I matriculated into La Sierra University in the fall of 2016. Most people I knew from the Adventist academy I attended in Guam went to Walla Walla University, but something within me told me not to follow them. Maybe it was something as simple as unrealized self-sabotage, but I believe that the internal voice was rebelling against the authority figures of my youth.
People would often pull me aside and offer “spiritual guidance” for why I shouldn’t attend La Sierra. I was told that I’d need to watch my back and not fall under anyone’s negative influence. Someone even approached my mother to warn her that La Sierra was near “Pride” (as in “gay pride,” which takes place all over the world). The image of a black silhouette running from a looming rainbow flag comes to mind when thinking about my childhood.
I had it rough as a kid. I don’t feel the need to paint it out in painstaking detail. It’s not exactly a new storyline. I was bullied for who I am by my classmates and found no relief in faculty who were just as fast to condemn being gay. One time, my school held a “state of emergency” chapel, as I like to call it, in response to the first openly gay man in professional sports coming out. I watched him being compared to a pedophile and squirmed in my seat. I shut up because I didn’t need things to get even worse for me.
Growing up felt like a tedious waiting period before I could finally leave and truly begin my life. I was tired of the conservative culture I was brought up in that didn’t accept me. I craved something completely different from everything I’d known — something they’d probably hate, but where I could find solace. La Sierra was the school nobody wanted me to go to, which if I’m being honest, was probably the deciding factor in figuring out where to attend.
I made the plunge and traveled to California alone for the first time. I landed at LAX and experienced a sensory overload of sorts. I collected my luggage, found my shuttle, sobbed because of the culture shock, and still managed to make conversation with my driver through my tears. She was delightful and wanted to introduce me to an American restaurant called “Denny’s,” which I didn’t have the heart to tell her had already made it to Guam.
I arrived at school and everything was fine. It certainly wasn’t the Sodom and Gomorrah it was painted out to be. La Sierra had a lot of what I wanted; mainly, the liberal viewpoint. It seemed as though I’d finally found a safe space to be who I was and grow. Yet to my surprise, I frequently found myself incredibly uncomfortable.
I had to attend chapel in my freshman year and this was my first introduction to praise music with drums. To this day, it still triggers a fight-or-flight reaction within me. I was taught that the drums were an instrument used to invite demon possession, with the tradition starting in Africa. I never believed it was true; something about it smelled very “colonizer” to me. Yet, I felt incredibly anxious about it and it grew worse with every beat. I thought something bad was going to happen, like one of my Bible teachers was going to run up and smash the drums in front of everyone in the name of God. I never realized the impact the doctrine of my youth had on me. I thought I’d separated myself far enough from everyone that nothing they’d said would have any effect on me.
I was in my “safe space” and yet I didn’t know how to exist in it. I remember this one time when my friend removed her backpack in front of me. I saw that she was wearing a tank top that revealed a tattoo of a loved one’s name on her right shoulder blade. Instinctively, I began to remove my jacket to offer to her but stopped myself halfway through. Another time, I let my friend paint my nails a bright electric blue because she was bored. I was met with positive reception from everyone I interacted with. Still, I felt the need to bury my hands in my pocket and flushed every time I had to hand something to someone. It was so incredibly harmless, yet I felt like my skin was peeling.
Strangely enough, I felt completely unabashed and empowered when I faced adversity. I remember a group of friends and I were walking to Wingstop, which is less than a mile away from campus. At the crosswalk that separated us from the chicken we so desperately craved, a minivan turned in front of us with a male voice shouting out “f*** you, faggot” at me.
Without missing a beat, I turned to my friends and said sarcastically, “Oh my god, how did he know?” and kicked up my leg like a Vegas showgirl. I feel a little bad about this in retrospect. They were obviously pretty shaken up about what had just transpired but I couldn’t contain my laughter. Their reaction to something so foreign to them, but so familiar to me, is still one of the funniest things in the world to me and I don’t know why.
I acknowledged that perhaps my reaction was a little insensitive to them. I tried to work on what I perceived to be internalized homophobia and decided to attend meetings with the LGBT club on campus. I attended a collective two meetings before I stopped going. I am openly gay, but I could not handle the level of vulnerability required when watching people acknowledge my sexuality. Part of me wants to canvass the community and knock on people’s doors with pamphlets stating that I am, in fact, gay. They can wrestle with that however they like. What they think about me is none of my business.
It’s weird for me to look at all of these different experiences and know that they are a part of who I am. I’ve grown a lot in my college experience thus far, but I still have to accept that it didn’t form the foundation of my being. I am not the perfect liberal gay I thought I was going to be. Everyone is conditioned by their environments and aspects of this can rear its head in unexpected and uncomfortable ways.
It is said that “home is where the heart is,” but I think that sometimes home isn’t welcoming to the heart. Sometimes, a heart can get scuffed up trying to keep it in a home, like a square peg being forced into a circular hole. I was hurt and looking for the fastest option to heal. I took my heart to California to start over, but it wasn’t transformed when I landed. It had the same bruises and marks from before, but I didn’t accept that until time had put even more distance between me and my past. I understand now that these wounds will only be treated by acknowledging myself as a whole.
John Ethan Hoffman is an undergraduate at La Sierra University currently pursuing a BA in English: Creative Writing. He was born and raised on Guam and attended Guam Adventist Academy from Kindergarten through 12th grade. He currently lives in Riverside, California and serves as a Features Editor for the Criterion, a student-run newspaper at La Sierra.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
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