Change of plan

During the pandemic, Oliver Kaplan transferred to Penn looking for a fresh start. A philosophy class altered his academic focus; he now hopes to shape educational policy for LGBTQ+ students.

Man in blue jacket on Penn's campus in late afternoon winter light.
Going into Penn, Kaplan thought he would go into law consulting. But when he thought about what would be most beneficial, his career focus shifted to education policy.

Oliver Kaplan knew he had to make a change when, two months after his freshman year on a rural college campus, he was outed. Kaplan, who describes himself as “very closeted” until that point, had recently attended a discussion on LGBT rights, and his roommate started telling, first friends, then Kaplan’s parents, that Kaplan was gay.

“At that point, I thought, Well, do I try to correct people? Because I don’t know if I’m ready to be out, but if I correct people, then people are just going to assume I’m straight, and I’ll have to be closeted for the rest of my time here,” he says.

First, he met with the office of residential life, trying to get his roommate transferred to a different room. But since outing wasn’t a violation of any written rule, they “kind of threw their hands up and said, ‘Well, it’s not in our handbook.’”

Outing is a unique situation, Kaplan says. “If you’re not gay, you don’t understand how important that information is.” People try to equate outing to racial identity, and it’s not the same, says Kaplan, whose mother is Chinese and father is Jewish. “If someone were to say, ‘What if I tell other people that you’re Asian? What does that matter?’ Well, first of all, race and sexuality are not the same; you can tell my race from my face, but you can’t discern my sexuality,” he says.

Coming out, first to friends, then family, was a seven-month process that took place during the pandemic. At that point, Kaplan had become determined to transfer schools and had an interest in Penn. Kaplan contacted Erin Cross, director of the LGBT Center, who connected him with a Penn student who later became a mentor.

“Being outed is having other people share something about you that is so private and personal that, when it happens, it goes straight to your core,” says Cross. “It’s a complete lack of respect for someone’s humanity and agency. Someone’s sexual orientation is only for them to share if they want to,” she says.

Penn is consistently ranked as one of the top schools for LGBTQ+ support, says Cross. The LGBT Center is the second oldest of its kind in the country, she says, “so we’ve had a history to build up community, sub-communities, academic ties, and links across the University.” As a response to homophobic campus incidents, Penn included sexual orientation in the University’s non-discrimination clause during the early 1980s. “We were at the forefront,” Cross says. “Penn and the city of Philadelphia have worked hard to make sure LGBTQ+ folks feel as safe as they possibly can, but there’s always more to do.”

Now a senior majoring in philosophy, Kaplan spent his junior year digging deep. Coming into Penn, he had a vague idea of going into law or consulting after graduation. “But I’m a really big Bobby Kennedy fan,” he says, “and there’s this quote, ‘Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle of life in this world.’ So, I thought, ‘What would be more beneficial than going back to my high school to try to repair the environment there?”

Kaplan’s high school alma mater is a private, all-boys prep school. It’s also Catholic. Kaplan was inspired to attend Loyola High School after volunteering with Homeboy Industries in his hometown of Los Angeles, where founder Gregory Boyle has built a nonprofit on the mission of providing training, support—and kindness—for former gang members and formerly incarcerated people.

But Boyle’s alma mater wasn’t the right fit. “I found that the Catholicism that [Boyle] taught, which was grounded in the cardinal virtues, empathy, and compassion, didn’t really translate to the theology I learned at Loyola, which still taught that AIDS was sent by God to punish gay people.”

In what he describes as “a very conservative environment,” Kaplan excelled academically while emotionally shutting down. He felt unhappy. Kaplan, who played cornerback and wide receiver, stopped playing sports altogether, which his father struggled to understand. Kaplan didn’t offer an explanation. “I didn’t really want to tell him that it was because the environment was too hostile, and I felt like I was in danger,” he says.

Kaplan began his freshman year of college hopeful for a reset but found himself again living in fear. Harassment policy is built on safety, he says, yet outing is often overlooked and not mentioned.

After transferring to Penn, Kaplan took a critical writing seminar in spring of 2021 with Keahnan Washington, lecturer at the Marks Family Center for Excellence in Writing. Kaplan became interested in law as a culturally mediated entity, Washington says, the idea that law does not exist in a bias-free vacuum but emerges from the very society it governs.

Kaplan wrote an op-ed on outings for this course, which moved his focus away from a vague pre-law inclination and towards “policy itself, thinking about on-the-ground culture and how culture might shape” educational policy that affects LGBTQ+ students, Washington says.

When Kaplan started thinking about his future, he turned to Robert Kennedy’s speeches. This was a man who found himself in a position of power due to his family’s privilege and influence. Instead of resting on his laurels, Kennedy dove into social justice and ancient Greek philosophy, striving for a better way to live. Kaplan would pass the RFK Memorial Park every day on his way to Loyola. “He was physically close to me in that memorial, and I felt his life experience was similar in his interest in philosophy and his devotion to Catholicism being shaken,” Kaplan says.

Man in blue jacket smiles next to bare tree
Going into Penn, Kaplan thought he would go into consulting. But when he thought about what would be most beneficial, his career focus shifted to education policy.

Kaplan spent the summer working at the Williams Institute of the University of California, Los Angeles, doing LGBT rights research. “And then I went back to Loyola to ban outings because I was really scared of being outed there,” he says.

Kaplan, along with several other gay classmates, met with staff members at Loyola’s new Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The school officials formally apologized. They promised to change the handbook and start by offering training sessions for students and for faculty, Kaplan says.

“I’m really excited because it is a very Catholic environment. They take a lot of direction from the archdiocese, and the archdiocese still is not super progressive on LGBT rights. So, I’m proud of my high school for being so progressive,” Kaplan says.

Now a senior, Kaplan has applied to graduate schools in education policy for the fall of 2022. “That’s what I hope to do with my life now,” he says. He dreams of working for the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education. The office writes “Dear Colleague” letters that offer guidance on sexual harassment policies. They don’t have a “Dear Colleague” letter pertaining to outing yet, Kaplan says. “I’d really love to do that work. I think that would be really fulfilling.”

Kaplan hopes to build a career doing work around what was once his biggest vulnerability. Just last year, he was worried about sharing his outing op-ed with the critical writing class. It was a deeply personal, painful issue. “He didn’t think the other students in the class could relate,” Washington says. “You might expect pushback,” Washington advised Kaplan, “but there are also people out there who are closeted who would really appreciate this. Maybe this is their worst fear. You can speak to them.”

Guided by Kennedy’s words—“The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better”—Kaplan’s making things better for future generations of gay students, one handbook at a time.