Searching for an Out

Brian Moore

The regulars at Bob Evans Restaurant know when Michael Murphy is working. They see him serving other guests. They make jokes about him.

They point.

When Murphy is working the cash register, some of those regulars steer clear. They wait until he steps away and someone else takes over. Contact with him is the last thing they want.

They know he is gay.

Murphy figures they don’t want to talk with him. They don’t want their hands to touch his when he returns their change.

It’s the type of treatment Murphy finds all too familiar. On campus, he collects the same treatment. The Bowling Green freshman has been here four months. He’s found few people to talk with about his personal life who won’t ridicule his sexuality.

But there is one place he can go — the WKU Outlet.

“It’s a very friendly staff here,” Murphy said, standing next to a table of colorful brochures about sexuality and the resource center for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in McCormack Hall.

Here, Murphy is free from the name-calling, harassment and discrimination he receives in other places around town. It’s the cozy creation of Heather Crawford, a Western graduate student who beams with a self-confidence that isn’t tainted by arrogance.

The Outlet opened in April and is the only center of its kind at a state university in Kentucky. It offers books, videos and brochures about sexuality. Students who need someone to talk to about their relationships see it as a support network.

The Outlet’s 15 volunteers are open-minded. Some are graduate students. Others are undergrads. When Crawford sought help to run the center, they each stepped forward. They work one hour a week, talking to students and helping however they can.

While Murphy may be scorned elsewhere for being gay, he’s not treated differently here.

Students come to Outlet to study or watch television. People may peer down McCormack’s long first-floor hallway, wondering what’s going on behind Outlet’s front door. The atmosphere here isn’t much different from that in the dorm’s main lobby.

Conversations one night were about parties, TV commercials, what Dr. Green’s death meant for NBC’s hit show, “ER.” Students sitting in a circle on the gray carpet share their car troubles. They laugh about yesterday’s game of Trivial Pursuit.

It’s exactly what Crawford was shooting for when she pieced together plans for the Outlet last year — a place free from prejudice and hate.

The center is the brainchild of Crawford’s internship for her Student Affairs Master’s degree. Next week, she’ll graduate from the program.

Her work hasn’t gone unnoticed. In August, she won the President’s Award for Diversity for creating the Outlet. And she’s gained the respect of Jerry Wilder, the department of Counseling and Student Affairs professor that oversaw her internship.

“It was very obvious to me that she had a real passion for the need for this kind of resource center,” Wilder said. “When she indicated to me that Western now has the only such center in the state, I was surprised.

“But when you’re talking about gender differences, particularly in Kentucky and in the Bible Belt, it’s not always well received. But these students certainly deserve and need the same help and consultation as any student.”

Outlet volunteers aren’t counselors, they’re trained to be friends. They provide an out for the students who have no one else to talk to about the simplest of subjects.

“We see students that haven’t come out, and they’re scared,” says Crawford. She’s sitting on a love seat between rainbow-colored heart- and star-shaped pillows. “They’re just looking for that companion to slowly start the process.

“The important thing to remember, as an ally to these students, is to support them of their pace. We don’t encourage them to come out before they’re ready.”

Murphy’s family is open to his sexual orientation. But Versailles sophomore Heather Mitchell considers the Outlet one of the more comfortable places she enjoys.

Mitchell doesn’t call her mother for support after an argument with her girlfriend.

“My parents don’t want to hear about it,” Mitchell says, glancing at the floor. After a pause, she continues, “Neither do my straight friends. My mom found out about my relationship before this semester. We’ve had only one conversation about me and Tina.”

Instead, Mitchell turns to that Outlet and to Crawford, a 27-year-old she considers a friend. Other students say Crawford listens well, and that’s what makes her so approachable. They like her charismatic persona.

With a little paint, new carpet and a few pieces of furniture, Crawford has turned the Outlet into a welcoming place. The fluorescent lights hanging overhead aren’t used. “They’re too bright,” Crawford says. Instead, two lamps give a soft illumination, helped by a streetlight that dances its contribution through the window.

Colors illustrate diversity, and there’s plenty of that at the Outlet. Newspaper clippings pinned to a bulletin board are surrounded by colorful leaf cutouts. Brochures are printed on red, green and blue paper. Even the air-freshener in the window has purple stripes.

Over Crawford’s left shoulder is a bookshelf displaying titles such as “Loving Someone Gay” and “Straight Parents, Gay Children.” There’s a stack of videos, including “If These Walls Could Talk” and “Coming Out Under Fire.”

Crawford, wearing oval-shaped frames and sporting dark, curly hair, explains that positive recognition means everything to this center.

In a way, she says, Western is beginning to come out of the closet — by supporting the fair treatment of non-heterosexual students.

“We were like little kids, we were so excited about the diversity award,” she said of the President’s Award for Diversity. “We were a little scared to start the center here because we didn’t know what kind of hate would be thrown at us. But for every negative e-mail I get, I probably receive 25 positive ones.”

Despite the recognition, Crawford ponders how to improve the Outlet. She’d like to see an outside entrance added.

Students walking to the Outlet go into McCormack’s through the front doors and walk down a long hallway, making it hard to enter undetected.

From the lobby, students pass an elevator on their left. A few steps further and they’ll pass the laundry room on their right.

But many think taking a step beyond the laundry room can mean only one thing: you’re headed for the Outlet, and you may be gay. Or lesbian.

Or bisexual or transgender. And that could lead to ridicule, jokes and harassment that students who haven’t come out aren’t prepared to handle.

It’s a situation an outside entrance would eliminate, Crawford says.

But she isn’t getting greedy. Crawford is enjoying the space that Housing and Residence Life has given her for the resource center. She’s enjoying giving people a place to turn for a friend. A place to go when they find hate everywhere else.