[oasis][columns]

by Eldon C. Brown
August 1996

"I need to talk to you," said the voice on the other end of the phone.

It wasn't someone I had ever talked to before in my life. He called me out of the blue and gave little explanation for his request. But I already knew what he wanted to talk about.

Being the president of a campus gay and lesbian student group brings with it many more responsibilities and obligations than those defined in the constitution. The high level of involvement and visibility lead to other issues that often times have nothing to do with the organization itself.

The man on the other end of the phone got my name from someone I don't even know. He told a co-worker that he was having problems with a relationship that recently ended and that he had no gay friends or contacts within the gay community. She referred him to me.

I arranged to meet him and we talked about his situation. I offered to introduce him to people and help him build a new circle of gay friends. He had moved here two years ago with his partner at the time and never met any other gay people. When that relationship ended, he was left with no connection to his own people.

Being openly gay brings with it some magical power that turns one into a confessional booth. I have been approached by gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals struggling to come out. Ex-boyfriends and girlfriends of gay and lesbian people have come to me when they find out their ex-partners have come out. Others approach me because a homosexual experience has left them confused about their sexuality.

It wasn't too long ago that I found myself looking for my own confessional booth. When I first came to WIU in the fall of 1992, I had only one mission in mind: to find another real, live gay person. At this point I was 17 years old and had figured out that I was most likely gay. Peoria, Illinois, didn't provide many outlets for a gay teenager trying to come out. In fact the only contact I had ever had with other gay people was through the computer.

I knew that surely on a college campus of this size there must be at least one other gay person. I needed someone to talk to, someone who had gone through the same things I was going through. I found that person on the Internet, and his name was Aaron.

Aaron was a hall director in our residence halls. I still remember the day that I first met him. I had been talking to him for a couple weeks on the computer, and finally got the courage to actually meet him in person. I was new to the university and assumed he was a fifty year old staff member who was out of touch with what it was like to be a gay teen.

To my surprise, he wasn't much older than I was. We went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. It was one of the most nervous moments of my life. Here I was eating lunch with another gay person, actually talking aloud about being gay. It was a very liberating experience for me.

We became very close friends over the course of the next few months. He helped me every step of the way as I came out and started meeting other gay people. He was there for my first kiss, my first date. He helped me to see the positive things about myself. For the first time in my life I truly felt like I knew who I was.

I changed very dramatically after that experience. I gained a new sense of self-confidence. I lost 70 pounds over the course of the next year and really felt good about myself. I went on to become an active student leader. If anyone had told me that I would be the poster boy for homosexuality only two years later, I would have laughed at them. But I went on to accomplish more that I had ever dreamed I would have. And I owe it all to Aaron.

He is the reason that I enjoy helping the people who come to me. I try whenever possible to be a mentor and a role-model. Aaron made a bigger impact on my life than he will ever possibly understand. He wasn't a psychologist or a miracle worker. He simply took the time to be my friend.

These experiences are not what I expected when I stepped up as the leader of the gay and lesbian group. Ironically, they are the experiences I have enjoyed most. Unlike people of racial or ethnic minorities, young gay, lesbian, and bisexual people often have no role models. Those teens are born into a family who is the same race or ethnicity as they are. Their main source of support for dealing with issues of identity, heritage, discrimination, and hatred comes from their family. As gay, lesbian, and bisexual people we sometimes must create our own families.

I have found that family here. I find myself referring to the younger members of our community as my children and grandchildren. They often times look to me for support and guidance, just as I looked to Aaron. Most of the people I once looked up to are now gone. I do my best to pass on the valuable lessons they have taught me. It is with fond remembrance and joy that I watch my children experience their own first kisses and first dates. One day I, too, will move on. I hope that my children will carry own my words and knowledge to those who come after them.

Next week I start training for my new job -- as an assistant hall director. I have followed in Aaron's footsteps in the hope that I will be able to make an impact on others, just as he made on me. During the past few years I have fallen in love with the university environment. I have decided that I want to stay where I can make a difference. My most memorable moments here are those where I have been able to help others.

This column is dedicated to Aaron. Without him I would not have accomplished any of the things I have today. I would hope that every gay, lesbian, or bisexual person would take the time to help someone in need. It is very easy for us to forget where we have been once we have come out and become comfortable with ourselves. Taking the time even to talk to a confused teen can make the difference between life and death. It did for me.


Eldon C. Brown is a 21-year-old graduate student at Western Illinois University studying College Student Personnel. He can be reached at muecb@wiu.edu, or visit his home page.
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