For LGBTQ defining students, going home for Christmas can be a bit of a nightmare. On top of the usual student festive fears, such as trying to buy presents for your various family members on a shoestring budget (homemade scarf, anyone?), the ordeal of actually getting home in time for Christmas day on public transport (do children really have to scream quite so loudly?!) and having to clear your room of all the clutter that’s magically appeared on your bed (what do you mean, my room wasn’t kept as a shrine to me whilst I was gone?!), if you’ve not come out you also have to contend with the stress that goes alongside being abruptly shoved back into the closet. It’s a difficult position to be in.
University is where a lot of students have the freedom to explore various aspects of their sexuality. From your first drunken kiss with another girl whilst playing spin the bottle, to giggling your way through your first Ann Summers party, new experiences are not only tolerated but generally encouraged by your fellow students. Your first term can be a whirlwind of excitement that adds to the general madness that is first year. It all goes so well until you realise that you’ve booked your train home for Christmas… Whilst you relish the idea of food that has labels of more than 2 colours, your heart can’t help but sink a little as you realise you’ve got to go back into the closet and relinquish your new found freedom, whether that’s the ability to overtly drool over Amy Pond in the Dr Who Christmas special or gossiping with your friends at home about your latest relationship disasters. Memories of conversations with elderly relatives that consist of “So, have you got yourself a nice boyfriend yet?” and your hastily mumbled replies and excuses come to mind, and all of a sudden, Christmas is looking distinctly less cheery.
It’s for all of these reasons that the Lancaster Uni LGBTQ run a Coming Out Workshop (COW) in the last week of term. This year I was elected to run it, and I was determined that no student should go home without at least knowing where they can find support over the festive period.
It took a little bit of organising, but as I looked around the room at some nervous freshers, I remembered coming out to my parents, and all the reasons why a COW was worth its weight in gold.
I never went to a COW, I just got horrifically drunk and told my mother that I had something to tell her when I got home. Cue several weeks of phonecalls from concerned friends and relatives, and another drunken phone call to my Dad, who told me “as long as you’re not pregnant, a lesbian or eloping, we can deal with it”. I bawled my eyes out, told him that he was half right, and spent the rest of the time trying to convince him I wasn’t about to run off to South America. Not one of my proudest moments! Luckily my parents were simply relieved that I wasn’t moving to the other side of the world or presenting them with a grandchild, although my mother was concerned that I would cut my hair short. Apparently that’s just what all lesbians do, don’t you know? (At that point I decided trying to explain bisexuality was a maybe little ambitious and could probably wait!)
During the COW we thought about as many different aspects of coming out as possible, from the ideological (why do you want to come out?) to the practical (don’t come out over Christmas dinner – people choking on turkey isn’t particularly conducive to rational discussion). The people who attended were at various stages in the coming out process – nobody was fully out, though many were out at uni, but only a few were out to somebody at home.
The main reason for coming out seemed to be that students wanted to reconcile the person that they are at university and the person that they are at home. It’s indicative of the state of constant flux that students are in, where nothing ever seems to be entirely stable. Changing location, lifestyle and your closet status is quite simply exhausting, and we do it at least 3 times a year, if not more. Although coming out seems like an easy way that we can keep at least one part of our identities consistent, it can cause more problems than it solves. In the long run though, it’s not healthy to keep your true identity under wraps for 5 months of the year!
Over the course of the evening and a packet of chocolate digestives, we tried to figure out the best strategies for coming out to different people. We imagined what the other person would say, do or ask, and then come up with responses to each of these scenarios. We looked at when would be best to talk to people, factored in religious viewpoints and emphasised the need for xunderstanding on both sides as well as patience in letting people come to terms with it. We created mind maps, made lists of well known LGBTQ role models, drafted letters to grandparents, drew pictures, told stories, practiced how we would ask someone to sit down and talk to them and discovered how many ways you can have a baby without heterosexual sex (we counted 4, in case you’re interested!)
The workshop was funny, heartbreaking and educational all in one go. The very fact that we needed to hold the session in the first place was heartbreaking enough, listening to people predict what their parents, family and friends would do or say. There were some inspiring moments though, like stories about people who thought their friends would disown them who instead threw their arms around them saying “we’ve known for so long, we were just waiting for you to tell us!”, or chuckling over the slightly more ridiculous ways to come out that we dreamed up. “Could you pass the turkey please? By the way Dad, turkeys aren’t the only birds I like!” and “I’m not fussy Grandma, I like all kinds of nuts…” Carry On Christmas, eat your heart out! The humour was derived not only from the sexual innuendoes, but the surprising realisation that sometimes it’s as good a way as any to tell someone. There are as many ways to come out the closet as there are people that you have to come out the closet to, and if you connect with someone through humour/online/over coffee, then that’s probably the best way to talk to them without making it A Big Deal.
As the evening drew to a close, I found myself hoping that this little group of people would find the courage and conviction to not only come out the closet, but to be proud of their sexuality and/or gender identity as well. I know it won’t always be easy for them – that’s why we provided resources linking them to various support groups, agencies and help lines – but hopefully we’ve given them the inspiration and ideas that will allow them to finally go home and worry more about hiding the sprouts under the mash than their sexuality behind a lie. Running the COW was an experience for me too. I realised that I need to start putting these ideas into action myself too! I’m still not out to my grandparents, and whilst I don’t think they would really appreciate a witty one-liner over a prawn cocktail starter, a nice letter telling them I might be bringing my girlfriend home for Christmas probably wouldn’t go amiss. Don’t worry though, I’ll break the news with a nice homemade scarf. If I can afford the postage, that is…