I sat on a low brick wall that bordered Portland State University, gazing down the street, waiting for my 18-year-old son Nick to return from auditing a class. The February sun shone high and bright but the air chilled my cheeks. I hoped Nick was warm enough in his sweatshirt, and wished he’d brought a jacket. I’d been surprised that he’d agreed to sit in on a class. He never ventured off on his own; he wouldn’t participate in any activities at home or while traveling unless one of his friends was with him. He’d always been like this.
And yet now he wanted to go off to college in a big city by himself. He was clear on his college criteria: good academics (but not excellent, he didn’t want to work that hard), medium to large diverse student population, located in a metropolitan area out of his home state of California, queer-friendly in a city with a welcoming gay community. He didn’t care about sports or fraternities. By defining his criteria Nick had made his search easier and more manageable.
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He’d come out when he was sixteen and although we live in the San Francisco Bay Area, it still hadn’t been easy, especially for a young man who doesn’t like attention. His high school seemed mired in a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and Nick kept himself aloof, unwilling to make many friends. But now he was eager to move on—literally and figuratively—to a city and college where he could form a bigger life.
He’s an only child, and I struggled with his willingness to move far away from his father and me. And part of me was surprised. We’d always been a close family, and Nick had never been very adventurous.
The fact that Nick was openly gay before we started the college process was a wonderful relief. We discussed how that figured into his college choices. We googled gay-friendly colleges. When we toured, we always looked to see if there was a LGBTQ center and how visible it was. We looked for diversity in the student community—we weren’t just looking for kids who appeared to be gay—we wanted to see all colors of skin, to hear accents and a variety of languages, to experience a wide array of fashion choices. Some kids will be more comfortable if most of the student body looks like them but that didn’t work for my Oakland-raised boy. Even though he’s white, being in a monochromatic environment makes him uncomfortable—it’s not what he’s used to.
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Nick had high hopes for a university in the Bronx, but I hoped he wouldn’t choose to go that far away from home. The student tour guides there led us through the tree-lined campus with beautiful stone buildings. The lead guide said that what drew her to the school was that her brother played football there and she was excited she could continue her love of cheerleading. The tour guides seemed to follow a dress code—no jeans, no leggings—instead modest dresses on the young women and slacks and button-down shirts for the men. The environment felt sterile to me. I wondered what Nick thought.
We saw no signs on any bulletin boards with any multicultural activities. We saw nothing specific about LGBTQ students. I didn’t ask, as I didn’t want to embarrass or out Nick. He didn’t like to call attention to himself.
The guides walked us to an auditorium for presentations from the administrators. As Nick and I slid into our seats, he whispered to me, “This place feels creepy to me.” An African-American man on the panel headed diversity at the university but didn’t have much to say about programs. When I spoke with him one-on-one after the presentation he admitted that he was new and that the campus was really revving up diversity efforts. We knew this wasn’t the school for Nick. Although highly regarded, this university, didn’t meet Nick’s criteria.
By contrast, in Chicago, when we walked into the large glass-walled student union of the college Nick ended up at, the LGBTQ center was the first area we spotted, on the right hand side of the entrance. Notices were tacked to bulletin boards throughout the campus buildings stating that students could minor in LGBTQ studies. The student guides talked about the various multicultural organizations on campus and mentioned that LGBTQ students were assigned a mentor to help introduce them to the community and the study program. We felt welcome and excited as we sat in the auditorium surrounded by all types of people.
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But back on that February afternoon in Portland, we had just begun to tour colleges, and we didn’t know what we’d find. Nick walked back to where I was sitting on the brick wall, a few feet ahead of the other kids on the tour, separating himself from the pack.
“How’d it go?” I asked.
He nodded. No words. I guess he’d been uncomfortable and wasn’t going to talk.
“Are you hungry?” I asked. “Should we check out what restaurants are near campus?”
As part of the tour, we’d had breakfast in the unimpressive college cafeteria We had to search for the one room LGBTQ center because it was literally underground, hard to find unless you were looking for it. But we liked Portland and Nick had a chance at an honors’ scholarship. As, we walked a few more blocks, neither of us speaking. I vacillated between wanting to give him space and wanting to pummel him with questions. When I pointed to an Indian restaurant, Nick nodded once again and we turned toward the restaurant.
He stopped and turned to face me.
“Mom, if I go to school here I am not always going to be the gayest boy in every class.” He was practically shouting. “I just won’t be. There’s others.”
I teared up. He had not yet told me how often he felt like The Gay Boy in high school; how often he was uncomfortable and didn’t fit in. I’m not even sure he knew until he glimpsed what another life could be like.
Portland State did not end up being Nick’s choice but it was there that I saw for the first time that he understood at a gut level that he was not going to feel so alone anymore. Nick’s now in his third year of college and his criteria led to the right choice for him. That said, he’s had to learn what many kids learn in high school about balancing a social life with his studies. And navigating roommates and life in a new city challenges him.
But here’s the best part: he’s happy. He’s independent. He still talks to his mom, a lot.
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Marianne Lonsdale writes personal essays and short stories, and is slowly cranking out a novel set in Oakland in 1991 about a crazy romance. Her work has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Literary Mama, Fiction365, Pulse and has aired on KQED. She’s a cofounder of the Write On Mamas, and is honored to be an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Marianne lives with her husband, Michael, and son, Nicholas, in Oakland, California. You can find her at Mariannelonsdale.com or on Facebook.