Decked out in suits and dresses, Pitt’s LGBTQ+ alumni and current students congregated in the Gold Room of the University Club Wednesday, reminiscing about the evolution of the community and discussing plans for future growth.
Pitt’s LGBTQIA+ Alumni Affinity Council hosted a reception at the University Club on National Coming Out Day. The event aimed to bridge the gap between LGBTQ+ individuals and alumni, according to Marcus Robinson, a recent graduate and organizer of the event who currently serves as a member of Pittsburgh’s LGBTQIA+ Advisory Council.
Robinson, 22, explained that the goal of this networking event was to bring everyone together and create a stronger community to advocate for better events, establish scholarships and create mentoring opportunities.
“The purpose of the group is to foster a better relationship for the LGBT community at Pitt, especially for alumni because a lot times there is no central office to connect us,” Robinson said.
Sandra Nelson, a third year graduate student in their PhD program at Pitt, talked about the significance of this event, especially because it coincided with National Coming Out Day.
“Today is important because it represents the struggles of the past in which people weren’t able to come out as openly as they can today,” Nelson said. “It also speaks to the fact that the queer community is very diverse and some people within it have a lot of privilege and use that to help other individuals gain access.”
Growing up in a conservative town in Arizona prevented Nelson from coming out of the closet completely in high school, Nelson said. But because Nelson’s parents are very accepting, coming out to them at the age of 19 was not a difficult experience.
“But I’ve definitely taken more time to come out in an academic or professional setting,” Nelson said.
Robbie Huerbin, a 2016 graduate and psychology major, had a slightly different coming out experience.
“My parents have been divorced since I was two years old so I have these two different sides of my family,” Huerbin said. “With my mom’s side, I came out to all of them when I was like ‘oh I have a boyfriend’ and I was really excited about it and it went well.”
Huerbin said he is not as close with his father’s side, and he has not made it explicitly clear to them, but they kind of already know. He said that explicitly coming out to them is “not on my to-do list.”
Huerbin also said there was a big shift in the LGBTQ+ community from his elementary school to high school years.
“When I was in elementary school there was a lot of homophobic comments. I would get called gay just because I liked this certain character from a game,” Huerbin said. “But nowadays you hear stories about 16-year-olds asking each other to prom and that never happened five, six years ago.”
This event was aligned with homecoming week, which Nelson said a conflicting time for alumni in that returning home means different things and evokes different memories for everybody.
“‘Coming home’ is sort of a motif and could be challenging for some people, so I think it’s an interesting conflation,” Nelson said. “I think it’s good to reflect on people’s personal journeys but I also get that going home can be a source of trauma for other people.”
Both Nelson and Sara Pecora — an alumni who graduated in 2012 — agree that coming out is becoming easier and more accepted, but it depends on the context and location of the situation.
“In the scheme of America it’s probably a little bit easier now [to come out], but I know a lot of people still face struggles coming out, like unfriendly home situations or communities that are not super welcoming,” Nelson said. “There are high rates of mental health conditions, which are especially poignant for trans folks. I feel like the struggles are still happening.”
The ability to come out comfortably really depends on the tolerance of a person’s surrounding community, Pecora said.
“Pittsburgh is an okay place to come out, but it’s different from L.A. or Mobile, Alabama,” Pecora said. “It’s all contextual.”
In Pecora’s case, coming out to her family was a very casual experience.
“My coming out story is very boring,” Pecora said. “It was basically me texting my parents and being like ‘hey I’m on a date with somebody and they’re not a boy,’ and my parents just said ‘k.”’
Sophomore Azize Harvey — who is both the communications assistant and a board member of Rainbow Alliance — said discovering her sexual orientation is complex and ongoing.
“I identify as bisexual because I’m attracted to both males and females,” Harvey said. “I’m attracted to people, not gender. That’s something I talk about with my friends and family and it’s something I’ve been doing since I was very young.”
Harvey said she remembers having conversations with her family about crushes she had when she was ten years old.
“I have been extraordinarily lucky,” Harvey said. “Coming out has never been an issue or something I should be ashamed of.”