UF freshman Shawn Abrahams is like most college students his age. He likes to watch football games and hang out with his friends, and he is looking forward to getting more involved with his new major, botany.
Yet Abrahams considers himself better off than most freshmen.
Abrahams, who is openly gay, has made use of the many resources available to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students at UF, attending every meeting of the Pride Student Union since school began.
“In high school, it was hard to meet people who were gay,” Abrahams said. “Now there are all these people I can talk to. It’s kind of like a culture shock, going from being a lone wolf on campus to being part of a community of people.”
The highly publicized suicides of several gay youth over the last two months have served as a reminder that there is an ever-present need for support and resources for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, particularly among teenagers. UF is home to a few programs that have goals to help people accept their own identities and feel safe and welcome.
The Rainbow Room, located on the fourth floor of Peabody Hall at UF, is a dedicated space for LGBT students to feel safe and welcome. The room was set up by the Office of LGBT Affairs.
The space is just one of the Office of LGBT Affairs’ efforts to support and advocate for the student LGBT community and to provide education and a sense of community, said AC Stokes, director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, which is located one floor below the multicolored sanctuary.
Stokes said that people who are struggling with their identity don’t always seek the kind of help the Office of LGBT Affairs or the counseling center can give. Instead, they might try to suppress their feelings by seeking the help of people who enforce the idea that homosexuality is abnormal or wrong.
“They go to people who want to make them ‘normal,’” Stokes said. “If someone feels that level of self-loathing, that’s probably what they want. That’s why we need allies and not force people down the same road of agony.”
Students can find allies at the Counseling and Wellness Center on Radio Road, which has 31 full-time senior staff members, plus several part-time counselors, interns and trainees.
“Certainly there is a set of issues and a set of tasks around coming to terms with not being heterosexual in our culture,” said Jim Probert, a licensed psychologist who works at the center. “And there’s a lot of work for that individual to do.”
The best way to start, he said, is by finding people who are accepting and encouraging and to start a support system.
Joining the counseling center’s LGBT empowerment group is one way to do that. Another way is attending a Pride Student Union meeting. Pride meets on Monday nights in the Ustler Hall atrium to discuss everything from hate crimes to body image to career counseling.
According to Donnie Fields, a political science senior and the president of Pride Student Union, the forum is designed for all students, not just for those who identify as LGBT.
“We really have to take care of each other,” Fields said.“This is a tolerant campus, but things aren’t perfect here.”
Fields encourages students who are struggling with their own identity to come out or talk to just one person who is willing to listen. He stressed that after talking about it, things start to get easier.
“The hardest thing is to take the first step to ask for help,” Fields said. “There’s no magical fairy that comes around and makes things better for you.”