My first job after graduate school showed me the good, the bad, and the downright ugly about learning how to navigate my queerness at a university in a small rural town. I hadn’t realized how much I took for granted until I moved to the middle of nowhere and had the rug pulled out from under me, and I hope by sharing my story that I can help others not feel alone if they have also lived through similar trauma. Additionally, I can assist folx in locating employers and work environments that allow them to be their most authentic selves.
I didn’t come out until I was a sophomore in college. In my childhood, I attended Catholic school and later moved to one of those towns where everybody knew everybody since first grade, and even kids who had left for college found their way back to the beautiful Lake Erie town I called home. While the town had its charm, I never had the opportunity to explore my sexual orientation. When it was time to go to college, I was ready to jet! I moved two hours away from my parents; we often joked they were close enough to grab me if there was an emergency, but far enough away that they had to call before they visited. It was perfect, and during this time, I really came into my own while away at college. Lots of firsts happened: my first drag show, my first pride parade, and even my first visit to the gay bar. After all of that, I quickly knew it was time to tell Mom and Dad. I took a trip back to my childhood home, sat them down, and began telling them I was gay. Without hesitation, my mother said, “We’ve known that for a while now.” I should have known my parents who raised me with the values of love, respect, and acceptance would love their queer daughter just the same. However, I learned only several years later that being queer and proud was strongly impacted by the contexts and environments in which I lived.
After finishing my bachelor's degree early, I added on a master’s degree to have a bit more time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I followed in the footsteps of others and pursued a degree in Education Leadership, specifically, Student Affairs. As part of my program, I had the privilege of stepping into the classroom. Teaching, learning, and growing in the microcosm that celebrated diversity and appreciated my queerness did not prepare me for what awaited me after graduation. The search for my first “real job” was stressful, long, and exhausting. This, combined with the fact that my sister died two weeks shy of my graduation, left me feeling vulnerable and panicked about securing a job. So, when a school in a small rural town offered me an on-campus interview and subsequent offer, it was impossible to turn down. I packed up my car and traveled more than 700 miles out of my comfort zone. Have you ever heard of the boiling frog analogy? It’s rather grisly but illustrates my experience rather beautifully. According to the analogy, if you put a frog in a boiling pot it will jump out, but if you put a frog in tepid water and slowly increase the heat, it will not perceive the danger, even when the water starts to heat up. The frog will just stay put until it’s boiled alive. Well, I was the frog. I remember being naive and blindingly trusting this new community, but little did I know that by the time I realized how toxic it actually was, it would be too late.
Looking back on the few years I spent in that town, I do have some fond memories. I had a good job, my parents were close, which at the time was very helpful as we learned to live with grief and navigated life after the death of my sister. I had friends, though, I should clarify, I had people at work I could talk to, but I spent many nights and weekends alone, usually watching “The Amazing Race.” I took up running to pass the time and was actually the healthiest I had ever been physically in my adult life. I even worked with a personal trainer and trained for a half marathon. I was #SWOLE. Unfortunately, deep down, I knew I wasn’t happy and living there was unsustainable. I started noticing the microexpressions and microaggressions when I talked about my queerness. For example, I remember one incident near the end of my time out there when I asked for my pronouns on my business card, which was approved by my supervisor, but when I got my cards back they were printed without my pronouns. It was chalked up to a clerical error, even though I had approved the proof, which included my pronouns.
One of the more painful experiences happened right near the end of my time there. Our unit got funding for roughly 10 of us to attend a conference. I remember asking about rooming assignments since it was announced we would be sharing rooms. I was the only member of the trip that didn’t have a roommate and when I noted that it was odd, I was told no one felt comfortable staying with me. I had never felt more ashamed, depleted, and empty in my life. It was clear to me through this experience that something had to change, and I started to think about life after this job. This small town took a fun-loving extrovert and transformed her into a shell of herself, someone who was now so afraid of what would happen if she moved to another new town that she decided to move back to her old college town, the only place to this day that she can still call home.
After leaving that toxic environment, I ended up working at a university in a metropolitan area. Still reeling from the aftereffects of my “small town” blunder, I struggled with myself and who I was in the workplace. I had internalized my experience of being a queer professional and was fearful that being out and queer would pose similar problems. I hid pieces of myself and came off as reserved and shy. I lived an hour away and felt the drive was the buffer needed to center myself before work, and then overanalyze everything after. I remember keeping a journal of instances or experiences that happened at work, or things that I had I said, where I could have accidentally outed myself. Again, I felt guilt, shame, and anxiety. I never talked about my home life and did my best to keep everyone at an arm's length. I don’t remember when the marshmallow fell into the fire, but it did. Something had to change. I no longer recognized myself and knew it was time to slap the reset button. I worked with a holistic therapist who helped me establish appropriate boundaries in the workplace and slowly started to share more at work and was able to choose who, when, and if I came out to my colleagues. I started building friendships slowly but was still nervous about hanging out outside the workplace. I relearned how to come out in the workplace and how to navigate the university as a queer professional. I learned how to leverage my identity to build networks of support for my students in the community and shared my lived experiences as a cautionary tale for students getting ready to graduate or transfer to a new school. I volunteered to offer Safe Place training and talked on panels to discuss finding safe spaces as young professionals.
As that small town moves further away in my rearview mirror, I have some advice for queer professionals like me:
- Find friends with whom you can be your truest self;
- Practice self-care, not only when you need it most, but at all times, and give yourself grace; and
- Ask the tough questions during your interviews. Ask about affinity spaces, benefits, or other structures of support for faculty and staff. It may be helpful to research LGBTQ+ policies and support, housing policies for students, mental health support services, as well as comprehensive health care plans, and see how extensive these are for students (as an indicator of services available to you, professionally).
Life is too short to not live authentically: Be fierce, be brave, be you! Happy Pride Month!
Lauren Shackleford is the Career Development Coordinator at the University of Michigan.