Purple Threads: Members of the LGBTQ+ community reflect on their journeys

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Gennifer Riley (right) and her wife Olivia smile together. (Photo courtesy of Gennifer Riley)

Editor’s note: This story is part of the Purple Threads series, which aims to tell the stories of Kansas State students who, despite their different experiences, are all connected in some way through K-State.

Discovering ourselves

She recalled her younger years, when she kissed a boy and began to develop what she thought were crushes on her male peers. But looking back, Anna Casner realized that she was doing what she thought she was supposed to be doing.

“I was way too into Nikki Blonsky from Hairspray as a middle schooler — I know that much,” she said.

Casner, a senior in social work, identifies as a lesbian.

“I usually just say I’m gay, but I think part of that is because I think I associate lesbian as a strange and dirty word from my upbringing, but I’m trying to get more comfortable with the label, but I’m predominantly attracted to women,” Casner said.

She grew up in a religious household, where being a woman attracted to women wasn’t an option for her — and homosexuality was spoken of in a negative and rigid tone.

She decided to deal with her feelings internally in order to be accepted in her community and family.

Through high school, she didn’t feel like she could pursue anything with women because she went to a Christian school. It wasn’t until she graduated and was headed off to college that she experienced a relationship with another woman.

“The summer before my freshman year, I had a relationship with a girl, and it was really affirming, for me personally because I was like ‘This is what actual attraction feels like — it’s what loving someone feels like,'” she said. “Not that I don’t love male members of my family or female members of my family — love is different, but this is what romantic love feels like.”

Anna Casner, senior in social work, identifies as a lesbian.
Anna Casner, senior in social work, identifies as a lesbian. (Photo courtesy of Anna Casner)

Casner first told her younger sister, who responded by saying she didn’t want to talk about it.

“She was again having that internalized, ‘I don’t know if that’s okay,’ that I was having on an internal level too,” she said.

She then went on to come out to her older siblings, both of whom responded well. Casner came out to her mother the night before Christmas Eve and her father later. Her father supported her financially, and she braced for the worst when she told him.

“He was extremely supportive for what I was expecting like, ‘I still love you, this doesn’t change how I feel about you, you’re still my daughter,’ and I was really fortunate to have that experience,” she said. “That’s something that I know a lot of people don’t have the have the opportunity to have a supportive family.”

Like Casner, Gennifer Riley, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, said she experienced turbulence between her upbringing and her identity. Riley is transgender and bisexual.

“I grew up in a very conservative, Christian community [and] family and there just wasn’t really much talk about the idea that anyone who’s not cisgender could exist — cisgender being you identify with the gender that you were assigned as — at first there just really wasn’t much talk about it,” she said. “And when you did hear anything about it, it was a ‘Oh those are bad people,’ or that kind of thing. So growing up, I only had the vaguest notion that this was even a possibility.”

She feels more attached to the LGBT community via being transgender than she does from being bisexual, she said — she’s never felt the same trials for her sexuality that she did for her gender.

Riley said she didn’t begin to realize that her feelings meant something until her late teens or early 20s —when she realized she wasn’t alone. Riley started researching, but struggled to move past the framework she had grown up in.

“And something that somewhat made this a little more complicated was that by the day that I was really ready to admit that ‘I think I’m transgender,’ was about a month before I was supposed to get married,” Riley said. “So, that was a really difficult moment. And I did tell my fiancée, who I am married to now … that night that I really came to that realization.”

Riley said she and her fiancée — now wife — came to the conclusion that she was not going to transition socially or medically.

Within a year, Riley realized this arrangement was not going to work. She began suffering from severe depression and thoughts of self harm.

“So I eventually started seeing a therapist who specialized in helping transgender people, and that was really what helped me get past sort of the really transphobic attitudes I’ve been raised with and come to accept myself when I started to begin my social and and personal transition,” she said. “After that, I think that was several years ago — I don’t remember exactly how many years ago — but I’ve never been happier.”

Riley noted that strange things happened during the transition that she didn’t expect.

“And probably one of the really weird ones for me that I just find absolutely delightful is that I now understand why people will just dance when they’re happy,” Riley said. “I realize now, I’ve never actually just felt that safe in my own body that I could just do something like that.”

Riley said she eventually decided to start hormone replacement therapy.

It wasn’t until after Riley transitioned that she began to realize she might be bisexual. She said she felt some guilt in the process of discovering this because she feels that she put her spouse through a lot.

“The bisexuality doesn’t doesn’t really affect things as much as I was afraid it would, you know, I still love her, she still loves me,” she said. “It’s doesn’t really change that. It’s just kind of something that it was is kind of a weird realization that I finally put together.”

Her wife went through a process of determining whether the transition would be a deal breaker for her, but came to the conclusion that she loved Riley for who she was rather than for her gender. Afterwards, they began to consider telling other people.

“[My parents] didn’t really understand it, but my mom was very clear from the get-go that she still loves me no matter what,” Riley said. “And while there was some friction with my dad, I wouldn’t say that my relationship with my parents ever really got worse, and with my mom it’s honestly a lot better than it ever was — not that it was bad from the start.”

Riley said her spouse’s parents did not respond well to the news, and she hasn’t had contact with her sister in a while after coming out. Her brother and her, on the other hand, do still talk and often play games online together.

Dre’Vel Taylor, a K-State alumni, identifies as gay and recalled his experience with his sexual orientation and coming out — a journey he said was not easy.

“I think it was probably in later middle school probably eighth grade where it was just like, ‘Hmm, I don’t think this is quite how everybody else feels about everybody else because I don’t see why I’m not interested in any of the girls in my school, but some of the other guys at my school [are] actually pretty attractive or whatnot,'” Taylor said. “And so that was really confusing.”

After that, he ensued on a long journey to come to terms with his feelings and what they meant. A turning point for Taylor came in his early high school years.

“During that time, both of my best friends — well one of them moved away and the other one passed away,” Taylor said. “The closest people to me were gone, and I hadn’t come out to them yet. I was in the slow process with one of them — talking a little bit about what was going on, but with the other one I hadn’t had a chance to do that before he passed away. After that … I realized that, life was too short, and … I didn’t want to live the rest of my life in that mentality.”

He said he was “tired of being tired” and gradually began to come out in the ninth or tenth grade

“I started confiding in a few people — my closest friends — and they were super supportive,” he said. “And that helped boost my own internal confidence and whatnot.”

Finding support

While she was researching, Riley determined there was a lot of misinformation on the internet, and began to use resources on Kansas State’s campus.

“I actually contacted Brandon Haddock at the LGBT Resource Center and my therapist to ask them if they could put me in touch with anyone in the local trans community,” Riley said. “They both suggested the same person who, it turns out, was in the master’s program at K-State in engineering as well.”

That person was helpful during her transition, Riley said, and was able to answer questions and aid her in further understanding the process.

Riley also noted that some LGBT groups at K-State did speak with Lafene Health Center about efforts they can take to help the community.

“I think they spoke with the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, as well as Gender Collective about what they can be doing better over at Lafene,” she said. “I do not know how much action has been taken on that communication, but I know that … at least to me, it felt like it was a fairly decent one. … The person we spoke with seemed genuinely honest about ‘What are some changes we can make that will help it be more affirming and just inclusive to people who are not cis and straight?'”

Taylor also began to find resources on campus. He said he found the LGBT Resource Center at K-State through friends and events hosted at the Union.

“Eventually, I went to a couple of the meetings for the organization, and I was like ‘Wow this is pretty cool and all these people are really nice,'” he said. “And after that I started going a little bit more, and it was just a really nice, welcoming environment, and people were very friendly and quick to introduce themselves and welcome everybody around them.”

Recently, K-State was named the best college campus in Kansas for LGBTQ+ people by BestColleges and Campus Pride’s 2020 rankings.

Casner said that while she has felt welcome on K-State’s campus, there have been events that reminded her that the community is not perfect. She described a night when she had gotten off a late shift from work and was walking to her dorm. Some individuals in a car driving by yelled a homophobic slur at her.

“At first I was just taken aback … that’s a term that gets used in … slang, which is unfortunate, but happens,” she said. “I looked around, assuming that they were maybe talking to a friend, and then I realized they were talking to me. And that was the first time that I was like, ‘Oh,’ — they knew who I was.”

More recently, Casner recalls battling with groups associated with K-State that have taken to Twitter and made members of the LGBT community feel unwelcome.

Casner said the concept of allyship is a hot topic right now, especially considering recent protests regarding police brutality happening the U.S.

“I think more people are realizing that just being not homophobic, or not racist is not enough,” Casner said. “And I hope that that same concept can be applied to all minority groups. Obviously there is an emphasis right now, and I think justly so, on the black community, to have your eyes open. We’ve had a huge eye opening couple of weeks, and I think that some of those same concepts can extend to the queer community.”

Anna Casner posses at her first drag show. (Photo courtesy of Anna Casner)
Anna Casner posses at her first drag show. (Photo courtesy of Anna Casner)

Casner said there are two things everyone should understand and practice in regards to being an ally.

“Number one — being able to admit where you’ve been wrong, because it feels like there’s a quick defense mechanism of like, ‘Oh well, I’m not homophobic, I’m not racist, I don’t do those things,'” Casner said. “But you have to be willing to acknowledge that these things are systemic — these things are bigger than you — you probably participate without knowing, but it’s important to look at where you do participate.

“And number two — shut up and listen,” she continued. “The biggest thing is opening your ears — listen to people, ask people questions, ask people in the community, ‘How can I make you feel more welcome in this space?’ And also do your own homework. You can ask those questions, but also it’s exhausting a little bit to get asked constantly, ‘How do we advocate for you?'”

Riley said there are a lot of misconceptions about the transgender community and that it is a very politically-charged subject — something she called unfortunate.

“I didn’t transition for political reasons or anything like that, but now my existence is political,” she said. “And I realized that trans people are not the only minority that have this issue — just looking around the world like right now, things are not in good shape for minorities, especially people of color, and if you’re that intersection — if you’re a person of color and a trans person, it’s especially hard out there. So I think that sort of the biggest thing that would be really good is just for people to recognize that we are just other humans, and we’re just trying to go about our lives.”

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Hi there! I'm Julie Freijat and I'm a copy chief and an assistant news editor for the Collegian. I love science and technology, hate poor movie dialogue and my favorite subreddit is r/truecrime.