It is one of my greatest joys to facilitate a weekly support and discussion group for LGBTQ undergraduate students. It’s a space for them to just be. I’m not there to ask anything of them they aren’t ready to share. I am, thankfully, not there to make sure they’re up to date on their coursework. I am there simply to hold a space for anyone who needs somewhere to go.
For two years, I have given a general spiel to open these meetings: We’re a confidential space; we assume others mean well, even if they misspeak or stumble through learning new vocabulary to describe themselves and others; and we are here to cheer one another on. The students cover just about any topic you could think of in these meetings: adjusting to college, family, God, dating, friendship, job searching, roommate conflict, as well as new and old movies, shows and books. We are just together.
It is a space I so desperately needed and relied on when I was an undergraduate student, myself. It was exceptionally intimidating for me to work up the courage to show up for the very first time, but I benefited so greatly from these support groups. Here are three things an LGBTQ support group offered me in college as I grew into the person I am today.
1) No Expectations
The meetings I attended faithfully every Wednesday night never asked me for anything I wasn’t ready to say. No one asked me to know exactly where I fit in the LGBTQ community — or even to know for sure if I was part of it! (The Q can stand for “questioning,” after all.) Some of the folks I met knew exactly which letter in LGBTQ was theirs at age 12. Others I have gotten to see try out new words — even new names — for themselves in real time. Still others, by the time our paths diverged, hadn’t yet settled on exactly where they fit, but knew they were part of the LGBTQ family. No one ever asked me to “prove” I belonged — the only thing I was directly asked to reveal was my favorite flavor of ice cream during an ice-breaker.
Those support group meetings offered me my first real experience of knowing the LGBTQ community in person. It was a place where I could be more simply understood, where no one had a false or heteronormative impression of me that I had to correct. I got to start off those discussion group friendships with a better understanding of myself, even if it was a very tentative sense that I might just like girls. The group was there, and they just got it. While all of us there had very different experiences, we developed a sense of curiosity about those differences and learned from one another. That meeting time gave us a space where we affirmed each other as human beings in an often-hostile world. After a year-and-a-half, I formed wonderful friendships rooted in that one-hour weekly meeting — some of which still persist, years after graduation.
I was spending every Wednesday night evading my college friends’ questions and saying, “I just have a meeting” before rushing off to the LGBTQ support and discussion group. Eventually, I got to a place where I was able to start talking to my friends about my identity, but I still kept showing up to the group. During that one hour a week, I was nourished to keep existing; to carry on with the daunting task of correcting the heteronormative assumption I let everyone make about me for 20 years; to keep showing up in a faith tradition that was trying (but often failing) to learn how to love people like me. On good and bad days, we had a space that centered us and let us be more truly ourselves
It is an extraordinary gift to witness young people (who are in a very similar place as I was a few years ago) becoming more and more who they truly are. I have gotten to cheer on first dates and job offers, new names and new pronouns, and watched friendships among these students evolve from week to week. And they continue to cheer me on as well!
I began showing up to these support groups full of anxiety and with a real feeling of being lost and seeking my place in the world. Years later, I now facilitate these meetings for undergraduate students because my life has been transformed by the community I found there, and I see this community continuing to transform every student who walks into the group. Even on my worst day, when the heteronormativity of the world is exhausting, my days are made better when I dream of the safer and better and happier world I want for my students, and when I think of the small role I get to play in helping them find room to be themselves.