You know what's kind of funny about sexuality? It's surprisingly tough to talk about. Sex, that's easy (although certainly you could argue that, well, why talk about it…) Actions are simple and straightforward like that.
But sexuality isn't just about what you do; it's about who you are. An infinitely trickier topic.
It would be a challenge, even in some kind of super safe, isolated chamber filled only with supportive loved ones, for a girl to come out. Female homosexuality is a topic around which our culture still gets awfully skittish. Sure, we've embraced gay guys, at least on a superficial level (they can be your best friends! Or pretend to be straight and promiscuous! OMG loves it!) if not a meaningful one. When presented with gay girls, though, it's like our brains go on lockdown. Is she just saying she's a lesbian because guys think it's hot? Going through an undergrad "experimental" phase, like our parents did with acid? She doesn't look like a lesbian-as if, like for preppies, there is actually a guide for that. And so on.
There's no pretending that we can all, say, watch the Ellen show every day until forever and all the stigma and stereotypes will vanish. But by talking to individual girls about their lives, by getting down to what is true for three students at three different schools, we can try to reveal more than our own preconceived notions about what it means to be a girl and be gay. We can see something real, in the words of the college women who have learned – and are still learning from – experience.
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Elena*, University of Pennsylvania
"I sort of came out when I was in my junior year of high school. I went to an all girls private school in the Upper East Side, in Manhattan. My religion had deterred me from coming out earlier. I never wanted to come out to my parents; we aren't that close. My dad is super liberal, but my mom is more religious. They found out because, well, my parents kind of went through my stuff, and I'll end it there…I don't want to push that with them."
They're in the denial phase right now. I never actually told my [14-year-old] brother that I was gay, but for about two years that I was gay he would always say stuff like, "You're such a lesbian." And he didn't even realize it.
It's usually the case [that it's easier for guys than girls to be out]. Straight girls… thought it was cool to have gay guy friends but not lesbian friends. But it's like, what's the difference?
Before college, I really tried to play it off, like I was the straight girl with all the boyfriends. So I think when I came out, some people were surprised.
The LGBT community was kind of a factor when I looked at schools. I was also looking at women's colleges, like Smith. Penn was ranked #1 gay friendly school by The Advocate [a national gay and lesbian news magazine]. It's a really good gay scene for guys but there are, like, five lesbians here.
It takes longer for girls to realize [their sexuality]. A lot of lesbians I know didn't come out until college. It may be a social acceptance thing. I think, from a young age, I thought, "I'm going to get married to a guy we're going to have kids, the nuclear family." It didn't just occur to me, not to want that, and girls have the image, too.
No one really expected it. And it was kind of funny hearing people's reactions. I'd never dealt with guys before, because I went to an all girls school. Here [at Penn] it was just like "What, are you sure? You're just going through a phase." Or that it means I'll have a threesome with them. I find that to be really entertaining.
I remember people being difficult, well, maybe a little during sorority rush. One house I went to, I said I was in QSA (Queer-Straight Alliance). One girl was like, "oh," and I got cut from that house. I think I chose my sorority because I knew there had been lesbians in the past in that house. One girl in particular, who is now a senior, I saw her at a gay club in Center City during rush. It's really cool to see a girl that's equally as fem as me, that balances those two worlds really well-gay and sorority. It was so inspiring for me.
For my sorority, I was really apprehensive about bringing a girlfriend to a formal or a date party, and we had a "my tie" party. It was during big-little week, so our big sisters had to find us a date. It was our first party with our new pledge class during my freshman year. I was worried because I had no idea who my big was; we were supposed to find out that night. I was nervous, like, "I'm going to get some guy, this is going to be an awkward night." So I see a bow tie on my bed, "This is my date's bow tie, great." I threw back a couple of shots – I just needed to get rid of the anxiety. We get to the party, I've got my bow tie around my neck, waiting for my date to show up, and my girlfriend comes and finds me! She doesn't go here, but my big contacted her and found her on Facebook and so she somehow got her here. My girlfriend drove an hour to be here. It was the sweetest thing ever, everyone was just coming up to us, like this was the cutest thing.
I was surprised, because I didn't know how I was going to incorporate myself into the sorority. Right now, I'm the only gay in my chapter, and right now I'm also the social chair, planning the mixers with all the fraternities. People don't see me as lesbian. They just see me as another sister.
I do have to deal with a stereotype of what a lesbian is "supposed" to look like. I didn't really have any lesbian friends at Penn; they were all at Temple. They all had short hair, tattoos everywhere, wore guys' clothes, and picked on me a little for being girly, so I pierced my septum and eyebrow. But I knew at heart I was a really girly girl, and it took one person to tell me that I looked better before – I'd cut my hair short, too – for me to stop doing all that. It was a phase I went through. Now that I'm out of it, I realize who I am. I'm comfortable with myself.
My advice, well, the first thing would be to be yourself, because the worst thing is to try and smooth things over by having an image. I was out, and then I had to deal with the image thing. I think if you are very comfortable in yourself, it'll be easier for you to tell other people. You'd be surprised how many people will love you more for being yourself than for hiding it.
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Megan*, Smith College
I came out during my freshman year of high school and was lucky to have a lot of support from my parents and friends. I was made fun of a lot in middle school, and where I went to school the worst insult was to call someone gay. I was fourteen when I went to boarding school, and in an environment that was more accepting I think I just wasn't afraid to wonder about my sexual orientation anymore.
I had a terrible crush on this girl, and I realized I actually had feelings for her that were more than just admiration or friendship. From there I think it was just a relief to admit it, and to realize on some level I had been trying to avoid it for a long time. Talking to my friends about it was like a breath of fresh air, and after coming out to my parents it really felt like a weight had been lifted from me.
I think the hardest part of coming out for me was actually when I came out to my best friend. I was at boarding school, and she was still living at home, so I called her and while I wasn't entirely surprised by her reaction, it was obviously incredibly hurtful. She's a very conservative person; she's also a Baptist who cares a lot about her faith, and when I told her I was gay she read Bible verses to me in the hope that it would make me realize the error of my ways. I don't want to make her sound like a bad person, she just has a different way of thinking than I do.
I was really depressed for a long time after that, but eventually I guess I realized that I couldn't let her interpretation of what is "right" or "wrong" define me, and because I had incredibly supportive friends and family that was possible.
There's always a double standard between girls and guys. I usually think it's harder for guys to come out to their friends than girls. However, I think there's a more socially acceptable role for gay men in society than gay women. We have lots of stereotypes for the "metrosexual" or the gay male best friend, but there are very few roles where gay women are visible and accepted in our culture. Almost every sitcom or mainstream TV show has the stereotypical gay male character, but outside of The L Word and The Ellen Show there are hardly any positive lesbian role models. It's interesting to think about how the discrepancy between gay men and women in the media is representative of differences within our society.
My advice for girls and women who are coming out would be to do so at your own pace, and that while it's great when your friends and family are supportive, not everyone will be. To come out, you have to be prepared for people to react negatively, so until you're prepared for that you should probably wait to tell people. While it may be hard at first, the vast majority of people will accept you. It's impossible to live your life if you're always afraid of how people might judge you, so don't let other people's prejudice define who you are.
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Jenny*, Stanford University
I feel like as a queer person you come out multiple times. I came out to myself when I was in seventh grade. I just noticed that I was having weird feelings around girls and I couldn't quite explain them. A lot of my friends had crushes on boys. I'm transitioning right now; I'm starting to come out as a lesbian. I came out as bi a few years ago.
I started to question my sexuality in middle school, but it wasn't until I learned more about what it was to be LGBT and saw LGBT people that I got it. I didn't even know what LGBT was until I saw Will & Grace. I'm Chinese-American, and having parents who are immigrants, you don't get exposed to that stuff. Gay identity is a very Western idea.
The experience for queer women of color is very unique. If you're a queer person of color, there is racism within the LGBT community, too, and often the coming out process can be different for ethnic minorities. I think for people of color, it's easier to come out if you're talking to other people like you. Talking to other queer and Asian people is helpful for me, because they share my experience. And coming out to parents who are immigrants is very different from coming out to Americans. Coming out for African-Americans is very difficult, because homophobia in the black community is its own issue. There are definitely a lot of LGBT people of faith, though, and that's something that's often forgotten.
Sometime in high school it just clicked with me. In sophomore year of high school, I had a crush on a girl. I didn't know what to do with myself. My best friend was gay, but I couldn't tell him.
There's a lot of stigma with being bisexual: that it's just one step away from being a lesbian, that you can't make up your mind, that you're sensationalizing bisexuality and it's only for men's benefit – those are the kinds of things that get said about bis.
Towards the end of high school, I started coming out to my close friends and my sister. The first time I was out in a public way was during admit weekend in Stanford. I just thought, "These are new people, I can start completely over, and anyone who doesn't like it just won't like it."
Stanford is an amazing place to be gay. I feel like it's not something that hurts me. To be queer at Stanford is not a bad thing. If anything, it's allowed me to meet more people, and bridge more communities. I feel really embraced as a queer person here. When I came to visit Stanford, I saw that the LGBT life at Stanford is very vibrant, and it's a very lively community. Stanford is really the only place where I felt completely comfortable being out.
As for after college, I'll be honest: a lot of LGBT alum at Stanford end up in big cities. Many people who are LGBT go somewhere that they know will be LGBT-friendly; San Francisco, New York, where they know that there will be other gay people so they have that community. Whether that's finding a job that protects LGBT employees, or a state that has legislation that protects LGBT people from being fired for being gay or legislates against hate crimes, they seek out those places.
The first year and a half when I went back home and saw old friends, I came out to them and they were generally very accepting. By this time all my good friends from high school knew I was queer. However the vast majority of people from my high school probably still don't know, and visiting family is also difficult.
I didn't share very much with them. And to make things more complicated, I entered a relationship with a boy my freshman and sophomore years for about a year, and that kept my parents from knowing I was gay.
I haven't had a relationship with a boy since then. I've dated girls almost exclusively in the past two and a half years. I was really happy and I felt like the relationship was meaningful with the guy I was dating, but something still felt funny, I couldn't quite pinpoint what it was. I had all sorts of issues in the relationship. It didn't feel right. I felt not balanced. Sometimes it feels like, when you're in a heterosexual relationship, the guy has to be guy and the girl has to be girl. I wanted something that felt more equal.
Queer women in general are very underrepresented in pop culture. The one thing I'd say is different for men and women when they come out is that women are allowed to be more open about questioning. Women are allowed to say "I'm experimenting."
This is something I'm still working on, because I came out to my parents last year and I've been trying to deal with that. I came out to them as bi and now that I'm coming out to myself as a lesbian… I'm still questioning if I'm a lesbian; I don't want to come out to them again.
The advice I'd give to someone coming out is to be comfortable with ambiguity. When you come out, you want to quickly put yourself in a box, and it's okay to be not sure. Be okay with ambiguity with other people, too. Not everyone has everything figured out. I know lesbians who were lesbians their whole lives, and in college they meet a guy who's amazing and they date that guy. They identify themselves as lesbian but they're in a relationship with a man, and I think that's okay. It's totally okay. I would also recommend making friends in the LGBT community who are going to be open-minded with you, because they've gone through it themselves.
*names have been changed
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If you want to come out, help be a supportive friend for someone who does, or just want to learn more about bi- and homosexuality, there are plenty of resources available to you. In addition to seeking out the LGBT on your campus, you can check out the Gay Student Center link: http://gaystudentcenter.student.com/ where there are peer advisors, blogs and advice. Campus Pride has an LGBT-friendly campus index so you can find out where your school (or schools you're thinking of attending) ranks. To get informed about gay issues in politics, business and entertainment, look at The Advocate link.
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