by Tommy Collison
In my bio for the Washington Square News, I write that I grew up “among cows, computers, and not much else” in Tipperary, a small town in rural Ireland. My older brothers were fond of taking old laptops apart to see how they worked, and I think that love of tinkering was passed to me in turn. But growing up in such an isolated spot wasn’t always fun — there was an almost total lack of LGBTQ community.
Ireland’s political and social situation has definitely improved in the last 3 or 4 years, but when I was in my early teens, being gay wasn’t something that was often discussed. In my experience, people rarely spoke out against it, but that’s a long way from there being a positive community around the idea that it’s okay to be something other than straight. Two posters that read “he’s gay, and we’re okay,” was the extent of LGBTQ programming that we enjoyed in high school. I was lucky in that my parents and friends were supportive after I came out, but there was still a distinct lack of a sense of community. It wasn’t that I was actively unhappy, I just couldn’t look around and see people like me.
Moving to a new country as a teenager to start college was vaguely terrifying, as to be expected. Will I make friends? What does “my community” look like, and will I find it? At the end of my freshman year, I visited the LGBTQ Center at NYU, housed on Kimmel’s sixth floor. Then, I started working there as an OUTSpoken Peer Educator, doing outreach and advocacy on issues on campus relating to sexual orientation and gender identity. Students can chill and grab free coffee at the center’s lounge, and it’s become something of a second home to me this year.
Part of being an OUTSpoken Peer Educator is conducting Safe Zone trainings, 2-3 hour workshops where other students, faculty-members and administrators can learn more about LGBTQ issues. We’re given a script but we’re encouraged to make the presentation personal with anecdotes and flourishes. When I facilitate these discussions, I often describe growing up in Ireland and not knowing what having a community felt like. I do this because I’m trying to convey that Safe Zones are, in a sense, recruitment tools. By signing up for one, you’re saying that you want to be an ally. By learning about the issues, we’re making NYU not just a more accepting place, but a place where people can feel safe and comfortable, regardless of how they present their gender or their sexuality.
In May, Ireland is going to vote on whether our constitution should be amended to allow same-sex couples to marry. I go back about once a year, so I’ve been watching the progress of the referendum since it was first announced. The work I’m doing at the LGBTQ center is based on trying to improve the community at NYU, and it makes me wonder if I can or should be doing more at home. Since coming to the U.S. two years ago, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to adopt a country — and to be welcomed by one. One of the things that makes me proud to live in New York is that my friends and I aren’t limited in who we can marry based on their gender. I hope to soon see the day when the same is true in Ireland.