For the first 19 years of my life, I lived in Bryan, Ohio. You may ask, “Where?” To which I say, it doesn’t really matter. The point is that I lived in a small podunk where Wal-Mart was the place to be seen. To make matters worse, Bryan is a haven for racists, homophobes and Republicans. Needless to say, “acceptance” is not in the vocabulary of most Bryanites. My hometown had one openly gay person named Jimmy the Gay Midget.

Growing up gay myself was something of a challenge.

I had a supportive family, though. My parents had wanted a son that played football and dated girls, but accepted the fact that I would never be that kind of a man. When I was young, they let me prance around the house in an oversized t-shirt that I made into a dress and watch “Rainbow Brite” and “She-Ra: Princess of Power.” As I grew older and recognized my homosexuality, my parents continued to embrace my differences and defended me when necessary.

At times, it was very necessary.

The community that I grew up in shunned any form of expression that differed from the norm, and I will be the first to tell you that I was about as far from the norm as the location for this year’s graduation ceremony. It was not so much my sexual preferences that ruffled feathers, but my lack of conformity with gender roles the town had stringently observed since the construction of the first chicken coop.

At my high school, you were called gay if you were on the swim team. Then I came along and joined cheerleading, show choir, dance and quiz bowl. Under the circumstances, I caused myself to be viewed by peers as more flaming than Elton John dressed as Marilyn Monroe. And for my choices, I received my fair share of teasing. Luckily, most people also thought I was crazy and would take a nail gun to their cars if they fucked with me (which I really might have done).

Nonetheless, high school was fun. I never made true friends but I decided I would work very hard to leave that place behind and never look back. I excelled academically and found myself with a wide range of opportunities.

When I chose to come to the University of Michigan, I did so based on the strong engineering program and general prestige. By happy accident, I also found out that it is one of the gayest schools in the nation. At orientation, I met Patrick and formed a quick attachment to him – we had mutual interests in Spice Girls, ponies and glitter. With that, I was more than pleased with my college selection.

As corny as it sounds, the University has given me an environment in which to flourish and become the person I wanted to be. It’s a part of the college experience that often gets obscured by academic and career-oriented concerns, but as much as anything else, self-discovery is what we’re here for. For me, that meant becoming comfortable with myself and getting involved in LGBT issues affecting campus and the community at large.

As a senior looking back on my experiences in Bryan, Ohio, I’m a little jaded. In my most formative years, I was refused a welcoming environment. When I occasionally go back, I still feel angry and hurt. But I’m proud that despite the hardship, I was able to be publically fabulous and – as I recently found out – a role model to other gay people in my town.

Last year, a former classmate sent me a message on Facebook telling me he was gay. (He had sat next to me in choir for three years and I never had a clue.) He told me that I had inspired him in high school, that I gave him the courage to come out and that he has been in a relationship for more than a year now.

More than just a jab at Bryan residents who had hoped against hope that I was the only gay boy in town, his letter empowered me to continue my involvement in LGBT activism and to never sacrifice who I am.

Growing up in Bryan sucked, but I’m glad I did – if only because encouraging gay people like my classmate to embrace sexuality and identity is perhaps the most meaningful work I could do.

Kolby Roberts is a senior in the College of Engineering

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