Beverly GreeneOctober 1996
With school starting for everyone about this time of year, there are a lot of issues that lgbt teens and college aged students will have to face that other students will have to give a second thought. The most important of these is meeting new people. All students worry about meeting new people, making new friends, finding dates for the big dances, and such, but lgbt students have an extra worry to worry about once the first bell rings. You may be asking yourself, should I bother coming out to prospective friends, if so, when should I come out, and how do I deal with the reaction if it happens to be negative? These questions have no simple answers, but I'll share my thoughts and feelings on it.
High school is probably one of the most horrible times in a person's life, and sometimes, it is also one of the best. There are just so many things going on inside your body and your mind that you probably feel so confused about what to wear and how to wear your hair that you may have not thought about how to deal with the age old question of coming out.
No matter how long you have been in one area or how many years you have been going to the same school you are bound to meet people you never noticed before or people who have just moved into the area. Meeting new people is an important part of expanding who we are as individuals. I have taken something from every friendship or relationship, whether it was something as simple as a really good song or as complex as a lesson in life or love that will follow me always, helping me not make the same mistakes while making myself happier, healthier, and just a plain better person. As you walk down the halls, heading for your locker and look at the faces you don't recognize or sitting beside someone new in class, you're bound to wonder when it is that you should make the leap to tell them about your sexuality, and if you should even bother.
There are many things that you should consider before making such a decision. First, you have to consider how out you are to begin with. Obviously, if you're not even out to your family, outing yourself to anyone other than your very best friends will not be the wisest decision. However, if you are out to your family already and general out everywhere else, there should be no problem outing yourself immediately to someone new. In fact, I prefer to get it out in the open to begin with. You may be thinking, Why would I want to share something so personal with someone I hardly know? Well, for one simple reason, I like to know up front if I should even bother getting to know someone, so that I don't waste my time, or theirs. If someone is going to have a problem with my being a proud lesbian, I'd rather know that immediately so that we could part as acquaintances and no one gets hurt. However, it's a lot harder when you're already friends with a person and come out to them and they reject you. Rejection always hurts, but the ones you love the most also have the power to hurt you the most.
Some of you will be deciding if you should come out to friends you've known for some time rather than new, prospective friends. This is a major decision that should not be taken lightly, but don't over worry yourself either. If these people really know you like you want to think your friends do, they probably already think that you might be gay anyway. Even if it's never crossed their minds, if they really value you as a friend, they'll get over the immediate shock and get on with life. It's a bit scary to say that your true friends will always stand by you, but it is the truth and sometimes the truth really hurts.
No matter how highly you think of your friends or yourself, there is bound to be one idiot in every group. There always is! If you're unlucky enough to draw the joker in this deck, dealing may be harder than you expect. Losing a friend will always hurt. It hurt when your best friend moved away when you were a kid. It hurt when your best friend started hanging out with a new group of kids in junior high, and believe me, it's really going to hurt when one of your friends decides that they don't want to have a gay/lesbian/bi/transgendered friend. Well, now that you're fully depressed, I'll try to give you a few gems to hold on to.
If this misfortune of stupidity is to ever drop into your lap (and I pray it won't but fear it will!) you have to try to think a few things. First, if this "friend" doesn't want a gay friend, then you most certainly don't want to be friends with them to begin with!! Even if it wasn't you being gay that they found out about and objected to, then it would have probably been something else. You may have a friend of another race or religion that they don't approve of and they would have decided not to be friends with you anymore anyway. Don't forget, most racists are homophobes and most homophobes are racists. These kinds of hate, misunderstandings, and plain out stupidity often come in a group package deal. I think they must get some sort of bonus for buying into the complete hate thing.
Another thing that you should remember is that just because one person decides that they don't like you because they don't like or even hate one part of you that does not make you a bad person. Remember, you are the same person after you come out to someone that you were before. Being gay or lesbian or bi or transgender does not make you different. By telling someone, you are not letting them see the "real" you, you're only letting them see more of you. You will probably still like the same kinds of music, movies, people, clothes, everything that you liked before. This is something that is good not only to remind yourself of, but also to remind your friends of once you've outed yourself to them.
And there is one last thing that you need to remind yourself of when someone you called friend decides that they don't like you anymore because you're gay and that is that you are not a bad person. You did not make them stop liking you. You did nothing wrong. You do not have to feel guilty or shameful. You did not betray them or let them down, even if they try to convince you otherwise. You have to be true to yourself, or else you will be no good to a friend.
Now, college brings a whole new set of issues. The good thing about college is that most of the time, you are usually far enough from home and your parents that you don't have too worry as much about word getting back to your parents. This is probably the reason why most people come out during this time in their life. Most people feel free to explore their feelings and sexuality during the college years where they were afraid to during high school for any number of reasons. However, college also brings a problem that you did not have to deal with in high school...roommates and suite mates.
Entering college is one of the most terrifying things you will ever do in your life, but it is also the start of your life as a free thinking adult. Some take longer to get to the free thinking part, but you know how that is. Most of you will be sharing a room, a bathroom, and generally all of your space with another person. What does this have to do with coming out? The worst in people comes out when they feel that they are threatened the most. The chances for rejection and other negative effects to coming out to someone is greatly increased when you live in such close quarters with someone. So, what do you do? Be honest.
Of course, you can't tell someone something that you are unsure of yourself or something that you just don't know yet. However, if you do know that you are gay/lesbian/bi/transgendered before going to college I suggest that you are open and honest about that up front with anyone who is either assigned to be your roommate/suite mate BEFORE you move in with them. This could save you a lot of trouble in the long run after you become friends with this person and they decide that they want nothing to do with you because of one small part of you. At least at this stage, if they decide not to live with you, you will have time to find a new suite mate/roommate and get on with enjoying your college experience. And, if they decide that there is no problem living with you, they have no excuse for later having a problem with your sexuality because they were informed up front. If you tell someone after they have been sharing their space with you in the cramped dorm rooms we all have to live in, they may react very negatively, feeling threatened, unsafe, and much more resentful than someone who you have not been living with would.
Of course, telling someone up front is no guarantee that you've just found a new best friend, but it is a start. Shortly before I moved from Georgia to Canada to be with my now wife, I worked on my college campus during the summer as a residential assistant. I had a private room for the last half of the year before that, but during the summer we were required to share a suite (private rooms joined by a common bathroom) with another person. After finding out who I was assigned to live with, I went to this woman, a person I did not know before, and told her up front, "I'm a lesbian. I do not want you and will not bother you. I won't be bringing home any women since I'm committed to someone in Canada. I'm just telling you all of this right now because if you have a problem with that, it's ok with me if you ask for another room assignment." She then assured me that she did not have a problem with it and would not ask for another room assignment. I then began to get excited about the up coming summer and making new friends since I knew few of the other women I would be working with. Unfortunately, the summer did not turn out like I had hoped.
After a few weeks of getting everything settled in and just getting to know one another I started noticing a change in her actions and attitudes towards me. I am not sure what exactly started this change, perhaps it was her budding friendships with some of the other RA's who spent their spare time thumping the Bible, perhaps it was my married female friend who came by often, usually with my goddaughter to visit. Perhaps she felt I was having an affair with this friend, even though she never saw anything that would give her that idea (simply because it couldn't be further from the truth!), but you know how some people think any female friend/male friend a lesbian/gay man has must be a lover. Who knows what it was, the point is, she started not coming home at night, not that I minded getting more privacy. But, then she started coming by just to get some stuff, never saying a word, or barely saying that she was not coming back that night. When she did stay in her room, she always had other people stay over, often not coming in until 1 or 2 in the morning when I was trying to sleep since I had to be at work at 7am. (Our rooms were set up that we had separate bedrooms, a common bathroom, but only one entrance, in my room, so she had to come through my room to get to her own.) Finally one day she came in alone and I told her that I didn't care if she was going to have company, but I would appreciate it if they would at least make an attempt to be quiet when entering since they had to come through my room. I was rather nice about it. After all, I had a roommate for a year and a half and knew how touchy these situations can get if you say something the wrong way. Then, things just went from bad to worse.
After that, she started taking off early from work (she did not work with me during the day, only in RA activities...we had to also maintain a full time job somewhere on campus) to get her things for that night or for a few nights. I later learned that she was sleeping in friends' rooms, on the floor instead of coming back to her own bedroom. I began seeing her less and less. When we had RA activities that required any kind of group work, she would not talk to me or even look at me. Often she would ignore my presence all together. She was never in our building, leaving me to do all of the daily work, such as reporting problems to maintenance and dealing with our visitors on campus, which was supposed to be both of our jobs. She and her friends did make one attempt to include me in their activities...they did often invite me to their Bible reading meetings, an offer I always declined.
Things eventually got so bad that the new head of student affairs and housing noticed it. She called me into her office one day and ask me what was going on, so I told her. She told me it was exactly what she had thought. She asked me if I wanted her to talk to this woman and I told her no, that I had made the decision to leave the college all together after the end of my summer job was up, not returning for my junior year and that there was no need to make things worse. However, since this woman was already hired to be an RA for the next year, dealing with students everyday, she decided that she would have a little training session for the new RA's, teaching them about acceptance and how to deal with people who did/were something that they did not approve of. She asked me to come and speak to them about being lesbian on a mostly straight, largely homophobic, all women's campus and I agreed. I was planning on what I was going to say and starting to pack for my impending move to Canada when I was then informed that she felt it was best not to have me speak at all. She told me that she felt that my presence would only stop this one woman from listening because she had already made up her mind that she did not like me and felt I had nothing to offer to her life or life in general. This was reasoning that I could understand, but needless to say, I was greatly sadden by the necessity of such a train of thought.
The point of this story is to not only warn you of the situations that you may face, but also to let you know that you are not alone if it does happen to happen to you. I still firmly believe that being honest as soon as possible is the best option, probably steering clear of a major problem down the road, however it is not a guarantee. So, what can you do?? First, tell your suite mate/roommate about your sexual orientation as soon as you feel comfortable doing so. You don't have to jump the gun and tell someone that you are still unsure of. Secondly, remind yourself (again) that someone else's stupidity does not reflect negatively upon you. Just because one jerk can't get past their own fear, myths, and religious teachings does not mean that you are a bad person, a bad friend, or a freak of nature. Thirdly, I would suggest that you check out the campus you are planning to attend or the one which you already attend and look for a lgbt group where you could find support and understanding from others who know what you are feeling and going through.
There are some of you who will come out to yourself after having been at college for some time. In this case, coming out to someone who has been your roommate is slightly different than someone who you do not really know yet. I suggest that you just treat them like you would any other friend...tell them, give them a little time to deal with it, and then talk about it. If they have a serious problem, they can find a new room and roommate and you can start the search for a new roommate as well. If they decide that they don't want to be friends with you anymore, remember that it is their problem and not yours! And, if they don't have a problem with it, well, they just know something about you that they didn't know before and you could actually become closer. I do suggest, however, from personal experience, that you should tell your closest friends and roommates as soon as you possibly can. I know that this is not easy. It's always easier to tell someone you do not know because their rejection will not hurt as much as someone who you have considered a close friend for some time will, however, your friends may hear the news or start suspecting anyway and will only feel betrayed and left out of your life when you don't tell them first. Try to give your friends the benefit of the doubt and tell them as soon as you feel comfortable doing so.
Like always, there are no pearls of advice that will make everything fall into place for you, just more advice from my own personal experiences. I hope that reading this (if you're still here!) will help you somehow deal with what is ahead in the best possible fashion for your situation and life. Just remember what I'm always saying...be true to yourself and everything else will fall into place, if not today, then eventually. And remember, have fun. You'll never have this period of your life again.