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Passion for the Climb
“Nothing human is foreign to me”
By Jake Kleinman ’07
“I just can’t take it anymore.” Those words, from a 15-year-old Madison County–area high school student, made my heart pound through my chest, and my eyes start to water. They made what I was doing finally feel real. I had just spent an hour sharing my own trials in coming out to my friends and family and my metamorphosis from a scared-straight college student to an out-and-proud medical student. That this well-spoken young man had opened up to me in front of a crowd in the Colgate Bookstore touched me deeply.
(photo by Andrew Daddio)
I had been invited back to talk about my chapter in Dan Savage and Terry Miller’s
It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living
. The book’s personal stories — from everyday people like me as well as President Obama, Ellen DeGeneres, and David Sedaris — were compiled from a viral video project launched in response to tragic suicides by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) teens.
I’m often asked about my experience at Colgate. The truth is, I was horrified to divulge my sexuality when I discovered it before my junior year. I thought that those close to me would either be upset that I had been lying for so long or “unfriend” me because I was now “the gay kid.”
I remember driving to school to tell my roommates and best friends before I left for my semester abroad in Spain. While, previously, I had been deathly afraid of the speed traps on Route 17, this time I couldn’t make it fast enough. I had prepped my roommates for important “upsetting” news for weeks. When I finally reached the Parker Apartments and divulged my secret, I was shocked that they laughed. When I asked why they were laughing, they responded, “Jake, we thought you had cancer; you being gay is just funny compared to that.” Their reaction, and the acceptance I found in my final two years at Colgate, made me realize that, while I was afraid about others judging me, I was being ignorant about judging others.
Then came medical school. After being accepted to Tulane University School of Medicine, I had to face the fact that I was gay, Jewish, and from the north, attending a medical school in the Deep South. I thought I would be shoved back into the dark closet that I had come so far out of at Colgate. That was until I met Father Don, Tulane’s medical school chaplain. When I first met him, I was scared away by his black shirt and white collar. Then I heard him speak in a medical ethics course, delivering one of the most important sentences in my life: “Nothing human is foreign to me.”
What does that mean? As humans, we have the ability to understand and respect decisions and actions of all others. We may not always agree, nor may we have done the same, but it is our duty — particularly those of us in professions like medicine, the priesthood, and education — to live a life free of judgment of others, a life of mutual respect and understanding. What I heard was the message that I can use my experiences as a gay person to educate and relate to my patients. Father Don continues to be a mentor for me as well as for my partner, Robert. For the last two years, he has asked me to speak to incoming medical students about the importance of respect and acceptance of diverse patients and peers.
During my talk at the Colgate Bookstore, someone asked me, “How does it feel to be an advocate and activist?” I looked around the room, thinking that question was meant for someone else. While I had been called an advocate before, mainly for my pediatric patients, the word “activist” gave me a visceral reaction. I’ve always thought of activists as people like Harvey Milk and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who gave their lives for their cause — a frightening thought. Once I took a moment to collect myself, I realized that, if helping others and ensuring fair treatment is a form of activism, I would wear that title proudly.
So, as this ninth-grader shared his traumatic story of being bullied after coming out at school, I saw my chance to tangibly help someone, as a tribute to the support that I received while I was at Colgate.
Right then, I made a promise to myself — and, more importantly, to him — that I would no longer stand on the sidelines waiting for times to change, for someone else to step up. I vowed to work toward the goal that no student will ever feel that he or she is not welcome in school.
Now, I’m working with his school district, setting up diversity and acceptance training for students, faculty, and staff so that all students can feel welcome and accepted there. They, too, realize we can no longer wait for more teenagers to take their own lives because of senseless bullying.
Had it not been for my family and friends who have given me the support that allowed me to be myself, and the invitation and sponsorship of the Colgate Bookstore and the Office of LGBTQ Initiatives, I would not have been able to tell that young man “it gets better!”
Read more essays from our Passion for the Climb series, or see how you can submit your own essay, at