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Home is a Conditional Closet: Out in College but Closeted at Home

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I want to start off by (almost literally) taking a page from Roxane Gay’s book “Hunger” and tell you that I am not an expert. I don’t have any ins, outs, dos or don’ts on how to compartmentalize your being for the comfort of others. What I do have is my experience, partnered with the courage to tell you about it.

I don’t think there has ever been a point in human history when a death threat was taken lightly. Some may recall an occasion — or five — when your closest friend was annoyed at you and jokingly said, “I’m going to kill you.” You were laughing it off on the outside, but on some visceral level you were questioning how serious they were. Self-preservation doesn’t have a sense of humor, so you can only imagine how much I wasn’t laughing when someone said they would kill me if they ever found out that I had a girlfriend. They were not my friend. I was 9.

Ten years later, I am reckoning with how impactful that threat was. I remember that sensation of guilt and fear so vividly. On that day I swallowed whole something within myself, and it wasn’t until a year ago that I spat it out.

I was queer. I am queer, and I will be queer forever; therefore, I am in no particular rush to tell my family. I am in no rush to answer their questions or hear incorrect assumptions. “It’s because you were raised around so many boys.” “It’s because you’re around all those white people at your school.” “If you’re gay then why do you have a boyfriend?” “Why don’t you say bisexual instead of queer?”

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With everything going on in the world — in our cities (local headline from August: “Transwoman found shot to death in College Park”) and neighborhoods — I should not have to explain myself. I should not have to explain my personhood or identity. You either do your research or live in willful ignorance. I don’t want my family to make assertions. I want them to listen carefully to the way I describe myself in casual conversation because I don’t have any more presentations in me. I don’t have any more speeches.

I have student loans. I have two jobs. I don’t have time for that.

During my senior year of high school, I made sure I would send myself somewhere where the assertions were proven untrue and those questions were not even thought of.

I chose to go to what some would refer to as THE queer school. In 2016, The Princeton Review named it the most LGBTQ+ friendly college in the U.S. This was purely coincidental (or subconsciously intentional). I had originally fallen in love with my college’s small class sizes and emphasis on individualized learning after the school was suggested to me by a counselor; everything else was a bonus.

In my mind, institutions that value intellectual curiosity were inherently pro-queer. I was oblivious to the myth of The Liberal North and, as embarrassing as it is to admit, I thought many of my problems would vanish once I was living in a blue state. Sometimes I think about that and laugh really, really hard.

As a student attending a private, liberal arts college in New England I found it difficult to navigate a space that so starkly juxtaposed my career at South Atlanta High School. While much of that adjusting included fortifying myself against the forces of Minority Fatigue and educating the liberal north about how their chastising the American southeast was racist and irresponsible, some of that adjusting included relieving myself of the pressures of being closeted. My fellow students missed the fact that more than half of the U.S. African-American population lives in the south, according to the 2010 census, but at least I didn’t have to worry about being called a d*ke.

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My college is far from perfect, but being in an environment where I could go an entire day without seeing a straight, cisgender person made me realize just how vast and visionary my community is. After years of repression in my own home, I needed to be welcomed into a loving community of queer people of color in order to allow who I was becoming to flourish. To those who have helped and continue to help me along this journey, thank you.

After embracing my authentic self during the span of an academic year, I packed my bags last May to head home — and, with my clothes, conditionally put away a part of myself. I had to find a way to be home and be a whole person. After spending a week pulling resources, I compiled a guide of spots for queer Atlanta teens to hang out, get tested, get housing and meet new friends.

This isn’t YouTube. I don’t have a tear-jerker ending about how I came out and my parents loved, respected, accepted me anyway. However, I don’t get death threats these days, and I don’t know if it’s all the the Shonda Rhimes she watches but my mother has realized there are far greater threats to the survival of humankind than girls kissing girls. I will come out to my family on my own terms, even if that means showing up to my mother’s house one day unannounced, girlfriend in hand.

Alimah is a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College. Everyday they fight the urge to rewatch the problematic musical comedy-drama series “Glee.”

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