[from The Alabamian, Vol. 92, No. 10 (March 2018)]
In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much – how little – is within our power
– Emily Dickinson (1873)
As expected, college students experience struggles, whether small or large, in terms of academics and extracurricular activities. For closeted LGBT college students, these everyday struggles stack upon one paralyzing and terrifying challenge: coming out of the closet. Telling the truth of one’s body is mountainous because the individual learns to speak the previously unspoken.
In “The Leaning Tower,” Virginia Woolf writes, “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” While Woolf’s quote addresses how nineteenth-century writing, such as the writing of Dickens and Thackeray, involves diversions from unpleasant truths regarding reality, the statement also applies to the way in which individuals live straight lies.
To be thoroughly honest, one must tell the truth of one’s body and soul, yet, as expected, this feat is easier in word than it is in deed. For the family desiring a perfectly heterosexual child, deviance from heteronormativity or cisnormativity is an unpleasant truth, but, for the sake of the child’s happiness, such a truth must be understood. Closeted, LGBT people hide their innermost selves in fear of how other people will perceive them.
For students, moving away to universities often provides the much needed opportunity through which to explore their sexual desires and experiment with the presentations of their gendered selves. Many students find that liberation begins when one possesses the room to be oneself. A need among students, particularly among LGBT students, is the need to be understood.
In “Preservation of Innocence,” James Baldwin writes, “Experience, nevertheless, to say nothing of history, seems clearly to indicate that it is not possible to banish or to falsify any human need without ourselves undergoing falsification.” Denying oneself the treasure of understanding other human beings results in a falsification of the self and of the other in which nobody finds liberation. Living beneath the shroud of falsified heterosexuality produces tension within the mind of the LGBT person which contributes to both depression and suicide, inflicting harm upon the individual in body and soul.
Compulsory heterosexuality creates unhappy lives, publicly and privately, which explains why LGBT college students find such liberation being away from the sort of home environments where their families consistently restrict their freedom to exist openly as their true selves. Emerging into the world as one’s true self often involves changes in relationships with family and friends. Not all human beings desire happiness for their fellow beings, a simple and sad fact, but it is unjust for them to desire the repression of another person, especially their LGBT family member or friend, at the expense of that LGBT person’s happiness. Whether young or old, from different backgrounds, LGBT people express the importance of coming out, even when one exposes oneself to an unwelcoming world. Happiness begins with radical openness about oneself.
Flattering others and earnestly desiring to appeal to tradition and prejudice both produce a useful mask of pleasantness, although, at some point, the mask begins to grow tiresome. Living in the closet long enough may lead to complacency in secrecy and safety.
On the other hand, claustrophobia in the confined and dark space may spark the revolutionary fire required for escaping the prison of repression. After all, coming out to the world is really coming into oneself, freeing one’s voice to speak one’s truth. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf writes, “Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.”
Suppose that individuals no longer must limit the expression of their true selves to places of privacy and obscurity. Sometimes women do like women just as sometimes men do like men, but imagine if those people could live as themselves, existing visibly in a world which prefers trueness over falseness. For perhaps the first time, silence transforms into language which, with growing courage, leads to action. When all men and women learn to love and embrace themselves and other people, they will be free to live and love as they please, drinking in the fullness of their relationships with all of humankind.