For many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students, college is a home away from home where they can come out and be themselves for the first time. But for some, going back home for Thanksgiving means going back in the closet.
That was Tommy Arnold's experience in college, and he doesn't want it to be anyone else's.
The big-hearted realtor from Kentucky is the founder of Feast on Equality, a nonprofit that helps LGBTQ college students and at-risk LGBTQ youth in the state. Arnold knew he was gay since he was about 7 years old but was afraid to come out in the small rural town where he grew up. When he was in high school in the late 1990s, he couldn't wait to go away to college so he could finally be himself.
"It was like I always had this dirty secret that I didn't even know what it meant, and as I got older and was about to graduate from high school, it was like, 'OK, we're going to go up to college and we're going to deal with this,'" he said.
Arnold eventually came out to his family while he was a student at the University of Kentucky. He said some in his family struggled with it in the beginning, and his own discomfort prevented him from bringing boyfriends home for the holidays.
"It was just very difficult because we all have social pressures that we have to deal with, and I never want to disappoint family or anything like that, and I think sometimes at least here in my part of the world, being LGBT is not necessarily something to be proud of," he said.
By 2008, Arnold was an out and proud gay man living in Louisville and pursuing a career in real estate. Around the same time, his friend Brian Buford, who worked for the University of Louisville, opened an LGBT Center at the school. Some of the students had been shunned by their parents and had nowhere to go for Thanksgiving. Brian asked Arnold to help plan a dinner for them.
"I met with Brian and said 'Ok ... what do they need right now?' And that's when he shared with me that there were about eight students that didn't have a home for Thanksgiving. And I told him that I didn't care if it was at his house or mine, but we were going to have a Thanksgiving meal for them," Arnold said. But the two friends didn't have a penny to put toward such a hefty feast. So Arnold just started asking around.
"As I ran into my friends, whether it was at the gym or out in public, or whatever, I was telling them about these students. I'm not the type of person who likes to ask for help, but they all chipped in and we bought a bunch of turkeys."
Arnold's mother and his best friend both helped prepare the dinner. "We cranked so much food out of our kitchen it was ridiculous," he said with a laugh.
As word spread about the feast, the number of LGBTQ students who planned to attend went from just a handful to more than 100—so many, Arnold said, they had to secure a venue on campus to hold them.
"We served 115 students that first year and more than 250 the following, and it's been about that ever since," he said.
But Arnold wasn't satisfied with just cooking turkey.
"I wanted to harness that energy and focus it towards something greater, because hosting a Thanksgiving dinner one time of year simply is not enough," he said.
So in 2012, Arnold decided to use his networking skills to start Feast on Equality, a fundraising dinner that takes place every year around Thanksgiving. All proceeds go to funding resources for LGBTQ college students and youth, he said. The annual event attracts up to 500 donors each year, including all the local bigwigs — senators, mayors, even Kentucky's secretary of state—and has raised more than $600,000 so far.
Some of that money was used to create a one-of-a-kind certificate program that teaches University of Louisville medical students about the unique needs of LGBTQ patients. The money is also used to support the LGBT Center at the University of Louisville and students who are having financial problems. One young woman, who happened to also be an undocumented immigrant, almost didn't graduate. After she told her parents she is a lesbian, they stopped paying her tuition, Arnold said.
"She was told she couldn't walk and receive her degree. I think the bill might have been somewhere around $1,600, so we just picked up that tab. And again, we're talking about somebody who's incredibly bright and on a great path, and it's just again the most amazing experience to be able to step in and give them a helping hand," Arnold said. When asked how it makes him feel to help these students, the 37-year-old said he simply doesn't know how to put it into words.
"To be honest ... sometimes I have to pinch myself. It doesn't seem real," he said. "It's just grown into something so much bigger than me, so much bigger than Feast on Equality."
This year's Thanksgiving dinner for University of Louisville students was held on Tuesday at the LGBT Center. While the students were grateful for the meal with friends, it's still tough for those who don't feel welcomed by their families. So Feast on Equality will pair them with a friend whose family will welcome them into their home on Thanksgiving, and the organization will help pay for the family's dinner.
Arnold will be joining his own family on Thanksgiving Day. He's single now but said if he had a boyfriend, they'd welcome him with open arms.
"At the end of the day, love always prevails, and they simply want to see me happy," he said.
While his day job as a realtor keeps him busy, Arnold manages to squeeze time in for Feast on Equality, which he's expanding to other universities—including his alma mater, the University of Kentucky.
"If we have the strength and the ability to help others, then I feel personally compelled to take action and lend a helping hand."
OutFront is a weekly NBC OUT series profiling LGBTQ people who are making a positive difference in the community.