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updated: 12/22/2011 5:03 AM

Lake in the Hills man is DePaul's first openly gay student president

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  • Anthony Alfano, of Lake in the Hills, DePaul University's first openly gay student body president, sits at the University House on campus. Alfano, who began telling his closest friends several years ago that he was gay, officially "came out" to the world Oct. 10.

       Anthony Alfano, of Lake in the Hills, DePaul University's first openly gay student body president, sits at the University House on campus. Alfano, who began telling his closest friends several years ago that he was gay, officially "came out" to the world Oct. 10.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Anthony Alfano, of Lake in the Hills, is DePaul University's first openly gay student body president. Though he struggles with some aspects of the Catholic faith, Alfano says the University has been overwhelmingly supportive of him.

       Anthony Alfano, of Lake in the Hills, is DePaul University's first openly gay student body president. Though he struggles with some aspects of the Catholic faith, Alfano says the University has been overwhelmingly supportive of him.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 

The reaction, Anthony Alfano said, was invariably the same.

While he was growing up in a traditional Italian Catholic household, unexpected story lines about gay and lesbian relationships would occasionally crop up on television shows his family had sat down together to watch.

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"It always seemed to be a point of discussion among our parents that it was wrong," Alfano, the middle of three children, said. "Either the channel would be changed or it would get upsetting to watch, uncomfortable for everybody."

Alfano, in secret, was more upset than any of them, even on the verge of taking his own life. He was afraid those things at the very center of his world -- family, faith and hockey -- would reject him if and when the truth of his own life came out.

Today, Alfano has put those worries behind him as the first openly gay student body president in DePaul University's 113-year history, a double major law school hopeful who, in his free time, is a standout forward for the Chicago Gay Hockey Association men's league.

The past several years have been what Alfano, now of Lake in the Hills, calls a "continuous journey" of self-discovery that has tested the bonds of friendship, faith and family.

When Alfano was an eighth-grader at Maria Goretti Catholic School in Schiller Park, he first began wrestling with the idea that he might be gay.

As he came to terms with those feelings over the next few years, he felt compelled to keep everything bottled up inside. The former captain of the Huntley Raiders varsity hockey team, he was aware of homophobic attitudes that existed both on and off the ice.

"I don't have any family that are out, and I didn't have any really good friends at high school that were out," he says.

There was no playbook for this sort of thing, he says.

In fall 2008, two months into his freshman year at DePaul, Alfano decided to tell his best friend at home that he's gay.

"She took it incredibly," he said. That positive reaction helped give him the courage to tell other close friends the news a few months later over Christmas break.

With his family, however, it's taken more time. Alfano told his parents this summer, the most difficult part of his coming-out process.

"My family has embraced it better than I expected," he said. "It's definitely hard with Mom and Dad. They're still embracing it and accepting it fully."

His parents were unavailable to comment for this article.

His older brother Peter -- who Alfano says has been very supportive -- has not returned calls seeking comment.

Catholic doctrine teaches that "homosexual desires" are not in themselves sinful, but acting upon them is.

"I do think being both raised Catholic and coming out has shaped how I view (my faith)," Alfano said.

Right now, instead of identifying himself as a Catholic, he says he's focused on aspects of different religions, a "more holistic view of humanity," if you will.

While he praises Catholic social teaching, and its respect of "inherent human dignity," he also admits it's "hard to support an institution which in some way is oppressing you as well."

Yet, struggles with faith haven't stopped him from success -- or acceptance -- at DePaul University in Chicago, the largest Catholic college in the country. Alfano will graduate in June with a double major in international studies and political science.

Alfano, who officially came out to the world on Oct. 10 -- National Coming Out Day -- says he didn't make an explicit note of being gay during his campaign for student body president.

"My campaign was really focused on the students and the voices of students," he said.

He says students, as well as the school administration, have overwhelmingly supported him.

In a written statement, assistant vice president Robin Florzak called Anthony's decision to speak about his sexual identity a "courageous personal decision."

"Anthony is a remarkable young man and student leader, and we hope that his candor helps other young people facing these issues to feel comfortable discussing their orientation with family and friends," she said.

Another way Alfano has broken through traditional barriers is on the ice. He now is the youngest member of his Chicago Gay Hockey Association men's league team.

Alfano joined last summer after hearing about the team during Chicago's annual Gay Pride parade.

"Hockey always was and still is a huge part of my life," he said.

"I didn't know how to compromise my views of staying in the closet and playing as well."

This, he said, "just clicked."

Alfano is planning to take the LSAT next summer and then apply to law schools. If he's accepted, he wants to spend some time first doing service work for underrepresented populations before again hitting the books.

"I think the overall impact I am making in Chicago is really just helping push the needle a little further for progressive change," Alfano said. "Showing youth in the city and around the country that they can make a difference, and that they can be who they want to be without fear in society."

• Daily Herald correspondent Ross Forman contributed to this report.

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