By Dan Perez
Coming out about one’s sexual orientation is never an easy thing for a person to deal with, let alone in front of a class filled with peers and faculty.
Dr. Sheena Howard, an assistant professor of communication at Rider, remembers what it was like to be “outed” as a lesbian at Howard University in Washington, D.C., a topic she focused on during a presentation in October 2012 based on her published work, “Intercultural (Mis)Communication: Why Would You ‘Out’ Me in Class?”
During the fall semester of 2009 when Howard’s professor was discussing the theory of Afrocentricity, a classmate, Jane, asked a question.
“She raised her hand and said, ‘With Afrocentricity being sexist and heterosexist, how can Sheena, as a black, lesbian female, study the theory?’” Howard said during her presentation. “I sunk down in my seat and tried to not make eye contact with my professor. How could someone take something so personal to me and share it with the world?”
Since Howard was a graduate student, she was working very closely with faculty. Howard had chosen not to reveal her sexual orientation for fear of being ostracized.
“Over time, I came out to my friends but still concealed my orientation to faculty members,” she said. “I didn’t want my professors to know that information about me because I was still unsure about coming out to everybody around me.”
The female classmate who posed the question didn’t apologize or act like what she did was a big deal, according to Howard.
“I was pretty confused and even angry with her for doing that,” she said. “Five months later she asked me on a date. I went out with her for about six months. I still wonder why exactly she asked that question during the class. Was it because she wanted to get my attention?”
Even though the incident in the classroom seemed horrific at the time, Howard said she is glad it happened because it has allowed her to become more comfortable with the person she is.
“All of those things happened for a reason,” she said. “I wouldn’t change anything if I could go back in time.”
Now that Howard is teaching, she hopes to draw on her personal experiences to make the students in her classroom feel comfortable.
“When I first met Dr. Howard, I was blown away by her confidence,” said Gina DiFazio, a junior public relations major. “She carries herself with an aura of self-assurance. The fact that someone outed her is shocking to me. I admire her even more now, and am extremely grateful that I have the opportunity to be in her class.”
Howard said she feels Rider positively reacts to those who are LGBTQ.
“As a school, Rider is very accepting and open-minded toward LGBTQ students,” Howard said. She notices a difference between Rider and her previous colleges in terms of their levels of acceptance for LGBTQ students.
“Out of all places I’ve worked at, Rider has been the most accepting of LGBTQ students,” Howard said. She has attended Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. and taught at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.
“The fact that I was able to present on my work here shows that Rider is accepting and open toward the gay community. I might not have felt comfortable speaking about that topic at other schools I’ve attended or taught.”
Another difference she noticed between Rider and other schools she has visited include the use of derogatory slang.
“At Shippensburg University, I heard many students referring to things as ‘gay’,” she said. “They would refer to something as ‘gay’ if they just didn’t like it. I really haven’t heard this at Rider among students.”
Howard discussed an important facet of acceptance towards the LGBTQ student-body is the presence of student-run clubs or organizations on campus.
“When a school has an LGBTQ organization for students, it puts a great support system in place,” she said. “Part of the coming out process is being with like minded people. Even after coming out, students need that support system.”
Howard’s path to coming out and being comfortable about it is comprised of all the events she went through during her adult years, she explained.
“That incident at Howard propelled me to not care anymore about certain things,” she said. “I’m comfortable with my orientation and I’m finally at a place where I don’t care what people think. The situations I’ve gone through have made me stronger and more accepting of myself. Maybe my past experience as a gay student trying to navigate college life can help someone now.”