Project for Open Voices: “On Being a Closeted Queer”

The Thrill is proud to feature personal narratives courtesy of the Project for Open Voices. Today’s essay is titled “On Being a Closeted Queer,” and was authored anonymously. POV is always accepting new submissions, so if you want to share your story, email openvoicessubmissions@gmail.com – if you prefer to submit anonymously, the login password is kenyoncollege.

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This is how it happens:

It’s a day into spring break and you’re marking the occasion by sitting curled up on your bed, quietly and completely losing your shit.  It’s the panic attack of the century, something like having liquid fire poured down into your lungs, and you’re staring across the room at the Van Gogh decal on your wall hard enough to make the colors swim and go loose. You’re stuck, you’re stuck, you’re fucking stuck. The shivers hit you like an earthquake, and with each sharp shudder of bones there’s some relief, because maybe if you shake hard enough you can break out, be free. Your body’s suddenly three sizes too small and it hurts and your brain keeps screaming that you’re stuck, you’re up shit creek, there’s no way out.

It’s necessary to back up a little so you know how you came to this point.

It starts because you come back from Kenyon loud. You come back from Kenyon with a voice you used to firmly muzzle, with a voice tinged in copper from all the blood in your mouth after years of biting your tongue. You come back from Kenyon argumentative about it, about queer rights and same-sex marriage and deconstructing gender norms. You come back speaking in a way that makes your mom smile exasperatedly and talk about how “the liberals” are warping your mind in a tone that isn’t joking enough to be insincere. You think that you kind of brought this on yourself, in your more self-loathing moments; that maybe if you shut up like you had for years, the transition wouldn’t be so bad. That if you kept quiet, your brother wouldn’t say fag just to see you get riled up, that your mom wouldn’t start reminding you about how homosexuality is a sin, that your dad wouldn’t frown so pointedly when talking about Minnesota passing same-sex marriage. But you come back loud and maybe that’s what makes it more palpable, that’s what sends you spiraling into the shock of coming back into a culture, in a home, so furiously against who you are. You’ve been in the closet since you were a sophomore in high school, and it was manageable because you’d never had space to embrace it. But coming back from Kenyon is like moving from freedom to slavery again, and there’s a buzz under your skin that builds all day until you’re shaking with it, because you’re being shoved back into an identity that doesn’t fit you and it chafes.

The main thought that acts an anchor drawing you down into your panic is that you’re alone here. You have friends from Kenyon on Skype you can talk to, and two friends you’ve come out to just before break started. But one of those options is distant and the other is—fresh. You came out and they were fine and happy, it was all super pleasant, but you don’t know how queer you’re allowed to be around them yet. You don’t want to ruin your new position in their minds as some very self-sufficient, completely-the-same-but-also-likes-girls queer person by dragging in the family problems you’ve been carrying around like the proverbial globe for these last few years.

But if you were at Kenyon—if you were at Kenyon, well what?

You have your friends here, but at some point dragging all of your familial problems to them, all your tears and panic attacks, starts making you feel self-conscious. Somewhere in the back of your mind you wait until they get sick of it, until they start calling you a one trick pony, “yeah man we know shit sucks at home, hit us with another.” You’ve had friends straight up tell you that your problems are not their responsibility, that they don’t know your family, so really, how much can they help you? You’ve had friends, both straight and queer, tell you that maybe if you come out, it’ll all be better. As if you live in some Hallmark world where all it takes is having a daughter that’s queer to cure the case of homophobia. As if your life and your experience is only there to make you into some lesson, in the proverbial queer person in those stories that start out “well, I used to be homophobic, but then I met ____ and realized (shocker) queer people are just dandy!”

So what are you (what am I) supposed to do when you start feeling like a burden to your friends, when they don’t understand you, when they make well-meaning suggestions that over simplify things? Theoretically, you have Unity House, or Queer Women’s Collective.

Theoretically.

Not to get you wrong; you love Unity House and Q-Dubs. They have given you a sense of community that you didn’t have back home, gave you a validity and an understanding that is empowering. You think they do a lot of good work; but you don’t feel welcome there.

It starts (maybe it really starts) at a snacks and sexuality discussion you go to way at the beginning of the year, when you’re still new to wearing your sexuality easy and plain like an old t-shirt. You’re kind of excited, as everyone files in. You’re curious, and interested, and want to connect.

And then it opens up with coming out stories.

You have a mixed relationship with the closet; National Coming Out Day has always felt like National Guilt Trip Day to you. There’s something shameful in not coming out, despite how many people understand and tell you that you don’t have to if (as in your case) it would do more harm than good. And as you listen to these people talk about coming out, a theme develops: it’s the story of having liberal parents, and struggling to tell them, and, after some road bumps, being accepted rather happily. Sometimes aunt and uncles are even mentioned. As you listen, you feel a disconnect. As you listen, you feel cowardly.

It’s not that you’re not happy for them—you are! You’re glad to live in a time and place where so many people, so many of your friends, come out and are happily accepted for it. You’re ecstatic for them, you’re excited, for all those queer people that came out and were easily accepted. It gives you a lot of hope for the future.

But you’re not one of them, and as the meeting goes on, you start to feel more and more left out and self-conscious. A friend who came with you keeps nudging you to talk, but you can’t. Your throat is tight and you don’t want to break the mold, don’t want to bring your stories rolling in like thunderhead on a clear day. You look at all these happy people, all so lucky to have such accepting families, all with happy Disney endings, and wonder what you’re supposed to tell them. Are you supposed to talk about the time your grandparents talked about how homosexuality was the largest sin in the book when you were sixteen and just on the cusp of your sexuality, about how they told you that your people were going to be stuck in hell while you sat trapped in the backseat of their van, your heart jack-hammering against your ribs? Are you supposed to tell about how you cried for an hour when you got home, because you knew your grandma, who taught you so much about love and loyalty, would never accept you if you showed up holding hands with a girl? Are you supposed to tell them about the night you told your brother, half-hesitant, that you simply believe that queer people weren’t morally wrong, no more no less, and your mother found out and sat you down and asked how you could believe such a thing. How her tone implied that such a belief was on par in thinking genocide was right, or that you supported pedophilia. Are you supposed to tell them about how she said you should start going to church more after that? Are you supposed to tell them that there were nights you laid awake wondering how you were supposed to believe in a God who didn’t believe in love?

You couldn’t, in the end. You sat quiet and felt off-center, because you couldn’t do it. You couldn’t make yourself into that person, the queer still under fire, the queer living some life of quiet desperation. You couldn’t do that to yourself because it felt too much like a pity trip, like making a spectacle of yourself and ruining the vision of a nice, queer-friendly future. You walked away feeling alone.

And it’s not as if you don’t realize there are other queers with bad home situations. You’ve talked to a few and recognized the ways their smiles go tight and their tones casual when they talk about it, the ever tremulous flippancy in their voice as they say “yeah, my parent’s don’t know…it’s not something that would…yeah.” You recognize the hunch in their shoulders and the forced casualness because you’ve played it up so often yourself. You see yourself in them.

But how do you got to Unity House, or Q-Dubs, and start talking about not being accepted? It’s hard. It’s true I might not have caught all the programming, but I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen an event specifically devoted to talking about problematic home or friend situations. And that’s a problem for organizations that are on campus to support queer people. It’s a problem that I (and you) can’t feel comfortable talking about ourselves because there is never any casual way to do it. I love Unity House and Q-Dubs, but I’ve never felt entirely comfortable there. And that’s not something I can let go.

Because people who have panic attacks about their sexuality over break? I’m out there (you’re out there) but unless space opens up for us, you might never know it.

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12 responses

  1. Thank you so much for this. As a member of QWC, I’m so happy to see someone speaking up about things we can all start doing better and starting a dialogue.

  2. Finally, somebody said it. And said it well. I never had the courage to write anything like this when I was in college.

    Thank you, person. You’re great. There are lots of us. I’m out there too.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing – I’m sure if you talk to Unity House and Qdubs and suggest an event like this they’d love to help you plan it!

  4. Hey, thank you so much for writing this! I’m really sorry it’s been tough for you to find a totally accepting campus organization. In reality, I think that there are a lot of us with tough home or family situations — certainly a lot of us who have dealt with them in some point in our lives. We tend to sugar coat them because we’re supposed to, because it’s easier to laugh about grandmothers talking about sin (mine does too) than to admit that it really hurts. Here’s what I can tell you for sure: the Qdubs community is a place for all sorts of experiences. We’re having a discussion on coming out after Reading Days that won’t be your typical discussion — we want to problematize the concept and talk about how it is also okay not to come out. We would love to make it a safe space for people to tell stories that aren’t rainbows and unicorns. If you ever want to talk about making QWC feel more welcoming, please email the account or approach one of the leaders! I promise we want to hear what you have to say!

  5. Yo – stay strong friend! Coming out sucks and secretly most queer people really do understand that shit. You rock, keep rocking.

  6. I’ve had basically the same experience; I’m out at Kenyon, but most of my family doesn’t know. I told my parents at 13, and expected the “we’ll love you forever” Saturday morning TV talk and got “oh” and nine subsequent years of silence. I told them about my boyfriend in freshman year and they acted like I’d told them I joined a skinhead group. I feel the same awful bitterness when people talk about their wonderful families who actually love them and aren’t going to throw them out with the trash at the soonest socially acceptable opportunity.

    You aren’t alone here.

  7. Truly wonderful and relevant article. It really sheds a different light on the queer community at Kenyon–while it is a great community in many ways, I think there is something missing and I hope that this article makes people realize that. Thank you for writing this.

  8. I also wonder if older queers can help. I mean, look at the basketball coach for the Ladies. What happened when she told HER family. Living here in central Ohio I assume queers still have trouble coming out to their parents, so I am kinda shocked that most coming out stories would be easy. But here in the comments, some say that in fact it was harder than they had said — and that is a good thing for the community to think about. The “tyranny of the majority” can perpetuate a steamrolling over difference and debate …. down down down to some common denominator. Meanwhile this tyranny silences and further queers and queerifies the very people who need understanding.
    This kind of tyranny is here alot — those who assume if you are nonwhite that you’re an international student — those who assume if you are here, you have spending money — those who assume if you are here that you like to drink, or have sex, rather indiscriminately — those who assume if you are here you are not religious. And currently, those who are here are assumed to be Democrats and liberals. All this silences diversity and rips the rug from the feet of people who are trying to feel accepted. As I’ve posted here before, that was me. My family was poor enough I was an oddity at Oberlin. My family was un-family enough that others with functioning homes thought I was like a monkey in the zoo. I dropped out because I couldn’t find my place,t hat’s how bad it was. It worked out in the end, I put myself through college, I got the life I wanted, but it could have gone the other way (until a few years ago, none of my 4 siblings even made it thru college!).
    A long-winded way to say — BE AWARE OF THIS RIGHT AS IT IS HAPPENING! In meetings, in groups, in classes. Don’t assume you’re all homogenous, you all had internet at home, you all have liberal parents open to queers!

  9. I remember one “coming out” discussion at Q-Dubs where the first half of the meeting revolved around people complaining about the inconvenience of HAVING to come out to people over and over again, and totally unable to see that they GET to, instead focusing on what a pain in the ass it was to have to let people know all the time. During this meeting I was sitting between two friends, neither of whom was out to their parents, neither of whom felt they COULD come out to their parents, and neither of whom spoke up. I tried to say something to point out that coming out is not a possibility for some people, particularly when they’re living at home or at Kenyon on their parents’ money, and probably came off as a bitch who wanted to put a damper on the conversation, and didn’t say as much as I’d have liked, because it was way more important to me not to target or alienate my friends. Of course no one who felt unable to come out was willing to interrupt and bring up their situation for so many reasons – because it’s hard to talk about, because they don’t want to seem like they’re fishing for sympathy or attention, because QWC pulls a certain population w/in the queer community and a lot of girls both out and not feel like they can’t be there. I’m so, so lucky in that my parents never had an issue with my sexuality – at worst, it was a slight discomfort that they knew they had to get over. But I’ve had abusive, homophobic stuff from sig. others of both genders and have lost friends after I came out to them. Coming out is hard. Staying in the closet is hard. For me, it’s been a mix of both, in different situations, with different people, and at different times of my life. And man, I hear you on the guilt and anxiety – I’m out to my dad now, but even now, if I just think about watching the “you have to come out” scene in “Milk” while sitting in a theater next to him (when he didn’t know about me and HE was the one who wanted to go see the movie), my pulse speeds up. The guilt of feeling indebted to someone else to come out and the guilt of feeling indebted to someone else to stay in the closet are heavy, awful feelings. I can tell from the above that you’re intelligent enough to know this, but I’ll say it – you don’t owe it to anyone to come out and you don’t owe it to anyone to stay in the closet: your parents, your brother, any sig. other, your queer friends, your straight friends, the queer community, or God. There’s nothing wrong with never coming out to your family because you know that they would misunderstand what it means about you, or because you’re scared how they’ll react, or for any reason at all. There’s nothing wrong with waiting until you graduate and move out to come out to your parents because that’s a situation you feel you can deal with. There’s nothing wrong with calling your parents right now and coming out to them because being queer and wanting to come out is part of who you are. There are things that will be hard and things that are a relief in any decision you make. You DO have QWC and Unity – for some things. You have your family for some things. You have your friends for some things. You have anonymous other queers on the internet for some things. It might be that there isn’t “a space” that opens up for you, and you have to find different spaces that are helpful or supportive or comfortable in different ways or for different parts of yourself. And look at the comments above: you yourself, in publishing this, are creating that space for some of us.

  10. POV is also a completely neutral space and a great place to start dialogue about issues you feel aren’t being addressed on campus!

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