A fresh foundation
MSU students examine past, look ahead in fight for LBGT equality
For genomics and molecular genetics senior Zachary DeRade and his partner, MSU alumnus Justin Love, one of the major factors of coming to MSU was the chance to be a part of a larger, more diverse area accepting of their homosexuality — a chance to find a home.
“I feel very safe and secure at Michigan State University, and I also feel confident and safe to express pride in my identity,” DeRade said.
“Justin and I both came from a really small town where in the late ’90s the community had chased a teacher from their town for being a gay man. I feel confident, safe and proud to be an openly identified gay man at Michigan State University.”
Since the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in June 2013, members of the LGBT community across the country rejoiced that the piece of legislation, which allowed states to refuse same-sex couples the benefits of marriage, had been struck down. And although many college students are several years away from marriage, it’s painting a picture of the progression of LBGT rights on campus in addition to building a hopeful avenue for MSU students to pursue their relationships in the immediate legal future.
A plethora of organizations that includes students, faculty and alumni caters to the needs of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, or LGBT, community at MSU.
Coming from a town of fewer than 4,000 residents in Byron Center, Mich., DeRade said he and Love expected MSU to be accommodative and understanding to their needs, and for the most part, they got just what they wished for.
“Sometimes, the best support you can show is not making a big deal about it and making it as ‘normal’ as everything else around you,” DeRade said. “Also, I try to remind people that my experiences are my own, and what I say, how I act and how I feel are not representations of the entire community.
“Just like the MSU community is full of a hugely diverse group of people, the LGBT community is also just as diverse.”
Finding a home
Emily Pelky remembers the moment she came out.
An admission of her identity, which lifted the weight of a strong but recognizable secret, the music education junior first admitted her sexual orientation to herself during her 11th grade year in high school in Macomb, Mich. But after a year of self-discovery upon coming to MSU, Pelky opened up, sharing one of her most guarded secrets with her friends and later her family.
“It’s especially hard to find people like you when you are a closeted person because, obviously, you don’t want everybody to know about you,” Pelky said. “But I feel that most of the really involved freshmen were ‘out and proud’ coming into MSU, so they were able to make connections with groups and resources right away.
“When I wasn’t involved, campus life didn’t seem as vibrant as it does now.”
And then there are couples such as packaging sophomore Becca Jarvis and her partner Jessica Mitchell, a criminal justice junior, who found serendipity at MSU.
Although they chose MSU because it catered to their individual academic interests, both Jarvis and Mitchell now consider it the right choice for reasons beyond academics.
“From the moment I set foot on campus, I felt extremely welcome,” Mitchell said, noting she is an active member on the executive board of campus group Living in Great Harmony Together, or LIGHT.
The Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender Resource Center, or LBGT Resource Center, at MSU has inspired and encouraged many students to work toward the betterment of their community.
MSU alumna Erica Shekell, who graduated in 2013, said the burgeoning LBGT community at MSU was one of the reasons she decided to attend college here.
“MSU’s thriving LBGT community was a huge factor in my decision to attend MSU. When I was researching prospective colleges, I looked at their cost, the majors they offered and what resources they had for LGBT people, so MSU’s support for the LGBT community was literally a huge factor in my decision to attend MSU,” Shekell said.
The long road ahead
There still are battles being fought by members of the LBGT community at MSU.
With stigmas in existence ranging from those in opposition of gay marriage to people who demonstrate a regular bias against the LGBT community, Shekell said MSU still has a long way to go to reach absolute equality — a struggle being felt in cities and campuses across the country.
“You still sometimes hear people saying, ‘That’s so gay,’ in a derogatory way, or hear straight guys yelling ‘faggot’ at their straight friends, or have signs for LGBT events being torn down, or have sexuality instructors who might not be as inclusive or knowledgeable about the LBGT community as you might expect,” Shekell said.
“Things aren’t perfect, and there’s still a lot to be done at MSU, especially given the size of the campus.”
Shekell’s statement only reiterates that it is not always a rosy picture for LGBT students at MSU, as others have experienced various levels of harassment and verbal abuse.
Social relations and policy and economics senior Maxwell Evan has been the victim of harassment as a result of his sexual orientation, which he attributes as a product of many men trying to protect their masculinity.
Evan said during his time at MSU, he was approached by a group of male students who made derogatory comments to his face and spitting at his feet. He also said he’s been met with this kind of harassment by a passing car and once when he was sitting at a stoop behind an East Lansing coffee shop — each attack came unprovoked, Evan said.
“I think the intolerant, hypermasculine sector of the student population has recently felt threatened by the inevitable acceptance of homosexuality,” Evan said. “Due to all of the media attention and discussion surrounding the normalization of homosexuality, I think the harassment I have experienced recently is just pushback from people trying to hold on to that sociosexual tradition”
Still, Evan said he sees the winds of change swirling and appreciates the positive reception to the LGBT culture demonstrated in mainstream media, citing a specific example in hip hop artists Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ pro-gay song “Same Love.”
“Changes are in the works right now,” Evan said. “There are gays of every shape, size and color, masculine, feminine, singers, football players, intellectuals, celebrities. The more visible we are in society, the more society will notice that we are normal people. I think we’ve come a long way in the last five years.”
Kevin Fleury is a graduate student at MSU. He’s also a member of the LGBT community.
A native of Marshall, Mich., Fleury sees the chance in the future for one distinction not to be greater or more significant than any other.
“Our LBGT community is a part of MSU’s student governments like RHA and ASMSU; they are a part of our Division I athletics teams; they are represented amongst the young men and women that make up our greek life system here at MSU,” Fleury said. “They are RAs, faculty and staff, administrators, Physical Plant workers, video gamers and performing arts entertainers. They are just as definable as the brunette population at MSU. They are no more alike or different to one another than any other group qualified by an arbitrary characteristic.”
And although many stories remain untold, a growing sense of acceptance and tolerance is being built into the foundation of MSU.
“MSU is a completely different atmosphere in which I feel that I can be who I am without the fear of people looking down on me or trying to tell me that I am ‘wrong’ for being me,” Pelky said.
“I don’t really get treated any differently than any other student in that respect.
“I feel that all of the professors I have had thus far see people for who they are as human beings and (don’t) discriminate based on factors like sexual orientation or even race.”