By Shannon Gaffney
Tristan Riggs, an 18-year-old college student, studies fashion design at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. He grew up in the small, conservative town of Richmond, Michigan. He is a proud gay man and has been embracing his identity more in recent years.
Here he explains how his past experiences and his current environment have impacted the acceptance and exploration of his sexuality.
SG: When did you start to open up about your sexual identity?
Riggs: It was hard for me to tell people that I was gay, and it still is hard and I don’t always tell everyone. But I started by telling people I was bisexual because it was easier to do and just better received. I told my parents and people close to me, towards the end of my junior year of high school, that I was gay.
SG: What experiences have been crucial to the development of your identity and why?
Riggs: One of my most defining moments was during my sophomore year of high school, I was called a slur in the wrestling team’s group chat. Even though I wasn’t comfortable being called that, it helped me realize who I was. I had a new ability to stand up for myself. Knowing what I was then helped me to start not accepting that kind of bullying from other people.
SG: Were you worried about your family’s perception of your sexuality?
Riggs: I have always felt comfortable with my family. Even though it was hard to come out, I knew I wasn’t going to get kicked out of the home or anything. It was hard because I knew after coming out it was going to cause a lot of future disagreements because it turned into a more rigid relationship.
SG: You are currently attending a progressive college and living in Chicago, which is in stark contrast to the city you grew up in. What is the difference between living in these environments?
Riggs: The main thing I have noticed is I have way more guy friends in college than I ever did before, and it’s because people don’t care about your sexual identity here (in Chicago). I learned a lot from meeting and hanging out with such a diverse group of friends, and I am very thankful for it.
SG: Have you ever felt oppressed or constrained by certain power structures?
Riggs: I haven’t seen this yet, but I think I would have to wait until I am in the professional field to really witness it. But, watching [the] 2020 elections and hearing friends and family support Trump when it is on the Republican agenda to limit the rights of the lgbtq+ community, it was a really difficult thing to try and swallow. People I love voted directly against me, and I am still trying to deal with that.
SG: What are some ways you have asserted your rights or civil liberties?
Riggs: A broad one is voting, participating in that process to put the right people in charge. But since being out especially there have been plenty of times I have stood up for myself. The other day I was at a friend’s house and a boy I didn’t know said I looked like a faggot. I told him to never call me that again, and he ended up apologizing. Usually I just brush it off and ignore it, but that was one of the few times where I felt I had to say something. It is just so frustrating because these people don’t even know me and still decide to say stuff like that.
SG: What do you wish other people understood about your identity?
Riggs: I wish people would understand that obviously it’s not a choice, but it’s also something I don’t have to tell you. It’s not something I should have to announce and you should get to ask about; it really isn’t something you need to know.