Dr. Erin B. Waggoner: A lonely education: Learning while gay

Published 4:11 pm Thursday, August 24, 2023

Erin Waggoneer

Dr. Erin Waggoneer

August marks the beginning of the school year, but for some students, going back to school can either be a blessing or a curse. It all depends on their support at school and at home. 

When I was in school, I remember being tense. Just really tense. More than I am today as a mother of two young and beautifully inquisitive children. More than I was as a college undergraduate trying to stay awake in my Music Theory classes. The tension I felt was one that comes with feeling alone while simultaneously being afraid to be seen. I was afraid that if I was too visible, people would be able to tell what I was hiding. That I was gay. 

I felt alone. And I did not know until I was much older, talking to former teachers and peers, I did not need to feel alone. 

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In my adult life, I have discovered that I had allies in school, both teachers and friends. I had peers who were also queer. There were even allies in the various churches I attended. I had people around me who would be supportive and understanding. Who were going through similar feelings and anxieties as I was. 

But we never formed a community because we did not feel safe. Because we did not talk. Or we quietly knew but never acknowledged it for fear of being outed. I had a lot of friends and was involved in several things (e.g., softball, band, academic league), but I was lonely. I heard the rumors about me, and I was even directly asked if I was gay multiple times by some friends. Why did I say no when I knew it was true? Especially to the girl I lowkey had a crush on and sensed was also queer?

I grew up in the 1980s and 90s in a small rural town in Kentucky, not dissimilar to Farmville in size, diversity, and complex history. When I was coming of age and discovering who I was, I was living in an historical era surrounded by the AIDS/HIV crisis, the religious right with Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and murders and violence against the queer community. Brandon Teena, Matthew Shepard, and PFC Barry Winchell were names that I noticed in the news, even if my family and peers brushed the names aside from the minimal coverage on the 5 o’clock news. Because I felt a deep connection to their stories. 

And their stories caused an unwavering fear and anxiety in me that still resides to this day. A fear and anxiety that still happens in young people figuring out who they are. We may have made a lot of strides for LGBTQ+ equality and understanding since I graduated high school in 2001, but my early years of hiding and feeling alone had such a resounding impact on who I would become. One that I work hard as an advocate and professional to educate people on and one that I hope beyond hope that our young queer students do not have to face.

If you are paying attention at all to the news around the nation, you may have noticed that various legislation is trying to take us backwards instead of forwards. It is not just about which bathroom people use. It is not just about what history is taught in school. It is about people. The students and teachers in those schools. It is about power over people. Whoever has the power can control the narrative. And I am tired of loneliness being the narrative.

Teachers and staff can make or break a young person’s education from a social, cultural, and emotional standing just as much as they can teach them the Pythagorean theorem or the seemingly endless rules of grammar. Providing students a space where they feel safe has proven time and again to improve academic performance. And every student deserves that chance, regardless of who they are. 

Peers can do the same by providing a voice for those who are not ready to talk or be out. Just knowing someone around you is supportive can make all the difference. It could be as simple as introducing yourself with your pronouns, even if you are not non-binary or trans. It could be you talking about a show you loved that happened to have a queer character in it. It doesn’t have to be much and it does not take a lot of effort to be genuine. 

For my queer students, out or closeted, I see you and feel you. Find those people who make you feel safe. You have more people around you than you think. I know it may not feel like that, but they are there. Sometimes it is just hard to see them because they are not visible, either.

Humans inherently want to feel seen and connected in some way, and the smallest gestures can have a major impact. As we go into the new academic year, just remember that young people are still figuring out who they are. And I don’t want them to be lonely. 

Dr. Erin B. Waggoner is an assistant professor of communication studies at Longwood University, as well as co-director of the university’s women, gender and sexuality studies program. Erin can be reached at, and you can learn more about Farmville Pride at info@farmvillepride.com.