Human services major Elsie Venegas stood before a crowd of students, faculty and staff members gathered Monday morning in front of the towering flag poles near Langsdorf Hall. Admittedly nervous, Venegas shared she is a queer woman of color who, at home, is “very much in the closet.”
Venegas tried telling her mother when she was 14 as they drove home from her grandmother’s house. But her mother shunned the thought. Stopped at a red light, her mother told her she was too young to know. When she got home, Venegas retreated to her bedroom in tears. “So, I was shoved back into the closet, abruptly,” she shared. “This is me coming out to you.”
Venegas, president of the Queer/Trans People of Color Collective student organization, was among guest speakers who shared LGBTQ “coming out” stories at Cal State Fullerton’s “Rainbow Flag Raising Ceremony.”
For the first time in the university’s history, the inclusive rainbow flag was slowly raised up the flagpole to the song “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. The crowd erupted in applause.
I’m coming out
I want the world to know
Got to let it show
I’m coming out
The CSUF rainbow flag displays eight stripes of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple stripes, plus additional stripes of black and brown to represent people of color within the LGBTQ community.
Watching the flag go up, Venegas called it “beautiful. It means that we’re acknowledged. It shows inclusivity. It makes me proud.”
The special ceremony, presented by the LGBT Queer Resource Center founded on campus in 2012, kicked off National Coming Out Week, which is Oct. 7-11. The rainbow flag will fly for the week, next to the U.S. and state flags, with other Coming Out Week activities taking place on campus. National Coming Out Day is Oct. 11, aimed at bringing awareness and recognition for the LGBTQ community, and LGBTQ History Month is celebrated during October.
“We recognized that ‘coming out’ is one of the most powerful tools in advocating for the rights and visibility of LGBTQ people,” said Nat Betancourt, coordinator of the LGBT Queer Resource Center, who also told of the difficulty of “coming out of the closet” to family members.
“I spent my childhood daydreaming that I wanted to be a boy,” said Betancourt, who is genderqueer and bisexual and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from CSUF in 2015. Today, Betancourt, added “I’m out and I can be myself completely and wholly.”
CSUF President Fram Virjee welcomed guests, pointing out that the university is a supporter and ally of all communities on campus, especially the LGBTQ community.
“Equity, justice, fairness, love and community are a part of who we are for everyone in our community,” Virjee said. “I’m so proud to be here.”
What sparked CSUF’s rainbow flag is when Virjee saw a tweet that California Gov. Gavin Newsom had raised the rainbow flag at the state capitol for Pride Month in June.
Clint-Michael Reneau, associate vice president for student affairs, told LGBTQ students to “walk taller today” and to take pride in the day’s historic moment.
As an undergraduate at a university in the South, his identity as a queer man was pushed into the margins. “There were safety issues, concerns about being discounted before I even opened my mouth. … Would I even find a community that accepted me, would I be able to be in a space where I felt valued and where I belonged?” Reneau said.
“To those of you sitting in that space today, what I needed was something like this flag being raised on my campus. Because what this symbolizes today, is that Cal State Fullerton is doing it again — what it does best, helping Titans to reach higher.”
Joao Barros, associate professor of kinesiology and co-president of the Pride Alliance, LGBTQ Faculty and Staff Association, talked about the anguish and secrecy that often comes with not coming out to family, friends and colleagues.
Barros shared that coming out was not an easy process for him. His Brazilian, Catholic upbringing and the culture was not accepting of the LGBTQ community. As a gay college athlete, it wasn’t a “very LGBTQ friendly space,” said Barros, a swimmer.
“I didn’t fear physical violence, but I feared psychological violence: isolation, bullying, harassment.”
Later in life, when he entered academia, he feared that coming out to people would cost him opportunities. But today, he openly shares who he is. “It gets easier every time you do it, but it definitely was not easy in the beginning.”
Barros added that faculty and other campus leaders need to set the example and be supportive to the LGBTQ community.
“Initiatives such as this one, raising the rainbow flag on campus, are so important. Things like these take the LGBTQ community out of the shadows and side-by-side with everyone else.”