Coming out, paving future at Eau Claire

UW=Eau Claire senior’s journey from uncertain freshman to stand-out leader taught him to celebrate his identity along the way


Posing with film director Anna Albelo, third from left, PRIDE students Stephanie Gottschalk, Joshua Zmarzly, Neil Robmann, Austin Shimko and Dylan Vorass attended the Eau Queer Film Festival in October. © 2013 Submitted.

Story by Alex Zank, Op/Ed Editor

A lot of people go through a stage of finding themselves in college. Senior Josh Zmarzly was no different.

“I’d say I was pretty shy and nervous coming here as a freshman,” he said.

As he got more involved in organizations, Zmarzly started feeling comfortable in his own skin, and he was comfortable enough to proclaim something he said he’d been hiding for some time.

“I was very in the closet when I came to the university,” he said. “There were things here for the LGBT community that I didn’t even think of participating in or going to because I was so detached from this part of my identity and it wasn’t something I didn’t want to deal with.”

Then a friend of his convinced him to attend Spectrum meetings — the LGBTQ group that preceded PRIDE. He became more involved in the group, which helped him progress from a shy, closeted freshman to a self-actualized leader in the LGBT community.

“Having to take that leadership role, it obviously puts you out there in the public, and it’s something that has forced me to be more open about myself and to, in a way, be in a sense a public face for LGBT students.”

Since then, Zmarzly’s involvement and leadership have done nothing but grown. He has served (and still currently serving) as president of both PRIDE and German Club. This spring marked his fifth performance in UW-Eau Claire Players’ 24-Hour Project. And he has a full academic course load with a double major in German and history.

Josh Brown, a professor of German and women’s studies, had Zmarzly in both a German translation class and a women’s studies class focusing on LGBT studies. He also knows Josh through his involvement in German Club.

The club’s biggest event is its participation in Eau Claire’s annual folk fair. Brown said this event is important because it’s where the club does most of its fundraising.

“One of Josh’s strengths in German Club is organizing (for) the folk fair and making sure it does go on as smoothly as possible,” he said.

Senior Stephanie Gottschalk met Zmarzly when the two were freshmen. They had the same German class, but the thing that really brought them together “was one of those things where you just run into each other all the time,” she said.

“We were always eating in the caf at the same time. We just kind of sat down together and starting talking.”

Now she considers him her best friend. She’s involved with Zmarzly in German Club and PRIDE and said through his work with these organizations shows his nurturing qualities.

“That’s part of why he wants PRIDE to be successful,” she said. “He wants there to be this safe space on campus people can go and find what he and I found in the group, (a space) that helped us learn to be ourselves and comfortable with who we are.”

As far as providing that safe space on campus, Chris Jorgenson, director of the Women’s and LGBTQ Resource Center, has the unique experience of the university at two very different eras of tolerance.

Before being hired on as director, he attended Eau Claire as a student from 1994-1999. “The experience of being gay on campus was incredibly different,” he said. “I came out when I was 19 living in Towers South, and there was nothing on this campus, at least nothing visible that I could ever see, that not only just reached out to people like me, but celebrated what it means to be … who you are.”

On National Coming Out Day, Jorgenson said the walking bridge used to always be filled with chalk that said things like ‘Silly faggots, dicks are for chicks.’

When he returned to Eau Claire in 2008 after living a stint in California, he was surprised to see the culture was more accepting of the LGBT community.

Jorgenson was hired on as director with an agenda to create events that “are unapologetic, highly visible, and will get backlash because of it.” “I wanted to create events that you couldn’t miss, you couldn’t avoid even if you wanted to,” he said.

Zmarzly and Jorgenson had echoing sentiments that events such as The Fire Ball and campus entities like PRIDE help create an environment in which LGBT students are comfortable being.

“People come to this university with all sorts of lived experiences.  It may be the first time they’ve been out publicly, it may be the place that they actually do come out, it may be the first time they figure out how they’re going to navigate what it means to LGBTQ,” Jorgenson said.

Zmarzly’s case is an example of this, and Jorgenson said he’s seen this happen with many students finally learning who they are as people.

“People can be incredibly different from the very first year they get here to the year they leave,” Jorgenson said, adding comfort level develops that allows people to act in a way to honor, rather than hide, who they are.

Of course, there is still room for improvement, Jorgenson and Zmarzly both said.

“I’d like to see more financial support for programs on campus that deal with LGBT students,”
Zmarzly said.

The Eau Queer Film Festival, for example, has had a history of struggling for adequate funding, he said.

The financial support is continuing to grow. The Women’s and LGTBQ Resource Center had one of the largest percentage funding increases from next year’s Organized Activities budget. It received a 72.7 percent increase.

After five years of personal and public development, Zmarzly said he wouldn’t trade his experience at Eau Claire for anything.

“I’m really happy about the time I’ve spent at UW-Eau Claire,” he said. “I’m really grateful for the opportunities and experiences that have been provided to me on campus.

“I’m always going to look back at my experiences, especially working with the LGBT community on campus, look back on them fondly. I just hope in my small way that I’ve tried to make things better.”

And Zmarzly would know a thing or two about change for the better.