For gay student, Rutgers proves to be haven

Christopher Jones will graduate from the Rutgers School of Social Work on Monday.
Christopher Jones will graduate from the Rutgers School of Social Work on Monday.
Posted: May 19, 2014

Whatever the weather, graduation ceremonies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., will mark Christopher Jones' final steps from the darkness into the sunlight.

In 2011, Jones transferred to Rutgers after two years at Delaware Valley College in Bucks County, where he was the target of abuse for being gay. Simply for being himself, in other words.

The harassment had begun in the fall of 2010, shortly after Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide days after a straight roommate outed him on the Internet.

As the tall, outgoing, and unabashedly out Jones eagerly became involved in dance and other activities at Delaware Valley, "a tormentor followed him around, calling him a faggot," The Inquirer's Daniel Rubin reported.

After a year of more name-calling, graffiti insults, and other incidents, wrote Rubin, the atmosphere became intolerable when a student in a dorm room showed Jones a knife and suggested that he use it.

"I was completely destroyed," Jones, 22, tells me by phone from his home in Matawan, Monmouth County.

He was fearful for his sanity, if not his life. "But I wanted to prove to them that after all the crap they put me through, I could finish my sophomore year."

Jones did just that; the college investigated his complaints, sent one student to a diversity presentation, and confiscated the knife.

"It was a very dark time in my life," Jones says. "If it wasn't for the support of my family and friends, I would not be here."

His parents, Chris and Kim, and older sister, Ali, embraced him after he came out as a junior at Matawan Regional High School, and have never stopped.

"It's basic, unconditional love," Kim, 51, explains.

After her son was, in her word, "assaulted" by homophobia among some at Delaware Valley, the diverse, cosmopolitan community at Rutgers was exhilarating.

"The day we set foot on campus, we just felt like we could exhale," Kim recalls. "More importantly, Christopher could exhale and be Christopher who happens to be gay - not gay Christopher."

(What I wouldn't have given for such an exhalation as I suffocated in my 1970s collegiate closet.)

At Rutgers, which opened the Tyler Clementi Center last year to honor the young man's memory and provide new students with help transitioning from high school, "there was a welcoming vibe," Jones says.

"It was a complete culture shock. There were endless opportunities. It completely opened my mind."

He had gone to Delaware Valley because of its equine science programs (he's ridden horses since childhood), but decided to major in social work at Rutgers. He also lived for three happy years in a dorm called Rainbow Perspectives.

The program is administered by the Rutgers Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities; Zaneta Rago is the acting director.

"Chris has a really amazing story of perseverance," she says. "He's always willing to pay it forward, to listen to anybody.

"He was just one of those students who shaped the climate for the Rainbow Perspectives community, and the campus," Rago adds. "We're really going to miss Chris' presence."

For now, Jones is moving home to Matawan. He'd love to find a job that combines his love for horses with his desire to help others - perhaps in a therapeutic practice like those that teach troubled teenagers how to ride.

Having struggled to survive at his first college and thriving at Rutgers, "I've found my passion," he says. "It's like a calling.

"People tell me I should be a life coach, or write a book," he adds. "First, I've got to pay off these loans."

Jones and his mother have established a nonprofit organization called "Keeping Up With the Jones," offering their services as public speakers on the subject of diversity and acceptance.

"I want my son to live in a world without discrimination," says Kim, who can't wait to hear his name called at the School of Social Work graduation ceremonies Monday.

"To watch him accept his diploma," she says, her voice suddenly trembling with emotion, "will mean that Christopher has made it."


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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