Coming Out and Being Out: LGBTQIA+ Students at Dartmouth
The surprise my friends and family expressed back home in my college choice was tangible. For years, those close to me heard me complain about the lack of LGBTQIA+ support and representation in the small town I come from. Teachers, friends and family alike expressed to me that I made a mistake in choosing to come to Hanover, saying I wouldn’t be able to express my true identity in such a small and homogenous community. They couldn’t understand why I would choose to come here over other more urban options. Frankly, part of me didn’t understand either.
I came out as gay at the beginning of my sophomore year in high school. While I’m from a considerably liberal state, I happened to live in a small but strongly conservative pocket. I didn’t face a ton of discrimination, but I still faced the expected hardships of being the first and only openly gay student to ever attend my small, all-male high school.
In my experience, Dartmouth has not reflected the expectations of the people back home; I have felt more comfortable in my identity in the past 10 weeks than in the three years of high school that I was out. As cliché as it sounds, for the first time in my life, I’m not known as just “the gay kid” to my peers. While many know it as a part of my identity, I’m now able to define myself in different ways. While my experience has been mostly positive, I know that Dartmouth is not perfect in this regard. And as a white male, my experiences are vastly different from others around campus.
Another member of the Class of 2023, who asked to remain anonymous because she is not out to her parents, provided insight on a contrasting perspective as a queer woman of color. She expressed her fears moving forward at Dartmouth with the Greek system, which dominates the social scene.
“Personally, as a queer woman of color, my friends and I who share similar identities find that when it comes to things like the rush process, we are incredibly intimidated by that and worried that if any of the people in the sorority or fraternity were to find out that we’re queer, it’d hurt us immensely,” she said. “And I think that’s incredibly problematic.”
The student had a more critical view of the College than I did; a fact that speaks to how no queer students experience campus in the same way.
“I think generally students are accepting, but I feel like Dartmouth itself doesn’t do much when it comes to showing that they openly are tolerant of the LGBTQIA+ community,” she said.
A member of the Class of 2021, who also asked to remain anonymous because he is not out to his parents, agreed that students on campus are generally accepting but spoke to the heteronormativity that social circles on campus revolve around.
“While being gay is accepted, it’s not always embraced, and I think that the biggest difference between acceptance and embracing is playing along to the heteronormative stereotypes,” he said.
Charlie Plumb ’20, who is affiliated with a sorority, agreed.
“Socializing is essentially based around systems that are very binary and heteronormative, like tails and formals, that are organized around frats and sororities going to meet the opposite gender,” Plumb said.
Plumb, who came out in high school, said that coming to Dartmouth was an improvement for her in being able to identify as visibly queer. While she experienced homophobia in high school, she said she felt relieved to come to a community where she felt no need to come out; it was simply a part of her, and no one made a big deal out of it.
The ’21, however, was able to provide insight on coming out while attending Dartmouth.
“When I got here, the first few weeks I definitely felt pressure not to come out,” he said. “Not specifically from anything homophobic, but it was more just buying into the social scene that was being a freshman.”
He expressed that when he came out, people were generally accepting of him. However, it didn’t come without its hardships — it became a piece of gossip, and there were instances where a person he had come out to would announce it to large groups of people as a means of entertainment.
However, he made it clear that those who express themselves with a less common identity still might face trouble on campus.
“I think that someone who wishes to express more stereotypical gay qualities, or has an identity that’s less common and understood ... would have a much tougher time here,” the ’21 said. “It’s not like someone is going to outwardly say anything, but the more you present as [LGBTQIA+], the more looks you will get.”
The ’23 added that for students of color, the problem intensifies.
“I think especially when you’re a person of color who identifies as queer, the Greek system is extremely exclusive in that regard, and it’s immensely heteronormative,” the ’23 said.
Plumb agreed but emphasized that in Greek spaces, houses have made steps to be more accommodating of those with different gender identities, although they’ve had trouble attracting students who might not fit the ‘mold’ of Greek life.
“That change doesn’t happen until it happens,” Plumb said. “There are aspects of it that are structural, but there are aspects of it that are self-perpetuating.”
All three students seemed to acknowledge that while Dartmouth students can be accepting of LGBTQIA+ people, it’s still not easy to be queer at this school.
“It takes courage to come out and to be out, which are two different things,” Plumb said. “It takes courage to be different, in general; it takes courage to walk into a formal with whoever you choose.”
While I’ve found Dartmouth to be a much easier place to be out than at home, it’s clear that it’s far from perfect, and no one student experiences it in the same way. Factors like background, race and gender expression play important roles in everyone’s experience. While I had a multitude of students on campus to ask to interview for this article, most of them declined, and most of the ones who accepted asked to remain anonymous. Not all queer students feel comfortable on campus, and their fears are exacerbated by a heteronormative social scene. I am grateful for the support and acceptance I have felt on this campus so far and remain hopeful that improvement will come during the four years I have ahead of me.