44.7 F

Davis, California

Sunday, April 14, 2024

UC Davis professor and others discuss lifelong task of navigating gender and sexual identity

During June, four individuals reflected on their experiences learning how to express their identities in unfamiliar spaces

Tory Solorzano, a dancer, prior professional makeup artist and current worker in operations and office management jobs, says that he was unintentionally outed by a voicemail left on his mother’s answering machine when he was in high school. Driving in traffic on their way home from dance rehearsal, Solorzano’s mother asked him if he was gay.

“I’ve never wanted to get out of a car on a freeway and run,” Solorzano said. “I wasn’t ready to tell her, even though all the signs were there.” 

As a member of the dance team in high school, Solorzano was always his authentic self. He never tried to hide anything, except admittedly saying the actual words, “I am gay.”

Though it took a while to get over his unprompted outing, Solorzano said that he felt glad that it happened. Without it, he doesn’t know when he would have found the courage to tell her.

 “We’re so close, and I would never want to do anything to disappoint her,” Solorzano said.

Coming out to parents and friends about sexual orientation and gender identity is an enormous hurdle, but what comes next? Navigating the reality of identity is a lifelong task, and each new social environment brings with it a new set of unique challenges.

Dr. Rachel Bernhard, a political science professor at UC Davis, said that as a teenager, she found investigating her sexuality “sort of easy and sort of hard.” While she found herself attracted to male presenting people early on, her attraction to women required further deliberation.

“I couldn’t really tell whether I wanted to be that woman, or be with that woman,” Bernhard explained.

When she concluded that she was bisexual, she recollects feeling “weirdly nervous” about coming out. Despite having liberal parents and growing up with gay relatives, she dreaded the possibility of an adverse reaction from family members.

“People sometimes have emotional reactions that aren’t in keeping with their political or ideological stances, and I was just really afraid of that,” she said. 

As it turned out, they were very accepting, and as an adult, Bernhard says she experiences far less trouble expressing her identity to the world. While it may not come up in every conversation, she explained that anyone in her personal or professional life either knows that she is bisexual, “or could easily find out.”

Bernhard explained that by proudly displaying a rainbow on her social media profiles and being open about her sexuality, she hopes to help foster a sense of community, especially amongst her colleagues and students.

While admitting to a relatively positive experience in navigating her sexual identity, Bernhard explained that she and her queer colleagues struggled to navigate the job search in the political science field, a “stodgier discipline” often dominated by straight men.

When she was on the job market, she recalls relating with other queer women about the difficulty of deciding how to dress for interviews. They struggled to decide how to express their style authentically without presenting as unprofessional or making too bold of a statement.

Berhard also said that when applying to graduate school, she had an unpleasant and invalidating exchange with a professor. She decided to write her diversity statement about her experience being bisexual, which led to a response from one of her professors, questioning bisexuality as real diversity, since “we don’t know who the gay people are so we can’t discriminate against them.” 

Bernhard said that despite these setbacks, she believes her experience as a queer woman has likely made her a better professor. Through this interaction with her professor, and other negative experiences she’s had as a student, Bernhard said she learned to better recognize differences among her own students.

“I never want my students to have an experience like [I did],” Bernhard said. “If they’ve been stigmatized in our society and it feels painful or shameful to share, I bring a lot of awareness about that to conversations with my students, and I hope that that makes me a better teacher and advocate for them.”

Lauren Lamboy has worked in the live production industry for three years. As a cis woman, she prefers defining herself as gay, because she doesn’t like the word “lesbian.” Lamboy discovered her sexuality when she was 14, after developing a crush on one of her teammates.

“It was definitely hard for me to accept because right away my first thought was, ‘Oh god, my life is going to get harder,’” she said. 

Coming to terms with her sexuality came gradually over time, but she expressed difficulty telling people. “I didn’t really want to talk to anyone else about it yet because I wanted to be able to accept myself first,” Lamboy said.

When she did start telling people, Lamboy said she worried that they wouldn’t believe her. To compensate, she made being gay a significant part of her identity. 

“I would wear things with rainbows on them, I even had a rainbow flag in my room,” Lamboy said. 

But over time, she learned to feel more comfortable with who she was.

“I liked who I was as a person so I didn’t feel the need to wear it on my sleeve so much,” she said. “I felt like I could be prideful without exerting it so obviously in all situations.”

Lamboy said that while struggling with depression in high school because she was not able to truly express her sexuality, she found a lifeline in the music industry.

“One thing that really saved my life was going to concerts,” she said.

Over time as she attended more shows, Lamboy began to pay closer attention to the lighting and production techniques rather than the actual performances. When she realized that she could potentially be involved in the industry without being a musician herself, she found every possible way to get involved.

Lamboy said that even now, working in the live music field, she is still learning what it means for her colleagues to know that she’s gay. In an industry that Lamboy describes as a “boys club,” run predominantly by men, oftentimes being gay works in her favor. Once people realize that she likes women, Lamboy said that she notices her co-workers tend to open up more, presuming that she can relate to their experiences.

At other times, Lamboy said that she feels pressure to hide her sexuality and leans heavily on her identity as a woman. Lamboy explained that she feared that men were giving her job opportunities because they were attracted to her, and said “I was afraid that if I made it known that men aren’t my preference, that they wouldn’t want to work with me anymore.”

Juliet Bost, a third-year political science—public service major at UC Davis, is queer, and said that if asked, they would also identify as nonbinary.

After discovering their sexuality in middle school, Bost said that they read every piece of gay and queer literature that they could find at the library to better understand themselves. When Bost finished a book, their mom would help return it to the library.

When Bost’s mom returned their books, labeled “Are You Gay?” and “How Do You Know if You’re Gay,” she had questions. 

“Of course she’s a smart woman, but even someone who’s only paying half attention would know this meant something,” Bost said.

One day, when she picked Bost up from school, and they neared the block of their apartment, Bost’s mom asked them about their sexuality.

 “I was like, Mom, I am not having this conversation in our Honda minivan, let me out,” Bost said. “But we kept circling the block until she got answers.”

Bost later came out to their father through an email, with the subject “Serious-ish Stuff.”

Though Bost’s family and friends were generally accepting of their sexuality, Bost struggled to come to terms with what it meant to be gay before the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015. They said they also struggled to decipher how much of their guilt stemmed from the outside pressures to fit in, and how much was internalized shame.

“I still feel that [shame], I think, especially with gender,” they said.

Bost’s exploration with their gender identity came much later, after they took an introductory gender studies class during their sophomore year of college. After the class, Bost decided to try using they/them pronouns. 

Bost has been using they/them pronouns since 2019, but hasn’t found the need to explicitly come out in every setting. Because it’s not as central to how they see themselves, they’re not as willing to “sacrifice that feeling of comfort” to ensure others correctly refer to them in every conversation, especially in sports.

Bost, a competitive taekwondo athlete, describes martial arts as “masculine patriarchy on steroids,” and a “true litmus test to see how far we’ve really come with gender.” With little room to move between the binaries in the sport, Bost has not come out to any of their teammates.

At the time they were coming out and trying new pronouns, they didn’t see taekwondo as a safe place to practice them. 

“I definitely didn’t feel like I had the self-confidence to defend my use of pronouns if anyone were to challenge me on that,” Bost said.

Bost explained that if anyone on the team ever talked about their relationships, they were always heterosexual ones. “No one really talked about being divergent from that identity, or being anything other than cisgender,” they said.

Bost recalls there being one other person on the team that openly identified as being queer, but when conversations about sexuality came up, “people got uncomfortable, the air shifted a little and it was a weird vibe.”

Though Bost said that they don’t feel closeted, they do feel nervous about how their teammates would react if they found out that Bost was nonbinary.

Solorzano is a gay male and has been married to his husband for six years. He said that from a young age, he knew he was different. Growing up with a single mother, he was often told that the absence of a male role model had something to do with why he’s gay.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with it, and I think that’s pretty lame,” Solorzano said. “I consider my mom to be my mother and my father because she was a strong woman to be able to support me.”

Despite their close bond, Solorzano admitted that coming to terms with his identity was hard on his mother. “In the Black community, it’s just something that’s not really welcomed, especially if you are pretty involved in the church,” he said.

When Solorzano was unintentionally outed through a voicemail in high school, his mother told him it was no one’s business and not to tell anyone else in the family that he was gay. When relatives asked Solorzano about his love life, his mother would jump in to tell people he was too busy dancing or performing to date anyone.

 “I always felt like she was making up excuses for me,” he said.

After Solorzano’s mother found out that he was gay, she didn’t speak to him for six months, even though they lived in the same home. Solorzano said that he idolized his mom, and his biggest fear was upsetting or disappointing her.

Solorzano said that if it weren’t for his grandmother who, before she passed away, warned his mother that she was going to lose him, he’s unsure if their relationship would have improved. Though breaking the news with his mother was the hardest, the rest of his loved ones proved supportive and accepting of who he is.

As he has done since high school, Solorzano says he lives his life as his most authentic self. When picking jobs, he has always sought out environments where he can comfortably express himself. 

“If I didn’t feel comfortable I wouldn’t work there,” he said. “I feel like it’s kind of hard to meet me and not know that I am gay.”

Despite always being forthcoming about his sexuality, Solorzano said that being openly gay in the workforce brings a set of challenges. Solorzano has found that working under queer management can cause the expectations for employee performance to be very high.  

“Gay people are amazing; we tend to do anything and everything very well,” Solorzano said. “We typically make our presence known and show what we can do, and I feel like sometimes that’s taken for granted.”

Bost said that discussing identity can feel a lot like learning a new language. They explained that in the beginning, the words and rules can be foreign and uncomfortable: “When do you bring it up? When is it out of place? When do you use this word?”

“With this new language of identity comes a new culture, in a sense, with differing norms and customs that conflict with a dominant way of being,” Bost said. “Just like any new language, fluency takes time. You build your vocabulary, master various grammar tenses, and spend hours or years practicing. Like many language learners, you may always talk about your identity with an accent. But overtime, you learn to adopt, to nurture, and to embrace this way of thinking—and embrace you.”

Written by: Mia Machado — features@theaggie.org

Mia Machado wrote this article as a guest contributor for The California Aggie. After submission, the article went through The Aggie’s typical editing process. Anyone interested in submitting an article as a guest contributor should email managing@theaggie.org.  


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here