Coming from a small town to a large metropolis is definitely an experience that can incur an extreme case of culture shock. This, however, can also occur when one is exposed to a large community that they otherwise would have had no contact with. For me—and many others—this can be said about our experiences with the LGBTQ+ community, and college is definitely a place where this sudden immersion can happen.
I have gone from being one of two openly gay male students in a school of roughly 1,000 students, to being among a vibrant and accepting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and otherwise “queer” community here in New York City. Back home, I was the “poster gay” and was essentially a living showcase of the “homosexual lifestyle” to the uninformed observer. While that sounds isolating, the experience allowed me to take pride in my own sexual identity and discover the strength of the friendships I had.
Columbia University has pushed me beyond any sense of familiarity with regards to the exposure and comfort queer students feel on campus. Though I am sure it sounds bizarre, I have become uncomfortable because of how open and accepting the campus is.
I have heard and seen students express their joy at finally being able to be open about their sexual identity, and that has been wonderful to witness. However, as I am sure other queer individuals feel, it often feels as if my experiences at home did not show me “how to be gay.” The nuances, the vernacular, the modern theories regarding social justice and even dating etiquette all can escape someone who has either been distanced from a large community or has not made an effort to engage the community through other avenues.
Obviously sexual identity is an extremely personal concept, one that could never be as simplistically labeled as “right” or “wrong,” but it feels as if the isolation I experienced, having come out when I was fourteen, invited a vacuum-development where in I developed myself without proper experience with any other people of the same community. This created a disassociation with other queer individuals that I feel has, in a way, stunted my development as a gay man.
This may be hard for some readers to sympathize with, but to have all signals telling you that you’re not being yourself when that is all you know can be depressing to an almost tragic degree. Everyone seems to be tuned into a wavelength that is not on my dial.
In an effort to step down from my place of privilege on this issue, I know that attending an institution that is accepting is a wonderful situation to be in. That does not dispel or discount anyone who still feels like a little queer fish in a big queer pond.
It has become apparent that I will never be what the media leads society to believe is the “Typical Gay Man.” But for those of us who are in such a large community for the first time, we are lucky enough to realize that it does not matter. Encountering so many people who you can relate to, yet appreciate your differences with, helps you realize that the media has severely damaged the psyche of many queer individuals throughout the years. To believe that your identity is wrong and completely disassociate with a community because of that means somewhere along the line, there was a major communication error.
These next four years are going to make us question who we are and what that means for our success in terms of not only our careers, but our personal discovery and our relationships with others. That’s wonderful. It’s okay that we feel out of place—we should. What we find after spending our time searching for ourselves is the most valuable part of the undergraduate experience. We may not necessarily feel comfortable at first when we are dropped into these unfamiliar communities, but that’s okay too. It will come in time. And if it doesn’t, it’s college; you don’t have to be near people you don’t enjoy. Just focus on self-discovery because, realistically, that’s why we’re here. To pursue and fully discover our best self.
Image Credit: John Nakamura Remy/Flickr Creative Commons