It’s college application season, and last week some stressed out parents of a queer kid wrote in to the New York Times Civil Behavior advice column to ask a question of utmost parental concern: Should a student disclose or conceal her lesbian identity in college application essays?
Our daughter is a senior in high school and quite comfortable with her lesbian identity. We support her 100 percent, but we know the world is not always so tolerant. As she’s writing her college application essays this fall, she’s “coming out” in them — and we think that’s a bad idea. You just never know who’s reading these essays, so why risk revealing your orientation to someone who might be biased against you? We’ve strongly suggested she think over the ramifications of what she’s doing, but she doesn’t seem to have any doubt about it. Deadlines are approaching and we are at an impasse. How can we persuade her to keep some things private if they might hurt her chances of admission?
Here’s what Steven Petrow, author of Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners and Mr. Civil Behavior for the NYT, advised:
Clearly you’ve given your daughter a strong sense of self and the confidence to be who she is, even if the world is not as tolerant as we’d all hope. Sure, one of a parent’s jobs is to worry, but after 17 or so years you can’t be there for every important decision in life. So, please reconsider what message you are sending to her when you ask her to conceal her identity.
It’s worth noting that Civil Behavior is an etiquette column written specifically for the “boomer-age audience” and published every other Tuesday in Booming, a section in the NYT specifically for and about baby boomers — the 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. As Petrow points out in his response, times have changed since the “boomers” were applying for college. But could it be that they actually have a point? While it would be perfect if we could all be out and proud at every juncture of our lives, truthfully that’s not yet always the case. After reading the column the Autostraddle team started talking about this question in our daily email, and it soon became clear that we’d all had very different experiences coming out (not always by choice) in college, at our jobs, and in our daily lives.
I usually end up coming out to people within like thirty seconds of meeting them just by nature of the things that I would say to qualify as “small talk.” And as for jobs and college apps, my resume is basically a page of queer/women/queer women related things, so if I didn’t include those things, I would have no resume. This seems to have been working for me pretty well so far (because usually the things I apply for are more queer/women/queer women related things. Hi, Autostraddle). What makes me most uncomfortable is when the people hiring me or accepting me to their university want me for Diversity and Being Progressive, but only actually support me/other queer people if we do queer the way they want us to. This is a huge issue at Vassar, and other universities, that stress things like need-blind admission and feature students of color and queer people in their admissions materials. They’re still elitist institutions with institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism. They are invested in Diversity because it reflects well on them, but when it comes down to making their campuses safe and inclusive, they aren’t taking the necessary steps.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend most of my life in a very liberal state. For this reason, I’ve always been a fan of the subtle signal. When I’m applying for jobs, I’ll make sure there’s something really obviously queer somewhere in my application, whether it’s an Autostraddle clip in my portfolio or an eye-catching ink splotch on my resume right next to “GSA Member.” If I make it to an interview, I’ll try to refer back to these flags so I can gauge their reaction in person. This way my potential boss knows exactly who they’re bringing in, and I know what kind of work environment to expect.
It’s kind of like dropping “my girlfriend” or “Autostraddle” into a conversation — if you’re in savvy surroundings, people will pick up what you’re putting down and send out their own signals accordingly. And if they’re bad signals you still have time to walk away.
On the other hand, when I applied for my college study abroad program — which happened to involve traveling and living in several countries where same-sex relationships are criminalized — I kept myself pretty deliberately closeted. I didn’t fear direct discrimination from the program directors, but I wanted to avoid being seen as any kind of liability (“Out and proud American student arrested in Uganda!” = bad press). In this case, the experience seemed worth it (and it was!). I can imagine certain jobs, in certain circumstances, seeming the same way.
For a lot of queer people, coming out is a pretty big part of life. Of course there’s your first time, then you come out to your family, or maybe your best friend or those closest to you. But there are also a bunch of other times when you get to decide if you want to come out. Choosing whether or not to come out can have huge effects on your life, your well being and your relationships. For trans women like me, it’s not quite the same. We do usually get a big coming out moment, but when we do come out as transgender, we don’t really get the option of who we want to come out to. When we start living as our real selves, we are coming out to everyone who knew us previously. A lot of queer women can come out to their family and friends, but choose to not come out at work. That’s not really an option for people like me. When I bump into an old schoolmate or cousin I haven’t seen in ten years, they definitely know that I’m transgender. Additionally, most trans women are also forced to come out every time we need to show a legal document or medical form. Of course, there are some exceptions. If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere that lets you change your documents and you’ve been able to get to that point in your life, you have more options. And if choosing to be stealth is the safest option for you, then go for it. Trans people, and especially trans women of color, need to do whatever we can to survive.
When I apply for a job, I don’t have the option to hide my queerness from a prospective employer. Even when I do “pass,” I still know that my birth certificate and even my driver’s license will out me without my consent. It feels weird for me knowing that these pieces of paper have enough power to take away some of my agency. I’m no longer in total control of my relationships with other people, the opportunities that I’ll have or even my own story. And that sucks, and that’s scary. There are lots of people who, when they notice that I’m queer, that doesn’t exactly endear me to them. I don’t like that I don’t get to come out on my own terms. Even more, I don’t like that I currently don’t have the option to not come out. There are some places where it’s really scary being a visibly queer woman and knowing that I had the option to be safer would give me some comfort, even if I still chose to not take that option.
Personally, I’d probably keep on coming out even if I had the option to go stealth. I’m proud of my identity as a queer woman and as a trans woman of color. There’s a strength and beauty there that I gladly and enthusiastically embrace. Even more than that, there’s a community unlike I’ve been able to find anywhere else. Still, sometimes I feel like I’m missing out on one of the quintessential parts of what it means to be queer. I mean, I still do get to come out as a lesbian, but when I’m doing that, the people I’m coming out to already see me as a member of the “LGBTQ community.” Me being a lesbian is just icing on the cake and sometimes I feel like this second coming out is ignored. People know that I’m trans and that’s enough for them; I’m already queer in their eyes, so this added information doesn’t necessarily matter. I’d like to be able to choose when I come out, to be in control of that part of my life. Being in charge of that part of my story would be great, even though I would probably choose to come out every single time.
“In the end it actually matters very little what she decides to write in her application, but it matters a lot if she starts to think that her parents want her to hide who she is from the world.”
This line from the NYT piece got me and it got me good.
Whenever I have to think about the idea of outing myself in applications, my main considerations have never been about what I want to do for myself — instead, they’ve been entirely about my mom. I don’t think I ever really realized the weight of that until I wrote it out just now.
My mother is of course trying to balance the feeling that she’s okay with me being gay while she’s scared that people in positions to discriminate against me won’t be. I am of course trying to balance the feeling of being happy that she wants to protect me while feeling terrible that she only sees one surefire way to do so – by insisting that I should never out myself when I’m applying to get something I want. This is something she has been persistent about when I was applying to colleges and jobs alike: “Why would you tell? Why do you need to tell?”
Which is unfortunate because it’s near impossible for me to not tell, considering that pretty much all of my experience that makes me hireable has come from queer projects and ideally I want a work environment that’s committed to not being a jerk about that.
This is usually the part of the conversation with my mother where she says, “Never mind if the program has a nondiscrimination policy that protects gay people, what if your fate comes down to the one HR guy who’s personally uncomfortable. And he’ll never say outright that it’s because you’re gay that they don’t want you, but you’ll have to move on knowing that it could have been because you’re gay. Of course, you’re going to have to conform to a point. Of course.”
I want to be mad when she says this. I am mad when she says this. But I know that she’s on my side and even worse, I know she’s potentially being more logical about the situation than I am.
What complicates things the most is the guilt that I might not just be making things harder for myself, but for her too. Would it have felt like I had blown all the time and money she put into my education by outing myself in a college application and getting rejected because of it? Is it selfish to ignore her wishes about me outing myself when she’s the one I’ll need to help me if i don’t get the job? As unfair as it is, it is heartbreaking to imagine that it’s a possibility that I was denied a job I applied for because I’m queer – and that by being there to support me monetarily, my mom has paid the price alongside me. I know I’m drawing some pretty heavy connections where they might not need to be, but I have to wonder about that. I’m not sure how I feel about it overall. I know that I’ll probably keep outing myself all the time and she’ll probably always worry — and I’ll always worry that she worries.
I didn’t come out in my college admissions essay because I didn’t come out ’til I got in. But I did come out in all of my cover letters when I graduated, and I stayed unemployed for 14 months.
When people tack on “equal opportunity,” “we encourage minorities to apply,” and “we appreciate diverse candidates,” I hear WE’RE LOOKING FOR YOU, GIRL! After all, I’m just a girl livin’ in the non-profit sector, and when I tell people I want diverse perspectives I mean it. But that sentence: “I’m a queer woman of color who values intersectionality in my work” – it was powerful. It may even be the reason I didn’t get work. But it’s hard to tell why, mostly out of the virtue of intersectionality and the overlapping element of human nature. My friends told me they wouldn’t hire me if they were homophobic or racist, and others told me it seemed weird to “overshare” that kind of information in my application. Nobody supported my affirmative action statement, and everyone told me to take it out. But I can’t. It’s like my name, or my college classes, or my work experience. It’s who I am at work.
I put my statement there because I didn’t want anyone to hire me under false pretenses. I’m here, I’m queer, I’m gonna call you out on your neo-colonialist, racist values. And don’t fucking say sexist shit to me, dickholes. That was a disclaimer I needed leaving college, which was a bubble of homo euphoria wherein everyone knew better than to fuck with me. I put my statement in my application because my work has never looked like anyone else’s work; my work hasn’t ever advocated for anyone else. I constantly think about intersections and about the folks at the most vulnerable margins of inequality in my work, and I wanted the folks who eventually hired me to be down for my hell-raising when we were planning, coordinating, and discussing. I wanted to know the workplace I was entering was one that would allow me to challenge work that was too easy, work that didn’t dig deep enough, work that didn’t reach enough people.
It took 14 months. I’d do it again.
I signed a contract with the Overlords when I was 19, having been promised a free ride to university (overseas!) and an exciting, fulfilling career upon graduation. That’s how it’s sold, at least, and depending on the day how I feel about it ranges from “wow, I really lucked out here” to “how is it legal for someone to sign away a decade of their lives before they’ve even lived two?!” Now my university tuition and living expenses are fully paid for, and in a year or so I’ll be beginning six years of work with this organisation.
To call the Overlords “conservative” would be both understating and oversimplifying it. It has strict codes as to how employees – particularly those like me whom they’ve invested a lot of money in – should act, yes, but at the same time it is a pretty large organisation and so what one person does can go overlooked. They knew about my activism before I signed on. (They knew a lot of things about me before I signed on, not all of which I’d personally disclosed.) They wanted me to be aware that signing this contract came with Responsibilities and Expectations, which came across as both intimidating and genuinely nice, because it reminded my teenage self to really think about whether this was a good fit for me.
But okay, I said. That’s cool. I can do Responsibilities and Expectations.
Short of the instruction to not break the law, a lot of the wording in this contract about how I should or should not behave is vague. An application for constitutional protection against workplace discrimination against “homosexual males” was recently rejected by the High Court and while gay sex is illegal in Singapore, the law only applies to men and is rarely enforced. Nothing, really, provides any clear answers to the question of being out in the workplace or just in general.
So I took this all to mean to stay safe and stay in the closet. I attended LGBT Society events at my new school terrified that I would be recognised by people from home and panicked when I stepped out of Ku Bar for the first time only to run into two Singaporeans. (Soho is right next to Chinatown, because clearly London’s city planners were not thinking of closeted queer Asians.) I went to A-Camp 1.0 and kept my head down and out of photos, sitting all the way at the side when the (first ever!) massive group one was taken.
Yet I’ve only been in tacky gay bars and on Mount Feelings because the Overlords’ sponsorship has made all of this possible. The main thing that was keeping me in the closet, paradoxically, was also what was enabling me to explore my own queer identity and communities in relative safety and anonymity, in a big city very far away from the big city I’d grown up in.
Sometime this year, I did a complete about-turn on this. I can’t pinpoint what exactly changed but it had to do with grappling with increasingly feeling trapped re: this contract, the start of a new exciting relationship that was making everything feel possible again, and my general impulsiveness. I came out in a really, really big way. I ran for LGBT Officer at the LSE (I lost), posted an open letter on Facebook and started writing for Autostraddle. Somehow, somewhere, I went from “think of the worst that could happen!” to “what’s the worst that could happen?” (I do still know what the worst that could happen is. I just decided to trust that it wouldn’t.) It wasn’t easy – is coming out ever? – but it was empowering in ways that I hadn’t expected it to be: it turned something that was once my biggest fear into my biggest asset. It no longer scares me that someone might out me because I got myself there first, and I’m making the most of it. Take for instance:
Random Asshole: “What, are you gay?”
Me: “Yes, actually! Want to read all the things I’ve written about it?”
That’s not to say that the fear’s completely gone, though, or that I don’t sometimes regret this. I was back in Singapore over summer break for an internship, during which I met briefly with a Senior Overlord Employee (perhaps just a Senior Overlord?). After running through the usual mundane questions about career advancements, she concluded with this (heavily paraphrased from memory):
“A lot of young people like you come back from their overseas studies and when we ask them what the one thing they would change about Singapore is, they always say something like gay rights or no censorship. And I’ll tell you something: I always cringe when I hear this. I cringe, you know.
I know how it feels. I’m exactly like you. I studied overseas too, but we need to remember that things are different here. It’s easy to talk about gay rights in the West but try telling that to the auntie in the hawker centre. Things work differently here, and maybe 10 years down the road it’ll change but you can’t just bring these Western concepts home.”
I wanted to tell her no, gay rights aren’t a “Western concept.” I am not a Western concept. I wanted to point out to her that this hypothetical “auntie in the hawker centre” was at least as informed and probably far more benevolent than her on any of these things, even without a degree in economics from an Ivy League.
I wanted to say, no, I am nothing like you.
But I didn’t. I didn’t dare. The weight of the contract – those Responsibilities and Expectations – still bear down on me, so I just clenched my fists under the table and waited for the first chance to slide out of the room.
Now a lot of people know that I’m gay and a lot of people know that I work for the Overlords, but not a lot of people hold these two facts in their head together at the same time. I am quite comfortable existing in this liminal space. I am not and do not plan to be proactively out in the workplace. It already matters that someone like me – an ethnic and religious minority, woman and “HDB kid” all before you even factor in my queerness – has gotten to where I am now (being recruited by the Overlords is a Big Deal) and that is plenty enough. And while I may have signed this contract in part driven by fear of material vulnerability – I wanted to be financially independent of my parents in case they disowned me (they didn’t, thankfully, but this was a real fear in my life as it is for many) – it would still be unfair to characterise this as purely an issue of brute survival. I get a lot more than that: at the end of this I will have a degree or two from top universities and job security, both a really good end to my schooling days and a fantastic start to my working life. Partial closetedness, for most part, seems like a small price to pay for all this.
There are always days, of course, when I wonder why my younger self signed the contract. There are many times when I am angry that any 19-year-old could be put in the position that I was: to choose between signing away a considerable number of years to an organisation whose values she doesn’t completely support but that could support her, or to take her chances with a family she couldn’t be sure would.
But the fact that I had that choice already makes me far, far luckier than most. And so I’ll continue to be my fabulous homogay self, writing about it on the internet for you – all sponsored by the Overlords.
I tend to want to out myself all the time. When people look at me they do not see a gay girl, but I feel so, so gay. The only logical way to combat this situation is to out myself in totally bizarre, overly obvious ways. I once explained to the Auto team via daily email how a typical situation in my life might go down:
Guy sitting on my stoop: Oh did you just move in?
Me: Yeah! My girlfriend didn’t move in with me though.
Guy sitting on my stoop: Uh…okay?
Lady at the bookstore: Oh, is this a gift?
Me: Yes. For my girlfriend. I’m gay.
Lady at the bookstore: Uh…okay?
My brother: Hey Vaness, these are my friends.
Me: Hi guys. I’ve gotta go in a moment, to call my girlfriend.
Seriously, I have perfected the art of coming out All The Time and I don’t really have any shame about it. It’s annoying to me that when most people in this world look at me they assume I’m straight because I have long hair and like dressing in a feminine way, so when I come out it not only affirms my identity and makes me feel comfortable, it also feels like a way to actively challenge societal concepts about gender and sexuality.
Though I could definitely “pass” as straight in a job interview, that hasn’t been a thing I have done thus far in life. I want to work for a company that hires me for who I am, not for who I am not. Granted I don’t come out in quite as blatant and awkward a way in job interviews as I do in my everyday life, but like Cara and Maddie said, I try to work in bits and pieces of my identity that obviously out me and it’s kind of impossible not to include those tidbits. A lot of the work on my resume is specifically queer, and if you Google me for five seconds you’ll find I am a raging homoqueer 24/7 on Autostraddle, Twitter, and pretty much any other corner of the internet that I choose to inhabit.
I do acknowledge that I am dealing with a lot of privilege. I have always lived and worked in large, liberal cities, so when I say, “I wouldn’t want to work for a company that won’t hire queer humans,” I am never choosing between a job or no job. I imagine the decision to come out or not to a future employer becomes a lot more dire when the only jobs available are ones that are not accepting of queer folk. I also have the privilege of staying closeted or flying under the radar if I want to (when I travel, if I feel unsafe in a specific situation, etc.) and that’s a specific luxury that not all queer people have either. So while I am adamant in wanting to come out whenever I want (all the time) and wanting others to be able to do the same, I can acknowledge that the choice may not be as easy or as cut and dry for other queers.
At the end of the day, I don’t think a queer human has to come out on a college app, in a job application, or really anywhere at all… but if they want to, you should let them, whether you’re their parents, their friend, their partner, or whoever. It’s not a necessity unless it feels like a necessity to you – and when that’s the case, it’s everything.
My senior year of high school my best friend AJ and I both decided to apply to Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. We heard it was pretty gay friendly; to this day I don’t know where we got that information or assumption. AJ and I had AP English together. I was always pretty subpar in English class, and everyone knew that. It’s not that I wasn’t smart, I just wasn’t on the same caliber as the gifted kids which completely populated the class – I was the underdog. When it came time to write our college essays, AJ decided he would answer the age old Application Essay question “Describe an event that had an impact on your life” with an essay on being gay and how that affected him and shaped his growing up process, etc. It was a really good essay. AJ was always smarter than me, got better grades, better test scores, was in more social clubs, etc. I wrote my essay on how my mind works and how I process the world (I picked a different essay topic because I am in the camp that believes that one moment doesn’t shape your whole life, it is a series of them. I mean ONE moment? That’s crazy). Admittedly, I think my essay was pretty good, mostly because my mind is a STRANGE PLACE, you guys. I compared it to a movie making process and I applied to be a film major. It was all very relevant.
We submitted our applications early admission and then we waited. I never wanted to be in competition with AJ. I mean, I never felt like there was a competition. He was smarter and more impressive on paper and I knew if it came down to it, he would get in. When my large envelope came in the mail, I immediately called him – I knew that if I got in, AJ would have, too. There was no way he couldn’t have. But he didn’t. To this day, I don’t know if it was because he came out in his application essay, but I feel like AJ always resented me for not writing about being gay, or for “taking the easy way out”, or for telling him his essay was good and he should submit it. I didn’t write about how coming out affected me, because I had just started dating my first girlfriend. I wasn’t even out yet, really. I thought maybe it was just her. Maybe she was just my exception. I thought about writing about this, but I was scared. I wasn’t “fully” gay, so it felt like a lie to use that. When I started my Freshman year at Flagler, I learned the extent to which the school was NOT gay friendly. There was a large LGBT population on campus, but we were unable to be represented. They had been fighting for a Club Unity (a community service oriented LGBT group) on campus for three years and had been repeatedly denied because its “purpose does not fall within the realm of the mission of the college,” according to the denial letters (as of now, they finally have one in place). The girls and boys dorms were separate and you were unable to even visit the opposite sex’s dorm without being expelled. This was a popular topic of discussion for straight students, how gay couples would just have to go to therapy if they were caught having sex in the dorms, but straight couples would be expelled, how “lucky” we were, how “unfair” it was for them. There was talk that the reasoning behind all of this was that it was a private institution and a lot of their funders were religious. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but it was all just a lot of bullshit, and I only stayed there a semester.
I don’t know if the reason AJ didn’t get accepted was because of his college essay, but the fact that I don’t know is something I’ve carried with me for awhile. It makes me worry sometimes. Now that I am a fully fledged queer human, I still have two resumes — one with “queer” stuff and one without. I wish that I didn’t have to do that, I wish that I could apply anywhere without having to gauge the values of an employer before deciding which resume to attach to my application, without wondering whether they will use this as a tipping point to hire a possibly less qualified, more heteronormative applicant. Mostly I just wish things were different, I wish that who you sleep with didn’t have any bearing on these things at all so deciding if you should or shouldn’t come out wouldn’t have to be such a big choice for each individual. I just wish it didn’t matter either way period.
Feature Image via flamingodancer.net