Fall 2019: For many high school seniors, it was a time that looked incredibly uncertain and filled with anticipation as we allocated countless hours in order to apply to our dream college.

I was one of those students that acted like I was not stressed, when in reality I was scared of being rejected by my top choice, if I was going to miss the deadline, or if I could not afford to pay the application fee that is charged. I felt stressed like no other. I wanted to get out of Fresno, go to the best four year university (I did not even consider the possibility of a junior college), make countless friends, and feel liberation pump through my veins like a neverending drug.

When final decisions came around, I received a lot of ‘yeses’ from schools I wanted to attend. I was hopeful that my top choice was also going to affirm my intellectual value and accept me into their institution; it was fatefully my last letter I was to receive, so my anticipation only grew sky high by late-March – when the pandemic hit the nation.

It was – what felt like at the time – my absolute worst nightmare. The email came in with the final decision and I was, to be honest, heartbroken. My top choice did not want me. After years of hard work and impressive ambition, I felt ashamed. Yet, I tried to keep my head high and weighed the options of schools that actually did want me.

Many universities gave me some hefty financial assistance, but above all, I wanted to be able to pursue my undergraduate degree without living in debt. Therefore, I chose a private university – where my favorite artist Brandy graduated from and where “Zoey 101” was filmed – who gave me the most financial assistance. I was beyond excited and disregarded what I read on Reddit or social media that said how toxic of a culture it is at this university. I wanted to leave.

When it came time to move in, I was so happy. I pictured having a bunch of friends that shared an identity of being Mexican or a first generation student; I would usually get along best with people I have a lot in common with, especially if they were queer.

As I turned 18, I began to seriously realize the man that I am, which is a little fruity and proud of it. That and I began to really drop significant weight and my body and face began to mold itself into nearly a full-course meal… I have not seemed to have met my full potential. Regardless, I felt hot, confident, gay, brown and ready to conquer the world… or at least the Pacific Coast. Have you figured out what school I attend yet?

Fall 2021: The university has these cute performative banners that read “You Belong Here” and I genuinely felt that that was a fact. I attended events and I even joined Latinx and Queer pride clubs and was ready to finally meet some people.

Yet, it was not like that at all. Everyone in the greater student body reeked of privilege and Caucasian esteem. For example, I overheard a group of guys discussing flying to Amsterdam to attend a birthday party on my way to the cafeteria. It was a casual conversation too, as if they were making plans to attend the Big Fresno Fair on either Friday or Saturday.

The term ‘culture shock’ is not sufficient of a description for what I felt. That was one of the first experiences I had. I would casually hear the words ‘gay’ used by straight men as a synonym for ‘unusual,’ ‘faggot,’ ‘fruity’ and more. Granted, I did not speak up, but I was viciously outnumbered. In a university that is affiliated with the Church of Christ – a Christian denomination that I have found out is notoriously homophobic and misogynist – someone like me was outnumbered.

This made me scrutinize the “You Belong Here” banners that make the campus sparkle.

I would also have people give me small negative looks when I would wear a crop top, too short of shorts, or a sparkly Mariah Carey shirt. Now these are small malignant gestures I could disregard, because I was just that convinced that I looked good. I mean, these legs can do 6 miles in under an hour. Regardless, I was a grown man attending school with grown people, but why did it feel like I was back in high school?

Instances like this made me look forward to the identity-based clubs I was anticipating.

The Latinx club was considerably great; I made great friends and formed new connections with cool people… until my queerness began to shine through my personality: a pretty usual circumstance. People would get uncomfortable with my presence; I was not vulgar or advocating for fun gay sex – I simply just acted a bit flamboyant with my style, my voice, my mannerisms and my interests.

This created a bit of a divide between me and my Hispanic brethren, firstly – obviously. The only best friends I made through the club were three Latinas who did not care that I was gay, but honestly that was all I needed. Yet, I always thought, “This is not a comfortable space.”

Therefore, my hopes for the Queer club were high. I met some nice people who were very comfortable and created three more indestructible bonds, but unfortunately I allowed myself to be entangled in a situation that has continuously stuck with me and tampered with the college experience I seriously wanted for myself. 

There was a member of the Queer club, who held positions of power in other school groups, that took a liking to me. He got all my social media information, would send me random messages, and was just immaturely incessant. It was not until I began working with the school newspaper did it escalate. 

I worked as a designer on the school newspaper and had a lot of fun learning new information and meeting new people, but his tenacity for me only continued. He touched me, hugged me, grabbed my thighs and caressed my shoulders. No one said a thing, but aloofly watched. I told him multiple things, multiple times: “Stop,” “I am not interested,” “I have a boyfriend,” but he was relentless.

I wanted so badly to either attack him or at least let someone know, but naively my ego got in the way. I did not want to start any problems or at least get people to not like me, but looking back at this time of my life, I regret that decision. I simply walked away from those extracurricular activities that featured him and took zero initiative in keeping him from harming anyone else.

Since I made this haphazard decision to simply walk away, many things began to change. Friends that I once had no longer wanted anything to do with me because of him. I will never know what he told people about me and I wish to never know, but it caused them to effectively and dramatically shun me.

I did not want to leave my dorm to do any on-campus activities. I did not want to be seen and would only go to the classes that were mandatory to avoid the possibility of running into him. 

All I expected was a platonic friend, but instead I was taught a crucial lesson in life. It still lingers within me today just how poorly I handled the situation.

It was not until recently that other young men spoke up and called for him to receive punishment for his actions. Even so, I am not completely sure what I want from him or what kind of repercussions are best. I do not think anything will rectify how I felt that fall semester. I figured an apology would suffice or a letter expressing how disgusting he feels for doing all that stuff to me, but I can honestly say that just never seeing him ever again for as long as I live would be the most appropriate repercussion.

I will never forget that and will never ever allow something like that to happen again. I now, in order to calm me down and avoid the aching feeling of regret, simply tell myself that I grew from this and would never make a stupid decision like that again. 

January 2022: It was not until the spring semester did I begin to step back into myself. My family and I endured tremendous hardship during winter break. I was extremely emotionally sensitive, but the relationship with my beautiful partner was only getting stronger.

My partner showed me unmoving support, love, and understanding and for that I am forever going to be in love with him. Through our love, he has also given me so much strength to continue and to see things in a clearer perspective and has kept me from falling behind time and time again. 

He really helped me get back to the student and man that I want to be for us and for our potential future. I seemed to have gotten past the fact that this university is not the most safe space for a gay man like myself, but this allowed me to set a solid path for myself that I am still following right now.

I will be on track to graduate spring 2023, one year earlier than planned. I plan to go to a public graduate school where diversity and belonging are actually promoted. I will dedicate myself to focusing on my studies, being active in groups that I am truly passionate about with people who are actually good people, and I will not deviate from said path. 

This past semester, I nurtured the bonds I already had with people and met amazing new people. I found the courage to express myself freely through the identity pride that I feel that I have tapped into fully. My professors were amazing, my friends are amazing, and I have been working on calling out negativity and will be keeping myself from being in situations like that.

I learned tremendous lessons within this past year that has proven my 20th year of life as difficult, but incredibly fruitful. As I continue to grow as a gay individual, I begin to truly see what I expect in life for myself. What that looks like is being respected as an adult and most importantly making myself know that I truly belong here, wherever that may be. Going into my last year of college is a bit nerve-racking, but I know I have an amazing support system with me in order to succeed.

Ivan Manriquez (he/him/his)

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