I’m out at university, but at home I’m in the closet

‘At uni, I can dress without judgement’

Filip* is gay, but only a few of his mates at uni know. Since lockdown began, he’s been at home in Poland with his family, sneaking out to hook up with guys when he can. “You have this feeling in the back of your head that you will see someone who knows you and can out you, so it’s more discreet,” he tells me. At uni, Filip goes to drag shows, feels at ease wearing earrings, and openly dates guys. At home, he has to contend with an openly homophobic president and isn’t sure how his parents might react to him coming out. “They are educated so they are not as stupid as the president,” he says. “But it’s hard to tell.”

Filip’s situation is not a unique one. Although he tells me he isn’t “running around with a rainbow flag or anything,” being back in Poland is like being back in the closet. Coming out to your mates often precludes coming out to your family, but what happens when you’re midway through the process of coming out and lockdown forces you back with a family you aren’t ready to tell yet?

Sarah*, who identifies as bisexual, is out to a few of her home mates, but has yet to tell her family. Some of her friends have known since she was 14, but since coming to uni Sarah has been open to more people, including her boyfriend, who she met in January. Though she hates to admit it, being in a hetero relationship has delayed her coming out to her parents. “I think it’s more hassle than it’s worth unfortunately because I’m in a long term opposite gender relationship so it’s not really ‘relevant’,” she says.

Despite this, it still weighs heavily on her mind. “When I’m at uni I feel a lot more comfortable to just live honestly rather than at home,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m keeping a secret at uni and I know if it was ever to come up as a topic with my uni friends or flatmates I wouldn’t be worried about their reactions. Whereas, at home, I feel as though I’m hiding something and I can’t give too much away for fear that my family would treat me differently.”

Joseph* identifies as pansexual and tells me life “hasn’t always been easy.” Reception from his family has been mixed: his mum’s side, he explains, knows he’s “some kind of queer,” but his dad’s side doesn’t know anything. “I guess my dad’s side is a bit more traditional, he’s not a bigot by any means but I wouldn’t call him a progressive. It’s really more to avoid the energy it would probably take, and at the end of the day, I figure none of my family has any real need to know who I’m attracted to unless I end up dating someone they weren’t expecting.”

And what if Joseph were to bring a guy home? “If it got serious, I always figured I’d just tell them: ‘I’m dating someone, his name is…’ and see what happens. If they reacted badly, it wouldn’t be easy but I don’t think I’d be able to be around them much after that.”

Omar* is living in Morocco with his family, and tells me at uni he’s out “to quite large circles,” but not those he knows from home. He says he’s not the only one in his position, and an account of experiences written in Arabic is set for publication in July. Omar says he’s been out to friends in the UK for three years. “When I came to uni I decided to be quite open about it if there was every reason for it to come up.”

After coming to terms with his sexuality towards the end of his undergraduate degree, Omar changed unis to start a master’s and has enjoyed being more open about his sexuality. “I definitely felt more comfortable around myself and others as I removed that fear of people knowing,” he says. “And now I’m sharing it with people who I feel are not really operating in the same network where I could receive flack for it and I’ve just been overall more self-confident.”

While a lot of the people I spoke to eventually want to come out to their family, David* tells me he lives independently and gets by on his own money. “I do have a dad and a home to go back to and we have a good relationship but there are other aspects to it, so I essentially never really go home for more than like a week or two max.” So why the hesitation? “I’ve never seen any point unless I have a partner to introduce my dad to.”

That reluctance to come out to his family could be explained by the attitudes of his mates. Even though some of them know about his sexuality, he says: “I still have a really difficult time saying I’m gay.” David explains he’s been hesitant to come out to more than a few of his friends even at uni because of homophobia he’s seen from them. “Some friends have said like pretty blatantly homophobic stuff but then also during other moments, they’ve said they have nothing against gay people. It’s difficult to say what their reaction would be. The thing that irritates me is when my friends who know about me don’t call others out when they say stuff that’s homophobic feels kind of like a letdown.”

With unis returns looking increasingly bleak and remote, what are the plans for these students going forward? Filip hopes, when he graduates, to get a job somewhere in Europe, somewhere more open. “I miss being free, going clubbing or even dating and hookups,” he says. Most of the others are heading back to uni and will face their decisions in their own time. Omar says: “My life could have been much worse, and I have grown to know a lot more LGBT+ Arabs. I’m pretty sure I’m in a formidable position despite the challenges. I’m feeling positive about the future and also about my ability to advocate and support others who may be in much worse positions because of their sexuality.”

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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*Names have been changed. Featured image by Maxwell Nelson on Unsplash