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Discovering identity in unlikely places

Adam Sulewski, A&S '05

Adam Sulewski, A&S '05

How UC alumnus Adam Sulewski became comfortable in his sexuality and today helps others do the same

by Marisa Whitaker
February ’13

Huddled in a corner at UC’s Langsam Library, Adam Sulewski, A&S ’05, read books that he hoped would tell him about himself. He cautiously read about being gay during a time when it was not so acceptable to identify with the LGBT community. In high school, he had not known any other gays and was confused about his identity. “The LGBT community felt so far away,” he says.

Without such a support system, coming to college was a big step in 2001. He came out during his freshman year, but, like many, didn’t know what it really meant to be gay. Despite his apprehension about joining the campus lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) group, UC Queer Alliance, Sulewski finally had enough of feeling isolated and took what courage he had to step forth and meet other LGBT individuals.

Lots of people in the public eye, like Ricky Martin and Ellen Degeneres, were beginning to come out at this time, which made a lot of private individuals more comfortable to do so themselves. Former President Bush, however, “came out” in favor of banning same sex marriage, which only increased the frustration of UC’s LGBT group and left-thinkers everywhere. Despite what some considered a discriminatory agenda, Sulewski was inspired to go into national security after seeing the way Washington responded to the 9/11 attacks.  

Sulewski attended UC from 2001-2005 and majored in political science. Joining up with the Queer Alliance in his college years was such an empowering decision, the attitude has stuck with him throughout his professional life. “I realized the world would not end if people knew this thing about me,” he says. “It made me more confident and willing to try a lot of new things.”

Unlike today, in the early 2000s, there was no social networking for people to connect easily and accepting attitudes about homosexuality were only beginning to change. The city of Cincinnati still had Article XII – a prevention of protective rights for LGBT individuals – but it was not enforced. For the individuals associated with the Queer Alliance it was comforting to know they were amongst a crowd who understood each other.

Back then, the Queer Alliance was just a fledgling group in a tent on campus. The group had to rely on posters and a rudimentary website to gain members and promote their message. They were trying hard to cultivate leadership and make the group into an attractive and comforting environment for LGBTs who may have fears about coming out.

Sulewski took up the position of secretary, collecting emails, maintaining membership and promoting events. His excitement about all the ways to be a part of the campus community flourished. He played flute, piccolo and cymbals in the UC band and had positions as a summer orientation leader and campus tour guide.

Today, Sulewski -- an international relations specialist -- works with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a slightly curious choice given the federal government’s seemingly hostile ties toward LGBTs. But this did not divert Sulewski from his goals. His experience with the UC Alliance stuck with him and he discovered DHS Pride – an employee-led group dedicated to socially connecting gay individuals across compartments of DHS.

DHS Pride, like the original Queer Alliance, was a fledgling LGBT group when Sulewski joined. Started in 2009, it was only recognized by a verbal blessing from the department. During this time, President Obama had not yet repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and gay individuals with federal careers were very uncomfortable coming out. In 2010, Sulewski undertook the task of formalizing DHS Pride in the eyes of DHS and expanding its reach into social networks. The department had never experienced an association on a national scale, thus the employees needed to demonstrate their devotion toward making DHS Pride a reality.

After President Obama set in motion the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in December of 2010, a nationwide shift in attitudes toward and within the LGBT community began. Gay individuals in governmental positions were more willing to come out and be a part of the group they connect with.  A formal recognition letter was written so DHS Pride would officially be recognized as an employee-run group.

Sulewski has been the president of DHS Pride since 2012 and was reelected to his second term this year. The main challenges for DHS Pride have been connecting LGBT individuals to each other on a national level. Not only does the group run through Sulewski’s compartment, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but also includes TSA, Coast Guard and Secret Service agents to name a few. “DHS is all over the country, not just one building,” he says.

“Frequently, LGBT personnel don’t know anyone within their own offices who are also LGBT because some people are more out than others. One problem is that not everyone wants to be identified with the group. There are just different levels of comfort.”

Because of this, DHS Pride developed regional chair positions so individuals can create social events in their local areas. People can get to know one another and network with professionals via the LGBT community. Their tactics are working, and in one year, DHS Pride tripled their membership.

“It’s important to have a group like this recognize what LGBT individuals can contribute,” Sulewski says. “These are very qualified individuals who just happen to be LGBT. They are able and should be able to contribute just the same as anyone else.”

With just one bold flash of courage at 18 years old, Adam Sulewski turned his entire life around and wants to do the same for other people who identify as LGBT. Along with the social aspect of DHS Pride, the group also connects gay individuals who are having problems within their compartment to agencies that can help them.

“The success of the LGBT community is important to me, and I felt I could contribute in this way,” he says. “I believe in giving back. It’s something that inspires me and makes me work harder.”

Marisa Whitaker is an intern with UC Magazine


Department of Homeland Security Pride blog

Adam Sulewski's "It Gets Better" video