Last Friday night, York Street was a scene.
No, I don’t mean Toad’s. Keep going (does anyone even go to Jack Wills?), past Loria (even the hipsters had gone home by then), and arrive at 168 York Street Café: proudly advertised on its website as “one of the oldest gay bars in Connecticut” and “the only gay owned and operated bar/restaurant in New Haven.”
Friday night saw an influx of Yalies at 168 for an LGBTQ Co-op sponsored party called “Sophomore Surprise.” The name was a “sort of tongue-in-cheek thing” intended to attract students and their friends, said Ryan Mendías ’13, a Co-op co-coordinator. Among Yale students, “sophomore surprise” has become an increasingly familiar term used to refer to those who come out as queer during their sophomore year. Its growing popularity marks the emergence of a larger trend, of students who come out later in their time at Yale rather than those who identify as queer as soon as they set foot on Old Campus.
A NEW (AND POSSIBLY CONFUSING) BEGINNING
We’ve all heard it before: college is the time to reinvent yourself! To discover yourself! A clean slate, a fresh start.
And many students do take advantage of that immediate freedom, deciding to come out at the beginning of freshman year.
“It’s almost as if society wants to keep you in the closet — I don’t really think of it as a closet, but you know — and Yale wants you out as soon as possible. It seems like the longer you wait, the more it’s like, ‘Why did you wait so long?’” said a sophomore who asked to remain anonymous and came out as gay during the second semester of his freshman year.
Coming out at this time, though, is by no means the norm. The question of “Why did you wait so long?” ultimately becomes irrelevant, for it relies on a flawed premise; for most, the decision to come out later is not a question of waiting, but a function of personal experience and development. For freshmen especially, issues of sexuality may get pushed to the back burner as they make their transitions to Yale.
“Freshman year is such a turmoil-filled year that [sexuality] is something a lot of people just don’t think about,” said Carolyn Farnham ’13, a Queer Peer at the Queer Resource Center. “You’re trying to make friends, settle into school and settle into classes.”
Some freshman traditions can also complicate the matter, such as the Freshman Screw we know and (kind of) love.
“I felt like I should go with a girl, but part of me also really wanted to go with a guy, and I was still figuring things out,” said a junior who wished to remain anonymous and came out as bisexual in April of his sophomore year. “If you go to screw with a guy, it’s a very public thing: you’re right there together and everyone sees you. Generally speaking, people tend to be sensitive to people who identify as LGBTQ when it comes to screw, but the difficulty is when someone’s queer and you don’t know it.
“It took me almost two years to come out at Yale, even though I knew when I came here that I could be whoever I wanted to be. I didn’t know anyone; there was no one else from my high school here. But coming out to myself was the hardest part,” The anonymous junior continued. “Even though I acknowledged the fact that I was bisexual, embracing it and being totally okay with it took me a really long time.”
The real question then becomes one of personal process and development, of internal resolution rather than external concerns. Some students do not even want to consider the possibility of leading a queer life. “For me, if there were any inkling of a possibility that I could be straight or live a straight life and not have to deal with everything that comes with being gay, then that was what I was going to try to do,” said the anonymous sophomore. “I definitely came to Yale as a straight guy.”
The development of feelings for a specific person, as opposed to more general sentiments, can lead to experimentation and reassessment of sexuality. Such instances reinforce the concept that sexuality is a spectrum, not black-and-white. Labels cannot always apply, and Yale’s culture with respect to LGBTQ students welcomes the idea of experimenting.
“What often happens [during] sophomore or junior year [is that] someone might identify as straight but find someone [of the same gender] they like, and for that reason, starts dating someone,” said Kati Moug ’13, also a Queer Peer.
For the anonymous sophomore, feelings for another boy provided the most natural path for him to come out. “If I had come to Yale ready to come out, I probably would have been experimenting more with the hookup culture. Later on, the only way I could imagine coming out would be at the beginning of a relationship with another person. I couldn’t imagine just saying, ‘I’m gay’ without saying, ‘I’m gay because I feel this way about this person,’” he said.
MORE THAN WORDS
Because Yale’s gay community is “really well represented,” the anonymous junior felt that he encountered more difficulty coming out as a bisexual. “People use [bisexuality] as a transition phase because it can seem socially more acceptable than [being] gay,” he said. “That’s just sort of the sense I get. I came out to one person and she said, ‘Oh, thank God you’re bisexual, you can still have a normal life, get married, have kids’ — even though that’s not how it works, you fall in love with whoever you fall in love with.”
Sam Huber ’13 also emphasized the importance of resisting the impulse to categorize sexuality. Huber said that there was no “single word” he would use to describe his sexuality. “I could say bisexual, but that doesn’t feel entirely accurate. Queer doesn’t feel specifically descriptive enough to be a sufficient disclosure,” he continued. “I don’t think of myself as attracted to men or attracted to women, or attracted to men and women. I’ve been attracted to various people, some of whom are men and some of whom are women.”
BREAKING THE NEWS
Those who come out at the beginning of freshman year begin their Yale careers as members of the queer community. For those who come out later, though, this change can be tricky to navigate: telling friends, telling roommates, deciding who’s worth the conversation and who to leave for the grapevine.
“I’m now having to try to keep track of whom I’ve come out to, and whom I haven’t come out to, who’s heard by word-of-mouth and who hasn’t,” said the anonymous junior. “I went on a run with a friend yesterday and told him during our run, but I wasn’t sure if he had heard yet or not … I was a little worried, to be honest, about how people would respond because I came out so late. I thought people might think I had lived a lie during those two years, but that hasn’t happened.”
Word does travel on this campus, which can work to students’ advantages in cases like these. Students who come out later tend to come out to their closest friends, and then let word spread from there. Their decisions also become matters of privacy, energy and personal comfort.
“I’ve sat down and had longer conversations with my roommate and some of my closest friends, but the rest of the world I let just kind of find out or overhear, see or happen upon, just because I don’t have a sort of convenient and compact shorthand for it … I don’t feel like I should be obligated to announce my sexuality to people just because it’s divergent from their expectations of straightness, especially if it isn’t a person with whom I already have a relationship where we talk about things like sex or romance,” said Huber.
The question of “Why did you wait so long?” fades with a closer look at the phenomenon of “sophomore surprise.” Students’ decisions come down to subjective indicators. They are motivated by feelings of personal acceptance and readiness, making it impossible to generalize across genders, ages, sexual orientations, or, for that matter, to attempt any form of categorization at all. Moug, who sees many upperclassmen in her work as a Queer Peer, observed that she hasn’t found any sort of “common theme” across the stories she’s heard. “Their situations are as unique as people who are just coming out freshman year,” she said.
And that should come as no surprise.