Life in 3-D

Pacific Oaks student Brandon Holtzclaw opens up about growing up as a minority in every community he was a part of.

Black. White. Asian. Hispanic. Gay. Straight. Bisexual. Boy. Girl. Transgender. Blonde. Brunette. Mom. Dad. Daughter. Son. Brother. Sister. Twin. Only child. The list goes on and on and on—a list of titles that we use to categorize ourselves and everyone else.

Psychology tells us that categorization is vital for cognition. Our brains have to quickly group and categorize the things and people we encounter in order to understand them. We cannot think of every person we encounter as truly unique or our brains wouldn’t have the time to cognitively digest information about them.

But what happens when we try to make the categories and identities that we assign to each other as simple as checking a box? Often, it’s far more complicated, especially for adolescents who may check more than one, none, or aren’t sure which.

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Not just one identity

For student Brandon Holtzclaw—a mixed-race Latino and queer man—this intersection of identities led him down a difficult path of seeking true acceptance. A path that eventually led him to study education at Pacific Oaks and become an advocate for safe space communities.

“In my adolescent years, I felt like I had nothing to grasp. I didn’t associate with the identities that were pre-laid out for me. I felt like I was too white for the brown kids, too brown for the white kids, and too queer for everyone,” Holtzclaw opens up about his experience.

With any coming-of-age story, there are stops and starts, often stuttered steps to becoming who you really are, not just who your parents or caregivers want you to be. Growing up in Southern California with a Hispanic mother who was also Catholic contributed to the expectation of whom Holtzclaw should become.

When he realized his sexuality might not fit so nicely into what was prescribed for him, Holtzclaw started to look around for an example, someone he could see, could mirror, could pattern his life after, even someone to talk to, but he found no one.

“Being half Caucasian and half Hispanic meant that I didn’t have a group of peers I felt really connected to,” Holtzclaw says. “When I discovered that I was gay, it left me kind of in a vulnerable place where I didn’t have that community support or anyone to talk to, and when I looked around for an example, I didn’t see anyone.”

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Coming of age

Sexuality isn’t a comfortable discussion topic for most parents and children. Compounded with a sexual identity that isn’t cisgendered and straight, coming-of-age can be complicated further. And as Holtzclaw says, without peers to relate to, it’s even more so.

“There was really no guidebook for me,” he explains. “I didn’t even have a sex education that was applicable to me. And the friends I did have weren’t experiencing what I did, and that was really isolating.”

Today members of the LGBTQ community continue to openly and outwardly identify themselves more than ever—showing young people that their sexuality doesn’t set them apart as “wrong” or “bad.” But it wasn’t always like that, especially when Holtzclaw was growing up.

In the media, for instance, the only gay characters were quirky, side characters, usually the brunt of jokes. Holtzclaw watched Ellen DeGeneres come out on her namesake sitcom, and just as quickly the show was canceled. The rejection was clear.

“I felt like I was floundering, trying to figure out how to be an LGBTQ person. And worse, I knew I was letting everyone down—my Latino community, my family, myself. I was ready to commit suicide. I had a plan,” Holtzclaw reveals.

“Luckily my mom found my notes and other things I had prepared, and something shifted. She told me that was something she would never want me to do,” Holtzclaw says. “Even though my sexuality wasn’t something she knew how to accept, she didn’t want to lose me.”

The life preserver that Holtzclaw so desperately needed finally came to him in the form of an openly gay high school guidance counselor. For the first time, there was hope. He found a connection with someone who understood him on a different level. Finding a safe space to learn about and eventually reveal himself was key to his development.

“I didn’t see a future within either of my own cultures or what I was doing in my own life,” Holtzclaw says. “It wasn’t until I could see someone else like me that I really realized what I was going to be able to do with my life.”

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A way out

Another conclusion of most coming-of-age stories: Life gets better after high school.

“I thought I wasn’t ever going to be anything, that I was going to be as a second-class citizen,” Holtzclaw says. “It wasn’t until my later adolescence, as I was exiting high school, that I realized that I do have potential to be someone, that there is a community for me.

“I feel like actually coming into myself as an LGBTQ person was the first time I wasn’t hiding 
from my culture anymore, and I wasn’t hiding from the people of that culture or my family. I think that allowed me to start opening up to my Latino roots and learning more about myself in that way as well.”

Now an M.A. student in education at Pacific Oaks, Holtzclaw exhibits a devotion to bringing his whole self to class and the classroom to show kids and parents alike that this is a safe space. A space where all perspectives are accepted and valued.

“As a Latino and queer man, I want to show children and others that there is a place for them—in any career and any culture. I didn’t see any examples, so I want to provide that now,” Holtzclaw says. “I didn’t think I could accept myself because I didn’t think anyone else would—I didn’t think I would ever be fully embraced by any community, but I know now that wasn’t true.”

Although labels and categories can often help us prioritize and compartmentalize the world we see every day, it is largely one dimensional, yet we live in a three-dimensional world. The intersection of the groups and communities we identify with are what truly make us unique. And Pacific Oaks embraces that uniqueness, providing a safe space—valuing diversity, inclusion, and respect—from the very beginning 75 years ago. To demonstrate its commitment to inclusion, Pacific Oaks College has even launched the LGBTQIA+ Studies specialization to the M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy.

“There’s not a blanket approach that’s going to work for every trans person or every lesbian,” Holtzclaw says. “Every LGBTQ person is coming from a unique and complex intersection of culture and experience. The best foundation for supporting them is setting aside preconceived ideas or attitudes and giving them the space to flourish in that unique identity.”

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Learn more about Pacific Oaks College

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