Gay student lives under political shadow

By SABRINA HAYES/Montana State News

Conner Brooks walked in with a smile on his face, waving off concern over his wrist brace, and made it clear he’d be easy to talk to. Explaining the injury, he said, “I slipped on the ice and hurt my wrist, but I was madder that I spilled my coffee. Priorities.”

Montana State University student Connor Brooks enjoys a meal at an outside eatery in downtown Bozeman.
Montana State University student Connor Brooks enjoys a meal at an outside eatery in downtown Bozeman.

Even with the brace, he was sharply dressed in comparison to the typical college students surrounding him: a green flannel tucked into Wranglers, cowboy boots, with a great silver belt buckle to tie up the ensemble.

Originally from Indiana, Brooks came to Montana in an effort to avoid the eyes of the public. With a mother in the U.S. House of Representatives, he was growing tired of the necessary cautions, formal events, grins and handshakes. And it’s clear that he belongs out West.

“The Midwest is awful,” he said. “It’s flat and boring and there’s nothing outdoorsy to do.… I like to snowboard, hike, run.”

Coming to Montana, he’s found a lot more freedom. In his first year at Montana State – along with being able to get outdoors – he told his friends and family he’s gay.

“I wasn’t telling them for their approval,” he said. “I just put it out on the table.”

When asked about the family dynamic now, he said, “I don’t have any secrets with the family anymore. It’s much more open. It’s better. I don’t have anxiety over them figuring it out and if I want to tell them about someone I’m seeing, I can.”

However, his life is still more public than the average student’s.

“That is something I have to worry about – what I can put on Facebook – because it can affect my mom,” he said.”We live in one of the top ten most conservative districts in the U.S., but I knew after jumping into politics my life would be more public.”

His life is still less public than it could be, though, if the Indiana voters found out about his sexual orientation.

“[My mom] has talked to me about it,” he said.” She asked if I wanted her to come out and publicly be accepting of it and I told her I didn’t.There’s a guy in Ohio. His son came out and he switched and they became the poster family of Republican gays.”

“I already have to be way more careful when I’m home than when I’m here,” and he doesn’t want to lose that freedom.

“My being gay could be an issue,” Brooks said. “We’re not sure yet because it hasn’t come up, but anything I do can go back on her.I told her that if it does come up she needs to listen to the people. She’s representing the district.”

Susan Brooks ran for Congress in Conner’s junior year of high school. While he didn’t grow up with the pressures of being a politician’s son, he has been surrounded by politics since childhood. According to Susan Brook’s website, in 2001 she was appointed by President George W. Bush as a U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Indiana. His father, though, was always more involved with political campaigns than his mother. According to Conner, David Brooks has been doing background work for political campaigns for years.

Conner Brooks doesn’t let the political shadow hanging over his head get him down, though.

“He’s always happy and it’s basically impossible to embarrass him,” said Conner’s roommate, Danny Farr.

It’s probably a good thing Conner doesn’t embarrass easily. He laughed as he recounted growing up with his Indian-obsessed father.

“Most families have a living room and a family room. We have a living room and an Indian room,” he said. “It was kind of embarrassing when I was little because when you learn about cowboys and Indians, what do you do? You take a field trip to the Brooks’ house. My dad dressed up and did a whole presentation.”

“I was embarrassed when I was little, but thinking about it now it’s pretty cool.”

“Since I grew up doing a lot of stuff with my family, it made me much closer with all of them,” he said. “I value family above everything else. The only problem is that put more pressure on me to please [my parents] and make sure they’re not disappointed. They have these great jobs and are successful so I feel pressured to do great. That’s more internally since they’ve never said that to me. Growing up with my family made me much more independent.”

Because of his family values, Conner has always had a desire to help people.

“Conner will reach out for anyone,” said Farr. “He’s always generous with his time and his advice; he’ll help anyone who needs it.”

Farr lived with Conner during their freshman year at Montana State. “Living with Conner, I learned a lot about myself but more than anything I learned that he simply could not be stereotyped or read like a book. He taught me a lot about people.”

Before his freshman year of high school, when Conner’s family moved from the bustling city of Pike, Indiana, to the nearby suburb, Carmel, he insisted on going to school in the city.

“Carmel was a very homogenous school, majority white, all pretty well off. I didn’t like that. The school was outside my district so I had to apply, but I didn’t want to stay in Carmel. Diversity is important to me.”

Ten years from now Conner expects to still be living out West, away from Indiana.

“Hopefully I’ll be a teacher. I want to teach Kindergarteners or third graders – or somewhere in between.”

He is currently involved in a mentoring program; once a week he goes to Whittier Elementary School in Bozeman to spend time with the second grade student he was paired with.

“It’s fun. He opens up the more I’m there. At the beginning he was really quiet. He played some games, but now he takes me around and shows me to his friends. They’re all jealous because I’m pretty amazing.”

When Conner looks forward, he sees an open future, filled with opportunity. He accepts that with a mother in Congress there are a lot of factors in his life that could change and that might be out of his control.

“My plans could change, but that’s okay. No matter what happens, I’ll just go with the flow.”

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