Throughout Eastern, there are many students and faculty who represent the university’s new initiative, ‘courage to.’ Among them is senior Jessie Nichols. Nichols is an Exercise Science major, a Psychology minor, and has been a Student Chaplain for the past three years. Despite how busy Nichols is being in his final year of college, his main priority is knowing that the people he cares most about will be safe.
“I want to leave [Eastern] knowing that the LGBT+ community is going to be okay,” Nichols said.
As a freshman at Eastern, Nichols started to come out of his comfort zone and became heavily involved with campus clubs and attended campus events. He participated in many sports and, being assigned female at birth, some were taken by surprise at his masculine characteristics. As a freshman, Nichols did not know he was transgender (someone who does not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth) nor had he heard the word. Although he was raised to love others, his family seldom discussed LGBT+ issues. However, the summer before his sophomore year, Nichols worked at a Christian camp that allowed him to express himself while still gaining the support and friendship with fellow staff members he had just met.
The following year, Nichols came out publicly as a lesbian (a female attracted to other females). Nichols was approached by many who saw his coming out astonishing.
“[They said] but you’re a chaplain!” Nichols joked as he reflected on when some of his residents approached him. For many of them, this was their first interaction with an LGBT+ Christian leader. In addition to this, several Eastern students confided in Nichols by coming out to him. Nichols became the first for many to be openly LGBT+. Nichols believes that Eastern does not have enough of a LGBT+ support system for students.
Nichols recalls his time of identifying as a lesbian as “a part of my journey.”
Starting his junior year, Nicholas began reflecting on how he never really felt comfortable in his own body. Apart from not liking the stereotypical “girl toys” and expressing little interest in “girl clothes,” Nichols knew that there was always something different about him. For him, something did not feel right, and before puberty, Nichols was able to mask the feelings. However, being a junior in college, he was not as capable of masking his feminine qualities, and for awhile, Nichols suppressed the feelings of gender dysphoria.
During his spring semester of junior year, Jessie started experimenting with members of Refuge and some of his friends using “he” and “him” pronouns. At that point, Nichols felt as though there was a weight lifted off of his shoulders. He felt that he was validated as a man but also a human. Throughout the year, Nichols seemed to have a fantastic day when he could ‘pass’ as male. He loved the idea that people who did not know him assumed that his gender matched how he felt. Even though he started to feel more comfortable being classified as male by his trusted friends, he knew that he could not be his true and authentic self all of the time without coming out fully to the community of Eastern as a whole.
“I hated having my friends not being able to use proper pronouns,” Nichols said.
Nichols posed in front of Walton’s ‘courage to’ wings for a social media post. This coming out signified Nichols’ journey, a journey of courage. Nichols’ experience with the LGBT+ community has always been an act of courage.
“Taking a step in faith… God will give me people who are affirming,” Nichols said. God gave Nichols the people of Refuge, his friends, and amazing faculty.
One of Nichols’ most important initiatives is to motivate students and faculty to be more welcoming of different people, or outsiders even, as Jesus taught. Nichols believes that LGBT+ students and teachers have a right to be at Eastern, and that Eastern should be a safe place for them. Nichols showed his support for this initiative during last year’s Solidarity Week, run by Refuge, Eastern’s Gay-Straight Alliance Group, and the Political Activism Club. This week consisted of showing support for LGBT+ people and showing Christian love to everyone through panel discussions, meetings with administration, and an event for Eastern students, faculty, and alum to talk about their experiences with LGBT+ people.
“LGBT+ Christians are their own special community… most of the LGBT+ people I have met are so welcoming… that is the most Christ-like thing,” Nichols said. Nichols continued discussing that LGBT+ people of Eastern know what it is like to be on the outside. They know what impact oppression has, as they are often ostracized by Christian communities, and that is what Nichols would like to see diminish as he graduates.
As a senior, Nichols has shown his appreciation for Eastern and his intention to leave the institution better than it was before he came.
As his journey at Eastern is reaching an end, Nichols still wants to advocate for the LGBT+ people he will be leaving behind. He wants transgender people to feel comfortable in their dorm rooms. He wants transgender people to be able to live on the hall they feel most comfortable and safe in, limited from possible triggers. Nichols hopes that the university puts people over institution. Nichols also hopes that people are willing to listen to others who may be different from them.
“Everyone has a story. Have the courage to not judge them by their cover,” Nichols said.