Arcadia’s “Coming Out” Seminar Helps Students Learn Empathy, Courage to be Their True Selves

By John DeRosier | June 21, 2023

Each spring, Arcadia University hosts “Coming Out: Claiming Our True Identities,” a four-credit seminar that uses the intellectual practice of Visual Literacy to explore the idea of coming out. 

The class is open to all students at Arcadia. 

The course explores what coming out has meant historically and what it means in society today as it applies to LGBTQ people, undocumented workers, the illiterate, addicts, etc. 

The seminar is designed and taught by Laura Fitzwater and Ellen Murphey, both adjunct professors in the English Department. 

During Pride Month 2023, we discussed with Fitzwater the seminar, its history, and how it has evolved over the last decade.

Arcadia News: How did the seminar first come about?

Fitzwater: It was around the time that university seminars started coming into the picture here at Arcadia — so about 2011-2012 — and the idea of co-teaching came in. Ellen Murphey and I met here in the English Department and tossed ideas around. Originally, it was just going to be a “Coming Out” with LGBTQ issues and the idea of coming out at Arcadia and for yourself and your family. 

But the idea grew. Coming out isn’t just about being queer, it’s about a variety of things. We always start the semester talking about topics surrounding gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, etc. issues. We also talk about other ways that people come out — such as survivors of abuse or trauma, being an undocumented immigrant, or struggling with an addiction… it’s a number of things. So, we took the idea of “coming out” that has its roots in the LGBTQ+ community and broadened it. 

AN: How did the Obergefell Supreme Court decision affect this seminar and the world around us?

*Note: The Obergefell SCOTUS decision, published in 2015, requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and to recognize same-sex marriages validly performed in other jurisdictions.*

Fitzwater: The SCOTUS decision changed the conversation in class and was seen as a victory. When we started, it was just LGBT issues. Now it’s more inclusive and a bigger umbrella. There is more information on people who are non-binary, for example, that we didn’t have when we first started this course. It’s really evolved as our knowledge, the students’ knowledge, and society’s knowledge has grown and as more and more people have come out. In the end, we get all this information because people come out and talk about it. 

AN: How do you see the growth of the students from the beginning of the semester and the end of the semester?

Fitzwater: We ask all of our students to write a reflection piece at the end of the semester on how they’ve grown and what they will do with this information. 

It’s not just a personal issue. It’s three prongs: Your own personal idea of dealing with other people, a societal thing, and, fortunately or unfortunately, coming out is a political statement. 

So, we ask our students what they will do with the information they’ve gathered over the semester. Will they be more empathetic? Will they be comfortable about coming out if that’s who they are? Will they look at people in our society in a different way? Many of our students are from the LGBTQ+ community, but many are not. We get sociology majors, we get student-athletes, and we get students who just want to learn more about LGBTQ+ issues and more about the idea of coming out. 

AN: Does the class require a lot of projects and papers, or is it more about discussions and participation?

Fitzwater: It’s both. We send an email in November asking anyone in the community if they have a coming out story to tell and are willing to tell it. So we have three panels in February, and those people bravely tell their story. 

The biggest project includes choosing and interviewing a panelist. They write a profile about this person and the coming out story and their experience interviewing the panelist.Then students create a visual project about that person’s story, and we have a show every April that shows off all of these visuals. 

AN: Do you find this to be a safe spot for people to come out who may not have accepting families or friends back home?

Fitzwater: Yes, We see it that way. We had students this spring who were still struggling with their identities and telling their families about their identities. But I will say that not all of our students are in the queer community, nor do we expect them to be when they sign up for the class. There are allies and those who just want to learn more about the topic.

We also don’t expect anyone to come out when they are in the class. That is totally up to them. Do we have students who come out about something during their time in the class? Absolutely. But we tell them from day one that just because this is called “Coming Out” does not mean they have to come out about anything. 

AN: Have new laws enacted this past year in several states regarding transgender issues changed the way this seminar is taught?

Fitzwater: The biggest change this year, especially with the trans issues, is with one of the assignments we do. We ask the students to find articles about any of the topics we taught this semester. By far, most of the articles were about the anti-transgender legislation. So, we had a lot more discussion about those specific issues this year because they are so relevant. 

Most, if not all of the students believe that the legislation is wrong and that everyone should be able to be who they are. I think they all learned how to be more empathetic towards others and to be an ally. 

AN: In your opinion, how has Arcadia responded to these specific current issues?

Fitzwater: Arcadia is a very welcoming place. I’m sure there are instances of bias that we don’t always hear about, but in my experience being here over 20 years, I feel there is a lot less hate on this campus than there is in the broader world. 

AN: What’s something that you’ve learned while teaching this course?

Fitzwater: I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn. There are always new things, and our students educate us as much as we educate them. It’s an ongoing process and the umbrella keeps getting bigger, but that’s a good thing because it becomes more and more inclusive.