Coming out isn’t easy. With the ever-present possibility of not being supported by friends and family, it’s a move that for most members of the LGBT+ community is a risky one.
This was no different for Michael Chutskoff, Student Union Society’s (SUS) equalities officer, who, from a young age, knew that he wasn’t like his peers.
“I always knew that I was different growing up but I didn’t really know why,” he said. “As I started getting older, probably around middle school, I realized that I was starting to get attracted to guys, but I didn’t really think about it too much.”
Like many of those who grew up in the Fraser Valley, Michael was raised in a religious atmosphere and attended a private Christian school where homosexuality was not only looked down on, but ignored all together.
“The whole time of growing up and hitting puberty, that’s when the sex talks start and especially at a Christian school, there wasn’t much of an education — the whole concept of homosexuality was never even addressed,” he said. “People would call me gay and a faggot, but I never even knew what that meant, so I started using it because it seemed like a buzzword.”
After putting two and two together, Michael knew that he was gay, but where to go from there was even harder to figure out. Michael’s school was opposed to homosexuality, so much so that coming out publically could have meant being expelled. As a result, he kept quiet about his feelings, a decision that led to depression during his final year of high school.
“It was really hard to hold such an important part of you in; it was so hard to act like everything was normal and everything was fine, even though it wasn’t,” he said. “It was really hitting me hard, the stress of trying to get through the last year of high school, hoping to get accepted into university, and at the same time holding this huge secret to myself.”
Eventually, Michael suffered from stress-induced seizures, which could have had fatal causes, if not properly addressed.
“I literally could have died if I didn’t learn how to talk about it,” he said. “A lot of that stress was just not being able to talk to anyone about it, not being able to share. It’s scary.”
Stuck between the decision of publicly coming out and suffering the consequences from his school, or keeping quiet but compromising his health, Michael started to open up to a few people that were close to him.
“At that point I had started telling my friends because it was so much to hold,” he said. “My friends were generally supportive, but a couple people tried spreading things around and that scared me.”
After graduation, the repercussions of sharing his feelings weren’t an issue anymore, but that didn’t mean it would be an easy thing to do and like most people contemplating coming out, telling his parents was one of the most difficult parts for Michael.
“My parents were really surprised and never saw it because I didn’t show it,” he said. “My mom was supportive, but my dad didn’t get it for the longest time. He’s fine now and couldn’t care less about it.”
With high school behind him, Michael saw university as a chance to be open about who he was — the first time doing so didn’t come with the threat of being kicked out of school.
“UFV has just been a really freeing experience for me to be the person that I really want to be and act how I want to,” he said. “In high school it would be social suicide to speak up — you don’t want to be that kid — whereas here, no one really cares. If someone doesn’t like you, that’s nice, you move on and you don’t have to see them every day.”
While there’s always more that can be done, in the past year UFV has made considerable efforts to becoming a more welcoming institution, from the new rainbow crosswalk, to the positive space training available to students and staff, to SUS’ upcoming pride centre. However, the same can’t be said about the area it’s situated in. The Fraser Valley, also known as B.C.’s “Bible Belt,” doesn’t exactly have the best reputation for being the most supportive area to the LGBT+ community.
“As I got older and I looked at Abbotsford, I realized how conservative and traditional it is,” Michael said. “It’s crazy how people can just hate so much on something that they don’t understand.”
While the option to move somewhere more liberal-minded, such as Vancouver, exists, relocating is easier said than done — especially for anyone that falls into the broke student demographic.
“You hear a lot of people saying ‘Just move to Vancouver, it’s so much better,’ but for people like me, there’s a lot of us who are the left behinds that don’t have the option of moving into Vancouver to a liberal epicentre,” Michael explained. “We can’t do that; it’s not feasible. A lot of people in the Fraser Valley and Abbotsford especially have to learn how to hide it.”
This situation is one that Michael hopes to change, or at least address. As the equalities officer for SUS, a large part of Michael’s portfolio includes organizing events to support marginalized students, and with National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, he saw it as the perfect opportunity to share his story in hopes of inspiring others to do the same.
“The idea came up at two o’clock in the morning,” he said. “It was one of those things where you have a thought and you won’t let go of it, so you know it must be good. I looked up when National Coming Out Day was, and not only was it during the school year, it was only a couple months away. Next thing you know, the event was taking off.”
Anoop Dhaliwal, UFV International’s international student support assistant who is also a member of the Fraser Valley pride committee, noted that the storytelling aspect of the event, while unique to most UFV events, could have a strong impact.
“It takes a lot of courage to tell your story,” she said. “I think it’s important for students to have a voice and being able to tell your story is very powerful. When somebody shares their story they’re sharing part of themselves with you and I think we’re very fortunate for that kind of thing to happen here.”
For SUS president Sukhi Brar, the event is a way for SUS to show their support, as well as provide support, for the LGBT+ community at UFV.
“It is important for us to host events like ‘The Art of Coming Out’ to take active steps to reduce barriers and various forms of discrimination faced by students on campus,” she said. “This event sheds light on some of the challenges that students face when coming out in a conservative community. In light of these challenges, it’s important for students to be a part of conversations and events that strive to make all students feel heard and welcome in our campus community.”
While the purpose of the event is to support students that are thinking of coming out, Michael hopes that it’ll draw in a larger demographic as well.
“I want everyone to show up because you never know who’s going to come out to you; it could be friends, family, and some of them you’d never guess in a million years,” he said. “At least hearing my story, you can understand what that person’s going through. Even if you see someone else that you don’t know, you understand the struggle behind that person. For me, that’s the most important thing, just having people understand.”
In the end, if Michael’s story helps someone in their own personal journey, he’ll consider it a success.
“It’s one of the hardest things I thought that I would do in my life, but after doing it, I wish I did it sooner because it was so easy,” he said. “I really want people to hear my story and be inspired and empowered. I just want to give people a positive but a realistic viewpoint of what my life was and hopefully they learn from my mistakes.”
“There’s a phrase that’s really corny, but I abide by it: it gets better,” Michael continued. “It’s the big reveal, but you keep doing it. You start a job and your coworkers find out, you go to school, family, it’s something that you keep doing for the rest of your life and it keeps getting easier and easier.”
The Art of Coming Out is on Oct. 11 at 6 p.m. in the Student Union Building of UFV’s Abbotsford campus.
Michael Chutskoff also works as a staff writer for The Cascade.