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Why Coming Out Still Matters at Harvard

Kirkland House is one of 12 upperclassmen residential houses at Harvard College.
Kirkland House is one of 12 upperclassmen residential houses at Harvard College. By Zadoc I.N. Gee
By Grant B. Williams, Crimson Opinion Writer
Grant B. Williams ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a double concentrator in Statistics and Economics in Cabot House.

Walking into Kirkland House, I’m immediately overwhelmed by my surroundings. A chalkboard in the entryway informs me in rainbow lettering that “it’s ok 2 b gay.” Multicolored paper streamers blockade my entrance into the dining hall with their kaleidoscopic tassels. Doing my best to sidestep the meticulously hung decorations separating me from my meal, I walk through the doorway and am greeted with pride flags of what seems like every conceivable sexual orientation and gender identity. They line the perimeter of the space, obstructing walkways and casting long shadows across the tiled floor in unapologetic defiance of design etiquette.

It’s excessive and inconvenient — and the sweetest display of allyship.

I sit at a table ornamented with miniature pride centerpieces for a couple of minutes before I recall the rationale behind this unusual, campy parade of queerness: It’s Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day.

I have a lot of complicated feelings about this 35-year-old tradition — my opinions shaped in large part by the annual slew of “coming out” think pieces published each October. These personal essays and extended memoirs challenge the traditional framing of “coming out” as the pinnacle of queer self-actualization, adding dimension and nuance to the LGBTQ+ coming-of-age narrative.

As I reflect on these writings, it’s difficult to feel like I have anything novel to contribute to the “coming out” discourse. I exist on a campus replete with programming and support for LGBTQ+ people. If there’s any place where queerness is so sufficiently normalized that coming out is no longer relevant, it should be here, right?

I’m not convinced that the answer is yes. Even at a progressive university like Harvard, the politics of coming out are not wholly insulated from a surrounding world that does not affirm queer people.

As much as I would like to live in a society where being transgender or queer is as unremarkable as being left-handed, this is not the current state of affairs in the United States. Beyond the blatant homophobia and transphobia evidenced by record tallies of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation this year, anti-queer sentiments pervade almost every facet of American life. Half of LGBTQ+ Americans experience some form of harassment or discrimination at work, and a third of U.S, residents — among them the current Speaker of the House — consider gay and lesbian relationships morally wrong.

The same power dynamics that exist outside of campus exist within, and it is a disservice to queer students to suggest otherwise.

Conversations about the politics of “coming out” may even be more relevant at a place like Harvard than they would be elsewhere, given the size of the queer population and the conditions of the campus climate. In a 2021 Crimson survey of the Class of 2025 (of which I am a member), more than 20 percent of students identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or another non-straight sexual identity.

According to the same survey, 60.5 percent of incoming first-year students that did not identify as heterosexual reported not having come out. But Harvard’s aggressively queer-inclusive atmosphere means that many students, especially those from conservative backgrounds like myself, can arrive on campus with one belief about their identity and exit with another. Provided the safety to explore and express themselves freely, undergraduates may discover their capacity for love is greater than what they once imagined.

However, this process of personal evolution that Harvard facilitates is not without complications. Students bring with them the biases and circumstances of the worlds in which they grew up, and, for many who are closeted or beginning to question their sexual orientation, these deeply internalized feelings of shame prove difficult to overcome. Likewise, many students face legitimate, well-placed fears of family retaliation and personal fallout that preclude their exit from the proverbial closet.

This needless wrestle brought on by heteronormative society, while most damaging to students in the closet, can also adversely spill over and affect non-closeted peers as well — especially on a campus like Harvard’s with such a high concentration of LGBTQ-identifying students. What should be sweet and exciting, namely crushes and same-sex love, can be confusing and hurtful to the openly queer person who never receives confirmation of interest from a peer still working through their emotions. Instead, they are left to parse through plausible deniability and mentally litigate whether connections were real or imagined.

Because of these myriad impacts of outness, until the rest of the world looks a little more like Kirkland House, the decision of whether to come out will continue to matter, even at — if not especially at — Harvard.

Grant B. Williams ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a double concentrator in Statistics and Economics in Cabot House.

This piece is a part of a focus on LGBTQ+ authors and experiences for LGBT History Month.

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