The reality of going back to being closeted in the summer after being out at college hit me hard as my mother helped me move out of my room. Posters, books, bags, magazines, everything that made me the average out-and-proud UCLA queer teen had to be removed before her arrival. It was a routine I was all too familiar with. But this time, I made a mistake and forgot the pride flag stuck on the back of my lamp, which I thought was hidden from my mom’s prying eye. After all, who would look behind a lamp?
Unfortunately, she did. The wave of closeted-teen panic which I had not felt in so long kicked in as I futilely attempted to rip the damn sticker off. But it was too late, and she had seen it.
The silence that ensued was deafening. “Good,” was all she said. I swallowed hard and tried to move on, but it stung me. I couldn’t help but feel like the pride sticker was me, clinging to my accepting college while being forcibly ripped off.
As we continued to pack, all I thought about was the impending months in the “home” that I had bitterly denounced ever since arriving at UCLA. I thought of the straight filter I would have to put on whenever I spoke. I thought of being surrounded only by straight people and other closeted LGBTQ+ people. I thought and reflected a lot, as one must, on living in a society that confines so much of me.
A lot of people talk about the freedom of coming out of the closet, but they rarely talk about the strange in-between limbo and how you can cope with it. The duality of living as an out college student and closeted child remains a pressing issue in my life, but I rarely see my experience reflected in conversations within the queer community.
I took an LGBTQ+ literature class last quarter (one that my family gave me hell for) and learned a lot about this feeling. My professor described it as being “shell-shocked.” This can be experienced as one transitions from an all-accepting environment to one where heterosexuality and its expectations are enforced. Even for people who have been conditioned to this heteronormative environment from a young age, relearning the cautionary rules of survival can still be painful.
The first few days reuniting with my family were bearable, but with every “love you” that fell from their lips, I felt worse. I felt like they were loving an image or a ghost that I had broken free and then disassociated from within just a few short months at college.
Feeling confused, I reached out to some other queer people going through the same situation of being only half out.
Opal, a second-year UCLA student from California who goes by they/them pronouns, says that “sometimes I feel like I’m living a double life, where I’m hiding a whole side of myself,” which can be very difficult when you want to get closer to your family but fear their rejection. The emotional pain of facing hate from those who should love you wholeheartedly may not only hurt in the moment, but is something that one can carry with them throughout their entire life.
Opal says that it can even go beyond queerness and sexuality and affect self-expression: “I do not wear the same the same type of clothes due to their judgement or act the same way. I feel like when I discuss important topics with my parents, they’re not able to know where I’m coming from because I can’t talk about the life experiences I’ve had that align with my queer identity.”
I completely relate to Opal in this instance, as whenever I express anger towards my country and its culture, my parents don’t seem to understand what exactly I am angry about. Not being able to express the reason for my constant anger may make me seem unreasonable and even confused. But in reality, I have never seen the world more clearly since I went off to college.
I still have times when my anger and hopelessness get the best of me. However, I have found some ways to help me cope and find peace within the chaos.
Opal suggests going to libraries or going online to find queer fiction. “I’ve noticed that reading queer young adult fiction especially has been very helpful for me, because I can relate to the characters’ experiences and it makes me feel less alone in a place where I don’t have real life support,” they say.
A friend of mine named Tatiana, a second-year student studying in Canada from Indonesia who goes by she/her pronouns, advises using art to cope. “Making art has always been confessional in how revealing it is,” she explains. This idea could be extended to a variety of pastimes you enjoy. Whether it’s listening to music, watching TV, reading, or writing, keeping busy can be very helpful. However, it is important to not merely ignore the problem through distractions, which is why I recommend getting outside help.
I prepared for the summer (knowing that I always have anxiety) by simply talking to family members back home. I started getting regular visits to the CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services) center here in UCLA, which is an excellent resource for those struggling with mental illnesses or those who just need to see a therapist.
My therapist recommended I stay in contact with friends and family who support me, whether it’s through Skype, texts, or any other form of communication. Opal has also recommended this, saying that they regularly Skype their friends who kept them grounded and reminded them of who they are.
As much as I advocate coming out and staying close to someone from your hometown, the aspect of safety cannot be ignored. Safety is a big issue for those in the closet in especially bigoted communities. The queer community lauds coming out, but many of us understand that the process and experience of coming out differs from person to person. Some may be in a violent environment or still financially dependent on their parents. No matter the reasons, there is no shame in staying in the closet if it ensures that one is safe.
Some of my own tips include carefully hiding all of the “gay” objects you might have, including books, bags, posters, and the like. I try not to argue with those who condemn LGBTQ+ people, to prioritize my health and safety. I suggest standing standing your ground in a way that is both safe and effective. Lastly, do something therapeutic that calms you down. Listen to some music, watch some TV, read, write, and busy yourself.
Though increasingly accepted around the world, being LGBTQ+ exposes one firsthand to the fact that progress is not equal, and progress can often regress. LGBTQ+ people must continue to fight to be their authentic selves, and that isn’t always easy. Yet despite these hardships, queer people have always persevered in our own ways. We must remember not to drown in self-loathing and to have pride. Be proud. Be gentle, be patient, be loving. And most importantly, stay safe.