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THE WELL

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  • Anushri Saxena

Back Into the Closet

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

For many people, college is a time to start afresh— an opportunity to reinvent yourself or explore a different side of who you are. I’ve spent my whole life in the same city, graduating high school alongside friends I had known since kindergarten. But going to a university in a different state meant that I would know virtually no one. The possibilities were endless— I could shorten my name! Do musical theater! Go out every night! And while most of these ideas remained fantasies, I did grasp on to one opportunity in particular— the chance to be openly queer for the first time in my life.


My hometown was not necessarily intolerant, but being a member of the LGBTQ+ community was still complicated and stigmatized. Many of the privileges afforded by being on a college campus were nonexistent at home. There was no Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at my high school. LGBTQ+ teachers were often quieter about their personal lives— a sharp contrast from the faculty members I met in college who proudly professed their queerness. Perhaps most significantly, there were fewer openly LGBTQ+ students.


When I came to college and found myself surrounded by strangers, I finally felt that I was the only person in charge of my identity. I had a strong desire to be the most authentic version of myself. Before college, I took months or years to open up to people. But on campus, it seemed natural to announce my queerness to my peers not too long after meeting them. I wasn’t alone in this feeling; in a foreign environment where we were anxious to make friends, I found that people were refreshingly vulnerable. We were quick to share things that might have been secrets in different circumstances— embarrassing stories, relationship drama, guilty pleasures, and personal quirks.


The consequence of being openly queer in college was the discordance I felt when I returned home. While I was freely exploring my queer identity at school, lawmakers in my home state proposed more than 30 anti-LGBTQ+ bills— something I had to reckon with when I left the college bubble. At university, I attended our school-sponsored National Coming Out Day event and put Pride stickers and pins on my belongings. At home, I was tight-lipped when anything LGBTQ+ was brought up outside of the limited circle I was out to, keeping my commentary impersonal. I felt like I was regressing into a less authentic version of myself, letting my identity be dictated by how others might react. The disconnect I felt between my identities at college and at home was why I decided to come out to my parents shortly after finishing my first year.


Until that moment, I never realized that my queer identity had any bearing on my mental wellness. After telling my parents— something that was long overdue and unexpectedly emotional— I realized the toll of concealing a part of yourself for so many years. I was lucky enough to be in an environment where I knew that I would be met with love and acceptance, but this is unfortunately not the case for many LGBTQ+ students. According to one study from May 2022, 72% of LGBTQ+ people felt a sense of belonging at college, whereas in another 2022 report, only 37% of LGBTQ+ youth identified their home as an LGBTQ-affirming space. Furthermore, LGBTQ+ individuals are four times more likely than their cishet peers to select a college in a different city or state to find acceptance. In short, college campuses may serve as safe havens for queer students who find acceptance to be unattainable at home.


However, college is not the end-all solution for the mental wellness of queer students. 1 in 4 LGBTQ+ college students consider dropping out because of mental health challenges. While there are undoubtedly a number of factors that contribute to these challenges, it is well-documented that having to hold on to secrets can increase anxiety and depression. Thus, the effect of LGBTQ+ students having to reenter the closet is definitely worth exploring.


As for me, returning home from college and feeling somewhat out of place was challenging, but ultimately rewarding, because it was the impetus for me to come out to my parents. This felt like a major step toward embodying my most authentic self, and was only possible because of my parents’ support. Indeed, allyship breeds authenticity— not just for members of the LGBTQ+ community, but for all aspects of identity. For those who have to deal with a non-affirming environment in any capacity, being the one caring person who accepts them unconditionally can make all the difference.



 


Anushri is a sophomore at Duke University studying Neuroscience and Public Policy. She is interested in mental wellness, disability inclusion, and health equity. Outside her academic pursuits, Anushri plays trumpet in the Duke Wind Symphony and enjoys baking, watching movies, and spending time with her friends.







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