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September 21, 2023

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Professor stays open about sexual orientation to help LGBT students

One professor at the University makes it a point to inform her students on the first day of the semester that she will not tolerate any discrimination in her class.

Cynthia Mahaffey, a professor in the General Studies Writing Program, lets her students know that she is an openly gay woman and is proud of it.

Professor Mahaffey began teaching at the University in 1997. She came out for the first time in 1998.

Mahaffey was inspired by a desire to comfort students and decided to share her story.

“I didn’t come out until I was in my forties,” Mahaffey said. “I was in a long, problematic marriage to an abusive man.”

Even though she already came out, she did not come out to her students until a hate crime against a young gay man inspired her to do so.

“In 1998, a young man named Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming for being a gay man,” Mahaffey said, “After that I just made the decision that I was going to come out to students.”

Because Mahaffey was previously married to a man, people sometimes questioned if she should truly identify herself as a gay woman.

“I used to do a lot of speaking around campus and people would say, ‘Oh well you’re only a lesbian because you had a bad husband,’” Mahaffey said while chuckling. “I always say that if that were true, there’d be a lot of straight girls who are lesbians.”

The time period that Mahaffey grew up affected when she decided to come out.

“The time I grew up in, that just wasn’t talked about,” Mahaffey said, “I grew up in a very conservative, fundamentalist Christian family.”

Coming from such a conservative background, Mahaffey knows the types of reactions she may receive for being so honest.

“For the first eight or nine years, when I would tell my students that I was gay, there would be four or five students who would drop the class,” Mahaffey said.

Those few students were not the only ones who were put off by the news.

“I was initially in the Chapman learning community for 10 years,” Mahaffey said. “There was a hall director way back who found out I was gay and refused to even speak to me or look at me or acknowledge me.”

The negative reactions that she received made her really appreciate her coworkers.

“A lot of my colleagues have gone to Safe Zone training and have really supported me over the years,” Mahaffey said. “Better than anyone could ever hope for.”

Some students think that sharing such personal information can be a good thing.

“I think it’s cool that she isn’t, you know, trying to hide it,” said sophomore Bria Hall.

Admissions Counselor Cerita Fowler also thought that Mahaffey’s desire to be direct with her students was a good thing.

“I can appreciate the fact that she’s so honest,” Fowler said, “I think students do too.”

Mahaffey hopes that her direct approach will help students who identify as a part of the LGBT community feel more comfortable with themselves.

LGBT students, young people, have the highest rate of suicide in this country, Mahaffey said.

“I just want to be able to say to LGBT students, you know, you could have a good life,” Mahaffey said. “Don’t be scared.”

The LGBT Resource, which is located on the third floor of the Math and Science building, is available to students who want to talk or need somewhere to go.

“When you go out into the real world, you have to deal with everybody,” Mahaffey said. “You have to be sensitive to that.”

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