Eldon C. BrownOctober 1996
During my senior year of college, I decided that I no longer wanted a career in law enforcement. With only two semesters left to finish my degree, I decided to complete my bachelor's degree and pursue my master's degree in College Student Personnel.
I'm now into my sixth week of class and I couldn't be happier. I've found a career field that I can work in for years without ever thinking of my job as "work." I work in a residence hall with two other graduate students and a professional staff member. Together, we supervise 20 student resident assistants (RAs) and help ensure a safe and comfortable living environment for the 650 students who live in our building.
It's been a long time since I have been a part of such a close team. I couldn't have asked for a better staff. I truly love going to work everyday. No other building has a more competent, fun, and energetic team. Nonetheless, I have had my share of difficult adjustments.
Along with my new position came a new role on campus. I never really appreciated the freedoms of undergraduate life until now. Every step I take inevitably leads me to students that I either advise or supervise. What was once a simple night out at the bars is now a walk through a mine field. I must try to be a positive role model while still trying to have fun. In some cases these students are older than I am or are only separated from me by a few semester hours. I have never been put in this role before.
The student affairs field is known for its gay-friendliness. Diversity and respect for all students is at the forefront of all that we do. For now, my sexuality is a non-issue. I enjoy that. It allows me the opportunity to focus on other aspects of my professional career. I really enjoyed my time making a positive impact on campus as a gay student leader, but I feel like my options are much more open than they ever have been before. Working with a staff of 20 students has brought with it several challenges. Over the past few years I have developed close friendships with other student leaders from residence halls, student government, Greek organizations, and minority student populations. I have worked closely with people who are very comfortable with GLB people. The joking and flirting, even from straight men, that brought us all closer together always included me. I never felt that I was treated differently than any other student leader trying to make a difference.
My new RA staff, however, is very young. Most of them are sophomores who have not had much exposure to GLB people. With the exception of a couple juniors and seniors, I am the first living, breathing homosexual that they have ever known.
During RA training, an optional safe space program was offered by BGLFA, our campus GLB student organization. It gave the RAs a chance to learn more about a population of students they might encounter and to identify themselves as allies to the GLB community.
Without exception, every RA from my building attended this program. It made me feel proud to know that they were so supportive. As I entered this new phase of my life, I did not want to struggle with a homophobic staff. What I soon realized, however, was that even the most supportive and well-meaning staff could be very isolating to GLB people.
Some RAs came from small towns where "faggot" was a common term used on a regular basis. Others weren't sure how to react to my sexuality. Was it a taboo subject? Did I expect them to keep it a secret from the residents? How would I react if they said something I found to be offensive? Their paranoia was understandable. I wasn't a peer or a student. I was their supervisor. They would rather be quiet than risk offending me.
It was very frustrating at first. The staff was very comfortable with each other and did a lot of touching and hugging. I was accustomed to being included in that behavior. Suddenly I found myself excluded and isolated. The other straight men I had worked with in years past would flirt with me just as they would the women of our groups. The RAs didn't do that. Very few of them even acknowledged that I was gay. I felt invisible. This impacted my comfort level with them. How would they react if I flirted with them as I had been comfortable doing with the other men I had worked with? Would they misinterpret my actions, or even worse, feel harassed?
One week we exchanged names for a secret "buddies" program. All week we gave gifts to our secret buddies. A male RA received a sexually suggestive gift; he made a comment to another RA that his gift must have been from a female member of our staff, "or Eldon." When she told me about his comment, I was ecstatic. Someone had actually acknowledged my sexuality! I wasn't looking for awards or a parade, but simply an acknowledgment that I wasn't straight. After all, the heterosexuality of the staff was something that was continuously acknowledged and supported. I only wanted that same support. I only wanted to be accepted as a "real" member of our team.
When I later told him jokingly that I was not his secret buddy, he became very upset; he thought that he had offended me. I was shocked. How could he think that merely noting that I was gay was offensive? For so long I had been around people who would acknowledge my sexuality without a second thought. I forgot how awkward and embarrassing it could be for someone who hadn't had any gay friends or acquaintances. Over time he has become more open and less nervous about the subject. At the time it only added to the isolation I felt. How long would it take for my sexuality to not be such an issue?
I am happy to say that things have become much better over time. My RAs are much more comfortable talking about my sexuality. Some of them even badger me about finding a boyfriend. I am slowing growing to the level of comfort that I once felt.
One of the other graduate students in my building helped me to understand that I would only become more frustrated if I continued to change my language or behavior to accommodate the staff. I never compromised my integrity or self-respect, but I was open to adjusting to others' comfort levels. I might not have flirted with a male staff member, like I would with several of my fellow male student leaders, if I knew he hadn't had exposure to GLB people.
Rather than gently nudge my RAs along at their level of comfort, I need to walk ahead and hope that they catch up. I also need to provide a visible and positive image for RAs or residents of my building who may be dealing with their own sexuality. I can only be confident that those who I might make uncomfortable will eventually be more tolerant and accepting.
Eventually I think I will find the comfort level that I felt before. I am working with one of the greatest groups of people on campus. This experience has taught me how caught up in my own social circle I really was. Without these occasional reminders, I forget what it's like to be in an environment that isn't as supportive as the one I have created. Understanding and openness take time. I will be patient.