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From basic training to life training

Bowman uses journey to self-acceptance to help others

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The Spectrum

James Bowman did not find himself in college dorms or lecture halls after graduating high school in Wyoming, N.Y. Instead, Bowman, now UB's LGBTQ Wellness and Special Projects coordinator at Student Wellness Center, enlisted in the military.

It was in the midst of his military career, at the age of 23, that Bowman discovered who he was. He traveled the road to self-acceptance while serving in the air force. Upon completing his term, he was finally able to vocalize his sexual orientation. He was a gay man and he was proud.

Bowman now works for the Wellness Center, supporting the LGBTQ community at UB. Approximately 2,000 students identify as being part of the LGBTQ community, according to a spring 2012 Wellness Education Services survey. Each week, over 600 students use Bowman's team's programs and services.

Bowman has touched the lives of many UB students during his time at UB.

"Jim has been really helpful to me as a student when I was becoming acclimated to the school," said Emma Pezzimenti, a junior English major who volunteers with Bowman in the Student Wellness Center. "He was always really supportive. He would let me come and talk to him about whatever was going on in my life."

Bowman has experienced many of the same emotions that students who come to his office experience. He understands what he can do to provide for those who seek his guidance.Bowman serves as a listening ear for any student who is struggling to accept who they are.

More college students are asked to declare their sexual orientation than in high school and middle school; college is the most common time that students express their true identities, according to The New York Times.

Bowman's story has inspired others to come to terms with who they are during their college career.

Bowman didn't know what he wanted to do after high school. His dad suggested joining the military. After studying abroad for a year as an exchange student in Stockholm, Sweden, Bowman realized he had a passion for new cultures and unfamiliar lands. His enjoyment for traveling is what inspired him to take his father's advice and enlist in the military.

Bowman spent the next six years and 10 months in the military. He said he enjoyed its structure and regimen.

The structure of the military, however, is also what prevented Bowman from identifying himself as gay.

At the time of Bowman's enlistment, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was in effect. The military couldn't ask whether one identifies as homosexual. Soldiers could not talk about or act upon their sexual identities.

Bowman constantly wondered what would happen if somebody found out he was gay.

When the military learned of Bowman's sexual identity, there was discussion of a possible investigation under military policy.

Fortunately, Bowman said, he had superiors who stood behind him on the fact that he only had a few months left before his enlistment ended, and the investigation was dropped.

He worked in the pharmacy on his base, and one day decided to tell his friend Vanessa that he was gay.

"I thank her a lot for being open and accepting," Bowman said.

Vanessa had a gay brother, which made it easy for Bowman to communicate his feelings and thoughts to her. Vanessa took Bowman to meet her brother and her brother's partner.

Bowman saw Vanessa's brother interact with his partner, along with the child they had together. It was at that moment that Bowman thought, "Yes, this is OK."

In a time of self-negotiating and uncertainty, that moment was his relief and stability, he said.

In July 2001, Bowman completed his time in the military.

He returned back home and embarked on his delayed college career. After trying out a few institutions to see which suited him, he found his place at UB.

Bowman entered UB as a potential pharmacy student; his prior experience in the pharmaceutical field made him feel it was the most practical path to take.

After studying organic chemistry and realizing the field was not for him, Bowman pursued a bachelor's degree in psychology. He knew he wanted to do something that would help others.

He found he enjoyed working with others in the college community and that has brought him to where he is today.

Andrew Baumgartner, a junior nuclear medicine technology major, volunteers at the center. He said Bowman is very welcoming and encouraging. Bowman supports members of the LGBTQ community who have been working with the wellness team for a while as well as new members.

"The dude is tireless," said Josh Cerretti, Bowman's assistant for over a year and a Ph.D. candidate for global gender studies.

Bowman is often in the office until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. and is back in the office again at 8 a.m. the next morning, according to Cerretti. He works as a contact point for the entire university, including the professional schools, athletics programs, students, faculty, staff and more. Everyone goes to Bowman, Cerretti said.

"He's all over campus and he's got a really packed schedule," Cerretti said.

Jon Hurst, once a graduate assistant for Bowman at the Wellness Center and now director of the University of Georgia LGBT Resource Center, is still using lessons learned from Bowman today.

"Here's the great thing about Jim: He lets you do you," Hurst said.

Bowman allowed staff members to show up to the Wellness Center and be themselves. He provided flexibility different from the structure he had adapted from the military. There were no strict orders or hierarchy; everyone worked in their own way to reach a common goal.

Hurst still reaches out to Bowman when he needs help.

"He has continued to be a personal friend and professional reference," Hurst said.

During Hurst's last year as a graduate assistant, Hurst and Bowman started the LGBTQ Dinner Club. It is an event for the LGBTQ community held the second Wednesday of every month. During these gatherings, students can receive information and resources and talk with others who share similar identities.

The dinners include vegan and healthy meal options, a different guest speaker each month and fun activities like the ritualistic "New and Good" discussion, in which students can take turns sharing something new or good that has happened to them recently.

In the beginning, there were approximately 12 people at each meal. Now over 40 students attend.

Bowman said he is not sure what would have become of him if he had not gone into the military.

"Would I have come out sooner? I don't know," Bowman said. "Would I have built this confidence that I have now? I don't know."

What he does know, though, is that he hopes to continue shaping the LGBTQ community at UB and helping others going through challenges similar to the ones he faced during his coming-out process.

Email: features@ubspectrum.com



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