Imani Sims, 22, is a recent graduate of Kent State University in Ohio. Sims’ journey to figuring out their gender and sexuality wasn’t simple. In an interview with Education Week, Sims shares what helped them in their journey. And as someone who’s lived in Ohio their whole life, Sims also shares what it’s like being part of the LGBTQ+ community in a more conservative state. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
I came out as a lesbian when I was 16, but before then, it was really just hard for me to put a label on something. I knew for a fact that I was not straight, but I wasn’t sure of an actual label. Before being a lesbian, I identified as bisexual. It was a very unhealthy time for me because I was trying to put a label quickly on things, so I don’t think I offered myself enough grace. I was trying to fit in somewhere.
I was struggling because I knew that there was something different, something that I had never really thought of, about me. I was curious. I was also a bit scared because of society. However, what was going through my head was, this is something I don’t want to hide away from, but I’m not sure how to go about things and I’m not sure how I can find out more about myself.
I was on GLSEN’s [Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network] National Student Council. That was a great time for me because there were so many people that helped me with [figuring out my identity]. I remember I was at one of our summits, and I was just like, “I really don’t want anyone to say ‘she’ or ‘her’ or ‘they.’ I don’t want anyone to say anything. Let me just say ‘Imani,’” and I feel like that was like the most trans I’ve ever been, because I [felt so outside the binary]. But it was such a great environment to be in because people were like, “It’s okay, we’ve all been here before.” That’s when I came out as nonbinary.
When I came out as a lesbian, I wasn’t necessarily chastised. However, once I came out as nonbinary, and [started] using they/them pronouns, that’s when things took a turn, and that’s when I was finding myself craving a community, because I went to a predominantly white school with less than 20 Black people, including staff and faculty. Then with the sexuality component, I was definitely a minority. So I was having to look outward, on different organizations to work with, not only so I could focus on outreach, but so I could get a community of like-minded peers.
I think the lack of community—not to simplify it—but I think one of the things that hurts the most is not having the community to support you.
[Mental health challenges] come with the territory, which is upsetting, because the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric says that being in the community means that you have a mental illness, but I don’t believe that [being queer] means that you have a mental illness. However, I find it very hard to meet one person in the community who does not have a mental illness, because of societal pressures. I definitely struggle with my mental health. It doesn’t help with these anti-LGBTQ+ bills. It does not help if you live in a state that is not accepting, if your school is not accepting, if you don’t have an accepting family. But I think the lack of community—not to simplify it—but I think one of the things that hurts the most is not having the community to support you.
Ohio as a state is not very accepting. Ohio is not a super liberal state. We’re still dealing with Republican politics, and even Democrat politics, that aren’t as accepting [as California or New York]. It’s just hard. I really do wish I lived somewhere that was more accepting and had more community. It’s not a safe space due to the politics and also due to the lack of community in some areas.
Before I came to high school, I knew there was a club focused on feminism. When I got to high school, the club rebranded as the SAFE club, which stands for Students Advocating For Equality/Equity. We didn’t have a GSA club, so this club was more about all things marginalized. We were wanting to advocate on sexuality, teach people about sexuality [by] having pride weeks, and things like that. That was something that I considered to be a safe space. [But] I feel like we definitely did not have enough support in the school because there were many that did not want to be a part of it on a peer level. The principal was not willing to work with us on the things that we wanted to do, whether it was going to a museum or doing documentary viewings. He wasn’t willing to accommodate and work with us due to the backlash, so most of the work that we did was surface level, which is still very important, but had we had the support from the faculty I feel like we could have done more.
[For educators] I would say you can fit LGBTQ+ education in any curriculum. Make sure everyone in your class feels included and feels seen in your classroom. That would have been so meaningful, not just for me, but for my peers, too. Having that type of curriculum, having that type of environment and school climate would have been great for me and for my peers, so it wouldn’t just be the SAFE club where we can go to be safe. It will be like the whole school is safe, the whole community is safe. That would have been great.
A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2023 edition of Education Week as Mental Health Challenges ‘Come With the Territory’