Rogers: The closet’s revolving door

Henry Rogers, Op-Ed Columnist

My sexual orientation should be no surprise to those who know me. I’ve made no conscious attempt to conceal this identity in college — in fact, I’ve done more to embrace it than I ever expected to when I was younger. So why, despite this openness, do I still feel like I’m in the closet?

I was lucky enough to grow up in a space where my safety and wellbeing weren’t threatened by my sexuality. And even for me, it’s still difficult to navigate through the countless heteronormative spaces in college. We may not have a choice in the hardships we face as a result of our sexualities, but we have a choice in what we do to prevent future generations from experiencing the same struggles.

I began the process of “coming out” in eighth grade. In the years leading up to it — and the years that followed — I struggled with an internal battle between who I was and who I wanted to be. In middle school, I scoured the internet every night for an explanation: Can you like boys and not be gay? How long does the ‘gay phase’ last? Is it normal to be bi-curious? It was an endless pursuit for validation of who I desperately wanted to be. Every night ended the same way: in tears. I would attempt to reframe my internal struggle until I was reassured enough to fall asleep.

My internal dilemma reached a climax in eighth grade after I came to terms with the possibility that I was bicurious. Locked in my bathroom, away from any eavesdropping family members, I messaged a friend on Skype and told her my truth. Had it not been for her overwhelmingly positive response, I doubt I would have continued down the path towards self-acceptance. That night, I promised myself no matter where I was with my own self-acceptance in four years, I would begin college and enter adulthood firmly outside of the closet.

Gradually, I began to tell more people I was bisexual. But during my sophomore year of high school, a friend asked me a question I had refused to acknowledge on my own: Do you think you could be gay? My initial reaction was pure disbelief. I didn’t understand how my best friend could ask me something so unfounded. Almost instinctively, I went through the checklist of things I saw as proof of my attraction to girls: I had a girlfriend, played sports and lacked any of the physical traits associated with being gay.

I understood sexual orientation was unrelated to any physical traits or lifestyle choices, but I remained fixated on what I had done to make my friend think I was only attracted to men. I was disgusted at the thought of being gay. Had it not been for my friend’s relentless insistence that her perception of me wouldn’t change if I was gay, I doubt I would have admitted my sexuality to myself that day.

My self-acceptance continued to grow, fueled by the affirming reactions of those around me. By the end of high school, I was openly gay and ready to continue being so for the rest of my life. I was finally ready to fulfill the promise I made myself in eighth grade — I would be out of the closet in college.

But after my first day on campus, I knew the reality would be far different from what I anticipated. As I met dozens of new people, I found myself correcting their expectations about my sexuality multiple times a day. It’s difficult to navigate a space where you have to correct others’ assumptions about yourself in order to feel like you’re being honest. It’s especially difficult if you spent years correcting that assumption in your own mind. I felt like I was back in the closet, but this time it was a revolving door that I could never escape.

Any assumption about a person’s sexuality stems from observations, whether it be how a person dresses or how they talk. It’s human instinct to identify trends in the world around us and use stereotypes as a way to understand it. But when it comes to sexual orientation, assumptions reinforce the wrong idea that sexuality is determined by the degree to which one fits in a stereotype. It forces an expectation onto every person as to how they should be, even though it likely contrasts who they truly are. I should be able to wear polos and listen to Maroon 5 without being thought of as straight, and every straight man should be able to watch “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and talk about their feelings without being thought of as gay.

I don’t feel like I’ve left the closet behind. But with so many stereotypes about sexual orientation and expression, who has? No one should have to suffer the pain of accepting a part of themselves they grew up thinking was wrong. Until we stop trying to infer sexual orientation from unrelated traits and gender stereotypes, the closet is inescapable.

Henry Rogers is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.