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College addresses homosexuality

Meghan Wons | Thursday, October 12, 2006

As activists across the U.S. spoke out Wednesday in honor of National Coming Out Day, members of the Saint Mary’s community gathered in Dalloway’s Coffeehouse to discuss the issues facing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities both at the College and within society.

The Wednesday night panel discussion was sponsored by Saint Mary’s officially recognized student club Straight and Gay Alliance (SAGA).

While several of the five women on the panel – who represented a range of ages and academic disciplines – were aware of their sexualities and “came out” before college, others struggled with their identities throughout their time at Saint Mary’s. All spoke openly Wednesday and offered insight into the experience of an openly non-heterosexual woman at an all-women’s Catholic college.

Kelli Harrison, a 1998 College alumna, said she came to Saint Mary’s both as a “rabid Catholic” and as someone who was confused. She said she had never been attracted to men and thought she might “just end up being a nun.” During her time at the College, Harrison met and fell in love with her current partner of 11 years – a College classmate who was also on Wednesday night’s panel.

“For me, coming out was about figuring out: who am I? What is my voice?” Harrison said. “Exploring your identity [in college] is pivotal at this point in your life.”

Harrison allied with several students and faculty members during her time at Saint Mary’s to organize a student group to give students a voice. But the administration, she said, was not supportive.

“They weren’t really willing to allow students to get together to talk without dictating how it would go,” Harrison said. “I always felt, or definitely at times, that I was sort of a second class citizen.”

Harrison’s partner, Jennifer Warner, a 1998 alumna, also spoke about the lack of support she felt from the administration during her time at Saint Mary’s.

As an African-American student, she said there were many resources available to her and she was encouraged to explore this part of her identity, but when she wanted to discuss her sexuality there was no place for her to go.

Current Saint Mary’s students provided perspectives on how the College atmosphere has changed since Harrison and Warner were students.

Junior Sara Nielsen said she knew she was “different” when she was six or seven years old.

Throughout school she had crushes on guys, but as she grew older she said she discovered she had also developed feelings for girls. She came out to her family as a bisexual, and while she said her parents have been accepting, they do not openly discuss her sexuality.

“There’s kind of a don’t ask, don’t tell policy,” she said. “My dad still kind of thinks that being gay is a choice.”

Nielsen said she came from a very diverse town and wondered how well she would be accepted as a member of Saint Mary’s fairly homogenous population.

She said her experiences here have been positive and she has found people to be very accepting.

While she entered into college thinking she “did not want anything to do with God,” Nielsen said Saint Mary’s has changed that.

Campus Ministry has been a great support, said Nielson, who went through its confirmation program.

Nielsen also said the positive influence Saint Mary’s has had on her life is mutual, for her openness about sexuality has enlightened other people – no matter how uncomfortable they may be.

“Real life is not always comfortable,” she said. “I like being out at Saint Mary’s because I really think it helps the community.”

Freshman Aimee Sanjari was out in high school as a bisexual and experienced harassment and discrimination from classmates, but said she has found the climate at Saint Mary’s to be very different.

“I really haven’t experienced any bias or discrimination here and I hope it stays that way,” she said.

Panelist Kristen Matha, a class of 2003 alumna, led a high profile life as a student at Saint Mary’s, serving as sophomore class president, student body vice president and student trustee on the College’s Board of Trustees.

Although she first realized she was gay in middle school, she said she worried opportunities would be closed off if she came out.

Her fear of judgment and scrutiny of her sexuality made her eager to leave Saint Mary’s senior year, she said.

Matha went on to law school at Michigan State where she thrived and became close friends with other gay students, one of whom she said became her “gay mentor.”

When she came out to her mother over the phone during her third year at Michigan State, Matha said her mother replied, “I’ve known for awhile and I couldn’t love you any less” – ideal words for a child coming out to his or her parents, she said.

“I do regret that I wasn’t more open [at Saint Mary’s],” Matha said.

To ease these campus sexuality tensions, panelists agreed that “making sexuality part of the discussion” in classes was one way to create a more open, accepting environment.

Saint Mary’s will offer its first Introduction to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Studies class in the spring, SAGA advisor Mary Porter said.

SAGA President Kristi Allmandinger said she was very pleased with both the turnout for the panel discussion and the range of panelists that were able to participate Wednesday, “especially considering it is midterms week.”

SAGA holds meetings every second and fourth Mondays of the month and plans to participate in the National Day of Silence in April. This event asks participants to take a vow of silence for one day to understand how many GLBT individuals feel they do not have a voice in society.