I’m one week into my sophomore year of college, and I can already tell that it is a gajillion times better than my first year. There’s no one to impress anymore, I know the campus and its folks super well, and I’m able to look at any packed syllabus and not blink twice. Because I just did this last year, and I survived.
But there is one thing that makes this sophomore year a super special experience — the ability to be a mentor to the incoming class. And specifically, a super gay one.
I have never felt more fulfilled than I have during the wild times of orientation week, traversing across campus in the Student Activities golf carts, dancing shamelessly in front of 400 first-years, and calling on the encyclopedia of my brain to answer any and all questions about Drew University.
I was ready to not only be an ambassador for the theatre department or my feminist housing or my clubs, but also for Drew’s LGBTQ+ community. The high visibility of queer and GNC students on campus is the reason I came to and stayed at this school. I know that my ability and comfortability to be out can be wielded in a positive way for the students who I was just like only a year ago.
Each member of the Orientation Committee gets a nickname to wear on their shirts throughout the four days. The nickname gifted to me was Shepard, not only because of my work with the Laramie Project Project, but also because the committee viewed me as a good shepherd and leader for the incoming students. I proudly put my rainbow LPP pin right above my name tag right after my 4am alarm clock went off on move-in day. It was time to welcome the gaybies.
I got to speak at an event for a new career and purpose development program held for the first-years. Several upperclassmen spoke to represent the Identity/Affinity Communities that structure the program, since it’s all about keeping our identities in mind to create meaningful change, and I represented the Spirituality group. I full-on came out in front of all of these students about how growing up gay and religious was a difficult experience but now grants me the ability to speak about Drew’s religious community with a trauma-informed perspective.
After I experienced a homophobic classmate in Spain, I find my eagerness to come out sometimes lower than usual. But once I realized that there were kids in the audience that were more scared than I was, I knew I had to do it. Besides, I wasn’t doing this labor for homophobic folks anyway.
I was lucky enough to meet with a couple first-years after this event, who thanked me for my speech. I wanted to thank them right back, because they give me a purpose.
One of my fellow Orientation Committee members came to me and said they wanted to create a space for LGBTQ+ students during Orientation. While we do have an absolutely incredible GSA that does a great job of welcoming in first-years, we figured we could strengthen their intake of members if we gathered these students before classes even began, and helped them recognize some of their community members. In tandem with our Orientation Committee leaders we set aside a time during the last day of Orientation for a social event with games and all the pride flags I could gather. It was not on the schedule because this was added in after Orientation began, but we had the leaders make PSAs, and it will be featured in the schedule next year.
The event was a success, and more than 20 students came. As we went around in a circle and shared our names, pronouns, and identities, I found it hard not to cry my eyes out. I looked at these students and wanted the world for them. We laughed and talked for two hours, playing card games, and sharing gay humor. The value of having an event for a socially marginalized group led by members of that exact group is innumerable.
All throughout orientation and the week after, I did not hide any queer coding in my conversations or actions. I ranted with other sapphic freshmen about our celebrity crushes and constantly poked fun at my own subscription into the stereotype of “gays not being able to drive.” During the Boardwalk/Carnival event that I worked during Welcome Week, I brandished my creation from the make-your-own-sign-station — a pink-and-white poster that literally says “I *heart* women.”
The first day of classes, I ran into a group of my gaybies, and we chatted about their first day of classes, which went pretty well. One of them called me their Lesbian Mom, and I definitely cried a little bit.
Whenever I am about to serve a mentor role, I ask myself what is it that makes me special and worthy to be a leader. I do not say this to be harsh to myself, but rather to make sure I am giving those who will look up to me a fair experience. What about me makes it important for me to lead? What in my story is possible to share for the good of another?
In a class of 400 first-years, there are LGBTQ+ students who have been out for a while and are living the happy life that they deserve. There will also be students who are living an out life for the first time. There’s also students who are not out at all. They are wrestling and reconciling with messaging that maybe has been told to them their whole life and is overtly present in the greater culture.
This is one of the joys of lesbian motherhood: that I can make a joke here and there, wear my rainbow pin, and do the smallest acts of queerness and that can make someone feel a bit more comfortable. In this world, there are kids who have to go around with the knowledge that others’ issues with LGBTQ+ identity could resort to ostracization or even violence. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, it’s not anyone’s identity that causes them hardship, it rather is the prejudice against them that makes for this reason to fear.
I’ll also say once again that my ability to be out with little-to-no doubt comes from a place of extreme luck. This luck cannot exactly be duplicated, but it can be shared in a way. I know how often community members look to each other to check if our expressions are safe in each space. I am over the moon to be able to do this for the Rangers that are now a part of my North Jersey home.
Thank you, LGBTQ+ class of 2023, for turning me into the happiest and proudest lesbian mom out there. I will strive hard to do right by you.
About the Author:
Alyssa Sileo’s Thespian identity comes first and foremost in anything she carries out. As a member of the Drew University Class of 2022, she studies theatre arts, women’s and gender studies, and Spanish. She’s a proud NJ Thespian Alumni and member of their state chapter board. She is the leader of the international performances network The Laramie Project Project, which unites worldwide productions and readings of the acclaimed Tectonic Theater Project play and encourages community-based LGBTQ+ advocacy. Alyssa is humbled to serve as the 2017 Spirit of Matthew Award winner and as a Youth Ambassador for Matthew Shepard Foundation. She believes there is an advocacy platform tucked into every piece of the theatre catalogue and intends to write outreach into the canon.