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Coming Out: How does it feel to openly express your sexuality on a college campus?

Timna Axel

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On a clear Saturday morning about two years ago, Weinberg junior Patrick Boateng woke up and decided to tell the world he was gay. At a party the night before, Boateng spotted a cute guy from the music fraternity checking him out. This was problematic because, as far as the rest of Chapin Hall was concerned, Boateng might as well have been asexual. He was too terrified to tell his old friends back in Houston, but now he found the charade was wearing thin; romance called, and he needed an out. He walked downstairs to the all-girls floor known as the Virgin Vault and began knocking on doors. The first few drew delicate, hesitant, protracted conversations. But as he went from room to room, he gained an inner momentum. Between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Boateng outed himself to some 54 students in Chapin.

Boateng is staring at the wall behind my head, clasped hands holding his wild hair back. As usual, he has slathered it with Care Free Curl gel. He is leaning back, legs splayed full as if to hug me. He is not thinking about that demanding day in February, he is remembering what came after.

“You never expect to feel as relieved,” Boateng says. “The relief–I knew I would feel much better, but I just didn’t understand the difference. The day after I told everyone in Chapin, waking up the next morning … it was euphoric.”

In Chapin, a ramshackled red-brick student dorm just south of Willard Residential College, gays, lesbians and bisexuals have traditionally been welcome (there are at least six this year, counting myself) but to my knowledge there has not been a transgendered resident. Most LGBT discussions are really about the ‘L’ and the ‘G,’ and usually we pull the ‘T’ out of it altogether.

Communication freshman Ellen Abram lives in Room 1, the first door on the left of Chapin’s second floor. She has short brown hair, light freckles and a style of dress marked by femininity. People tend not to read her as a lesbian. Before any of her family or friends suspected, Abram expressed her feelings in an English paper.

“We had to pass our papers to the person next to us, who for me was a kid named Jack Hollander,” Abram says. “That was a very odd moment for me: OK, I’m going to be out to Mr. Bizet and Jack Hollander.”

In her small Minneapolis high school, every graduating senior was required to give an assembly speech. When it was her turn, Abram adjusted the microphone and announced to roughly 560 people she was a lesbian. It was a slap in the face of assumptive queer physics and a final, neat negotiation of identity with nearly her entire social world. But coming out is an inexact science. Since arriving at Chapin, Abram has directly come out to only her roommate, an Alabama girl whose father works for the U.S. Army. She struggles with herself. After all, how do you come out? There is no standard procedure to announce you prefer sleeping with women. Abram prefers to wait until the conversation is appropriate or until someone asks her. Unfortunately, it’s not a question most people will ask.

Remaining in the closet can induce emotional issues. But coming out can be complicated.

An e-mail from Shayna Goldstein, a therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern, listed some of the emotional issues associated with the closet. It says remaining in the closet can cause depression, anxiety, shame and overcompensation. It says some of the problems these issues can cause are difficulty sleeping and concentrating, headaches and mood disturbances. It says LGBT youth struggling with identity issues consider the potential losses and gains of coming out: Loss of self identity as a heterosexual, the same as being a member of dominant culture; loss of support and connection from family and friends; loss of one’s sense of safety; loss of the vision of their future. So why come out? What is there to gain? A cohesive sense of self; authenticity; a sense of belonging; a sense of personal fulfillment.

If the above conveys a prescriptive rigidity, it’s not intended to. Coming out can be like skating through a revolving glass door: You might get stuck on the way or swing right back inside. Often it’s because someone pushes back. When Boateng was 16, he came out for the first time to his older sister Abena, the family physician, while they were driving in a car. There’s a little trick that can sometimes cushion the blow, and Boateng used it.

“I did the cop out, saying I was bisexual,” Boateng says. “I still remember, it was like a taste in my mouth when I said that word.”

Abena, caught by surprise, suggested he keep quiet until college. They continued home in silence and didn’t talk about it for several months. Boateng wasn’t able to use the words “I am gay” until he was knocking around the second floor of Chapin.

Boateng can tick off the specific days that shaped the confines of his closet. March 25, 2005, was the day he told his sister and found she had nothing to say. On Feb. 3, 2007, he unexpectedly blurted it out to his mother as they drove home. Her response was to ask him, “Why?” On May 21, 2007, Boateng told another friend who had just come out, but their friendship dissipated soon after. On Jan. 5, 2008, Boateng was home for Winter Break and told his best friend Gilbert. The next day, Jan. 6, 2008, his mother dropped him off at the airport with these parting words: “Once you get a penis up your rectum, you’ll be running back to women.” Feb. 8 and 9 of that year were the days Boateng came out to all of Chapin. The last date he catalogues, Feb. 11, 2008, was when Boateng called his dad in Seattle and obliterated his personal closet.

His father, who had emigrated from Ghana decades ago to work as a Baptist minister in Houston, took the news surprisingly well. But in March they talked again, and before hanging up his dad said, “Don’t make any decisions yet.”

“He kept it that vague, but I knew what he was talking about and I got really pissed off,” Boateng says. “Then we didn’t talk for eight months.”

Will Kazda, Chapin’s vice president, lives in a coveted single on the far end of the third floor. The Communication sophomore is a big guy, handsome in a sweet sort of way and with swept hair that conjures Alec Baldwin in “30 Rock.” The spectacled theater kid often lands dorky sidekick roles with names like Eugene or Nicely Nicely Johnson. Popular in high school, Kazda was elected his school’s first openly gay homecoming king. He’d been interested in men since fifth or sixth grade, but early in high school he was still trying to prove himself wrong. He dated a girl named Allison for two months before coming to terms with himself and breaking the relationship off.

Kazda says he doesn’t “buy into” the gay community at NU, where the hook-up culture turns him off and the other gay students are difficult to relate to. Understatement has defined his coming out experience. He directly told only about 10 people he is gay. He didn’t even tell his older sister, who found out through their mom.

“I just didn’t want to make a big scene because to me, it’s not a big deal,” Kazda says. “It’s only one of many, many aspects of my personality. I’m not one of those people who defines myself by being gay, it’s just who I happen to be attracted to.”

If Kazda’s orientation is a small piece in a puzzle, Boateng’s is the outermost layer of an onion. There were plenty of black neighborhoods in Houston, but out of 4,000 high school students, there had been only one openly gay male. In Texas, he’d been starved of self-reflection in the books, media and conversations around him. When Boateng finally came out, his gay identity crystallized with newfound unimportance.

“I don’t feel like I really developed a personality or who I truly was until I came out,” Boateng says. “So I think that the significance of it now is that I finally get to be who I really am. Other than that, coming out is just a memory. Today, it’s not important. I get to define myself now.”

Doris Dirks works in an office down the hall from the LG
BT Resource Center, a small space crammed with more than 200 books, a clutter of niche magazines and DVDs, and colorful paper brochures that advertise programs like “Safe Space Ally Training” and “Straight But Not Narrow.” In the center sits a clear plastic bowl half full of condoms. Dirks oversees  about 20 student groups. She hands me two flyers. The first is a six-stage sexual identity model authored in 1979 by a psychologist named Vivienne Cass. In this model, gays, lesbians and bisexuals pass through stages like “Identity Confusion” and “Identity Comparison” and finally “Identity Synthesis.” The checklist is widely rejected among LGBT academics. The newer model is called D’Augelli’s Lifespan Model. Rather than stages, it defines six interactive processes LGBT individuals circuit throughout their lifetime. There’s one called “Becoming a lesbian/gay/bisexual offspring.” It reads, “This is when a LGBT individual discloses their sexual identity to their parent(s). This can be an extremely stressful time for some college students because often they are dependent on parents for support both emotionally and financially.”

Many students that Dirks works with are out at school but closeted at home, worried they won’t make it to graduation if their parents find out. She has worked with students whose parents cut them off financially when they came out.

“If students come and ask me for advice, I always say it’s more important for you to get your college education than it is to wave the pride flag,” Dirks says. “You can put off coming out to your family until you graduate, but if you don’t graduate, you’re screwing yourself.”

Boateng and his boyfriend recently celebrated their one-month anniversary. Benjamin Watkins is a tall, blond piano student who loves opera and organizes trips to the Art Institute of Chicago most weekends.

When Watkins came out of the closet, it took him three days to tell those he felt needed to know. His family in South Carolina has taken it well, except perhaps his mother, who doesn’t want to hear any news about Boateng. But Watkins is confident she’ll turn around. On Valentine’s Day, the couple went for dinner at Gio. They were seated at the front table, behind the large glass window; a proud exhibit for all of Evanston to see.
 

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