Code-switching describes how minority groups change their behavior to increase acceptance. For some members of the LGBTQ+ community, the switch is necessary for their well being.
She lives two separate lives. At school, she’s Ava, a senior photography student. At home, she’s who her parents think she is: athletic, a hardworking student, a boy.
Code-switching— a term typically used by sociolinguists— describes the way people in minority groups change the way they act to increase acceptance, according to sociologist Chandra Waring. Waring, an expert on race at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, said everyone acts differently depending on what groups they’re in, but the change is more pronounced among minority groups.
For some LGBTQ+ people, this switch is necessary for their well being.
Ava said she never planned to come out to her parents.
One of Ava’s uncles came out as gay when Ava was 6. Ava said her father took an X-ACTO knife and cut him out of all the family photos within 48 hours.
During her monthly visits to her childhood home, Ava lowers the pitch of her voice, wears masculine clothes and changes the way she acts.
She characterizes her relationship with her parents as one based on lies.
“It’s awkward when I go home,” Ava said. “I’ve very much created a separate persona.”
Ava first presented as female her freshman year of college. She said she could count on one hand how many people in her hometown of Wentzville, Mo. knew she transitioned.
Webster alumna Sarah Rose Jamieson’s family knows she presents as female. However, when she goes home, her parents still call the name and pronouns they gave her at birth.
“When I go over there, it’s like I have to switch off and go back to what they see me as,” Jamieson said.
Sophomore Jamison Mckeehan said he has to “tone down” his personality when he goes home to smalltown Dyersville, Iowa. Only 4,058 people live in Dyersville, according to its 2010 census.
People aren’t as accepting of gay people in his hometown as they are at Webster according to Mckeehan.
“It’s a small town, and it’s a Catholic town, too,” Mckeehan said. “A lot of people are uncomfortable with my sexuality. I did tone it down a little bit, a lot in the way I dress.”
At school, Mckeehan’s favorite outfit is a denim button-down shirt with embroidered flowers. He tucks the bottom into a pair of khaki shorts that are rolled three or four times to be “very short.”
Mckeehan said he changed how he dressed at home to avoid judgement. He tried to blend in by wearing cargo shorts and t-shirts from high school track.
Mckeehan’s move to Webster for college felt like a liberation, Mckeehan said.
“My entire wardrobe got upgraded when I got here,” Mckeehan said. “It’s totally different than the culture of a small town. It was so crazy. I loved it, and I still do.”
Mckeehan came out to his mom his sophomore year of high school. Shortly afterwards, he started working at one of the town’s two grocery stores. Mckeehan said the store’s manager, one of the wealthiest and well-known people in town, confronted Mckeehan while he worked. The manager asked Mckeehan to cut his hair that was short on the sides and long on the top or else he’d fire Mckeehan.
Mckeehan went home early and talked it through with his mom. He chose to quit his job and not cut his hair.
“That was a turning point for me,” Mckeehan said. “I decided I wasn’t going to sacrifice the way I wanted to look to conform to what they thought was normal.”
Mckeehan heard through a friend years later that the manager didn’t want to fire him because of his hair, but because he is gay.
“I was attending mass at the time,” Mckeehan said. “He told her that he didn’t believe I should be allowed to go to the church or mass because I was gay.”
Jamieson said she thinks the conservative atmosphere at her job would not accept her gender identity. She never came out to her coworkers at her government job in Missouri. At work, she doesn’t wear feminine clothes and goes by her birth name.
Jamieson said she feels like she has to hide who she is for her safety and job security.
“It’s honestly none of their business,” Jamieson said. “I don’t feel safe at work to come out as a trans woman.”
Mckeehan code-switches at home to spare his parents from embarrassment.
“Everyone knows everything about everyone,” Mckeehan said. “Gossip gets around, and it only takes a matter of hours for your parents to hear what someone thinks about their child.”
Ava said her parents will never know her true identity. Her parents, especially her father, always expected her to be a manly man, Ava said.
Ava’s packed her closet with the masculine clothes her mother gives her. If her parents unexpectedly come to Ava’s apartment for a visit, she scrambles to hide her tubes of makeup and anything remotely feminine.
The only reason Ava still connects with her parents is for financial support.
“I’m afraid of them knowing who I am purely from a financial sense,” Ava said. “Otherwise, I just have no hope or desire for them to be in my life. So why deal with it?”
Ava hopes to move away from her parents after graduation to a more liberal state.
Jamieson said she aspires to someday have a different job and start hormone therapy.
“Hopefully, in the next 10 or 15 years, I’ll be seen as the person I am and not have to hide who I am anymore,” Jamienson said.
Mckeehan hopes to someday go to his hometown and not care what people think. He said he wants to go home and not feel the need to change his voice inflection and clothes.
Ava wants to move away from her parents after graduation. She said she wants to live in an environment of complete acceptance.
“I just want people to see a person when they look at me,” Ava said. “I’ve come to decide I am who I am for myself, not for others.”