Delmar Dualeh is a social work graduate student who was Live Out Loud’s Homecoming Project Intern for the 2013-2014 school year. After a year of helping LGBTQ community members return to their hometown high schools, he decided to return to his own high school to become a role model for the next generation.
In early September when I started my academic year as the Homecoming Project intern, I remember thinking that the main objective of the Homecoming Project was to get volunteers to return back to their hometown high school and have a discussion with current students – sounds simple. Immediately, I realized the obstacles that I would face when reaching out to certain schools and the lack of willingness to have LGBTQ speakers return to their schools. When working with volunteers who came from diverse backgrounds, I wondered how I, a twenty two year-old graduate student, could help them craft their story when we were generations apart. At moments I felt like a deer in headlights!
Thankfully, it all started to make sense. I worked with a volunteer who grew up during the AIDS crisis and when HIV/AIDS was known medically as GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency), another volunteer who worked in the military during Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and one who came from a religious Christian background. Every time that I was able to work with a volunteer and they shared their personal journey with me, I felt lucky. I didn’t focus on the moments when my volunteers felt powerless, but rather on how they were resilient and got to the point where they are today. When volunteers shared these experiences with me, many of them were vulnerable and raw, and those were the moments that students were really able to connect with. Through working with the volunteers and going to Homecoming Project events, I learned the power of storytelling.
While LGBTQ progress in politics and the media is astounding, LGBTQ youth know that progress is made when it impacts school climate. When speakers return and share their story, these youth can see a future for themselves through the lens of the speaker. The process of coming out to yourself, friends, family, coworkers, and understanding what that feels like during, before, and after is what we want students to hear. For many volunteers sharing their story is cathartic. I know from being a part of the LGBTQ community that all of us need healing; for some of us the healing process begins with the Homecoming Project.
After spending time working with volunteers and planning Homecoming Project events, I thought that maybe I should try this out. Instantly, I started to worry that I’m too young, that I’m not out to every single member of my family, and I thought of all the things volunteers I worked with also struggled with. Instead of focusing on our strengths, we all choose to highlight our limitations. Finally, I decided to return to Manhattan Center for Science & Math and share my story with students.
I started speaking about how when I came out to myself in high school. After years of denial and internalized self-hatred, I was laying in my bed and one day I said out loud, “I’m gay”. Instantly, I felt a huge sense of relief and a weight off of my shoulders, but fear crept right back in. I thought, now that I have validated these thoughts and said those words out loud maybe I’ll say them in my sleep and out myself to my brothers, which in hindsight is funny. That night I didn’t go to sleep. While I was sharing this with students, I let them know that, living in a Somalia Muslim household, I never thought I could be openly gay and thats why I struggled with self-acceptance. The moment I said Muslim and gay, I noticed one student who looked confused and conflicted. He raised his hand and said that he learned from his family that if you’re gay, according to Islam you will go to Hell. He spoke about a verse in Qur’an that discussed an Island of men who were all gay and killed. I could see him looking at me and not understanding how I could equate Islam and queerness, how they weren’t mutually exclusive. I told him that I had been told the same story and once I came out in high school, a student printed that story out and gave it to me. Once I became more comfortable with my sexual orientation, I completely left the religion. I wish someone had told me years ago that I could be Muslim and gay; if they had I might be a more spiritual person, but no one did. I told them that religion is about interpretation and how some interpret that story to be about lust and critique how the women were on the Island were treated.
When I looked at that boy, I felt like I was speaking to my high school self. I was telling him everything I wish I had heard. That was another moment of confirmation of how important the Homecoming Project is for youth, the volunteers, schools, and the entire LGBTQ community.
This year I’ve done a lot of self reflection and realized that in order for me to be a great social worker and help others, I have to continue to work on myself. Completing Homecoming Project events for volunteers and myself has allowed me to start that work. In the end, I’ve realized Live Out Loud does much more than connect LGBTQ youth with role models and resources – it creates community within the LGBTQ community.