During my high school years, I remained in the closet, safely postponing coming to terms with my identity for a later date. Partly because, I assure you, I was still trying to understand my sexuality, but also because I held so many imagined fears about being seen as anything other than straight at my all-boys private school. There was only one openly gay person in my high school class. I did not want to have a spotlight placed on me to make me feel different from the other guys. By senior year, when I considered coming out, I decided against it, already under enough pressure dealing with college applications and a social life. Still, I knew I would come out at the beginning of my college career. I braced myself for any social consequences that would result from coming out, but I suspected being out in college would be better than spending even more of my life in the closet.
At Amherst, I was confused to find the process so stress-free and emotionally fulfilling. I know I am only a first-year college student, and one who attends a liberal arts college in New England. I still find it surprising that I have yet to personally experience one incident of homophobia at Amherst. None of the straight friends that I have made so far seem to care that much. Why did I overestimate how much attention people would pay to my sexuality? I am not denying that LGBT people experience discrimination on this campus. However, my personal experience so far as a first semester first-year has included much more stress about the general adjustment to college life than stress from being openly gay. Most other first-year students who find out about my gay identity respond with something like “Oh, you’re gay. Cool. I didn’t know that.” After that realization, the conversation turns to the typical concerns of first-year students (like the next time Val grants us buffalo chicken wraps for lunch). I think that was a serious concern I had for so long: wanting to feel like an individual and not a label. That concern kept me from being willing to tell other people that I was gay. In the closet, I believed coming out would mean labeling myself as a gay person instead of telling myself that I am someone who happens to be gay like I have learned to do now (in addition to being so many other awesome things). At Amherst, I feel like my sexual orientation is acknowledged and respected but at the same time, I feel like my individuality beyond it gets appreciated as well.
As an openly gay male student at Amherst, I have taken advantage of both Pride Alliance and Men of the Valley meetings and events for support. Men of the Valley gave me the opportunity to get to reflect on the experiences of the other gay men on campus. Interestingly, although we discuss issues facing gay men at Amherst, I have most enjoyed gleaning wisdom and advice from upperclassmen for navigating the Amherst experience in general, socially and academically.
Every sentiment of shame, anxiety or low self-worth has faded away since I arrived on this campus. Not only do I feel better about being more honest with people, but I also have gained so much more confidence in myself. Before coming out, I truly believed that my life could only be enjoyable by pretending to be straight. I remember myself welling up with shame whenever my mom initially lamented that I would not give her grandchildren or suggested that I was just too young to know I was gay. To be fair to my mother, she is merely concerned with my quality of life and truly loves me. She only wanted me to be happy. My happiness has always been a priority for her. I try my best to always remind her that my happiness and potential to impact the world should not and will not be limited by who I might want to marry one day.
Clearly, my life has been so much more enjoyable since coming out. Beyond the confidence boost after coming out, my life stayed pretty much the same. Apart from telling people I wanted to date guys, my world refused to drastically change. I immersed myself into the fall semester and soon the novelty of being out faded from my mind. Although I have only been openly gay for less than a semester, being out is already beginning to seem more natural.
The experience likely differs for each LGBT person, but for me, after I overcame the psychological adjustment of being openly gay, my anxiety about my identity ceased. Now that my sexuality is no longer a source of stress or shame, my mind is fully focused on my academic goals at Amherst and building friendships with other people. I find it so interesting that in the closet, I was so much more preoccupied and insecure about myself as a result of the identity crisis. I was living two lives but deep down I knew I wanted to finally get rid of my false identity. I didn’t want to hide my true self and perform the role of someone I was not destined to be. At Amherst, I was able to forget about the (perceived) social expectations of other people. I started living according to my own philosophy. That philosophy did not include being ashamed of myself, and it definitely did not include lying to other people about who I am. Using the phrase “lying to other people” sounds like an extreme description; for me, at least, it seems like the most accurate way to explain the reality of my time before being open about my sexuality. To be honest, I think I just got tired of the work necessary to deny a part of one’s identity. The lying was not only exhausting but seemed unethical as well.
So far, I haven’t told someone about my sexual orientation unless it becomes particularly relevant. I personally do not want to start a conversation with a new friend on that topic but there were instances where I realized I should have told someone earlier. It is always hard to figure out the right moment to tell a new college friend that you are not straight. However, one friend from my dorm had heard from other people and he was waiting for me to be honest with him. My attraction to guys didn’t matter to him at all and I regretted delaying the conversation with him. I assumed that a straight guy would not be interested in learning that someone in his dorm was gay. I also definitely did not expect him to be comfortable with being someone I could rely on if I wanted to talk about LGBT issues. I definitely matured from that experience by learning not to assume the worst of people.
There are genuine, serious reasons for Amherst students to stay in the closet. It can be justified for many different and complex reasons. My experience, as someone who came out at the beginning of first-year orientation, is likely very different from a gay student who has to come out to college friends who had assumed for a while that they were straight. Furthermore, some families may not be as accepting as mine. Even if students are ready to come out within the Amherst community, they may not be ready for that information to spread to their families.
Still, I urge anyone still struggling with their sexual orientation to really consider which risks represent real consequences if they come out and which ones are imagined or irrational. Unless the consequences are truly devastating, coming out should have less to do with contemplating the consequences of the decision. For me, it had everything to do with solely considering the benefits.