Students and community members listen to Adam Dawkins’ (T’22) coming out experience. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).
By Claire Smith
“We are all called to do great things and to do them with love,” concluded speaker Adam Dawkins (T’22) after recounting his journey of coming out and finding love and acceptance as an openly gay person. He was one of many speakers who shared their unique experiences as LGBT people of the Cumberland Plateau. The Queer and Ally House (Q&A), The Bairnwick Women’s Center, Spectrum, and the Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace hosted “Coming out in the Cumberlands” on October 11 to celebrate National Coming Out Day by inviting speakers to share their coming out stories.
Leaders of Spectrum and Q&A, Virginia McClatchey (C’21) and Katherine LeClair (C’21) respectively, opened up the event with their own coming out experiences at Sewanee. Alumnus James Gipson (C’66), founder of the Rainbow Fund, School of Theology student Dawkins, and Grundy County native Amber Brown all shared their perspectives on coming out and getting married to a same-sex partner. An anonymous student at Franklin County High School gave his account of coming out as transgender and facing abuse from family and schoolmates.
The most striking aspect of the event was the diversity of experiences; a deeply spiritual theology student, a brave yet hurting transgender high school student, and a hilariously cavalier Sewanee alumnus were among those who shared their stories. Their collective experience reflects the pain, rejection, and immense joy that comes with being true to one’s identity.
Everyone was in a different part of their journey, some still dealing with the consequences of coming out, other college students who have found an accepting LGBT community on campus, still others happily married adults. The experience of coming out, and the ways in which people narrate their coming out, is as diverse as the LGBT community itself.
A nervous student from Franklin County High School walked to the podium wearing a shirt that says “The First Pride was a Riot,” recalling the pivotal Stonewall Riots of 1969. Other speakers, too, referenced seminal moments in LGBT history that influenced their views on coming out.
Gipson recalled reading about the Stonewall Riots in the newspaper as a young man. Dawkins reflected on the impact of attending the funeral of a cousin who died of AIDS while he was growing up in South Carolina in the 80s. The struggles and experiences of the LGBT people around and before them impacted their own views of their identity.
For Brown, a tattoo artist at Taste of Ink in Tracy City, simply coming out and being proud of who she is becomes a moment that can teach and inspire others. In all cases, no one spoke just about themselves, but tied their personal experience into the lives and reactions of others and of the lives of the LGBT community around them.
All of the speakers found comfort and joy in the authenticity of being out. Here was a place for them to speak the truth of their lives and their identities, or as the anonymous high schooler said, “This is a place to just be.” As difficult as many of their experiences were, the ability to be themselves was also the key to feeling free and fully realized. Dawkins viewed coming out as the point where he was able to freely devote himself to his faith and the Church. Gipson summed up this point quite easily when he concluded his story cheekily by saying, “God made me, and he didn’t make trash!”
It isn’t easy hearing some people’s stories. For several speakers at this event, coming out was long-delayed and much-feared; the prospect of being outed, of being different, of being unloved, shaped their lives in areas far outside of their sexuality. Events like Coming out in the Cumberlands are a rare moment not just to celebrate pride, but to acknowledge the fear, shame, and pain that people must overcome in their process of coming out.