‘It’s the little things’

The reality of being queer at IU

Sophomore Zsofia Leary poses for a portrait Oct. 28, 2022, near Dunn Meadow. Leary is studying law and public policy at IU with a minor in music.

An older man with white hair and a wrinkled face walks by the fold-out table where Zsofia Leary is sitting on the second floor of the O’Neill SPEA building.

It’s just after noon on a rainy Wednesday, and Leary has been sitting at the table since 9 a.m. She skipped her first class, Using IT in Public Affairs, to sit at the table. She plans to for at least another hour. She’s promoting a meeting about an important cause — one worth missing class for: equity and inclusion at IU.

On the table, homemade and store-bought cookies, flyers and a sign-up sheet are neatly organized, aligned with the table’s front edge.

Store-bought sugar, M&M and oatmeal raisin cookies are arranged in a large black plastic container. Beside it, homemade chocolate chip cookies sit in a round clear plastic container. Leary was up until 2 a.m. making them.

Yellow, pink, blue and purple pens sit idlily next to the sign-up sheet.

The man glares down at the table and continues to walk.

“Hi!” Leary says enthusiastically.

He looks back, gives a smirk and a wave, and then turns around and continues to walk.



On Aug. 24, IU was named one of the “Best of the Best” LGBTQ-friendly colleges. The next day, members of the Queer Student Union were called slurs at the Fall Involvement Fair.

“While it's safe, in a sense, you're really only safe at the Culture Center or at a QSU event or whatever organization that may be,” Chloé Diaz, IU junior and former QSU president, said.

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The LGBTQ+ Culture Center is seen Oct. 28, 2022. The center is located at 705 E. Seventh St. across the street from Dunn Meadow and the Indiana Memorial Union.

Incidents like these are not rare. Queer students at IU say there needs to be improvement in the acceptance and celebration of the LGBTQ community on campus. Small instances of homophobia like stares and whispers are common, and large instances such as being called slurs or attacked are not out of the picture.

The reputation of IU being safe for queer students is not accurate to the reality, Diaz said. They said the experiences and lives of queer students are being “invalidated and erased.”

“IU does not make IU safe for queer students,” Diaz said. “Queer students make campus safer for other queer students."



Leary, 19 and an IU sophomore, identifies as lesbian, and she has been out for three years. She’s lived in Bloomington her whole life. Coming to IU, Leary felt as if she could break out of the mold high school forced her into. Doing so has been met with stares, assumptions and comments.

“People sometimes look at me, or look at my sexuality, and judge me and assume that I’m a certain way or even that I’m not smart or capable,” she said.

She wears a grey bracelet with pink, white, orange and red beads, representing the colors in the lesbian flag. It sits on her wrist next to a rainbow beaded bracelet bearing her name and another one that spells out “pride.”

“IU does not make IU safe for queer students. Queer students make campus safer for other queer students."

— Chloé Diaz, IU junior and former QSU president

Taylor Swift was her first celebrity crush, despite Leary trying to convince herself she liked guys back then. She started dating her first girlfriend during her sophomore year of high school and used their relationship as a way to come out to their friends.

The advisor of her high school’s pride club was scared to come out as bisexual in fear of being fired. Leary said the advisor did end up being fired, though it was presented as if she quit.

That’s why Leary decided to major in law and public policy.

Leary is also minoring in music. She has always been involved in some form of music in her life, using it to help cope with mental health lows. Now, she’s an assistant director for the IU Children’s Choir and has a few original songs out on Spotify.

“You can express so much with music, and let out all your emotions,” Leary said.

At IU, she is on the Advocacy Committee within the Queer Student Union and is a board member for the Students for Equity in Public Affairs. She lives at The Monroe with her dog, Marley.

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Zsofia Leary stands in front of the LGBTQ+ Culture Center Oct. 28, 2022. Leary joined the culture center this semester and said it is like a family full of people who understand what she has been through.

Growing up, she lived with just her mother, who moved to the U.S. from Hungary for graduate school. Leary started college as a commuter student only to leave her home in the middle of her freshman year after her living situation worsened. Her relationship with her mom “deteriorated,” she said. Leary’s father lives in California and was not around.

“I was putting myself through college in a way,” Leary said.

Leary’s mother holds traditional European values. Not necessarily conservative by American definition, Leary described, but not inclusive either. Leary remembers her mother making comments about people being gay; she was confused about “why people would do that.”

“When I was first thinking about how I might not be straight, it was really scary because I was terrified that my friends wouldn’t understand,” Leary said. “But I was even more terrified that she wouldn’t.”

Within the QSU, Leary finds solace in being surrounded by other queer-identifying students. She has some lifelong friendships from her childhood she still holds close, but the majority of her friends are straight, so they can’t understand everything she experiences.

“When I was first thinking about how I might not be straight, it was really scary because I was terrified that my friends wouldn’t understand. But I was even more terrified that she wouldn’t."

— Zsofia Leary, IU sophomore


“Luckily enough, my friends ended up being super supportive of me,” Leary said. “All of them.”

IU sophomore Emery James and Leary have been friends since second grade. She remembers Leary dealing with a lot of instances of homophobia from those close to her. She said Leary was always lifting people up, even during the toughest times in both of their lives.

James describes Leary as “the sun,” the brightest person one will ever meet.

“Even if you don't know her, if you're just seeing her on the street, you can tell that is someone who is just so bright to be around,” James said.


Leary lifts her purple and white Adidas backpack up from underneath the white fold-out table. The front pocket is covered with miscellaneous buttons.

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Illustration of the buttons Leary described on her backpack

The student sitting with her laughs.

“My friend got that one for me, she was like ‘You better not put that on your backpack,’” Leary said pointing at the “TICE NITS” button.

In her Kelley School of Business class last semester, the buttons on her backpack were the first thing her classmates noticed about her.

“I have some pretty suggestive buttons on my backpack... they were like, ‘Oh, she’s gay,’ and just giving me looks,” Leary said.

The class — BUS-W 212 Exploring Entrepreneurship — is the least-accepting class Leary has been in. She felt left out of class conversations and was called on only after her other classmates were done talking.


“Several students and faculty don’t know what to do with someone who’s not straight,” Leary said. “Or they’re like ‘OK, you’re different, so we’re just kind of going to avoid you because we don’t know what to do with you.’”

Over the summer, Leary took SPEA-V 184, Law and Public Affairs. It was her very first law class.

She was not only the only woman in that class, she was the only non-straight person. The other students wouldn’t let her finish a sentence. The men in the class assumed she didn’t know anything.

“A lot of what happens isn’t very direct,” Leary said. “It’s not like someone’s going to come up to you and punch you or something. It’s the little things.”

Leary’s friend got mugged on the street outside of a fraternity. QSU members faced acts of discrimination within two weeks of this school year. Leary, herself, feels as if classmates sometimes deem her as not smart or capable.

It’s not the worst, Leary said. There is an LGBTQ+ Culture Center, and the homophobia never gets too violent. The issues lie in the hands of IU administration, faculty and some students, she said.

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The LGBTQ+ Culture Center is seen Oct. 28, 2022. The center serves as a safe and inclusive space enabling the LGBTQ community to thrive and grow on campus.

Leary said one of the main issues lies in diversity training for new IU employees. The training covers race, religion and even gender, though binary. The topic it doesn’t cover is sexuality, Leary said. One of the main goals of the QSU Advocacy Committee is improving this training, she said.

“A lot more faculty and staff would be open and supportive,” Leary said. “It’s not that they don’t want to be. It’s that they don’t know anything about it; they haven’t been educated about it.”

Beyond training, Leary feels the administration simply isn’t addressing the concerns of queer students. For example, she said sufficient funding isn’t allocated well for the culture center, and it needs many renovations, such as better air conditioning and less water damage. She said it’s “highly overdue.”

“There’s a prisoner basement, that’s what we call it,” Leary said. “It’s like a basement in a horror movie.”


After the older man turns and walks away, Leary and the student next to her let out a quiet laugh.

“If you say, ‘Hey, would you like a free cookie?’ normally they’ll come over,” Leary says.

A few minutes later, two college-aged women walk over to the table.

Leary smiles, relieved after being ignored by the older man.

“Hi! We are the Students for Equity in Public Affairs; we’re trying to make O’Neill and IU more inclusive and equitable. If you’re interested you can put down your email or scan this QR code, our Instagram is down right now,” Leary said excitingly to the young women.

The student with Leary leans over to her. “Wow, you’ve got that down.”

"Yeah, it’s basically a script at this point,” Leary said. “I’ve been here for five hours.”

“Awesome, thank you!” one of the young women says, bringing their attention back to Leary.

Leary points to the container of cookies, proudly: “These ones are homemade.”