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Mentoring program helps students get comfortable with their sexual identities.

People at Chicago are pretty accepting of minority sexual identities," says Bert Cohler, AB'61, the William Rainey Harper professor in the Social Sciences Collegiate Division. "At Chicago, as long as you continue to do well academically, you can be anything."

IMAGE:  Fourth-year Anne Pizzi and mentor Kathy FordeBeing yourself and negotiating the attendant challenges are two different things. Should a gay student mention sexual orientation on a résumé or a grad school application? How does a student tell her parents that this year's guest for Thanksgiving is not a boyfriend but a girlfriend? Is it possible to be gay and still have children someday?

With the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, or Questioning (LGBTQ) Mentoring Program, the answers are a phone call or e-mail away. Modeled on a similar program run by the University's Coordinating Council for Minority Issues, the program matches queer students with a queer faculty or staff member. Mentors and mentees talk at least once a week and meet in person at least once a quarter. The program also sponsors field trips, such as dinners, Cubs games, and Court Theatre performances.

The program was started in January 2001 by College adviser Kathy Forde, along with Jim Howley, graduate career counselor at Career and Placement Services, and fourth-year Anne Pizzi, then-president of the student organization Queers & Associates. Forde-who is also Pizzi's mentor-now runs the mentoring program with College adviser John Laseman. A year later the program has grown from 20 faculty and staff mentors and 24 student mentees to 32 mentors and 39 mentees.

Many mentors say the program is a chance to make a younger person's college experience easier than theirs was. Cohler, mentor to second-year Carlos Ocampo, remembers a U of C that was "totally closeted. At many universities, one could have been expelled on the basis of one's sexual orientation. It wouldn't have been the case here, but one would certainly have been referred to what was called at the time Student Mental Health."

Although Cohler says he had "always known I was queer," by the mid-1960s he was married and working on a Harvard research project to treat gay students with aversive therapy. Subjects were shown slides of attractive men, and whenever they felt desire, they pressed a button; in return, they were given a mild electric shock.

"I thought if we could eliminate same-gender desire, then there was some hope for me," Cohler, who came out of the closet after his wife's death in 1989. "But we got no results. So we put away the equipment and turned the project into one of the first support groups."

The understanding of sexual orientation has changed substantially since then, but the need for a supportive community remains-for the simple reason that queer students have trouble meeting other queer students, says Pizzi, last year's recipient of the Morton-Murphy Award for improving student life in recognition of her work on the program.

"Straight people are great," she says, "but it's not always comforting to talk to someone about coming out, or about worries that your crush is a homophobe, if that person has never gone through anything like that."

While mentors offer mentees the benefit of life experience, mentees also can be a source of inspiration. "I was not even aware of my sexual orientation in college, let alone 'out' to anyone else," says Robin Wagner, associate director for strategic planning and operations at CAPS and mentor of fourth-year Diana Doty, "whereas Diana is an activist and leader. I'm in awe of her energy and self-confidence. By contrast, my partner and I have a pretty tame, 'suburban family with two kids, two cars, two cats, and a dog' kind of life."

In turn, Doty says Wagner has shown her that queer people have as many options as straight people do-and that having a family "is a form of activism in itself," she says. "Living her life honestly and choosing not to compromise that to better fit someone else's mold of what a family should look like puts her on the front lines, just in a different and much more real-world way."

Forde knows of no other U.S. institution with a mentoring program like Chicago's. At some schools, she says, students are mentored by other students, who can't offer the life experience and perspective that faculty and staff can. "Other schools run mentoring programs in conjunction with the student counseling office, but our program isn't that narrowly focused," says Forde. "It's also about having fun."

The program's success stems partly from "the particular character of the University," says Susan Art, AM'74, dean of students in the College, whose office cofunds the program. "We are a campus where individual differences are respected."
-Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93


  > > Volume 94, Number 3

  > >
Liberal talk, realist thinking
  > >
The winning punch line
  > >
Physics for breakfast
  > >
Beyond the bomb
  > >
The young and studious

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