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Another Side of Tech
by Kara Sokol
In the frosty chill of an October morning, a handful of students gather along a well-traversed sidewalk on Michigan Tech's campus. Each arrives carrying chalk, tape, and posters. They greet each other warmly, eye the steely skies, discuss the possibility of rain. Then they set to work.
Fifth-year mechanical engineering student Michael Senkow chalks a massive circle on the sidewalk. He stands back and claps the dusty residue from his hands. Around the exterior of the circle, he has written the group's plea: "Sign if you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Allies, too."
"The hope is that there'll be so many signatures by the end of the day they'll spill out of the circle and cover the sidewalk," Senkow explains. "We'll see."
A few errant students stroll by; some ignore the visual display; others smile and nod or wave. A few linger nearby, watching curiously. The group continues to work, refusing to let the overcast sky dampen their spirits. Their mission is clear—to remove the stigma associated with the word "gay."
What is it to be gay at Michigan Tech? Some people observe the University's northern small-town setting and assume an underlying homophobic atmosphere; others view the close-knit family structure as a potential safe haven against such bigotry. In searching for the answer, one finds that the truth—acutely different for each student—often lands somewhere in the middle.
When scientific and technical communication major Stephen Jukuri began his career at Tech in 1984, he was still firmly in the closet.
"Coming out on campus at that time wasn't really an option," Jukuri says. "There were no support groups, no GLBT organizations. I had several boyfriends during my undergrad years, but we dated secretly—it was all very underground."
Jukuri became involved with Michigan Tech's student newspaper, The Lode, as a writer and eventually as editor-in-chief. It was during his editorship that Jukuri experienced one of the University's most memorable homophobic displays—an anti-gay-themed letter-to-the-editor, quoting scripture and implying that AIDS is a consequence of homosexuality.
"We didn't know how to handle it," Jukuri says. In the end, editorial staff decided to cover the letter as a news story.
"The story generated a ton of feedback," Jukuri says. "Much of it was positive, but not all. We got six letters supporting the writer—approximately a third of the total responses. It was disheartening but also very telling of the campus atmosphere at the time."
Jukuri graduated in 1989 and left campus, returning several years later to pursue his master's and doctorate in rhetoric and technical communication. During his absence from the University, Jukuri had come out to friends and family and begun a serious relationship with the man who would become his life partner.
"When I returned to Tech, the climate seemed to have shifted," Jukuri explains. "Counseling and Wellness Services had created a new support group for gay and lesbian students."
Jukuri and his partner, both originally from the local area, enjoyed the freedom of being able to return home and live their lives openly. He also admits, however, that it wasn't all good.
"AIDS/HIV pamphlets showed up in my mailbox," Jukuri says. "I was sent a page ripped from a magazine with the phrase "pellet guns, no permit required" highlighted on it. I went to Public Safety, and when they asked how long the harassment had been going on, I told them, ‘my whole life.'"
Despite such displays of hostility, Jukuri maintains that he viewed Michigan Tech and the surrounding community as incredibly supportive.
"Since coming out, I've never felt the need to hide who I am. I felt safe because I was home. To the people who'd known me forever, I was exactly the same."
Nicole Milkovic was already out—and proud of it—when she arrived at Tech.
"I have two sisters, and they're both lesbians as well," Milkovic explains. "That conversation in my house started early. I think I was about nine years old when I first asked, ‘Mom, who am I supposed to like?' I had a crush on a girl in my class and didn't know quite what to make of it."
Milkovic, a Detroit-area native now living in Florida, came to Tech in 2000 to study chemistry in the hopes of one day working to find cures for infectious contagious diseases. Now four years after graduation, she performs biochemistry and biophysics research at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, striving to find a cure for Alzheimer's Disease.
"I'd wanted to go to Tech since I was a kid," Milkovic says. "I was looking for a serious school, a place where I could focus on my studies. I liked everything about it."
Milkovic adjusted easily to college life, meeting friends and immersing herself in her studies. But she admits that—like Jukuri—not all of her experiences were positive.
"I lived in Wadsworth, and the girls on my floor knew that I was a lesbian and were really supportive," Milkovic says. "But there were a few times when ugly, derogatory things were written on the whiteboard outside my room, or bibles were left outside my door. I was lucky to have such an understanding resident advisor and great friends."
Two years into her studies at Tech, Milkovic became involved with Keweenaw Pride, Michigan Tech's student organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals, and their straight supporters, termed "allies."
"I was so involved in my classes, I didn't even know the group existed until halfway through my program, which is sad, really," Milkovic says. "But I needed to find out who I was as an individual first—I didn't want to be defined by a group."
After joining Keweenaw Pride, however, Milkovic discovered that she really enjoyed the community it offered. She voiced her opinion on issues, helped plan activities like the annual drag show, sought funding for National Coming Out Week events, and volunteered with other group members to do painting and repair work on local homes.
"I think sometimes people view the events Keweenaw Pride puts on as corny or unimportant," Milkovic says. "But anything we can do to increase the dialogue is a step in the right direction. We can't change people's minds overnight, but we can educate the greater community, and ask people to open their minds a bit and participate. If sometimes that means offering silly or laughable entertainment, then so be it."
With organizations like Keweenaw Pride, Michigan Tech and its students have made strides to further the progression of GLBT acceptance. Not long after Keweenaw Pride emerged, the University instituted the Safe Place Program, providing GLBT individuals with a database of student, faculty, and staff allies; currently, there are two hundred individuals registered. The Department of Housing and Residential Life also now includes a provision on its housing forms for students whose gender is in transition.
"Progress is being made," says Senkow. "But with such a small fraction involved in the Safe Place Program—is it enough?"
As the end of the day draws near, the chalk circle project is nearly complete. Despite being pushed indoors by the rain, the group has three large poster pages covered to the edges with signatures to show for their day's work.
"We got about seventy signatures, which is pretty typical," one of the students reports.
Senkow has just one thought he wishes he could share with the community here at Michigan Tech, a place he says has come to feel like home.
"Just because you're not negative doesn't mean that you shouldn't also be positive. We love this community and we need your support."