By Jordan Addison
I’m a big fan of being a wallflower. You know the type, there’s one in every crowd. A person who rarely speaks and is content to listen, to have the world ignorant to their existence. Having been bullied my entire life for being perceived as gay, I am very good at being a wallflower.
I grew up in a small community that may as well have walked right out of the 1950’s. High school is already a brutal place; when mixed with racism, homophobia, and rigid gender roles, it’s purgatory. Friends were not a readily accessible item during my high school years. Naturally, blending into the background was my defense mechanism. After high school, it still continued, albeit in a different way.
Somehow in the chance game of life, I ended up at Radford University, thoroughly enjoying the direction my life was headed in. This is also the time when life decided to throw me the biggest curveball I’d faced so far: My car was repeatedly vandalized with hate speech because I’m gay.
After having “Fag,” and “Die” scratched into my little Volkswagen, tires slashed, and a broken window, was a stressed out mess. A select few faculty members tried to help me out. Students and faculty alike came together and collected money to help repair my car. Not having the money to fix my car subjected me to even more torment, and those collected funds really helped.
Richard Henegar Jr. heard my story thanks to the supporting faculty. Richard stepped up to bat for me. He works at a family-run auto body shop and repaired my car for free. Eventually, this lead us all the way to being on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Knowing that those people worked so very hard to help me, a run-of-the-mill college student, is a feeling that I will never be able to explain. Coming out as a gay man, even today, is something that will try every relationship you have forged. At RU, it seems that for every friend and family member I lost, two angels have stepped up to the fill the void.
For this, I will never be able to thank my Highlander family. When I was beaten down, in tears, and terrified, my fellow RU Highlanders stood beside me, hand in hand, to let me know that I am loved. They didn’t want me to die, as someone else had. They didn’t want to vandalize my property. They wanted me to live, to prosper, to grow.
Building a Safe Zone on Campus
Now Radford University has a renewed interest in making our campus a safe place for everyone to be. The Student Government Association, Gay-Straight Alliance, Spectrum, Alpha Phi Omega, Alpha Sigma Tau, and many other student groups sponsored a campus-wide Spirit Week against bullying, eventually ending up with a rally featuring carnival-style games. We distributed statistics about bullying and what students can do to combat it.
It was the first event of its kind to be held at RU and came about due to students, faculty, and staff who wanted to show that they support everyone. The support that was, and is, being shown at a small school in the South is enough to warm the hearts of even the most cynical.
My school has a program called Safe Zone, which is one of the most important things in my life. Safe Zone is a collaborative effort among students, staff, and faculty to secure trustworthy allies and supportive, safe spaces for students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning, and to offer educational outreach opportunities to both the RU and larger local communities.
I’m so blessed and happy to be a part of this program. Faculty members, students, and myself go around to organizations, clubs, and residence halls and give an interactive presentation about things such as LGBTQ history, coming out, statistics on bullying, and what it’s like to be gay for a day. This program really helps students be self-aware of their own biases, as well as being aware of how the world is different for LGBTQ individuals.
Standing in front of a room full of people who have no idea who you are and sometimes don’t care what you have to say is terrifying. The first time I gave a Safe Zone presentation I thought, “Where’s purgatory now? Take me back to high school!” People can get angry when you force them to question everything society has ever taught them.
Yet after two years of Safe Zone, I can happily say that I’ve learned how to stop being a wallflower, to step forward and say what people need to hear. I encourage everyone reading this to take that step forward and stand up for someone that is being pushed down.
Richard did it for me, and I try daily to do the small things I’m able to do, to make my community more educated and unified. I found that when I stood up, I didn’t stand up alone. Friends, family, and perfect strangers stood with me, united for a cause.
Going from a wallflower to a confident public speaker wasn’t easy for me, I had to be pushed. On the staircase to becoming an ally, action is the hardest step to take. Please though, take that step. It’ll change your life. In the wise words of Neale Walsch, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
Jordan Addison, from Rural Retreat, VA, is a junior at Radford University and is double majoring in social work and sociology. He plans to work with LGBT youth.