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Behind the LGBTQ experience at UM

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Jacob Matthews as Aetheria before a drag performance. Photo Courtesy: Jacob Matthews

Growing up, Jacob Matthews never really questioned his sexuality. went through his entire childhood assuming that he was straight, not thinking about But when others started to question his sexuality, he took a step back to self-reflect.

“It wasn’t until sixth or seventh grade where I really started to notice that I happen to be attracted to the same sex. I mean, it’s just love, right?” Matthews said.

Matthews, a native of Biloxi, Miss., came out to his family when he was in the eighth grade.

“I was actually so nervous about telling my parents that I had my sister tell them while I hid under my covers,” Matthews said. “Luckily, my family and close friends were very supportive and made sure to let me know that they loved me regardless.”

While Matthews knew the University of Mississippi’s history of discriminating against minorities, this did not stop him from pursuing a degree in what he loves to do: acting.

Matthews is a sophomore theater arts major with an emphasis in acting for the stage and screen. When considering the risk of encountering discrimination or harassment at the university, Matthews felt that it was a chance worth taking in order to follow his dream.

“I was very fond of the theater department at Ole Miss, and I knew that regardless of what I could possibly experience outside of the department, I had a family I could go to on campus that would support me,” Matthews said.

In addition to his theater community, Matthews has also found support in Oxford’s drag scene since he began participating as a drag performer.

“The people I’ve met through drag have also changed my life and introduced me to a world I didn’t know existed,” Matthews said. “I’m very grateful and humbled through my experience with drag, and I intend on pursuing it long-term.”

Matthews shared that he uses drag as a way to step out of his comfort zone and into the spotlight.

“My drag is all about stepping outside of your comfort zone and conquering things you are afraid of. That’s where my drag name, Aetheria, comes from. It’s a variation of the Greek god Aether, god of the sky, space and light,” Matthews said. “Space scares the hell out of me, so I wanted to choose a name based on something that scares me to really represent my drag.”

Although anti-queer sentiments are still voiced across the nation, Matthew’s experience at UM has been mostly positive.

“I can’t say that I’ve experienced any form of harassment that I couldn’t handle. I am fortunate enough to not have faced harassment,” Matthews said. “However, I think it’s important to realize that hate against the LGBTQ+ community still exists.”

Matthews also emphasized the importance of treating everyone with respect regardless of personal beliefs.

“I think the world should realize that you don’t necessarily have to agree with who people choose to love in that regard, but we are all still humans with souls, feelings, minds, intelligence and gifts that deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. That goes for everyone,” Matthews said.

Despite controversial politics centering around gay life, Phillip “Pip” Gordon came out in the late 1990s, a very different time for queer visibility. Gordon recalls the 1998 murder of an openly gay Wyoming college student, Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in a hate crime that drew national attention.

“That was in October of 1998. The big emphasis in the news at the time was that to be a gay person was dangerous and scary,” Gordon said. “You would always feel under threat, and you couldn’t live openly.”

Gordon, a Jackson, Tenn., native, began his graduate work at UM in 2006 and gained a master’s degree in English.. The alum is now in his second semester as a visiting professor in the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies. At the age of 16 — the same year that Shepard was murdered — Gordon came out to his family and friends.

“It was just because I wanted to, and it was the right thing to say. I had acceptance from friends when my family eventually found out,” Gordon said. “They didn’t love it at first, but there was never ever a sense that it would cost me.”

Gordon expressed that he understands the difficulty of coming out.

“It’s always hard to come out of the closet because you’re saying something that will change the way people see you and interact with you,” Gordon said. “Sometimes that change is not bad, but it’s still a change.”

A top scholar and star athlete, Gordon describes his younger self as very strong-willed and not someone who would allow others to tear him down.

“I was able to be myself, and as much as there was a lot of sense in the world at large that being a gay person could have negative outcomes, I’ve always just brushed that off and said, ‘I’m still going to be who I am,’’ Gordon said. “I guess growing up at that time it was different than it is now.”

Gordan recalled one of the first things he did when he arrived at UM.

“When I was here, there was one group. I arrived on campus and one of the first things I did, in 2006, was look up the Gay Straight Alliance,” Gordon said.

A group consisting of undergraduate and graduate students and faculty advisors, the Gay Straight Alliance provides support for students who are in the LGBTQ community.

Gordon recalled that many of his queer peers were scared of being on the Ole Miss campus. However, Gordon felt welcomed by the Oxford and UM communities.

“I felt like this was a much more welcoming environment, and I felt like some students were overreacting to that sense of fear,” Gordon said. “But then, maybe that’s just sort of a privilege on my part.”

However, Gordon believes that the disappearance of Jay Lee has led to a “reemergence of fear” on the UM campus for many queer people.

“Flashing forward all the way to hearing about Jay Lee’s disappearance, the reactions afterwards from the community and from the people who knew him really brought up a lot of those old memories of why people might have felt unsafe on this campus,” Gordon said.

Even so, Gordon thinks that today’s students are more comfortable expressing themselves.

“Kids these days are more comfortable with LGBTQ+ identities. I encounter individually from undergrads that this is one of the first times that, away from home, they have had a chance to have an identity,” Gordon said. “They say that identity out loud, and they’re seeking spaces.”

Director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies and English Professor Jamie Harker agreed with this sentiment.

“Now, I think there’s a lot of acceptance of different folks. When the (Oxford) Pride Parade happens, about half the people who march are allies, and they don’t necessarily identify with the community,” Harker said. “I’m not sure that would’ve happened 20 years ago, whereas now, I think there’s a lot of sense of, ‘We all need to stick together.’”

Harker believes that this change in acceptance is generational.

“For most people in Gen Z, people get to be who they are, and a lot more identify within the community, but also a lot more are okay with that no matter what other political differences they have,” Harker said.

Gordon also expressed the importance of fostering the same supportive environment for queer students that he experienced.

“Coming back as an alum, my hope is that most queer students who are here, learning to get their feet wet for the first time in the world where they can define themselves (and) get the support for that so that their next step in life, when they are graduating and going out in the professional world, they don’t feel like they have to go back into that moment of anxiety,” Gordon said.

Currently, UM has multiple resources and groups that promote an accepting experience for all students in the LGBTQ community.

The UM Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement hosts resource fairs as well as Pride Camp, a program at the beginning of the semester for new and returning students where students share about clubs, resources, events and spaces available to queer students. The Sarah Isom Center and the CICCE also oversee Lavender Graduation and the Oxford Pride Parade. Student groups on campus include OUTGrads, an organization for queer graduate students; OUTLaw, an organization for law students; UM Pride Network and LAMBDA, a student support and discussion group on campus.

Harker encouraged students to get involved and find a sense of community.

“No matter what you’re interested in, there’s going to be a group or space for you. There’s just a lot of different entry points, (and) there’s going to be someone like you who’s interested. There are a lot of people who are going to welcome you and be excited that you’re here and want to help you find the community that’ll support you,” Harker said. “So don’t be afraid, come on by and we’ll plug you into whichever group makes the most sense.”


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