On last week’s episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, in a conversation about politics, contestant Nina West opened up about growing up with a Republican family and also a traumatic collegiate experience that subjected her to brutal death threats over the span of almost two months. “The crazy thing is I hadn’t really told that story publicly,” West told Out in an interview this weekend. “I never thought I would talk about it on Drag Race.”
On the show, West told a snippet of the story and how it helped to make her into the vocal activist she is today. “I was raised to give back and I was raised to be an active participant in my community, and that’s all true but I think what is the greatest motivator for anyone, and what makes anyone the greatest activist is being a victim of something,” she says. “I think that’s terrible and awful but it changed me and I don’t want anyone to ever feel the way I felt.” Here, we allow her to expand on that story, and for the first time, publicly tell it in full.
I grew up in a very conservative family and that affected my entire process of coming out. I never told my parents that I was gay [when I was younger] but when I went off to college at Denison University, I decided during orientation that I was going to be out. I kind of had two different lives: I was out and gay at school and then I would come home. I think my parents knew but we never talked about it.
My freshman year I joined an LGBT organization on campus called Outlook. Once, when we were doing some chalk-ing around National Coming Out Day, I was spit on and called “faggot” by a group of guys that was passing by. So that was the first incident of homophobia that happened on campus. My second incident, which was the big incident, was my sophomore year.
I was running for Student Body Vice President and as things progressed, there was just this crazy rhetoric. I won but shortly after, I was a resident assistant in an all-freshman dorm building. My room was on the first floor, and this is like 1998 or 1999, so it was the time of answering machines. I didn’t have a cell phone at the time so I would come back from class and listen to my voice messages. I remember very clearly the first time it happened. The message said “we’re watching you faggot,” and that was enough for me to realize something was up.
Denison had, at the time (I don’t know if it’s still active,) a group on campus called the Wingless Angels. I don’t know the whole history of the organization but from the old lore of it they started off as a prank organization and put a horse in the library. It was just jokes. Then somehow in the 80s and 90s it evolved into this like privileged white, boys’ club that became really uncomfortable with Denison’s desire to have a diverse student body and a diverse faculty. So that really started with students of color who weren’t from the United States.
Fast forward to me going there, and being super out, and super vocal, and super visible, and super gay — and by super gay I mean just being myself. The situation just kind of erupted from there.
They had voice encoders like from the movie Scream so you couldn’t tell whose voice it was on the other end. It all sounded the same. The other thing that was unique about the situation is that Denison had a phone tree, so you could only tell who was calling if they were calling from on campus. Since the calls that were coming to my phone were coming from off campus, it took the investigators longer to track down.
As the threats progressed, fliers were pushed under my door. They would take photos of themselves in like a cornfield holding a body and write something like “we’re coming for you.” Then they would take that photo, photocopy it so you didn’t have the actual photo to examine. It was really like my own worst nightmare. Matthew Shepard was murdered right before this, so it was terrifying. Honestly, on a campus of 2,000 students, I was one of maybe five out students and five out staff members.
It got really bad. They continued to leave these voice messages that would go on in really gruesome detail about how they were going to kill me. And then it progressed to one night, I came home and “Fag” was carved in my door and they were calling my phone saying “we’re here, we’re coming to get you.” At the same time, a resident was knocking at my door saying “Someone’s trying to break in to the building.”
I remember running down the hall telling everyone to shut and lock their doors. I hid in one of my resident’s dorm rooms as I heard people running up and down the hall. On one hand these are just college kids but when you’re terrified, you don’t know what anyone’s capable of. Campus security came into the dorm and somehow these guys had gotten away. They had broken into the basement because you had to have a card to get into the building and climbed down onto the dryer machine and broken it in the process.
After that, the administration thought it was best for me to move out of my dorm room and call my parents. So, long story short, that’s how I came out to my mom and dad. I remember calling them and saying “Hey, I have to have a serious conversation with you.” I lost all control and I just started crying. My mom was asking, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” and I was just saying “I’m in a lot of trouble.” So she says “What’s wrong” and I say “Well first of all, I’m gay.” And my dad in the background says, “That’s fine, what’s wrong, what’s wrong? We don’t care about that.” So I said, “There’s people here who want to hurt me.”
My parents lived about an hour away and drove over the next morning. They were in the dean’s offices all morning with me and were completely and totally incredible, more so than I had ever given them credit for. I remember my dad saying, “What do you want to do? You can transfer, you can take a semester off, we can pull you out.” And I just didn’t want to give up. I had a scholarship and I had started a life there. At that point it was agreed upon that I would move into an all-girls club for two weeks.
I was going to classes but was pretty low-key hiding out. I remember going back to my room to check because there were phone taps put on the phone. But the person eventually made a phone call from on-campus and the phone call was traced back to a room on the opposite quad and it turned out to be someone that I knew very well. I don’t believe he was the person who was actually responsible. I believe he was taking the fall for a larger organization. But he took the fall for it and was expelled.
I remember when it was happening I felt like it was going on forever but it was probably a month and a half or two months of all-out torture and games, that progressed to death threats. It just went to another level and I knew at that point I needed help. I still can’t be alone in too many strange locations, and I don’t watch scary movies. I’ve been in therapy since this happened, which I think is a good and healthy thing everyone should do, but I was deeply affected.
When you’re young and gay, especially in this time period and you’re told that you’re going to die alone and you’re told that you’re going to die unhappy, and that no one wants you, and you see someone who is a lot like you, in college, in a small town, seemingly goes out to a bar and it’s the last thing that he does of his own choice and then he dies a few days later from being beaten to death, it’s terrifying. And I’ve been so impacted by it. I just don’t know if we seriously consider the state we are in today and how we are talking about each other and regarding one another. Just how people hold human life; it’s bad and disgusting. I think we are all capable of doing better and I think that requires people to be courageous and talk about that. We can’t continue to live in this world with this divisive rhetoric. — as told to Mikelle Street