Photo: Connor McCourtney
Ryan Price sat thinking about a paper due in his first-year seminar course at Drake University, “Perspectives on American Character and Society.” The assignment asked students to explore an area of life where their personal ethics were at odds and to describe what they did to remedy that discord.
In class, the 20-year-old had presented his paper idea as “something bland” about consumerism, family roles or environmental issues. The longer he thought about it, the more determined he became to find words for what he called “the one glaring example in my life where my values conflict.”
“I am gay.”
The first three words of the paper encompass seven years of private anguish, closely guarded struggles and personal development.
“Talk about an attention-getter, right?” he said with a quiet chuckle.
Far more than just another bit of homework, his paper, “Coming Out,” marked the beginning of an end to a time during which he kept his sexual orientation secret except from the closest of family and friends.
“We were all kind of prepared for a deeper look into each other’s lives,” said Bryan Hays, Price’s friend and First-Year Seminar classmate. “But when Ryan gave me and one other person the opportunity to read his paper before he presented it, I think our initial reaction was just that we thought that his original opening was a joke.”
Price started to laugh as he recalled the story.
“I said, ‘Hey, do you want to read through mine real quick? He (Hays) read the first sentence, looked up at me and said, ‘No, you’re not.’”
Now in his sophomore year at Drake, Price is an active member of the campus community. He is quick to accept and extend social invitations, and last semester broke drown stereotypes when he was elected president of a highly visible fraternity.
For a long time, his own reaction to his feelings had matched Hays’.
FINDING AND FIGHTING HIMSELF
Price was in seventh grade when he first began to realize he was attracted to men. As someone from a strong Christian background, the realization was painful. For several years, Price said he “actively worked to change the fact that I was homosexual.” He taught Sunday school, read books, met with a psychologist and a psychiatrist and spent time playing sports with a pastor who told him his attraction to men stemmed from the fact that he wasn’t masculine enough.
By high school graduation, about a dozen friends and family members, including his parents and twin sister, knew of his struggle with his sexual identity.
“And that’s how I told everyone at the time,” he said. “That this is a problem, but I’ll fix it.”
But in his FYS at Drake, Price began rethinking his perspective.
For most people, the decision to come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender doesn’t happen in a single day, said Sandy Vopalka. An “out” lesbian for more than 30 years, Vopalka is president and founder of the non-partisan gay rights organization Equality Iowa and administrator of The Center in Des Moines, a place for LGBT to find support.
“It is definitely a process that happens over a long period of time,” she said. “You have to look at your religious beliefs; you have to look at your family; you have to look at so many different aspects of your life.”
It’s not uncommon for that self-exploration to occur when a person graduates high school and moves on with their education, she added.
“I think that folks going off to college, sometimes it gives them the opportunity to look at things a little bit differently.”
For Price, the specific school he attended also made a difference.
“I think there’s something unique about college and there’s something unique about Drake that makes it easier for students to come out,” he said.
It was also advantageous that his professor, Joan McAlister, is an open bisexual, although she hadn’t officially come out to the class when Price first went to talk to her.
“It was the first person I knew who was openly non-heterosexual, which fascinated me,” Price said. “I didn’t know those actually existed except in movies.”
McAlister helped him examine the ramifications that coming out could have on the college relationships he had developed.
They had good reason to look into the issues Price might face.
Campus Pride, a national non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources and service to the non-heterosexual student community, conducted a study in 2010 with over 5,000 participants. It found lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer students were nearly twice as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to experience harassment at their college or university. The national study also reported that LGBT students were significantly more likely than heterosexuals to have considered leaving or to have left their institution.
‘A BROTHER ISSUE’
One particular social group made Price and McAlister unsure and slightly worried.
“Initially he had concerns about being accepted in his fraternity, and that was an unknown in a lot of ways,” McAlister said. “He wanted to be able to be himself, but the fraternity, and the views and friendship with his brothers in the fraternity, were really important to him.”
Price maintains the presence of a talented orator in most of his conversations. He is even more measured than usual when he speaks about the group of men who play an important role in his college life, perceptibly aware of the ways his words could affect them. But he conceded that, “Right away, my biggest concern was coming out in a fraternity.”
He decided to talk to his brothers in Sigma Phi Epsilon about it a few weeks after sharing his paper.
“I think I concluded by saying ‘I don’t think this is a political issue, I think it’s a brother one,’” he said. “I told them, ‘This is obviously something I used to be very against, but I’ve been forced to think about it differently and I hope you are, too.’”
Hays, a fellow Sig Ep, said Price’s sexual orientation is “a non-issue” for most members of the chapter and has not been a barrier in earning him their respect.
That respect became especially evident a year later, in fall 2010.
“Not only did they not have a problem with him being gay, but they decided to elect him our president,” Hays said.
THE ON-GOING JOURNEY
Along with leading Sigma Phi Epsilon, Price has become a Student Alumni Ambassador, Peer Advisory Board member, Bulldog For a Day volunteer and an honors student.
The difference in the way he talks about his current self and himself as a teenager is striking, almost as though the two are completely unacquainted.
In high school Ryan was also a successful student. He was vice president of the National Honor Society, a member of the cross country and tennis teams, and highly involved with his city’s Police Explorers Program. But in college, Ryan no longer spends time making up reasons for why he’s feeling upset or reading books with titles like “Coming Out Straight.” Since coming out, Price said he has become “a happier, more whole, more loving person.”
“It’s interesting how the way you deal with your identity changes drastically the way you view the world,” he said.
But he was cautious about offering declarative guidance to those facing the same challenges he did.
“I know I could say something like, ‘Be who you are’ or ‘Everyone else sucks and you don’t’ or ‘You’re beautiful for who you are,’” he said. “But when you deal with an issue of identity as strong as gay identity, words are much easier said than done.
“Coming out is unique because it forces you to marginalize yourself in a way that few other things do.”
That marginalization and the consequences it brings are things Price said he still doesn’t have all figured out.
“I still think I deal with significant internalized homophobia in ways that I don’t understand,” he said. “I think the image of me holding another man’s hand makes me uncomfortable, which it shouldn’t, but it does.”
As he often does when he gets nervous, he laughed softly as he continued.
“I think I have some stuff to work through.”