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Travis Shumake

Travis Shumake

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Today's young gay leaders represent the largest cultural shift in a generation. Here are six high achievers who aren't hung up on their sexuality and are determined to make a difference

Late one Sunday, Travis Shumake and a gay buddy went to brunch at the gay-themed diner Hamburger Mary's in Phoenix. There are more gay people in the world? Travis thought. And they have their own restaurant? I want to work here! He walked up to the front counter, asked for a job, and was hired on the spot as a host. He started two days later. It was there that Travis was first introduced to the larger gay world, but it wasn't until he started donating to the Human Rights Campaign and attending its fund-raising dinners that he began to plug himself into the network of Arizona's gay leadership. The state has an unusual penchant for electing gay Republicans: Two of them, former Tempe mayor Neil Giuliano and former state legislator Steve May, take turns hosting regular Sunday night "family dinners" to help mentor up-and-coming young gay leaders. Travis, who jokes that he's the only gay Democrat in Arizona angling for public office, has eagerly attended the dinners for years. Giuliano, 48, says they discuss national politics, gay history, breaking up honorably with a boyfriend, how to establish oneself within a community long before canvassing for votes--the kind of vital guidance he never received when he was 20. He sincerely believes that for Travis and other leaders in his generation, being gay will be even less of a roadblock to elective office than it is today. After saying that, though, he pauses. "Because things have been relatively easy for them," he says, "[and] they haven't faced any direct discrimination, perhaps they don't see themselves as being limited in terms of careers--all that is very good. On the other side, that makes them a little blind to the realities of the discrimination that still does exist and the struggles that have been made. There's a lot of people who have come before them who have made it possible for them to be out and open and comfortable with themselves in their teenage and college years." Indeed. The worst experience with discrimination Travis says he's ever faced came this spring, when he ran for student body president at Northern Arizona University, a school of 16,000 nestled in the mountain city of Flagstaff, a liberal enclave in an otherwise steadfastly conservative state. A friend of one of Travis's opponents stood for an hour in a residence hall elevator, asking students as they rode to and from class, "Who are you voting for? You shouldn't vote for Travis. He's gay.... You know that Travis kid? He's a faggot." Later that day Travis called the opponent; he remembers that his words tumbled out fast and angry: "I've never done anything slanderous toward you, and this is really hurting me emotionally now.... My sexual orientation shouldn't be brought up."

Much of what stung Travis about the incident was the fact that more often than not his sexual orientation isn't brought up, or at least it doesn't bear any of the weight of shame that has saddled so many gay men before him. "I feel like it is such not a big deal to be gay," he says. "I know that's so weird, but I feel like I'm the beginning of that next generation of people--like, literally by a school year. Like, if I were a year older, it would be different, because I know when I was a junior [in high school] there were seniors that hated me. It's so weird." He is almost always smiling, and his 6-foot-4 cheerleading-toned body is carried by an ambling, bouncy gait. He is a triple major in political science, hotel and restaurant management, and electronic media--the guy's life is often scheduled to the minute. Travis initially had a tough time rushing Sigma Chi as a freshman after several seniors decided they didn't want their house to be known as the "gay fraternity." His story will be featured this fall in Brotherhood, the sequel to Out on Fraternity Row, published by The Advocate's corporate cousin Alyson Books. Travis did eventually pledge Sigma Chi, "and now every fraternity's got, like, at least two gay guys." He revels in the chance to use the fraternal bonds he's formed--and the lingering guilt some feel about how he was treated--to confront some of his brothers' views about, say, same-sex marriage. "I would say [to a brother who is against it], 'So you didn't want me to have kids and ever get married. Thanks,' " he grins. "And I'd walk out of the room and come back in and be like, 'Just joking. But we should talk about this.' " One topic Travis has not quite broached at Giuliano and May's Sunday dinners is his belief that homosexual acts are a sin. In fact, he tosses out this conclusion so casually that it requires a few minutes of back-and-forth to clarify. Does he mean hooking up with any person before marriage? No, he replies, it is that he's hooking up with a guy. Not that this presents a crippling moral dilemma for him. "You sin just as much as I do," he tells his straight Christian friends who brings this issue up, "and this is just one of my sins. It has no heavier weight than your sin, and I ask for forgiveness, and you ask [for] forgiveness, and we're good to go." Travis, one must understand, is the son of a Southern Baptist minister who sat his family in the front pew every Sunday morning and never, not once, preached against homosexuality. When Travis was in middle school, his mother announced that she wanted a divorce, a small scandal that instantly estranged her from the congregation. He "officially" came out to her just last summer; she had long since figured it out, of course, and now she asks about potential boyfriends. He never got a chance, however, to have the same conversations with his father, who died in a car crash when Travis was 16. Whatever well of grief and anguish he's carrying over that loss, Travis is adept at skittering past it in conversation. He coped by throwing himself back into his father's church, spending an average of 30 hours a week there as a youth leader, he estimates. He knows every book of the Bible. He recognizes Christian rock songs when they pop on the radio. "I'm your top-of-the-line Christian kid, but I'm gay."

He has, he says, "a plan": graduate in two years, then get a master's in public policy while also securing a husband, "have a kid by 27 and have a second one on the way by 29 and not be my parents, who had me at 33." He then foresees running for office while running the books for a local resort. He says he wants "to be gay, but I want to be normal." If some chinks can be perceived in Travis's it's-really-not-a-big-deal-to-be-gay armor, it is worth observing that most true leaders are rife with contradiction. In Travis's case, the decisiveness that he displayed at Hamburger Mary's and elsewhere can be a real double-edged sword: He doesn't seem prone to dwelling on an issue before it lands directly before him or all that keen on ruminating over it once he's made his decision. To wit: He says he never really considered the question "Was I born gay?" until someone asked it of him in college. He thought back to his middle school years spent in an arts school studying dance and hanging with a gaggle of openly gay kids; to his parents' divorce and their remarriage to other people; his father's death; being the youngest of five siblings and the only boy among them (two of his sisters are stepsiblings and one is a half sibling); and going through adolescence surrounded by females. He decided that when it came to his sexuality, "all fingers point to conditioning." He understands it is very much a minority view. "I'm not saying that no one's born gay. I'm just saying I don't think that I was." He hesitates. "Weird, right?" Travis sighs, his face for the first time subdued and serious. He talks about feeling pressure to always achieve--from whom or what, he's not really sure. Then this slips out: "I think it's because I want to overcompensate because I'm afraid that people won't like me because I'm gay." Sure, his high school voted him student body president. Sure, he has never been bullied or physically intimidated because he was gay. Sure, he has mentors who have taught him about Stonewall. It doesn't mean homophobia hasn't wormed its way inside Travis's psyche. "I am so proud of being gay," he says, "but can't I be Travis the president? The common thing I get is 'gay Travis, the tall cheerleader.' Can I just not be that anymore? Can I just be Travis who is gay and loves being gay and that's great, it's a part of his life, but Travis who has achieved great things and Travis who has goals and ambitions to make a difference while being gay? "The one thing that makes me so upset about people is being defined [by their sexuality labels]," he says. "I don't own anything that has a rainbow on it. I just don't feel like I need to wear it on my sleeve. I don't need to impose my sexual orientation on others in such a blunt way. I love to talk about it when people ask me about it. I rode in the gay pride parade in Phoenix two weekends ago--I'm proud to be gay, but I'm saying I feel like it perpetuates the stereotypes when we're defined [solely] by our sexuality."

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