Does my friend think I’m gay?
It is spring of the second year of my engineering degree, a Tuesday afternoon, and the phone rings. It’s Cora, my design partner from class and my best friend. However, she isn’t calling about school. The question she asks me is one I have been dreading my whole life. This question cannot be answered by any formula I had learned in school.
“Ryan, there is this guy spreading rumors about you. He says he had been dating you for months now, but you broke up with him. Who is this guy Ryan? I will beat him up for you! You can’t be gay, why would I be hanging out with you if you were?”
I was silent. All I could hear was my heart pounding in my head. It was true. I was living two lives. One gay. One straight. My worlds had collided.
“I don’t know this guy. I don’t know what he is talking about,” I lied.
Lying became natural to me during my engineering studies. When I started engineering I was lost and in the closet. Now I’m about to receive my iron ring, and looking back over the years it took to get to this point it is painful and exhilarating. The tale of the journey I am finishing needs to be told.The sharing of the personal story of how I hid my sexuality, the disastrous effects it had on my schoolwork, how I became comfortable with myself, and the rewards that ensued, is something from which I hope you can learn.
I hid my sexuality because I didn’t want to be judged. I was scared of losing friends, I was scared I wouldn’t get jobs and I was scared for my safety. Most importantly, I wanted to protect my family from embarrassment. Yes, I felt I was an embarrassment.
I spend most of my life avoiding anything that would associate me with being gay. Maybe that was why I went into engineering. I was nervous of being artistic or expressing my opinion. Instead, I buried my head in physics and calculus books. It was comforting because there was always an equation and an exact answer. Dealing with word problems for school was easier than trying to solve my own problems.
I began engineering hanging out with the wrong crowd. Those testosterone-filled classrooms never left room for discussion on sexuality. Instead, the dialogue was one that was littered with derogatory remarks about girls and narrow-mindedness. I was desperate to be acknowledged and wanted to be included.
I should have won an acting award for the years I played straight. I tried to fit in by picking up girls, getting into fights, and making fun of gays and lesbians. I can still remember the cold, dark night when a few friends from school and I drove up that winding road to the place where gay men were known to hang out. We threw rocks at them that night and it shocks me that I ever went that far to “fit in.”
My masquerade did not last long. I soon took the chance and confided in friends outside of my engineering circle about my true self. It was emotional and liberating at the same time. However, secrets like that were difficult to keep under wraps in a small town.
After being outed to all my classmates, I fled to another university and enrolled in a different engineering program. I was anonymous, but life wasn’t any better. I now kept my personal life completely separate from school, not even trying to fit in with my classmates. I distanced myself from my professors, my classmates, and my professional ambitions. Without a gay outreach program at my school, I never met any gay engineering students and began to doubt that any existed. I felt alone in my faculty and wanted to escape. By day I was an absentee student. By night, I spent my time in the company of my gay roommates who studied film, hair design, and fine arts. Their way of life distracted me from my analytical way of thinking. I felt like I was reborn and was making up for the time that I had tried to be someone else. As my social life grew into a frenzy, my marks plummeted. I got used to getting failing grades, but I didn’t care at the time. I was finally living. However, I was not prepared for the consequences of my deteriorating academic record. It got to the point where I was asked to withdraw from the engineering program, leaving my once-structured life shattered. I was now more embarrassed of myself than I had ever been. Nonetheless, I was still given the opportunity by the faculty to return the following year for a second chance at an engineering degree. At this point I was unsure if a career in engineering was for me. I knew I had to get away to think, away from my old classmates and distracting gay friends.
I packed my suitcase and moved out West. I contemplated who I really was and if engineering was part of my equation. I was scared of failing again, but after some inspiring advice I decided to return.
I tried to keep my head high coming back to the school that had failed me. Walking those uninviting hallways brought back memories that I tried to ignore. I had to keep a clear head because I was determined to prove that I could succeed in engineering. But to succeed I knew I had to be true to myself, and not to hide who I really was. To be a part of a class you have to let everyone know the real you.
The gradual process of revealing my sexuality to my classmates took a lot of trust and courage. This time, I just wanted to “fit in” on a personal basis so I could have a university life. I took a chance and casually would bring up my sexuality in conversations at school. My classmates were stunned at how calmly I would bring up my personal life, but they saw how comfortable I was with being gay. It was now their problem, and I was left to wait for their reaction. Surprisingly enough, my class took it better than expected. They have reached out to me and made me a part of their group. I gained their respect and their friendship. I have now successfully meshed my two worlds together, creating a delicate balance between my personal and academic life. This happy medium has led me to excel in school again, and to educate others on what being gay is really like and that it is not wrong.
Being true to myself has brought nothing but positive results to my life as a student in engineering. Now that I am openly gay, I have been changing the way people view gays and getting people to discuss issues that they thought were taboo. Things can be better if people can see past the stereotypes and connect with the person.
Even though I have reached this level of acceptance with my classmates, my struggle is not over yet. There are still so many roadblocks that have to be cleared for me and other gays and lesbians. Until being gay is not an issue I won’t be satisfied. Society is changing rapidly in some ways, but acceptance of minority groups is still in question. Right now I cannot give blood or get married in Canada. This is not the type of community I want to live in so I plan to help change it.
I have just started my fight against homophobia, and it excites me that I am and will be part of the gay movement. I was recently stopped by a professor who commended me on my efforts to increase awareness of homophobia at school.
“Would you be interested in getting together to talk about how those of us who stay here for longer periods than do students can help make this campus more accepting of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students?” asked the professor. “I think it is important that the institution gain from your obvious commitment while you’re still on campus.”
Words like this keep the fire inside me burning. I used to be such a lost child in this world and I felt like I didn’t belong. Now I have found my place and I am going to make sure that I keep it.