When you’re queer, there is no guidebook for coming out.
In a mainstream where the LGBT—lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender—community is in the margins, there are too few role models for young queer people. Hearing the stories of those who struggled before can make all the difference, so we’re embarking on a weekly series detailing coming out stories from folks of various queer identities. This week, men share their experiences as coming out gay.
Hagrid Jacobs, a junior studying computer science, is a self-described nontraditional student. He recently returned to school after twenty years off. Jacobs, who is 38, first came out to his mother when he was 17. “She was pretty understanding about it,” he said.
A few years later, when Jacobs told his father, his dad told him he already knew.
“Here I was floored. I thought I had this deep, dark dirty secret, and was worried someone was going to figure it out, and he’s known all along,” he said”
When Jacobs was a freshman at Kansas State University in the early 90s, he came out to his town on accident. Because his hometown of Manhattan didn’t have any pride marches, Jacobs drove 90-miles to attend a gay pride march in the neighboring city of Lawrence. “There I was quite visibly holding a sign. I think that was the year I held up the ‘that’s Mr. Faggot to you’ sign. And they put it on the front page of the paper. So I came out at my school pretty big time at that point.”
“My initial coming out was fairly easy,” said Jacobs. “That was twenty years ago, you know, and I never really had any particular negative reactions from my closest friends and family. Over time, there are fewer and fewer people in my life who don’t know, and it gets to the point where any new people coming into my life do know, so it ceases to be an issue. Coming out really starts becoming a non-issue over time.”
Josh Foley is a first year student and also identifies as gay. He graduated high school just last year.
“I came out in a very strategic manner,” Foley said. “I kind of had a list. I didn’t write it down, but I had a list in my head and I was going to come out to my family, then my five closet friends, then everyone.”
He began coming out during while he was a Junior in High School.
“It was really scary,” Foley said. “My family took it really well. My sister thought that it was really cool, but we didn’t talk about it for a really long time because I was awkward about it, not because she was. I came out to my other sister on Thanksgiving, and she started crying and said, ‘I don’t want you to like boys, boys are assholes.’”
Foley is part of a generation with more access to the internet as a resource for coming out. After he told his family and some of his close friends, he came out to his classmates on MySpace the summer before his senior year. He did so by listing his sexual orientation as gay.
“Everyone was getting MySpace, so everyone would see it. It was kind of a nice way to come out so I didn’t have to go to each person and go, ‘I’m gay!’”
Foley is from Colfax, a small town near Pullman, Washington. Because he attended such a small high school where no students were out, he wasn’t sure how classmates would respond.
“I was pretty sure that people were going to take it horribly, especially because I was coming into my senior year and I’d just been elected as the vice president of the ASB. I was like the head of the school and I was the first person ever to come out, which was really, really scary.”
After Foley came out over the summer, his principal pulled him aside shortly before senior year began and asked Foley to consider how coming out would affect the school.
“I was feeling really confident, and he made me feel like, ‘Oh crap, I’m going to destroy everything I touch now.’ He shouldn’t have been able to say that, it really hurt. I was already out, so it was like, oh great, I made a big mistake.”
“It turned out not to be a mistake. It was probably the greatest thing I’d ever done in my life. It made me feel really great about myself and the world around me.”
As a first year student, Foley finds Western students a lot more open about sexual orientation.
“People are a lot more open minded here,” he said. “I’m not the gay kid, which really annoyed me in high school. That’s not what I was.”
Western is the place where many students first feel comfortable coming out as queer. LGBTA Assistant Coordinator Kyle Fowler says college is the first place many students feel like they can be themselves.
“Students are a lot more free,” he said. “They’re away from their parents, they’re away from a lot of their old ties, school and family and friends. It’s like rediscovering yourself or creating a new image of yourself. All these people don’t know you, your new roommate, your new friends. All these people don’t know you from before.”
The LGBTA office, located in VU 515, is one resource available students seeking support and information, and the staff can connect students to other resources on campus and in the community.
The LGBTA library contains many coming out stories. Fowler found encouragement in reading others’ stories, and that helped him through his own process of coming out.
“They can also be very powerful because it’s something more tangible, something that plucks at your heartstrings,” he said. “It’s an actual story of what they went through, so it has much more power to it.”
Being a gay man is just one of almost unlimited queer identities. “To a large part, I feel like in some aspects we get it easy,” Fowler said on being gay. “Being gay and lesbian is something a lot more visible than really understanding what it means to be bisexual or what queer means or being transgendered. That’s definitely not something in the mainstream. You don’t have TV shows, you don’t have the news. You never hear about it, so there’s a lot of ignorance, so it’s not something that is as accepted or something that you hear daily.”
No matter what queer identity a person may be, Fowler believes it is most important to come out to yourself first.
“I think being ready to say I’m gay, I’m lesbian, I’m bi, I’m trans, I’m queer. Be able to say that to yourself and be comfortable with it,” he said.
“Gain some support,” said Josh Foley as advice to other students. “Make sure that you have some people who do support you as you come out. Try to do it subtly. If you make a big deal out of it, they’re going to make a big deal out of it. Be strong. Confidence is key.”
As the first person to come out at his high school, Foley helped other students be open about their sexual orientations.
“We had I think five other people come out after me,” Foley said. “I felt really proud that I had helped people like that.”
“I genuinely feel that each generation of queers is building on the previous,” said Jacobs. “And that for me is the number one reason why I’m out, and why people should come out, is because every act of coming out make it easier for the next ones coming behind. It makes it easier for the next generation.”