It’s the first day of classes at Ball State. Leo Caldwell, assistant lecturer of media design, is ready to welcome a new group of students to his classes, prepared to teach them all he knows about journalism and design. Students file into the classroom, filling the empty desks around the room and preparing themselves for what they are about to learn in Caldwell’s class.
However, during Caldwell’s introduction, he includes a detail students may not know about him — Caldwell is transgender.
“There’s a little awkwardness, usually blank stares, and some people look confused,” he said. “I’ve always felt either confusion or that sort of vibe … [My class] doesn’t leave space for them to ask me questions, but some of them have before or after classes, and they’re genuine, really good questions.”
Caldwell was born and raised in Muncie, in a Pentecostal, “super religious” family. When he realized he was queer, he said coming out to his family was traumatic because they were “very Pentecostal.” In the church, he was told he was an abomination and “being queer was the worst thing you could be.”
“In the last 10 years, I’ve realized, ‘Wow, that was really freaking traumatic,’” he said. “I didn’t know how deeply it hurt me because I spent so much time trying not to believe what I had been told as a child.”
In his teens, Caldwell decided to “reject religion altogether” and later came out as a lesbian at 21 years old. He then spent his 20s reprogramming and telling himself he wasn’t a bad person because of who he is. In 2009, when Caldwell was 26, he met a transgender person for the first time at the Mark III Taproom and began experimenting with his identity.
“It was actually in the [Ball State] journalism department where I started experimenting with being ‘Leo’ in class,” Caldwell said. “The faculty there [were] really supportive; Jenn Palilonis was one of the faculty that really embraced my identity and who I was.”
While Caldwell said he is now completely comfortable with his masculinity, it took a long time for him to get there because he had to learn how to be comfortable in his body and what kind of masculinity he identified with most.
Caldwell said when he first came out as a lesbian to his mom, the two didn’t talk for about six months to a year. So, when he came out as transgender to his family, he did it more nonchalantly, even though he knew they would still be upset — but he didn’t care as much because he was embracing who he was.
Since then, Caldwell has continued to be nonchalant when he comes out to people, casually dropping it into conversation but still making them aware of his identity.
“As a passing trans person, I am constantly coming out because I want people to know — they don’t have to — but I want people to know that they’ve interacted with a trans person,” he said. “I have the ability, privilege and safety around me to do that, but I don’t expect all trans people to because it’s a personal choice, and I think some trans people can’t because of where they’re at in life.”
Caldwell said he thinks the LGBTQ community has changed a lot since he came out, with more representation in and around the community as a whole.
“For me, it was mostly a fight, even though that was only 20 years ago,” he said. “We had to fight to exist — we had to fight even within our generation. There wasn’t a lot of kindness there.”
Caldwell thinks Generation Z is more accepting of queer people than previous generations, even with backlash from anti-LGBTQ legislation, and he thinks it’s making younger generations realize the possibilities for them and their identities.
David Little, assistant teaching professor of theatre directing, also believes the LGBTQ community has changed and thinks younger generations need to remember the hardships those before them faced.
Little grew up in a “fairly conservative home” with a father who was a minister and said his journey to discovering his sexuality was long and complicated. In 2002, he said he ended up in the hospital because of his depression, and that was when he began talking with a psychiatrist about how he thought he was gay.
“For some weird reason, the psychiatrist, instead of saying, ‘When you leave here, maybe you should go find a gay community or something,’ [told me] to go date a girl,” Little said. “So I left there and I dated a girl for a while, and that did not go well. She was so great and so patient and kind and lovely with me, but I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t even want to hold your hand.’”
About two years later, Little was in a play in Pittsburgh and realized he had a crush on the other man in the play, so he gave himself “permission to surrender” to what he was feeling for one week. He said the second he did, he realized he was gay.
On Oct. 1, 2006, Little was in graduate school at The New School in New York City when his father had to have an unexpected medical procedure, prompting him to return to Pittsburgh. At that point, he was only out to about five or six of his friends.
“When I was home, I sort of had this moment where I realized I don’t want either of my parents to die without them knowing this information,” Little said. “Once I told my parents, more and more of my friends at school knew because I was a bit of a mess emotionally for a couple months. I needed a little bit more support, so I told more people at school, and they were all incredibly supportive.”
Little said he told his siblings a year after, and they were all accepting of him and his identity.
Since he has fully come out, Little said he’s realized the people who had the biggest problem with him and his sexuality were his parents, which he thinks will never change.
“I have friends, like, my parents’ friends who are their age that are totally fine with it,” he said. “But of course, I’m not their child, so that’s a different thing.”
Little went to Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School and graduated from high school in 1995. When he graduated, he said there were 50 people in his graduating class. Of those people, about 10 were men, and he thinks four of them were gay, but none of them were out yet.
He said — from what he has seen — more students there are more comfortable being open about their sexuality now.
Little also works at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Michigan as a musical theater instructor and said he’s noticed students feel more comfortable being open about their sexuality. This led to him having a conversation with a group of them because he noticed how easy it was for them to talk about sexuality.
“I said to them at one point, ‘I am so happy that you feel this comfortable to be out of the closet, at least while you’re here at camp,’” he said. “I said, ‘However, I think it’s also important for you to remember that you stand on the shoulders of people a generation or two older than you — like myself — who had it much harder. And I stand on the shoulders of people a generation or two older than me who had it much harder than me.’”
Little said, after he said that to the students, they told him they felt safer and like they were able to talk about themselves freely at camp but they couldn’t do that anywhere else, which showed him things still haven’t fully changed.
Little also said he thinks anti-LGBTQ legislation, like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida — which would restrict discussions of sexual identity and gender orientation in schools — is dangerous for students because it prevents students who may be confused about their sexuality from talking about it.
“My gut reaction is to get super, super angry, and I just want to be more understanding of where the people on the other side are coming from,” he said. “I want to be able to listen to other people and to understand and to help educate, because in the case of some of these bills, I feel like legislators and parents who don’t know me are saying there’s something evil about me and people like me, and that’s just not true.”
Like Caldwell and Little, Sara Collas, assistant teaching professor of psychology, believes Gen Z is more accepting of the LGBTQ community.
“There’s really an emphasis on sexual and gender fluidity, and identities are viewed as constructed, which I believe as well,” Collas said. “Gender animates the LGBTQ community, and now I think there’s more recognition of gender fluidity due to the trans movement.”
Collas said she realized she was a lesbian when she was in third grade because she developed a crush on her teacher.
“I felt conflicted when I went home because I was supposed to love my mother the most, but I was having this mad crush on my teacher,” Collas said.
When Collas was 21 years old, she came out to her friends and family and said it went fine because she had always normalized her lesbian identity. She said she was never afraid of people judging her for her identity, and she was proud of who she was when she came out.
Although the LGBTQ community and its representation has changed since Collas came out nearly 40 years ago, she doesn’t regret the way she came out.
“I think it’s great,” she said. “We’ve gone mainstream, we’re everywhere and proud, and I think it’s fantastic.”
Contact Maya Wilkins with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mayawilkinss.