LGBT Grads Excel in Diverse Fields

by Khaled Sayed

Bay Area Reporter

Saturday May 24, 2014

Among the hundreds of college graduates that will collect their diplomas this weekend at San Francisco State University are four out LGBT students. Some have overcome challenges while others are planning to complete advanced degrees.

Among the graduates is Catherine Feely, a military veteran who is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in kinesiology. Raised by a single mother, Feely was born in New York, and attended high school in Mississippi.

After high school she joined the Coast Guard in the days when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was still in effect, meaning that she could not be open about who she was.

"In regards to 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy, you had to be careful that you didn't disclose anything about yourself," Feely said. "By the time I moved to San Francisco people, especially here, kind of knew, even though you weren't allowed to talk about your sexual identity."

She added, "I had to hide a lot about myself."

Feely left the military in 2010.

"I decided to leave the Coast Guard while I was on the younger side to continue my education. I was 30," she said

Feely enrolled in City College of San Francisco and then transferred to San Francisco State to pursue her degree in kinesiology.

"One of the biggest reasons I chose to get out of the military to go to school was because I felt like I had two different lives," Feely said. "I really liked the Coast Guard and I didn't feel like they were anti-gay, but I wasn't being honest as a person.

"They expect you to be honest, but you can't be honest, so that was hard for me," she added. "I didn't want to live two lives, so I decided to have just one life."

While at SFSU Feely also volunteered at a nonprofit organization that provides coaches for public schools. Due in part to the strong support the university offers to military veterans, she will graduate and plans to become a physician's assistant. She now lives in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood.

Jose Alfaro plans to attend graduate school. Photo: Courtesy SFSU

Also graduating this semester is Jose Alfaro, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in English literature. He is also the undergraduate hood recipient for the College of Liberal and Creative Arts. Hood recipients are the top graduating students chosen from each of San Francisco State's six academic colleges. Each college selects one student for the honor of wearing the academic hood and representing their peers at graduation.

Alfaro was raised in Sacramento in a working class Mexican American family and attended West Campus High School.

"I grew up with bilingual education, then the English-only law passed in California when I was in fourth grade, so I was placed in English as a second language (ESL) classes. I didn't like English at all for many years," Alfaro said, referring to Proposition 227, the 1998 law that banned most bilingual education in public schools.

"It had a lot to do with my identity, I was having a hard time with English as a language I could claim," Alfaro said. "Besides, I had to hide my Spanish language."

However, around the eighth grade Alfaro had a teacher who taught him how to use Spanish word roots to extend his vocabulary in English.

Chris Wilson Simpkins will receive her MA degree. Photo: Courtesy SFSU

"I think that was when the transition started," he said. Alfaro became interested in the works of authors whose backgrounds were similar to his own. The writings of Chicano scholars like Gloria Anzaldùa were particularly inspiring to him, as were the works of lesbian activist-writer Audre Lorde.

"In college I explored other writers, and I understood that English can't be claimed by one group. English can transcend borders and boundaries," he said.

Although Alfaro transferred to SFSU from Sacramento City College in 2012, his civic interests helped him form connections throughout the campus community. As a member of "SalSanFran," SFSU's Latin rhythms student group, he helped host free dance workshops for students, faculty, and staff.

Living on campus, Alfaro was elected to work as a residential assistant for freshmen students in the Towers at Centennial Square. While completing his senior coursework, Alfaro was an academic and personal mentor to his residents.

Craig Corpora will receive his MA degree. Photo: Courtesy SFSU

Alfaro has been accepted into UC Riverside's English literature Ph.D. program. He hopes to become an English literature professor.

Chris Wilson Simpkins is graduating this weekend with a Master of Arts degree in literature. She grew up in Michigan and was academically gifted, but despite graduating high school a year early she was unable financially to attend a four-year college.

Wilson Simpkins took a bus to San Francisco where she found a job with the city and signed up for evening classes to earn her B.A. She later enrolled at SFSU's master's program in literature in 2006 and has become a top student, including presenting papers at six national conferences. She lives in North Oakland with her partner and their 14-year-old son.

Finally, Craig Corpora, after receiving his bachelor's degree at SFSU, he returned for graduate studies. Corpora will receive his master's degree in art history. While at SFSU, his focus has been on queer art theory. He has also volunteered at the GLBT Historical Society and SFMOMA. He lives in San Francisco's Lower Haight neighborhood with his husband.

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