Maureen Nolan: Fusing her talents, on campus and on stage

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As I watched Ellen Page come out last week, I was somewhat surprised to see how nervous she was and what an emotional moment it was for her.

In this day and age of modern families on TV, a president and first lady who vocally advocate for gay rights and celebrities jumping on the bandwagon to support our community, it’s easy to think everything’s copasetic and forget how difficult coming out can still be for young people.

To get some youth perspective, I spoke to Maureen Nolan, president of Drexel’s Foundation of Undergraduates for Sexual Equality, otherwise known as FUSE. The president and a founding member of the group, Nolan was instrumental in helping create gender-neutral housing on campus and Drexel’s LGBT center. She has been a presenter at the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference and she was nominated as Student Leader of the Year at Drexel. Self-described as bossy and sassy, she’s the only person so far who has caused me to do a spit-take in the middle of the interview.

PGN: So I hear you’re a Jersey girl. I’m originally from up north — Passaic — what part are you from? MN: A tiny town called Monroe, in Central Jersey. Yes, it does exist! People up north think of everything else as south and vice versa.

PGN: [Laughs.] True. Tell me about the fam. MN: I am one of three. In the house right now it’s me, my mom, my mom’s fiancé and the twins, Emily and Patrick, who are 14.

PGN: How old were you when the twins were born? MN: I was 8 and I loved it. I was all about the big-sister game. I used to come home from school and clap my hands over them to wake them so they could play with me. My mother wasn’t too thrilled about that. They’re super-great kids, smart and funny.

PGN: What do the folks do? MN: My mom works in marketing for a New Jersey blood center. My dad died in a car crash when I was young.

PGN: Yikes, what happened? MN: He was mildly epileptic from a high-school injury and one day he forgot to take his seizure meds and had an attack while he was behind the wheel. He drove into a lake or something. He was only about 42 at the time.

PGN: Sorry to hear it. Were/are you close to your grandparents? MN: Both of my grandfathers passed away when I was relatively young. My maternal grandmother is very sassy, which is where I think I get it from, and my dad’s mom is very funny but doesn’t know it. She went to the library because her computer was broken (it wasn’t — she’d unplugged the router) and she called me and said, “Maureen, the library is amazing! They have all my email contacts on the computers here!” I was like, “Grandma, you don’t understand the Internet. That’s Gmail that has all your contacts.” But she insisted, “No, my computer is broken but the library has all my information.”

PGN: What were you like as a kid? MN: Very bossy! [Laughs.] I still am. Very loud too, and I liked to play by myself. I like to think that I was off crafting excellent stories and creating things, but that might not be true. It’s hard to remember.

PGN:And what do you do now at Drexel? MN: My major is communication with a focus on corporate and public relations, and my minor is in television. I’m in my fifth year because I’ve been doing a co-op program where you do six months in a work environment and six months in class. It’s a neat program, I’m a big fan.

PGN: And what do you want to be when you grow up? MN: That’s a good question. I wish I had a good answer for you, but every year it seems to change. Right now I’m looking to work in comedy.

PGN: Huh? MN: [Laughs.] Yes. I’ve been working on stand-up comedy. I’m also really interested in LGBT advocacy. So I’m eventually hoping to find a way to pair those things. But in the short term, I’m looking to do event work. Gotta start paying off those college bills.

PGN: My last boyfriend, many moons ago, was a stand-up comic. He plays Biff in all the “Back to the Future” movies. If I’d been straight I’d be doing well right now. MN: [Laughs.] Well, you really blew that, didn’t you! Just had to go for girls.

PGN: Damn those breasts! So where have you done stand-up? MN: I tried it first when I was in London on a study-abroad program. I figured no one knew me, so what did I have to lose? It went OK and now I do it whenever I can, at different open mics. I haven’t done it for a while because I’m concentrating on all my college-y type stuff, but I’ll get back to it.

PGN: What was the first time on stage like? MN: It was hilarious and terrible. It went OK, I think I drank a lot to compensate for nerves, but people were very supportive. The only time I was heckled onstage was by a guy who was screaming at me from the back of the room. Something like, “Girls aren’t funny.” That didn’t upset me as much as the guy in the front row who tried to defend me by saying, “Hey man, she’s like 10 years old! Give her a break.”

PGN: Aww. What was your first inkling that you were gay? MN: Well, the first time I knew I was not straight, because I identify more as bi or preferably queer, was in the fourth grade. All my friends were talking about boys and I remember saying, “I don’t really care about boys, I just want to be really good friends!” and wondering, How come my friends don’t seem as crazy about me as I am about them? It wasn’t until I got to high school that I realized, Oh wait, there’s a word for this. And the first time I kissed a girl, in 10th grade, I was like, OK, I get it, this is a thing now. We were just doing it for attention with our theater crew and afterwards she shrugged it off, but I turned bright red thinking, Oh man, I think I like to do this.

PGN: And now you’re the president of FUSE. What made you first join them? MN: [Laughs.] I was tired of my friends, which is kind of rude, but you know how you make friends your freshman year and then start realizing, Hmm, I don’t really like these people … They’re not that great. So I found out about FUSE and I was really nervous and excited and asked my friend Tara to go with me. She wasn’t impressed but I fell in love immediately and said, “This is great. I’m coming here every week!” But the first six weeks nobody really talked to me — they thought I was a straight ally — but after they found out I was queer, I started getting invited to parties and stuff, and I’ve been there ever since. It really gave me a sense of community.

PGN: As president of the organization, what are some of the things you’ve been doing with Drexel? MN: The biggest thing is helping us get the LGBT center. It was a real struggle. Me and three friends, one of whom is now my girlfriend, started a petition and worked with different administrators. We created a budget and had meetings and it felt like the administrators thought they were doing us a favor giving us lip service about the center. It boiled down to one meeting where I just snapped. I told them, “We’re doing you a favor creating this for the school! We don’t need the center, all four of us are good, but you have a lot of students who are in need of this and we’re helping you. And you’re acting like we’re a burden? You should be thanking us.” After that, things moved a little quicker and we got the center opened last October. It’s in a closet — I kid you not — but you have to start somewhere. Tatiana Diaz, who is a force to be reckoned with, has been helping us staff it with grad students. I’m hoping that it’ll grow and we’ll get a bigger and better location eventually.

PGN: Are you the only LGBTQ organization at Drexel? MN: Yes. There are a few small specialty groups for grads but this is it for undergrads.

PGN: Sheesh, maybe we can appeal to some Drexel alumni to give you some funding. So I was surprised at how nervous Ellen Page was when she came out. I don’t know if it’s because most of the people coming out now, like Neal Patrick Harris, Anderson Cooper, are older and have had a longer time to process it or what it was. MN: I think there were a lot of factors. Take Jim Parsons, who came out last year. He was doing an interview and just happened to mention his partner, unlike this case where she was standing in front of a whole room of people who pride themselves on being out activists. Imagine giving a speech on why coming out is important and you weren’t out yet. You could see what a big moment it was when people were standing and applauding. I guess I can see how that would be nerve-racking, but I’m glad she did it. I think it will be instrumental in a lot of different conversations happening.

PGN: So what are some of the challenges young people face? MN: I think a lot depends on your identity. Not to play oppression Olympics but where you fall in the LGBTQIA umbrella can make it more difficult to come out. I think it would be harder to come out as, say, asexual than as gay. People know what gay is and can wrap their brains around it, but asexual and some of the other initials further down are harder. FUSE does a coming-out series every year and we discuss why it’s great and why it sucks, and it seems to me that kids are coming out younger every year. When I first started going, meetings were very hush-hush and you couldn’t talk to people outside of the group. Now I have kids telling me, “Yeah, I came out as a freshman in high school,” and I’m like, “Wow, that was not my experience at all.” But it can still be tricky depending on where you live and how you identify.

PGN: And how did you come out? MN: I came out to my mom … twice. The first time we were in the car and she sort of processed it, though the first thing she said was, “But you don’t really play any sports,” and I said, “That’s true. I do not. But I still like girls.” But then I dated a boy for a while, so later still, when I started dating my current girlfriend, I had to re-come out to her. This time she said, “Are you sure you’re not just jaded because your last boyfriend was kind of a dick?” and I said, “No, he was definitely a dick and I am jaded, but that’s not what this is about.” But she’s been wonderful. She emails me articles about gay marriage and stuff. I told my sister when she was 10 and she said [in a little voice], “People should love who they love.” We were driving back from the mall and I was sobbing. My little brother was the same: “Yeah, I don’t really care who you love.”

PGN: That’s great. I want to throw in some random questions. Do you play any instruments? MN: Not really, but I sing. I actually used to be in an a-capella group at Drexel called The Treble Makers. I was the president of that too. Because, you know, I’m bossy. I quit because it was my senior year and I thought, I ought to catch up on the homework I didn’t do the first three years. Now I’ll sing at open mics if I don’t feel like being funny.

PGN: Worst moment on stage? MN: I was in a play called “Curtains” and the guy playing my husband forgot to come on stage during an integral part of the show. It was a mystery so I had to kind of do both roles to get the information across. I walked off stage and he was just sitting in the wings with his girlfriend, oblivious. I yelled, “Are you kidding me? I was dying out there!” PGN: I read that your hobbies are exploring the city and learning to cook. MN: Emphasis on learning. Honestly, if I can make an egg over-easy without breaking the yolk, I’ve accomplished something. My sister just visited me in November and I decided to bake a cake. Unfortunately, my oven is really old and you can’t read the temperature dial on it. I burned the cake so bad it actually caught on fire in the oven.

PGN: What song do you put on repeat? MN: “Master of Art” by Laura Stevenson and the Cans and there’s a song from the Steel Pompei that I listen to over and over because it’s so upbeat.

PGN: What did you do for Valentine’s Day? MN: I went with my girlfriend Rebecca to see “The LEGO Movie” and it was amazing. It’s my favorite movie that I’ve seen all year and I’ve seen most of the Oscar-nominated films. She won a gift card from work — she works at an engineer firm — and we went to Chima. It was a great night.

PGN: Worst Valentine’s Day? MN: I’ve never really had a bad Valentine’s Day. I feel very lucky in that I always feel loved on Valentine’s Day. It doesn’t matter if I’m in a relationship or not. There are so many positive people in my life. I constantly feel loved. I’m very lucky. n

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