I’ve thought about writing a piece like this for more than a year. Where do I start? From the top, I guess. I’ve recently come out as gay and want to share my story for two reasons. First, on National Coming Out Day I hope that people going through similar experiences will be reminded that they are not alone. Second, I hope that my story will encourage others to evaluate the current state of LGBT acceptance efforts in the Ross School of Business. These efforts have effects on real people. They have effects on me. They have effects on all of us, gay or straight.
Like most, I denied and repressed my feelings when I was younger, thinking that they would go away. Through middle and high school I lied. I tried to create a world for myself where I had what I thought I needed to be happy. I ended up hurting others. For example, I pretended to be romantically interested in a close friend and entered a relationship. I needed the friendship but was afraid to admit to her that the feelings weren’t mutual.
I remember being made fun of for the way I talked, my (lack of) knowledge about sports, and my friends. A classmate in middle school claimed that I had a “gay lisp” in front of my English class. I would sometimes say that I couldn’t go to lunch because I had to do homework and not because I had no one to sit with. I remember looking at each year in school as a chance to make genuine friends. Each time I failed.
Deep down, I knew that my lack of self-acceptance was the root of the problem, but I put the blame on anything and anyone but myself. I thought that I couldn’t be successful or happy if I was gay. Whenever I heard a reference to anything “gay,” it was by peers using the term to make fun of something or someone.
Near the end of my freshman year at the University, I found myself about to return home feeling like I had accomplished little. Sure, I made the grades I felt I needed to get into the Business School and could talk on end about an internship and extracurricular activities. But I had made few friends and didn’t feel accepted in Ann Arbor, the most open and tolerant place I had ever lived. I struggled to let go of my misperceptions about what it meant to be gay.
I realized the only way for me to end my cycle of superficial friendships and lack of a social life was to embrace who I am and open up. Even if I managed to fool others, I’d never be able to fool myself.
At first, coming out to friends and family was a scary process. Sometimes it still is. Most react well. Some don’t. But by coming out, I’ve finally made clear who I am and have absolutely no regrets about revealing something I know to be true.
I’ve lived more than enough of my life in the closet. Now that I’ve finally become comfortable with myself, I feel a need to try and make a positive impact where I can.
There aren’t many openly gay people at Ross, especially among undergraduates. Out of nearly 1,500 BBAs, there are five in Out for Business, the school’s LGBT student association. Perhaps more telling are results from Out for Business’s weeklong ally pledge competition — a competition between BBAs and MBAs to publicly show LGBT support in honor of National Coming Out Day. Three quarters of the way through the competition, 244 of 1,000 MBAs had pledged support, compared to 24 BBAs. I haven’t felt that Ross’s undergraduate population is homophobic — instead I think that BBAs are too career-driven and ignore important social causes.
Business has the power to spread ideas and innovations across borders. But how can the business world maximize its power as a change agent if its people are afraid to address sensitive issues head-on? I want to encourage more open, candid discussions of topics that may seem awkward in places like Ross. The fact that business can be impersonal and numbers-driven is an asset. Businesspeople shouldn’t care if they include a marginalized group. Emotions will always play a part in any relationship — I get that. But gay people have proven themselves as smart individuals who contribute to the bottom line. People in the business world can serve as leaders by showing others that there’s no downside to being more accepting. Gay people are everywhere and aren’t going away.
In many ways I’m extremely lucky. I haven’t been beaten up for being gay. I’m receiving a great education at the University and have endless choices for a future career. I have friends. My parents struggle to accept me as gay but certainly haven’t disowned me. I therefore feel a responsibility to speak out for the sake of the many members of the LGBT community who face challenges far more staggering than mine. I’m at the same stage in my life as my fellow juniors. I share the same career goals, academic aspirations and fears. The only difference is that I have insight into what it’s like to be part of a group that still faces legal and social discrimination.
Eric Totaro is a Business junior.