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“Columbia has been a challenging and rigorous experience,” Ryan Kendall said. “It’s certainly the hardest thing I’ve done.” Kendall is pushing for bans on conversion therapy.

This senior profile is part of Spectator's 2014 commencement special issue. Check out the 17 other senior profiles, the class day ceremony recaps, and a timeline of the biggest events of the last four years.

Ryan Kendall, GS '14, rose to national prominence in January 2010, when he testified in court against California's Proposition 8 as proof that sexual orientation was not a choice.

Since then, he has continued to advocate for LGBT rights, focusing on banning conversion therapy and working with organizations like the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Last week, Kendall testified in New York as the state contemplated laws that would make attempts to change an individual's sexual orientation illegal.

Conversion therapy is an issue close to him—when Kendall was 15, his parents sent him to the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality after finding out he was gay.

Yet between his experiences as a teenager and his activism later on, Kendall, 31, described the two years he has spent at Columbia and in New York as “monastic.”

“Columbia is a very academic environment, so it's kind of brought up my interest in exploring ideas and having a life of the mind,” he said. “I kind of refocused what I do away from advocacy on the level of individuals and protests to more policy advocacy and trying to change systems and structures.”

“Columbia has been a challenging and rigorous experience,” Kendall added. “It's certainly the hardest thing I've done.”

Kendall's story has many chapters. In the many articles written about and by him, he described his time at NARTH as hell. At age 16, Kendall petitioned for and won his emancipation and ended his treatment at NARTH.

After enduring a period of homelessness, Kendall earned a GED and eventually was appointed to the Denver GLBT Commission.

Following the Proposition 8 case, he said that many of the people he worked with encouraged him to return to school. Kendall graduated from Arapahoe Community College in Denver as a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, through which he found out about the School of General Studies.

Kendall applied to two schools: Columbia and the University of Colorado Boulder. He came to Columbia because Boulder didn't accept him.

“I was never in love with New York. I didn't come to New York because it was New York, I came to New York for Columbia,” Kendall said. “I'm a bigger fan of California and Colorado than perhaps New York.”

Still, Kendall said he has enjoyed almost every class he has taken at Columbia—except for Music Humanities—and regrets that most of his electives took the form of transfer credits. His only major complaint about Columbia was the closure of the Business School's Watson Library to undergraduates during midterms and finals.

He also said that New York has given him a different perspective on social class, which he said is more rigidly defined in the city than elsewhere in the country.

“For someone who is interested in studying society, it has been very interesting to look at the economic segregation in a lot of different ways, and the way governments can collude to perpetuate that power,” he said.

By now, Kendall said that his story has taken a life of its own, whether in the form of court arguments or art—in the 2012 production of “8,” a play based on the closing arguments of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Kendall was portrayed by Chris Colfer.

“That's been more important culturally,” he said about his story being told onstage. “It's not really that important to me at Columbia. But those things are at the heart of bringing things like the Prop 8 case to local communities.”

“Everyone has their own interest in the way they use my story. So often it's cut short as a list of all the awful things that have happened to me,” he said. “But I'm not frozen in that moment.”

Kendall said that he has since rebuilt his relationship with his family, who are supportive of him attending Columbia.

“I wish people would tell the full part of that story, because it's much more than a story about sad, tragic events—it's a story of victory in many ways,” he said.

While he's currently waiting to hear back from a number of law schools, Kendall said his goal is to become a civil rights attorney.

“I know from personal experience that one person can have a huge impact on their community and on an issue they are very passionate about,” he said.

“Continue speaking out, and continue working, and continue to be innovative about the ways they bring attention to issues, because they can have far more success advocating ... than anyone will give them credit,” Kendall said. “It's so frequent that people dismiss the efforts of one person—but trust me, one person can accomplish a lot.”  |  @ChristiZhang

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Kendall testified in New Jersey last week. He actually testified in New York. Spectator regrets the error.

This senior profile is part of Spectator's 2014 commencement special issue. Check out the 17 other senior profiles, the class day ceremony recaps, and a timeline of the biggest events of the last four years.

Senior profile commencement LGBT activism
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