"I just got really good at covering up how I feel": Profiles of gay loneliness
“You’re really cool, man, but I’m looking for a straight roommate.”
I wasn’t too surprised. The search for the perfect freshman year roommate was now nearing its fifth month, and this had been the third person I had connected with that had changed their mind about living with me after learning that I was gay.
But this one felt different. I thought I had checked off all the boxes. We had maintained a 20-day Snapchat streak, exchanging daily pictures that displayed how much fun our senior years were. We had talked about rushing a fraternity, what we wanted to major in. We both even agreed that we would — of course — attend every game at the Big House, but that our studies were “for sure” equally as important.
So when John (whose name is changed for privacy reasons) from California told me the day before the roommate request deadline that he could no longer live with me, I felt defective, as if I were a toy with compromised packaging. I still worked, but my torn label, nonetheless, meant I had to be returned.
“I think my roommate just broke up with me??” I half-jokingly texted a friend.
I did laugh at first. The process one had to go through to find the person you will be crammed into a room with for the next eight months was pretty strange. Yet, with no one prepared to make the “brave” sacrifice of willingly living with a gay person, the fate of my first dorm experience was left in the hands of the University of Michigan Office for Student Life.
Despite this uncertain start, my excitement about moving to campus and experiencing the “best four years of my life” remained undeterred. It was Ann Arbor, after all, and the reality of being known as my high school’s “funny gay kid” would soon transform to a place where I could simply become just one among many. And to me, that casual existence also meant the ease of finally being in a community I could fully call my own.
Soon, I thought, I could unreservedly be me.
“Did you hear about how Matt has a gay roommate?”
“I heard. He needs to switch out ASAP,” a look of revulsion hardening his face. “I’m not kidding. It’s disgusting. If my son became gay, I would legit kill him.”
It was the start of Welcome Week, and the naive hope of belonging was replaced with a familiar, aching feeling of loneliness. With my parents gone, and the temperature of my 12x11, un-air-conditioned room rising with the arrival of each eager freshman, I found myself sinking back into the hole I spent years digging myself out of. I came to Ann Arbor ready to embrace sides of myself that I never truly had the opportunity to explore. Now, I could finally take advantage of the resources, the community and the freedom that I had longed for. I had already come out in high school, so one of the top ten “Best Colleges for LGBTQ Students” was sure to only strengthen my confidence with my identity.
Yet, as the process of fraternity rush evolved and the pressure to find new friends mounted, I found myself falling back into the same patterns I had exhibited most of my life: Talk to girls, be as masculine as possible, but most importantly, do not let people know that you are gay.
“I’m not lying to anyone,” I tried convincing myself. “I just am keeping it to myself.”
For a while, this worked. Almost too well. While I had a few friends from home that were aware of my sexuality, in every other part of my college life, I simply “kept it to myself.” Maybe I thought it was a prize, an achievement when people came to believe I was straight. The more I could do this, I thought, the more friends I would have — and the rest I would figure out afterward.
But finally, this act began to become undone. Walking with five friends I had met from my dorm, the subject of roommates became the focus of our conversation. Recalling the struggle I had in finding my own, I remained silent. Soon, however, their words brought back the dreaded feeling of loneliness that I worked so hard to escape. I listened as they began to describe their disgust of gay people: How they shouldn’t be placed in “straight rooms,” how they would disown their children if they were to “make this choice.” I was then reminded of why I came out in the first place and the importance of finding my own community at the University.
As my time at Michigan unfolded –– while speaking with friends, volunteers and even strangers –– I became engrossed by the distinct sense of commonality embedded in the experiences of LGBT students. I listened to familiar stories of fear, of dejection, of sadness. Stories uniquely their own but still bearing patterns similar enough to thread together into one tattered quilt. Even in a post-Obergefell v. Hodges world where same-sex couples have been guaranteed equal standing before the law in America, beyond the closet, even on a campus as accepting as the University of Michigan, gay students suffer an inescapable sense of otherness.
“I think I was the last guy you were with before your girlfriend, so like, did I turn you gay?”
It’s 8:30 p.m. at Espresso Royale, and Information senior Nicole Ackerman-Greenberg is winding down after what she describes as a “pretty light day.” After two classes, an hour-long call with her peer advisor and a weekly meeting for her tech fraternity, she returns to her seat across the aging wooden table, gripping her drink tightly with both hands.
“Then he proceeded to do us ‘a favor’ by offering his ‘assistance if we ever needed a third.’”
“It was ridiculous,” she continues. “I felt like some foreign object — in need of his pity.” Steam from her freshly-poured coffee obscures her face as the fluorescent overhead light illuminates her now-focused green eyes. This was not the first time people she considered herself close with had made comments in a similar vein.
“I think that’s what gets me the most,” she says, tracing her fingers in the indecipherable carvings of the table in front of her. “I’m surrounded by all these people who say they accept me, yet I constantly feel as if I’m not fully there.”
Born and raised in Oakland, Calif., Ackerman-Greenberg never dwelled too much on her sexuality. In fact, she had found no need to ever “come out.” Rather, when she first began dating her now girlfriend, she simply broke the news to her parents by letting them know she would be coming to visit the next week. So, when she found herself for the first time becoming truly mindful of her identity at age 20, the weight she had been able to avoid for most of her life began to gradually bog her down.
“I felt like I was an object.”
The societal objectification of gay people, particularly women, remains rampant in our culture. On “Friends,” Chandler and Joey jump at the opportunity to watch Rachel and Monica share a minute-long kiss. In Katy Perry’s debut single, “I Kissed a Girl,” she perpetuates the notion that relationships between two women are just experimental and simply a way to entertain straight men.
Ackerman-Greenberg, now speaking louder than before, attempting to break through the voices of students frantically ordering their last caffeine fix before moving to the library for the night, begins to highlight how these portrayals in pop culture have manifested in her own life.
“I was at Skeeps (Scorekeepers Sports Grill and Pub), and my girlfriend and I kissed for the first time,” she said. “For the first time in my life I was kissing a girl that I cared about,” a hint of red beginning to color her face. “It felt as if there was not another person in the world.”
That euphoric feeling did not last long, she notes. Soon, that world was interrupted by the sight of half a dozen men, staring, cheering, as more onlookers began to gather around for “their own entertainment.” While this brought a “feeling of disgust,” what stuck in her mind the most was having to weave through the crowded bar, watching as dozens of straight couples intensely, and “sloppily,” made out with one another — unnoticed and unbothered.
“I’m sure there are hundreds of bisexual girls like me on campus, people who I can talk to and who could relate to these things,” she said, placing her drink back down, the bottom of her cup now visible. “I guess I just don’t know where to find them.”
Her phone buzzes, interrupting a solemn gaze. It’s her girlfriend, asking when she will be back home. A smile returns to her face.
“I almost feel bad for complaining. You know, it could be much worse. My parents are so accepting. I have a girlfriend who I love. But sometimes — as soon as I begin to let go just a bit, something brings me crashing back down to reality.”
“I came home from school, and I knew something was wrong.”
“My parents sat me down and they said, ‘We heard you’ve been cutting yourself.’”
LSA junior Caleb Grimes met me in the middle of the Ross School of Business Winter Garden. He stood out amid the chaos of networking calls and coffee chats transpiring around him, dressed in a sweatshirt and the only one without a backpack or briefcase.
“Sorry I was late,” he said calmly, “I had to come straight here from my friend’s house”
Hailing from an all-boys Catholic school in Kentucky, Grimes exhibits an air that one might expect from an All-American lacrosse player. At first glance, his hardy demeanor supports the cool and unaffected presence that he carries. Yet, as his guard begins to wane, his effort to maintain this composure becomes more apparent.
“It was hard,” he says in a more solemn tone. “I was just 15 years old. I wasn’t even sure what or who I was. So, when I tried talking to a friend to maybe get some sort of clarity, and it suddenly spread across the town, I fell into a dark place.”
During his sophomore year of high school, Grimes’s parents received a phone call from a friend about his self-harm and the rumors of his sexuality. Hoping to alleviate their son’s pain and confusion, they sought out a therapist to speak with him.
“I never got to have my ‘coming out moment,’” he says with a more sunken face, his hands retreating into the refuge of his sweatshirt. “Instead, I woke up each day wondering if I would even be alive the next morning, all while trying to maintain this image of the lacrosse player, of the football player, of the student.”
Grimes’s internal conflict with his identity is pervasive in LGBT teens across the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who are gay are four times as likely to attempt suicide when compared to heterosexual youth. The fear of discrimination and harassment because of one’s sexuality also leads LGBT people to have depression and anxiety disorder rates three times as high as their straight counterparts.
“My therapist helped me sort through some of these things, but that constant anxiety and overthinking just never went away.” He begins to pause at the sound of his voice becoming shakier, almost taking this as a signal to tuck back these difficult memories. “So I clung to anything that I thought would make it easier.”
Grimes notes that he wore his “non-stereotypical” background as a badge of honor for the majority of both his high school and college careers. “It was funny how much I relied on that single label of the ‘lacrosse kid’ as a way to lift myself up.”
“Half of the reason I wanted to play lacrosse in college was because I wanted to maintain that safety of, ‘Yeah, I am gay, but look at me defying the stereotypes!’” he laughs with an almost-regretful tone.
Upon coming to campus, Caleb saw Greek life as his next outlet to bolster this image. He recalls hoping to not be seen as the “gay kid,” but as the “masculine, gay frat kid.” While he eventually found a supportive community within this new space, there are times he still feels isolated because of his sexuality. To him, Greek life is built upon, in many ways, the expectation of going out and finding another person to hook up with. Reinforced by dark, cramped basement parties, where the conversation is limited by blaring music, people can mainly just “dance and hook up.” While friends may come briefly to wave hello, most of them quickly disperse as he “obviously doesn’t fit what they came there for.”
Even when he has brought another guy with him to a party — something he notes he is very lucky to be able to do — that isolating feeling begins to reemerge.
“I never truly feel comfortable or accepted with another guy in public. Even the most accepting people cringe deep down when they see two guys together.”
When I asked him why he thinks that, he responded coldly, “Because we cringe too.”
Before heading back to return to his friends, Grimes notes how his years hiding his identity have manifested throughout almost all spheres of his life.
“I just got really good at covering up how I feel,” he confessed. “But I go through an internal battle every single day.”
This is a common theme for many gay people. As discussed in a recent study from Georgetown University, LGBT people have learned that it is often safer to conceal their feelings than to become open to criticism or ridicule. This instinctual sense of protection, however, leads to an undermining of self-esteem and self-worth.
“I am grossly insecure with myself and I constantly regulate how people might view me,” Grimes admits. “And because of that, I may have come across in the wrong way to some people.”
Now, six years since his talk with his parents, he notes he is becoming more comfortable with the many facets of his identity. His family, too, has been celebrating this part of him as well. In fact, he tells me, they even went to a Pride parade without him.
A smile begins to break, and a warm glow fills his eyes.
“Yeah, that was pretty cool.”
Business senior Chandra Sahu highlights how being a woman of color has played in her experience as a queer woman. While it has been easier for her to identify other Black students on campus, her pursuit of finding other gay students was difficult.
“I was surprised by how little of a community for gay people there was here,” she said in a disappointed tone. “Statistically, there have to be a lot more people that are not straight, yet there’s just no community.”
As president of both the Black Business Undergraduate Society and Out for Business, Sahu has used the tight-knit community of the Business School to find a place for minority groups to come together. Yet, unlike the University’s Black community, which she has been able to find a place in, she finds the LGBT community remains disjointed. Gay spaces do exist in Ann Arbor, including the University’s Spectrum Center. However, many queer students on campus feel its efforts to provide the resources needed to foster a connected LGBT community remain inadequate — a reality that has tangible consequences for its students.
“I am surrounded constantly by so many people,” Sahu confessed in a hushed tone. “Yet I still feel so alone.”
Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Alix Curnow echoed this sentiment of seclusion to me. As the flicker of the Michigan Theatre’s sign lit the right side of her face, she detailed the struggle she has faced in search of a community of her own.
“I feel very isolated,” she explained, her entire face now drowned in the light. “I went through many stages of depression and most of it was rooted in trying to find where this part of me fit in my life.”
Curnow was ready to immerse herself in the progressive Ann Arbor community, hoping to find refuge in a place where she would not just be tolerated, but embraced. However, her time spent trying to fully discover her own self became increasingly disheartening.
“Friends, even people that are gay, have questioned my sexuality — telling me I’m just confused.”
“Even though friends try to offer their support, it’s lonely,” her shaded eyes now fixated on the floor below. “And being able to sit down in class and just knowing if there were other people like me would make things so much easier.”
Midnight came and the empty booths and folded chairs signaled it was time to pack up. Gripping my empty mug and the hastily-scribbled notes from the day, I began to head home. The brisk chill that waited patiently at the door accompanied me on the walk that night.
Passing through the places I had grown to know during my time at Michigan, I spotted friends and former classmates around each mindless turn of the corner.
Maybe I wasn’t so alone, after all.
But with each step closer to home, the sidewalks grew barer. Approaching the stairs of my apartment building, the outlines of two figures under the dying street light were etched out of the darkness. As the sound of my sneakers dragging across the cracked pavement below broke the silence of the night, the lock of their lips became undone. In unison, they jolted their heads in my direction, as if they had been caught doing something wrong. I could now recognize they were both men. Almost instinctively, they took two steps back from one another. The air now felt colder than before.
“How’s it going, man?” one nodded as I passed by, as if they were testing my reaction to what I had seen.
I approached the door, feeling the icy touch of its frigid handle. Memories began to flood my mind as that same, bitter Michigan chill danced through my fingers. My eyes watered, and whether the single tear that managed to escape was from the gust of wind or the influx of memories, I do not know. Yet, as I crawled into bed that night, my freshman self took a hold of my mind.
The fear that I saw in the faces of those two men outside was all too familiar. It was the same fear I felt just three years earlier, walking through an unfamiliar campus with my freshman year roommate. That fear of rejection, how others may react. Suddenly, that insidious, creeping isolation began to re-emerge in my mind.
Hoping to clear my thoughts, I peered outside my frosted window, but now, beneath that same, dying streetlight lay nothing but leaf-covered pavement.
There I knew, despite the people I’ve come to know and the things I’ve come to learn, I could not escape that unshakable loneliness.