KOKOMO, Ind. — When Benjamin Liechty came out as a gay man, he was kicked out of college.
The only way he could stay enrolled at his conservative religious school was to issue a public apology, only live in student housing, and seek counseling from a provider chosen by administrators, among other conditions. He left that school, and later earned a degree from Indiana University Kokomo.
Now a financial aid counselor on the campus, he does not regret his decision.
“When I had the strength and courage to come out, it was freeing to me,” he said. “When you find a strong support system, and you can come out and feel accepted and loved, that is how it is supposed to be.”
The Cougar Advocates for Diversity (CAD) student organization recognizes October as LGBT awareness month, hosting a “coming out” forum, with panelists sharing their personal stories. In addition to Liechty, Sarah Heath, associate professor of history, and students Chase Hadley and Ben Colage, talked about what is was like to come out.
The newly-formed IU Kokomo Gay-Straight Alliance also participated, encouraging the campus community to offer its support. Freshman Jacqueline Xavier, the organization’s president, said it offers an opportunity for all students to be educated, and to support LGBT students.
“It’s not exclusive, it’s inclusive,” she said. “Everyone is welcome. It is important to be educated.”
Maria Ahmad, coordinator of student life and campus diversity, said these groups and events are crucial, because they let students know the campus is a safe place. It also connects them with resources that can help them, including the Counseling and Psychological Services available on campus.
“We accept you for who you are, and we can offer support,” she said. “College is the time that young people figure out who they are. You can learn to disagree with someone, and get along with a respectful manner with people who are different from you.”
She noted that the college years are a time some students choose to tell others about their sexual orientation, because it feels safer than high school. The panel discussion could offer an idea of what that process is like.
None of the panelists’ experiences were the same.
Hadley first came out in middle school, but retracted it because of bullying. He came out again as an older teenager, and found more acceptance.
“My dad told me no matter what, he would always support me,” he said. “My mom was more difficult, but she eventually came around. She was willing to go to a gay pride event with me.”
He is glad he came out.
“Anything is better than being in the closet,” he said. “There will be people who react negatively, but you would be surprised by who is supportive.”
Colage waited until after high school to come out to anyone other than close friends and his parents. He announced it by posting a picture of himself with a man on Facebook.
“People suspected I was gay, and I never denied it, but I never came out in school,” he said. “It went smoothly, other than with my parents.”
Heath noted she was the oldest of the group, and that when she was younger, there were few protections in place for those who did come out. She recalled working at another university that offered her no help when a student threatened her in an evaluation, specifically because she is gay.
She noted that sexual orientation is not a person’s whole identity, but just one facet. She is well known on campus not only for her teaching and research, but also for her talents at baking and gardening.
“There are so many things people should know me for, other than being gay.”
Alisha Elam, CAD vice president, said the group’s goal in hosting the forum was to promote acceptance for people who are different, and to provide education.
“It’s important to us to support the many diverse populations on our campus, and to teach people it is OK to accept people who are not the same as them, and to treat them in a respectful way.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.