‘I’m finally living and being myself’: LGBT+ students on life after coming out
No two coming out stories are the same
About half an hour before the clock struck midnight on December 31st 2019, Birmingham student Jenny came out as trans on social media. It was not the first time she had come out in her life however, as she had already come out as gay boy years before. Jenny had told a few friends and her mum she was trans, but the midnight post was important. “I wanted to go into the new decade as a new person I guess,” she says.
No two coming out stories are the same. Speaking to LGBT+ students hailing from many different universities and identifying in just as many different ways proved as much. The process of telling people who you really are is not a black and white one: of the dozens of young people I spoke to, some were classicly out and proud, some were out to their friends but not their family, others would only tell those who ask. Many of those I spoke to asked to be anonymous, even those who labelled themselves publicly out and comfortable with themselves. The students did all have one thing in common, though: they had all made the important first step of telling someone. But how does life take shape beyond that moment?
Gareth* plays rugby at Exeter and identifies as pansexual, a fact his team are fully aware of. Given its history of racism scandals, I’m surprised when he tells me he’s not had any issues dealing with bigotry. “There have been some banterous comments made but that’s the nature of rugby and it doesn’t bother me,” he says.
Jess, too, is a rugby player at Exeter, a co-captain in fact. She had been out to her friends as a lesbian for the last five years, and “formally” to her family for the last three. “When I came out to my mum, she went ‘tell me something I don’t know already’,” she says, but adds coming out was “a massive relief.”
“I was very lucky my family basically already knew and could tell. It made me feel like I wasn’t constantly lying to them. I struggled to come out, as I didn’t want to be the ‘typical’ rugby girl that I was worried to be viewed as. I fully embrace that now, even though it was a massive fear of mine.”
Jess eventually found work in a gay bar, where she learned to feel more comfortable with herself. The rugby club has also been a place of acceptance. “There’s such a large mix of girls with all sorts of backgrounds, sexual preferences and identities. It’s truly a place for everyone and I love it.”
Lancaster third-year Christopher tells me being in the closet “really hurt” his mental health and was treated for anxiety. He “started” coming out 16 months ago, and posted more widely in February this year. “Uni life definitely improved,” he says. “I felt like I could focus more on work after the weight lifted, and was able to build closer relationships with course mates and friends in societies.”
Now that he’s about to leave, Christopher says he regrets not having as much time “out” at uni as he’d have liked. He tells me he appreciates that his friends unwittingly took him to a gay club for his 21st before he came out, but is sad the weekend’s Pride event has been cancelled. “I was looking forward to going with uni friends,” he says.
Ellie, now 22, was 19 when her parents found out she was gay. From an early age, Ellie had known she was interested in girls, but pushed it to the back of her mind and dated men until the age of 18. Ellie was also massively into football and when the time came to head off to uni she joined a football team, where she met her girlfriend. Returning home one weekend, Ellie decided it was time her mum and dad knew.
“My parents initially laughed it off as if being gay was a joke,” she says. “They then blamed me joining a women’s football team in Manchester for my being gay, and my dad wanted me to move home. Eventually, they got over this after me continuously telling them it wasn’t a phase. Now they’re okay with it but it’s not mentioned too much.”
Despite this, Ellie’s happier than ever. “I feel as though I’m me now, and I don’t have to hide behind dating boys etc. After my first relationship with a girl, I had bad thoughts about identifying as a lesbian and resented myself for it, but since then I’ve accepted myself and appreciated who I am for being gay and not hiding behind a mask.”
Coming out midway through uni is undoubtedly hard, arguably coming out in secondary school is even worse. But for those who did, going to uni felt like a fresh start of sorts. Liverpool third-year Charlie tells me he’s glad he dealt with post-coming-out anxiety in sixth form: “I know people who came out during uni. Straddling that alongside forging entirely new friendships and worrying about what people think in a new environment has been particularly hard on them,” he says. “I feel like I dealt with all those identity issues in school and now when I mention my boyfriend for the first time to someone at uni it’s just like saying what I had for tea last night.”
Patrick, from Manchester, came out as gay when he was 17. He tells me he “hasn’t had any issues” at uni, but admits Freshers’ Week necessitated having repeated conversations about his sexuality. “It was pretty weird to be fair, cause I sort of had to go through it all again,” he says. “I’m not the most obviously gay person so I had to kinda go out of my way to tell people, which is difficult when you’re in a room with a bunch of people you’ve just met.”
Birmingham student Aled came out as gay before his GCSEs. “I think it’s was hard to start with especially going to a private school I think there was still quite a stigma around sexuality and not many people spoke out about it,” he tells me. “But then as soon as I got to uni it was completely different because no one really ‘cares’ as such, not in a nasty way but in a way that’s like everyone’s living their own best life kinda thing so don’t mind other people being whoever they want to be.”
Lucy, also from Birmingham, describes herself as “a big ol’ lesbian.” She says being out by the time she got to uni was “refreshing”. She tells me: “Coming out felt like a lot less of a thing this time, which is good because being a while new group of people I was nervous about essentially coming out all over again but it was a lot easier.” On the whole she says the experience has been positive, the odd moment of casual homophobia aside.
“People were actually willing to change. I called people out on it and organised an event for my society about being a good ally and people really engaged,” she says. “I’ve heard a lot less homophobia since. Overall I’ve been really comfortable being exactly who I am and unapologetic about it. It’s been great to see people around me supporting that and being willing to educate themselves. And it’s been super cool to meet lots of people right across the LGBTQ+ spectrum and just see the community being celebrated.”
Natalie came out just as bisexual not long after starting at Aberdeen Uni, despite believing she was in gay while in secondary school. “Everything I heard about bisexuality at school was negative,” she says. “Things about bi people being promiscuous or attention-seeking, and I didn’t want to be associated with that. When I came to uni, I learned what it actually meant to be bisexual. Being out and being who I am makes me a much happier person, so I just try to focus on that. It helps that my mum is the most supportive parent I could ask for, I don’t have to ever be ashamed of who I am with my family.”
Lincoln student Rhys tells me being out at uni has been “amazing” and is flattered by people asking for advice on nights out. He says: “Of course it’s had its ups and downs, but on the whole, I’ve finally been able to start living and being my full authentic self. It really helped me to accept my more feminine traits too. The best thing is that I was told that me being out helped one boy really be okay with being out at uni and if I weren’t out he doesn’t think he would be and that makes me so happy; to hear that by me being myself I can help others too.”
David, another Birmingham student, made a YouTube video to mark his coming out. “I think the message during this time especially is really important,” he says. “I’ve read stories of people’s families not accepting them during lockdown. I just feel like you shouldn’t have to come out. I don’t why we put so much pressure on coming out, straight people never have to come out.”
If you are struggling with your sexuality and want to speak to someone, a comprehensive list of UK LGBT+ helplines and websites can be found here.
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*Some names have been changed