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by Derik Cowan
March 1996

Yesterday, I received in the mail the latest issue of my high school's alumni newsletter. Looking through the class notes for word on any of my friends from high school, I was surprised to find a mention of me. The line went something like this:

"She sees Derik Cowan often as he goes to Amherst College and both of them are involved in LBGT issues/concerns..."

I closed the magazine, thinking ruefully to myself that I was now out to everyone from my high school days, but then quickly came to the realization that I didn't care all that much. I was never officially out in high school. It wasn't really a possibility given my parents' fundamentalist Christian background. But nonetheless everyone knew I was gay. I went to school in drag once or twice, I was heavily involved in the dance program, and if one believed the rumors, I had the most active sex life in the school. My sexuality was an open secret. I put a veneer of Christianity and conservatism over it, and I spent a lot of time protesting that I really was straight, but it didn't matter.

The truth is that from my junior year in high school on, I was aching to come out, and in fact one of the things I covertly spent a lot of time checking into during my college visits was how gay persons were treated on campus. I remember looking for and finding pictures of a lesbian and gay organization in the Oberlin and Amherst Yearbooks, reading the graffiti in the stalls of a bathroom at Swarthmore, and seeing signs posted for a play about a lesbian couple at Princeton. My mom actually ended up helping me in this quest quite accidentally, as she felt the need to point out any LBGT activity she saw on a campus as a detriment to that campus.

I finally settled on Oberlin and Amherst colleges as my top two choices for many reasons. Both were excellent schools academically as well as being fairly liberal and open to the towns around them. I discovered I had an aversion to schools with walls and gates separating them from the world around them. I was accepted to both schools, but Amherst gave me a large amount of financial aid, so I chose it over Oberlin.

There are many factors to be considered when choosing a college, among which the general gay positivity of the campus is only one. Nonetheless, for those of you who are looking at colleges, I would recommend finding a school that is very gay positive. There are actually a lot of ways to find out how a school treats its gay students, many of which aren't necessarily obvious at first glance. If I were just starting my college search, the first place I would look is in the admissions office itself. Are there pamphlets out detailing the resources for gay students on campus? Is there a picture of an organization for LBGT students on campus in the yearbook? Are there courses in the catalogue about gay and lesbian studies? These courses are often found in the English, History, Government/Political Science, or Women/Gender Studies departments, but many schools also have Queer Studies departments.

The second place I would look for evidence of a strong LBGT community is in the town. Are there gay and lesbian sections in the bookstores? Do you see any rainbow flag stickers on cars or in store windows? Do magazine racks typically have gay themed magazine sections? In small college towns especially, most stores cater to the student population, so gay publications or symbols in store windows are a good clue to how accepting the school is.

Probably the hardest and yet the most accurate way to get a feel of a school is to talk to some of the gay students or faculty at the school. At Amherst, this is made somewhat easier by the fact that one of the Admissions staff is gay and has a lot of contacts in the gay community which means that he can often give a prospective who wants to talk to a gay student on campus some names of students to talk to. Amherst also has a large number of out professors who are easily found and perfectly willing to talk to prospective students. In general, however, it might take more than simply asking at the admissions office if you could talk to a queer student about life on campus to find someone to talk to.

You may have to call the college switchboard and ask for the number of the campus Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual group, which will hopefully lead to a student you can call. If neither of those things work, than your next option is to keep an eye out for pink triangle or rainbow flags on professor's doors or dorm room doors. I have a couple of friends who have a rainbow flag hanging in their window. You might also watch for triangle pins or even ally buttons on people's bookbags.

The last thing I would recommend checking (and the easiest for you to check from home) would be the school's website. Many times if a school has a gay organization, they will have a homepage. You can also check student homepages to see if any have LBGT information on them.

Amherst has proven to be a haven for me. After my parents cut me off for being gay, the deans office and financial aid office managed to work things out so that I could afford to continue studying even though my parents were no longer paying for my education. I have a number of wonderful friends, and I've had many outlets to do political work on gay issues. But I also would warn you that no matter how wonderfully accepting the school you find yourself out may seem, no place is perfect. I have several friends who have been harassed because they were gay at Amherst, and it can happen anywhere. College can sometimes seem like a place where the problems of the real world can't reach you, but don't let yourself be lulled into a false sense of security. Bad things can happen in as many places as good things do.


Derik K. Cowan, 20, is a full-time student at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he is studying Theater, Dance, and English. He can be reached online at dkcowan@amhux4.amherst.edu.
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