Students tell stories of coming out

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By Ethan Hill

 

A group of students assembled on the lawn in front of the UC to celebrate “Coming Out Day.”  Equipped with a podium, microphone, speakers and a goal to raise awareness and support for LGBT life on campus, students from all walks of life gave personal testimonies.

One of those students was fifth-year graduate student, Sean Van Aacken. He shared his experience overcoming struggles and embracing his identity.

Van Aacken graduated a semester early from high school to begin his career at UW-Whitewater in Spring 2010.  Up until that point, he had kept his sexual identity to himself.

“I wasn’t really sure how well received it would be because I had never been out before,” Van Aacken said.

Although Van Aacken waited to come out until UW-W, he had experienced animosity from peers as early as middle school.

Van Aacken

Van Aacken

“I had very feminine mannerisms,” Van Aacken said. “In middle school, I remember several incidents when I was punched in the face.  I went to the assistant principal about it, and he just said that ‘you have to stop acting like this.’”

One’s sexual identity constitutes only a small characteristic of one’s person.  Identifying openly as an LGBT individual can lead to overgeneralization from others, according to Van Aacken.

“Being bisexual does not define me, it is just a part of who I am,” Van Aacken said. “When I was in training before my first year as an RA (Resident Assistant), one of my co-RAs asked how I wanted  people to know me and I told him to have them come to me.”

People must be defined by their accomplishments, ambitions, and aspirations, not by the gender or genders that attract them.

Vice President of IMPACT, Junior Ban Ahmed, shared her story of being born in Iraq. She has proceeded to live in five different countries with five different cultural perspectives on gender.

While living in Canada, Ahmed fell in love with and married a non-Arab man. In her parents eyes, this decision did not reflect their perception of an ideal marriage.  This experience moved her to engage and connect with the LGBT community when she came to UW-W.

“At some point when people ask me ‘what do you want to do in life?’ I would say to make my parents proud,” Ahmed said, “And a lot of people have to go through that if you are in the LGBT community.”

The acceptance and legalization of same-sex marriage has been progressively sweeping the nation.  In Wisconsin, the right to same-sex marriage was affirmed by the Supreme Court just last week.

This positive trend in public perception improves security and optimism in the LGBT community, discrimination remains a prevalent reality in daily life, even in the workplace, Ahmed said.

Van Aacken had a nine-year career with McDonalds, starting at the Janesville location when he was fourteen.  He went on to work in 35 different franchises and advance to corporate.  It was there that Van Aacken was confronted by his direct superior about his sexual orientation.

“My supervisor came in one day while I was eating lunch and said that he had heard that you were talking about a guy that you were dating,” Van Aacken recalled.  His supervisor went on to comment, “If you want to move up, you shouldn’t talk about those things.”

Rather than allow this insensitive comment to hinder his confidence, Van Aacken said he chose to stand up for himself.

“I said to him that if you’re saying that I can’t move up and not be myself,” Van Aacken said. “I’ll take that as a challenge.”

Van Aacken reported the confrontation to his HR director and within a year and a half was notified that his supervisor had been terminated from the company.

While the climate for LGBT individuals has been improved significantly within recent years, events like the Coming Out Day are necessary to promote a healthy atmosphere for non-heterosexual students.

“UW-Whitewater had opportunities to improve the climate for LGBT students on campus and I think they’ve come a long way – we still have a ways to go but I think that we are making really important strides to get there,” Van Aacken said in reflection on his experience at UW-Whitewater.