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Who were you on your first day at Harvard? What issues did you find to be most important in the world? What did you want to study, and what did you want to pursue beyond college?
Now, who are you today? Are you the same?
Dean Khurana begins each of his speeches with the mission of the College, and one word stands out to me at each recitation: “transformative.” At Harvard, we believe in the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education. But what is transformation, how does it work, and how are we all benefiting from and contributing to the transformative spaces we inhabit?
Last Tuesday, Oct. 11, was National Coming Out Day. I had never heard of National Coming Out Day until college. I was born and raised in a town of 800 people in rural Iowa. There was a cornfield in my backyard, our town didn’t have a grocery store, and the school that served 3 separate towns—including my own—still had fewer than 40 students in each grade. My town was also bereft of diversity: There were two people of color, one family of atheists, and no out LGBT individuals. It’s difficult to develop an open and supportive attitude towards difference when sequestered in such monochrome surroundings.
It may be unsurprising that by the age of 18, I found myself engaged in an internal war from which I can still feel the scars. On the one hand, I believed deeply in the Christian God and the stone-carved tenets of the Bible. On the other hand, I was struck cold by the realization that I was gay. As a child, I had learned that being gay was a choice—one that God condemned. I had written essays in high school English classes denouncing homosexuality, even as I spent sleepless nights begging God to take away the attraction I felt towards other men. I prayed constantly for normalcy; I prayed constantly for love.
And one day I found it in my friend, Claire Molloy, who saw through my pitifully weak veil of presumed heterosexuality, and—with a smile—told me: “You know, Erik, straight men don’t use the word fabulous.” Her comments were not meant as a normative statement about who should use what language, but were instead meant to gently nudge me to share what was really on my mind, what was eating me up inside.
The months that followed were some of the roughest of my life. Relationships with my family were thrown into disarray. Some friends who disapproved of my so-called “choice” invited me to hear proclamations from those who had “overcome” their same-sex attraction, hoping I would likewise see the error in my ways. Even some of the gay men I had begun to meet didn’t understand the struggle I was experiencing. “Why is religion such a big deal?” they asked.
When I reflect on those times, a few themes jump out at me. First, I was really scared. I didn’t know if God still loved me, if my parents still loved me, or if I’d ever find the life I wanted. Second, despite my doubts, I remained committed to being me. I believed resolutely that a life spent not being who I was not was not a life worth living. Our days on this Earth are limited, and the misguided intolerance of some should not prevent anyone from living those days as fully as can be. Third, things gradually got better. Day by day, there were small acts of support, small acts of love that fed the fire of change that was burning inside me.
I was transforming. The struggle, the uncertainty, the pain, they were all worth it: They were making me “me.”
Today, I am an out and proud gay man because I pushed against the criticisms I hurled at myself; I acted from my deepest convictions, even in the face of soul-rending doubt; and I never stopped feeding the voice of hope that I heard beating in my chest. I transformed through my persistence and surrender to my deepest values.
But I also get to stand here because of the transformation that has happened in our culture. A century ago, people like me were forcefully expelled from this very college; seventy years ago, we were gassed; just two or three decades ago, we were still shunned. People laid down their lives so I can stand here and proudly say: “This is who I am.” For their lives and for their sacrifices, I am daily grateful.
The costs of transformation, both personal and cultural, are (at times) tumult and tribulation. And this is why we fight for those who are still disenfranchised, who still feel the daily fear of being judged or even harmed simply for being who they are. This is why we fight for transformation—because one of the great lessons of transformation is that the struggle of others is our struggle too.
* * *
Coming out is only one of several transformations I’ve experienced in my life. I experienced a second transformation when I became a tutor at Pforzheimer House. My time spent in Pfoho has reinforced in me the incomparable value of community. Every day, I am inspired by my students’ brilliance, willingness to ask the tough questions, daring pursuit of the world’s highest ideals, and unending care for each other. I have been transformed by my time in Pfoho, as my students have taught me how to be a better advisor, a better listener, a better teacher, and a better friend.
I urge all the students at the College—in Pfoho and elsewhere—to continue investing in their communities on campus. Open yourselves to the lessons that you have for each other. Transform within this space to become bigger, brighter, better, more open, and more caring citizens of this world. One day, not long from now, you will walk across the stage and joyfully claim your hard-earned diplomas. Between now and then, plunge deep into the pool of self-transformation so you can look at yourself that day and every day, and say to yourself: “I’m proud of who I am.”
Erik C. Nook is a resident tutor in Pforzheimer House and a Clinical Psychology Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. This op-ed is adapted from a speech delivered by the writer last week in Pforzheimer House.
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