Confronting homophobia: Iowa State community members discuss their experiences


Jack MacDonald/Iowa State Daily

Chelsea Harbach, a second year Ph.D student, didn’t come out as being queer to her family until her senior year of college. Her mother was accepting, while her father and grandparents stated that they could not accept her life choices.

Nik Heftman

Savanna Falter, senior in art history and cultural anthropology with a minor in classical studies, was walking to campus from Frederiksen Court on a chilly spring night at the end of the 2015-16 academic year.

She was walking with a friend. They decided to take Haber Road, which lies on the back side of the apartment complex located on the north side of campus.

“I was dressed in masculine clothing,” Falter said. “I was wearing a beanie, baggy pants and a men’s shirt.” Falter’s friend was dressed in a T-shirt and shorts.

The two were well on their way when an older black Jeep pulled up next to them. The driver brought the vehicle to a halt and rolled down the window.

“It was really scary,” Falter said. “I’ve never had anyone do that before.”

Falter identifies as pansexual, meaning she has the capability of attraction to others regardless of their gender identity or biological sex.

“Gender isn’t a box that I check when I’m looking for someone,” Falter said. “It’s really based on their personality, their goals in life and how they treat their families.”

Like many members of the LGBT+ community, Falter is no stranger to homophobia. Born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, Falter came up through the Lincoln Public Schools District, an environment that was tough on members of the LGBT+ community.

“Part of me defines [homophobia] as being outwardly negative about things,” Falter said. “It comes from the fear of not knowing. It comes from the misunderstanding that gender, sex and sexuality are linked together.”

Falter attended Lincoln East High School, a place that she described as a box where you couldn’t breathe much. Her best friend at the time was an openly gay student who was subject to name calling and other forms of hostility from other students. It wasn’t until she attended Iowa State that Falter came to terms with her identity.

“It was thanks to really great people, community and allies who were very open to me talking to them about what I was thinking and going through,” Falter said. “Before you come out to someone you have to come out to yourself first. It’s a process.”

During the time of this occurrence, Falter was the vice president of the Multicultural Greek Council. She also was and still is a member of Gamma Rho Lambda, an LGBT+ sorority whose national focus is making safe spaces for the LGBT+ community.

Though she believes that things are improving at the administrative level, Falter said there is still much work to be done in regard to the culture at Iowa State. Her thoughts were reinforced in spring 2016 when two students in an old black Jeep pulled their car up next to Falter and her friend as they were walking, yelling “Faggot!” before speeding off.

“Street harassment is always a big looming concern for members of the LGBT Community,” said Benjamin Spick, Iowa State graduate and former education and outreach chair for the LGBT+ alliance. “I definitely knew a lot of friends who faced that.”

Spick realized that they weren’t straight around age 10. Spick’s parents never gave them “the talk” that parents give their children about sexuality and pregnancy. Instead, their parents had a picture book about pregnancy, sex and sexuality. Spick’s parents left the book on a book shelf were they knew Spick would find it.

“Toward the end of the book it talked about men who love men and women who love women,” Spick said. “After reading it, I knew that’s who I was.”

During their time at Iowa State, Spick found that mental health was the biggest issue within the LGBT+ community.

“We have a lot of people dealing with depression and anxiety,” Spick said. “It’s true for many college students, but I saw it especially amongst members of the LGBT+ community, myself being among them.”

Navigating family dynamics was another big issue.

“You see variation in what those family dynamics can be,” Spick said. “You see the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Such was the case for Chelsea Harbach, second-year Ph.D. student in the plant pathology and microbiology department.

Harbach grew up on a farm in Warren, Illinois, a small town in the northwest corner of the state.

“I’ll never forget the one time I was watching the show ‘South of Nowhere’ and the two main characters on the show [who are female] started kissing, and my mom walked by and said, ‘That’s just wrong,’” Harbach said. “Looking back, I realize that I definitely had an interest in women. I definitely didn’t want to acknowledge it.”

Harbach attended Warren High School, a very small high school where the population took notice to the slightest hint of flamboyance.

“Everyone, including neighboring towns, would talk about it because everybody knows each other,” Harbach said. “You just didn’t want to be the reason people were talking.”

After graduating high school, Harbach attended University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where a supportive community allowed her to come to terms with her identity. It wasn’t until her senior year of college that Harbach felt comfortable enough to come out as queer to her family.

“I was just afraid of how they would react because I grew up in a house where people were called gay as a derogatory term,” Harbach said. “December of 2011 was when I decided to tell my mom.”

Harbach came out to her mother through a long text message. Her mother was very accepting, having left work early after receiving the text to rush home and express her support. Harbach’s father was not as accepting, however.

Shortly after her father found out, Harbach began receiving letters from her grandparents saying they could not accept her choices in life and that her father was worth more than their support.

“I don’t think it’s something that my dad will ever be OK with,” Harbach said. “It’s not like I’m doing things that hurt people. I’m doing things that are going to change the world for the better.”

Harbach realized a love for nature and teaching at a very young age. Her dream is to stay in academia, for it’s the first place where she felt like she could be herself. She plans to be finished with her research in 2019.