Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
August 14, 2020

Queerness, closets and coming out in college

By SOPHIA LOLA | December 5, 2019

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COURTESY OF STEPHANIE LEE

It’s been over a year since I first arrived at Hopkins, full of hopes, fears and vague expectations for my college experience. That arrival entailed much fanfare from overenthusiastic FYMs and even more awkward introductions and icebreakers between me and my classmates. I expected that, and I’ll even admit that I loved it in its cringyness.

I also expected that being a queer- and specifically bisexual-identifying woman in a new place would be something I’d have to carefully navigate. I’d no longer be living in progressive New York City, and I’d be surrounded by peers from all over the country and world; I couldn’t assume that everyone accepted queer folks. I honestly was nervous about possible negative interactions. In my bio for the roommate-matching questionnaire, I had written, “Looking for someone LGBTQ-friendly,” and eventually settled on someone who labeled herself “liberal,” figuring it was a good enough sign that she’d be okay with my identity (spoiler: We became best friends and still live together!).

What I didn’t expect, however, was feeling forced back into the closet, all on a big technicality: heteronormativity. In all my worrying that people might treat me badly or differently for being queer, I hadn’t realized it would no longer even be a given that I was queer at all. But that’s what wound up being the most difficult part of navigating my queer identity on a new college campus — I had to come out again.

Coming out is something necessitated, at worst, by a culture that is heteronormative and assumes everyone to be cisgender and straight until proven otherwise, or, at best, by a culture in which people are aware that assumptions are often wrong and thus settle on openminded uncertainty until someone shares how they identify. There was no way people could know for sure that I was queer, which I did want, unless I explicitly told them. 

Because of that, once I arrived at Hopkins and realized this situation, I constantly felt anxiety and internalized pressure to tell my new friends, but it was still accompanied by fear of how people might react. Coming out was a choice to be honest about my identity, but that also meant I was choosing to give others the opportunity to say or ask whatever they wanted about it, which gave me pause. I hated that coming out could be construed as “bringing it on myself” in this way. I also had the option to not come out, to remain in the closet that the blank, heteronormative slate of freshman year had forced me into. But I didn’t really like the option of staying closeted; it seemed inauthentic and probably overcautious.

I wasn’t even that used to being closeted — at least, not among my friends and peers (my family is another story). In high school my coming-out process had closely followed the self-discovery that I was queer. My friends, many of whom were also queer, were just around for that natural part of my teenage development, like they were for many others.

This made being closeted and, eventually, coming out in college feel new and unnatural in comparison, and the many instances of coming out went a variety of ways. My roommate was probably the smoothest. A few days in, we were talking about our proms, and I mentioned going to my ex-girlfriend’s prom — my first direct mention to her of being queer despite the small pride flag hanging on my wall.

“Wait, so you just said ‘girlfriend.’ Are you lesbian or bi? Either one’s fine; I’m just curious, if you’re okay telling me,” she said, or something to that effect.

“Bi,” I told her.

“Cool.” And that was that. She had latched on to my purposely nonchalant statement like I had hoped, and we got it out of the way.

Another instance was funnier. Over dinner at the FFC, it had somehow come up among me and a couple of guy friends, one of whom I thought was kind of cute, that I like women — but not that I also like people of other genders, including men. Afterwards, I totally overanalyzed how I had probably messed up my chances with him (like I had any at all in the first place!) by making him think I was a lesbian. How was I supposed to suavely inform him of my true identity and availability now!?

Yet another instance was more difficult. This time was with some friends who I had already told, but queerness was still a new point of discussion and understanding between us. One day we were talking about it, and they were confused by something I said. They started talking over each other, bombarding me with questions about how certain identities are defined and why I identify how I do. Feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and othered by this seeming demand to explain and represent my queerness and all queerness, I walked out. We later talked it out, but the experience still left me shaken up and wary.

And though I’m now a sophomore, these coming-out moments haven’t just stopped. Hopkins is a big place; you can constantly be getting to know new people, so the need persists.

This isn’t to say I want people to stop asking or that I want to stop talking about it. I want to be open about who I am, I’m fortunate to have always lived in communities where being open is safe and the anxiety I felt when I first came here has mellowed. But it can be tedious in that my queerness will always be more of a thing when someone’s getting to know me, even someone accepting, than another person’s heterosexuality will be when getting to know them. There might be confusion and questions or even just someone feeling the need to say, “Cool!” in answer to my unspoken question, “Are you okay with that?” This won’t change until we as a society get to a place where queerness is more normalized (though perhaps it will never be fully normalized because we objectively are a minority in the population) and less controversial than it is now. And that will probably still take some time, despite progress.

Beyond coming out, heteronormativity made me self-conscious in another way. After asserting my queerness, it sometimes felt like I had to keep proving it but wasn’t succeeding. In an attempt to find queer community last year, I had gone to Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance meetings at first, but then my workload got heavier, and I couldn’t find the will to leave my comfy dorm for late-night Monday meetings, so I stopped going. Basically all the partners I’ve had since coming to college have been male, leading my friend to one day comment, “For someone who talks about liking girls all the time, you sure seem to be on a dick kick.” (I should note this wasn’t said with intent to actually undermine my identity. And let’s be real: “Dick kick” is hilarious.) I started comparing myself to who I’d been in high school — I was president of my school’s gender-sexuality alliance, dating a girl, out to my friends and classmates. Then I compared myself to one of my best friends here, who’s on the board of an LGBTQ student group, has a girlfriend and makes even more gay jokes than I do.

So sure, I had some pride stuff in my room and talked about being queer and I kept identifying as queer, but I questioned whether I was outwardly acting queer enough to be “allowed” to identify that way. I felt like I was maybe straight-passing or simply just straight because I wasn’t proving myself otherwise.

But then, on National Coming Out Day a few weeks ago, I got a text from my brother, saying he was proud of me for being a fierce and strong queer person of color and also honored that I’d trusted him enough to come out to him a couple years ago. It was so affirming. And it shifted my thinking. I remembered that my sexuality is a constant pillar of my identity in that the way I practice it can vary, but only I get to make the overall choice of how to label and define it — it’s always my sexuality. Despite feeling insecure about whether I should or could still identify as queer since my outward expression and behavior had changed, it still felt right for me to identify as queer.

So I arrived at a new question: Am I doing enough, as a queer person, for myself and my community? Being queer is something I love about myself, and I love the queer community. So that’s why I should do more than just make gay jokes with my gay friends and hang pride flags on my wall: not because it makes me straight if I don’t, but because I love it and should be involved. That’s why I’m writing this article, why I’ll keep coming out, and why I’ll find more ways to be vocal and active going forward.

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