Out in the U.P. College activist is out up north

By |2006-03-11T09:00:00-05:00March 11th, 2006|Uncategorized|

MARQUETTE – If Randi Sherman could change one thing about the city she lives in, she might very well wish for a 24-hour restaurant. That is, after she’s created a Gay-Straight Alliance in every Northern Michigan High School and eradicated homophobia from the campus of Northern Michigan University.
Maybe the restaurant will have to wait.
Sherman is not your average 20-year-old college student. She is a lesbian, vegan, social activist in the middle of the Upper Peninsula’s largest city. She holds her girlfriend’s hand in public, whether on campus or at the Econo grocery store, shopping for cereal at 11 p.m. She said she feels safe being out in the community. Oh, except that one time she was chased with a shopping cart.
Sherman has been out since the age 14. “Actually the first person I came out to told me not to worry, that I wasn’t gay and I was like, ‘Okay whatever.’ I was in 8th grade when that happened.”
But she, in fact, was really gay. She came out a short time later to her father while they were in the car together. “Dad proceeded to pull the car over,” she said.
She initially came out as bi. “It was just kind of like an interim period where I always knew I was a lesbian but it was safe at that time. So I was bi, but I only dated women.”
On an exchange student trip to Israel her sophomore year in high school, Sherman roomed with another student who identified as a lesbian. They stuck together and became good friends. “And when I came back from Israel I came back with the identity of a lesbian,” she said.
Originally from Royal Oak, Sherman is already in her third year at NMU where she is a social science major and a social welfare minor. She expects to graduate December 2004 and then go right to grad school to get her Masters in Social Work. “University of Denver is my ideal college but unless I get some amazing scholarships I won’t be going there,” she said. “But I’m also looking at UNLV in Las Vegas and Arizona State University in Tempe.” She’s the president of Outlook, NMW’s LGBT group.
Sherman said there is a misconception that there aren’t any LGBT people in the U.P. “We have a large gay population,” she said. “But you kind of have to find it.”
And find it she did. “Once I found Outlook I was fine. I felt pretty lonely before then, but then again I transitioned from living in the suburbs of Detroit to living in Marquette so I was lonely in a lot of different fashions.”
Outlook has grown to over 80 members on the email list and averages about 60 people per meeting. “Our community is much larger than people expect it to be. We used to have dances every month and we’d get about 130 people to a dance. We get anywhere between 500-700 people to our drag shows,” she said.
Despite this success, being out in the U.P. wasn’t an easy transition for Sherman. She said she thought about transferring when she first got there. “I was actually run out of my dorm room. One night a guy decided to come to my door grabbing his genitals, yelling derogatory slang at me. Apparently it had gotten around the whole entire hall that a lesbian was living there. It was really cool until they realized that I might have guys that are gay that are my friends and a lot of them weren’t comfortable with gay guys coming to their hall.”
Sherman toughed it out and eventually wound up rooming with a friend who happened to be a lesbian, too. NMW has a two-year requirement for students to live on campus. Sherman got to move off campus after only one, but it wasn’t because she was being harassed. “I got off because I was vegan, and also because I was being harassed. But I was told specifically, specifically they made sure I knew this, that I was not getting off because I was harassed, it was purely because of my dietary needs.”
According to Sherman, Northern didn’t see the harassment as an issue. “I got chased with a car while I was out running on campus,” she said. “I used to train for a marathon and I stopped training for it because of that.”
“But there have been amazing experiences on campus as well,” she said. During this year’s Day of Silence activities, a street preacher showed up to protest the group. The Day of Silence is a symbolic tribute to the memory of all the LGBT people who have been victims of violence. Northern has been participating since 2000.
The street preacher stood on a pedestal in the middle of the academic mall. He thanked the group for being silent so that he could preach to their souls. He made sure to tell them all they were going to hell, too. “This guy calls women whores,” said Randi. “He’s not a nice gentleman at all.”
Randi and her group ran him off his pedestal and linked arms around it so he had to stand on the street. Passing students started to get involved and stick up for the group. “When he started thanking us for being quiet so our souls could listen, students started screaming, ‘They don’t have to speak, we can speak for them.’ People started coming up, linking arms with us. It was just an amazing experience.”
Outlook is not the only LGBT group in Marquette. There is also an Allies group on campus that act as a support system for Outlook as well as making LGBT-friendly staff and parents visible to students. There are “Ally” stickers on the doors of gay-friendly areas on campus.
There is also a community group called Encompass. “They started not even a year ago,” said Sherman.
Sherman also just succeeded in getting a GSA at Marquette High School. Sherman believes that the students there really need a GSA and she worked hard to make that a reality. Triangle Foundation, the ACLU, Outlook, and Encompass were also involved. “After a long battle we were finally granted permission to get the GSA up and running,” she said. “I think that we are off to a very good start.”
Currently Sherman is advising the group until a teacher is found who is willing to be the advisor. “The students have someone who is on their side that really cares and actually wants to be there,” she said about her role. “I feel it is a win-win situation.”
Overall Sherman feels that the community in the U.P. is a safe one for LGBT people. “I think that it’s a pretty nice area to live. I would actually stay here if I could get a job here after I graduated, but I won’t. I can’t do my master’s work here either so I’m planning on moving out West to do my masters work.”
For now Sherman is concentrating on finishing school and enjoying the time she spends with her girlfriend, holding hands through the aisles of Econo. “We hold hands in public, we hug, we just basically don’t care. We have had good experiences and bad experiences,” she said. Sometimes she and her girlfriend get looks at Econo, but they aren’t always negative.
“Econo is the only place we’ve ever had people say stuff to us. I mean, some times we get people smiling at us and you have to wonder if it’s just because they don’t feel like they can do it or they’re just happy to see it.”

About the Author:

D'Anne Witkowski
D'Anne Witkowski is a writer living in Michigan with her wife and son. She has been writing about LGBTQ+ politics for nearly two decades. Follow her on Twitter @MamaDWitkowski.