got out, I pulled a Love, Simon and did the Stereotypical Car Announcement. Honestly, she couldn’t have cared any less. My parents found out when I stupidly left my phone unlocked and they read some messages with my best friend. What followed was an explosive miscommunication and intense ignoring for a short time. It wasn’t easy. My grandma and sister tried helping, but I still left constantly with friends to ignore the pain. Eventually we repaired our relationships. Fortunately, I now have a fantastic family dynamic with them that I can happily and truthfully accept and love myself.

What is your advice for LGBTQ youth in Tennessee?

The best advice I can give anyone is to be patient. Even if things don’t seem to be going well, time helps you realize when you need to call it quits, or when you’re on the verge of a rewarding breakthrough. People may refuse to accept or support you, but at that point, it’s their mistake. Surround yourself with a strong support system; invest in high quality friendships, and befriend helpful, loving adults. You don’t need any more hatred or ignorance in your life than you’re already going to naturally encounter. Let the love, support, and humor of the people that care about you the most overwhelm you. Learn to rely on them. It WILL get easier over time, but don’t forget to confide and depend on your friends. Being patient will reap great benefits in the end, but it can be long and difficult. So, don’t lose sight of who you are and what you want. You are you for a reason. Stay strong, be patient, and above all, don’t forget to love.

What is your favorite part about being LGBTQ in Tennessee and at UT?

I think the favorite part about being LGBTQ+ in my state and university is that I know I’m helping to build a better future for younger LGBTQ+ people and allies. It’s not super easy but keeping the eventual reward in mind is encouraging. I can withstand the street stares and any insults hurled my way because I know that one day, my children or their friends won’t have to deal with it too. If I can help be a loud voice in our generation that brings awareness and shines light on our issues and struggles, then it will all be worth it one day. We may have it way easier than previous generations have had it, but we’re nowhere near done. Others in my state and school think we’ve got it all, but it’s invigorating to educate and inform them. I’m not necessarily aiming to become historically known, but I know creating an impact on a statewide level will be phenomenal.

Jackson Riemerschmid

Ohio State University

What is your ‘coming out’ story?

For as long as I can remember, I have identified as a boy. Growing up I dressed more masculine and would cry every time I had to wear a dress. In middle school, as my body started to change and my classmates started to question the way I dressed, I assimilated to how I was expected to dress and act.

Although it was easier to conform to societal expectations, my mental health suffered as a result. It wasn't until I learned about other transgender people that I realized who I was.

The summer before my senior year in high school, I came out to my parents and sister. As a transgender man I find myself constantly having to "come out" which is a weird concept in itself because conversely, I have never had someone "come out" to me as cisgender or straight. So this is not my coming out story, rather the point in time I decided to be no one else but myself.

What is your advice for LGBTQ youth in Ohio?

Going to support groups with other trans* people has been a life-saver for me. I started at a group at Center Lane in New York and I even go back whenever I am home from school. When I am at school in Ohio, I go to a trans* specific support group offered through the mental health services at The Ohio State University. Being able to confide in others who understand your trans* experience is reaffirming and helps me in the toughest of times.

What is your favorite part about being LGBTQ in Ohio?

Growing up in New York, I find that most people I know from home have some type of experience with trans* people (outside of myself). But, when I moved to Ohio for school, I came across people that didn't even know what it meant to be transgender. When I tell people I am trans* I often get a look of confusion and sometimes a, "Well you don't look transgender.", as if there is a certain way we look. Aside, from these naive comments, I find people to be genuinely interested in knowing more about my experience. Yes, there are times I hear transphobic comments, but on the whole, I find people in the Midwest to be more open-minded than the rest of the country gives them credit for. What I really like about Columbus are all of the queer spaces on and off campus. It's always nice to know that there is a large queer community.

Leo Rocha

University of Missouri

What is your ‘coming out’ story?

I came out to my mom when I was 13 years old. It's kind of a funny story, actually -- this was around the 2012 election (specifically, on Liam Payne's birthday, because I was a huge Directioner back then) and my mom expressed interest in voting for Mitt Romney. I couldn't let that happen, so I came out to her hoping it would convince her to vote for Obama again. We were watching TV together when I just blurted out that I liked boys. She thought I was joking at first, but after she saw the look on my face she quickly realized I was being serious. She said I was confused. I cried. She cried. She said she would always love me, and she stayed by my side as I slept that night. It honestly went much better than I expected, and I recognize how lucky I am to have a supportive parent.

What is your advice for LGBTQ youth in your home state of Texas?

My biggest piece of advice to LGBTQ youth in Texas is to realize you're not alone. I spent my whole life in Texas thinking there was no one else like me, that gay people in my small suburb of Dallas didn't exist. I couldn't have been more wrong. Even in my suburb, they had a pride parade and festival every year! I had no idea because my preconceived notions led me to believe that I was alone. So -- push those aside. Search for your people -- there are hundreds of queer events posted online, especially if you're in a suburb of a larger city like I was. Despite Texas seeming ultra-conservative and "country," there are actually a lot of safe spaces for queer people!

What is your favorite part about being LGBTQ at University of Missouri?

My favorite part about being in the LGBTQ community at Mizzou is the fact that I have the power to impact my campus for the better and create lasting change. I get to create new traditions (such as our Black and Brown drag show) while maintaining old ones -- every year, we take an LGBTQ picture in front of the historic Mizzou Columns. Combining this new concept of the picture with the old, historic Columns is one of my favorite experiences at this school. I also get the chance to show potential students who visit that our school has safe spaces for LGBTQ people, and I know if I had learned that before coming here I would've felt more at ease!

Sawyer Stephenson

University of Oklahoma

What is your ‘coming out’ story?

As a person who identifies as queer and transgender, I basically had two coming out experiences. The first was when I came out as queer in 2016. I had been selectively out for several years to close friends, but after Trump was elected, I felt that being open about my queerness was an appropriate act of defiance. A year later, I came out as non-binary. My partner, who I had just started dating at the time, was the first person I told. I was worried that he would reject me since I was not a woman, but he told me he was proud of me and that his "type" wasn't women, his type was me.

What is your advice for LGBTQ youth in Oklahoma?

The best advice I can give to LGBTQ youth in Oklahoma is to stay strong and find a group that is loving and inclusive. I know all too well how lonely it can seem being LGBTQ+ in a red state, but you're not alone. I grew up in a very small town (Kingston, OK), and I felt really lonely there until I started at the University of Oklahoma. Since beginning college, I have met dozens of people in the LGBTQ community and have found a group of friends that has become like family.

What is your favorite part about being LGBTQ at University of Oklahoma?

My favorite part of being LGBTQ+ at OU is meeting people who are really politically active and learning from them. There is a strong intersection between queerness and indigeneity at OU, which has taught me the importance of understanding that the Western standards of gender and sexuality are not the only ways of thinking.

Jonathan Ye

Indiana University

What is your ‘coming out’ story?

I came out during my junior year in high school. My best friend and I were watching a play in the school auditorium when I decided to come out. It took me hours to work up the courage and say “I’m gay” but when I did, my life completely changed. It felt like someone had lifted a weight off of my chest, and I could finally breathe. I could finally be my authentic self. As time went on, I came out to more and more people, and it started to get a bit easier. I went from hiding parts of my identity to celebrating all aspects of myself, and I haven’t looked back since. I believe that coming out is the beginning of one’s journey, not the end. It has been a rollercoaster of emotions, but in the process I have learned new things about myself, and my identity as an LGBTQ individual.

What is your advice for LGBTQ youth in Indiana?

You are in the driver’s seat! Everyone has a different coming out experience, and you have to decide what’s best for you. There is not one right way to come out and what works best for one person, might not for another. I decided to come out slowly over a few months because that is what worked for me. If you aren’t sure, reach out for help! During my coming out process, I talked to someone who had been out for many years. His advice helped me figure out my coming out process, and he has since become a close friend and mentor.

What is your favorite part about being LGBTQ at Indiana University?

My favorite part about being LGBTQ at Indiana University is celebrating Pride every year. Even though Indiana University is located in the small town of Bloomington, Pride still draws hundreds of people every August. It brings our community together as we celebrate inclusion on campus and in the community. I have made many great memories celebrating with my friends, and we even had Sasha Velour from Rupaul’s Drag Race perform this year!

Clare Kenny is the Director of Youth Engagement at GLAAD. She leads GLAAD's Campus Ambassador Program, Rising Stars Grants Program, and amp series. Clare is a graduate of Skidmore College.

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