When Matt returns home to a small town near the Mexican border, he leaves behind more than just his textbooks and blockmates. He leaves behind his identity.
Back home, Matt is no longer a staunch liberal, an advocate for immigrant rights, or a leader in the Latino community.
But mostly, he is no longer gay.
To be “out” in his close-knit, religious community, Matt says, is a choice that could have potentially dangerous consequences.
Matt—whose name, like that of each student featured in this story, has been changed to protect his privacy—is only one of many LGBTQ students at Harvard who remain predominantly in the closet at home, even though they are fully out at school.
Though some of these students say they have experienced anxiety and depression as a result of their decision, they also say that they have found a welcoming and supportive environment while at Harvard and hope to some day reconcile their sexual identity and their home life.
THE HOME FRONT
For these students, a number of potential conflicts, ranging from personal religious beliefs to family dynamics, have complicated the process of sharing their sexual orientations with their communities at home.
Matt says people who have come out in his community are often bullied, ostracized, and unwittingly become the “talk the town.” Though a few members of his extended family are gay, Matt says they’re often considered “low functioning” or “deadbeats.”
“It makes me think that if I were to come out, that it would challenge the notions of that, but I’d still rather not at this time,” he adds.
Deeply religious, Matt says that growing up he felt that God hated him. He struggled to reconcile his sexuality with his religious beliefs and the negative perceptions of gay people in his family and community during high school. He kept his relationships with other men a secret, dated people exclusively from other towns, and only confided in a few close friends.
As a result of the secrecy and suppression during his high school years, Matt says going to Harvard was very liberating.
“Here I can say whatever I want about race, sexuality, and gender, and the worst I’m going to get labeled is that one crazy kid with all those opinions,” Matt says. “If I talk about these things at home, I get labeled things like faggot.”
Like Matt, Erica had trouble reconciling her devotion to Christianity and her sexuality until her sophomore year at Harvard. Though she comes from New York City, Erica says her struggle to accept her sexuality was made even more challenging by the contradiction it creates with her religious convictions.
As a senior, however, she says she has come to terms with her identity.