Coming Out at Uni

For many, going to university affords a chance to figure out their sexuality and come out of the closet.

Feature by Jo Fargas | 13 Sep 2006

Now that we're living in the socially and sexually liberated 21st Century, coming out at university or college might seem like a strangely archaic construct. It was something that young people used to do when they left their local village for the big city, pausing to think how lucky they were not to have to work up the chimneys or down the mines. These days, everyone has a gay in their village, washed out eighties pop-stars are re-inventing themselves through their sexuality, and your granny's favourite soap opera has an overwhelmingly sympathetic transsexual character. All very well, but for a lot of students, be they young, old or somewhere in the middle, further education offers an opportunity to develop their sexual identity and begin or continue communicating this identity with the rest of the world.

Sharon, who was at university in Glasgow and Edinburgh during the nineties, explains how the crush she had on a girl she hung out with led her to retrospective realisations: "I wasn't even out to myself before uni. I'd had this friend in high school and she was often off school and I used to stand in the playground and look for her coming in; if she came in it was a good day, and if not I felt crap. And I'd had nowhere to put feelings like that up until I realised I was queer."

Dave, studying at Strathclyde, found his new university friends reacted initially with disbelief and then indifference when he came out: "They didn't believe me at first, because I'm not 'gay-acting' and thought I was winding them up. When I'd convinced them, most people were like 'So what?' It wasn't a big deal."

Things can be more complicated if you're associated with the pinnacle of 'non-gay-acting' behaviour - having a partner of the opposite sex. John, who came out in the third year of his law degree, recounts: "I had taken a year out and had initially only come out to new people in that year of my course. It was easier than telling people in my original year as a lot of them had seen me in a couple with a girlfriend."

Both Dave and John managed to convince their initially sceptical friends when they came out. Sharon, however, also had to contend with her own preconceptions: "I was coming out as bisexual and I had this kind of notion that bisexuals were really sexually confident and I so wasn't. So that was weird. And I was still coming to terms with my sexuality and everyone else was going out partying, and I found it all a bit intimidating so I went back into the closet for three years. Which I really regret now."

The joys of socialising on the all-singing, all-dancing gay scene can be encouraging or intimidating and if you think that you're leaving the judgemental attitudes of your past behind, think again. John describes his flatmate at the time: "He was very much a one-man gay guy, the fact that I was a little promiscuous attracted his contempt." Parents also won't necessarily react like your average soap opera mom and dad: "My parents' reaction was basically like 'do we need to know about this?' I realised that they weren't that interested in my life. They weren't like the parents in the self-help books who are shocked initially but really want the best for you. They just didn't want to have a conversation of that level of intimacy with me."

How you choose to tell friends and family will differ depending on them and you. Having outed himself during an appearance on The Weakest Link - "I thought my mum would take it better from Anne Robinson than from me" - John suggests a more subtle approach: "Start by telling someone you don't think will mind and that you know you can trust. Once that's done, it bolsters your confidence and also reinforces that it's the right thing to do and there's no way back. It's not the easiest thing in the world, but chances are they may have guessed or suspect already. If they don't, it doesn't matter - they won't stop liking you. And if they do judge you on your sexuality, is that really the kind of friend you want?"

Some final words from Dave: "I had gone through the first half of first year without telling anyone and the frustration, depression and longing - to name but a few emotions - were killing me. Once I told folk, the weight that was lifted was unbelievable. I've made more friends since I came out because I can be myself."