John McPherrin reaches back into the annals of time, recalling the day 25 years ago when, at four in the morning, his brother came out to him about being gay. That day sparked in McPherrin, now a psychologist at the Student Counseling & Resource Service (SCRS) at the University, a desire to help others like his brother who struggle to come to terms with their sexual identities.
“My brother had a really hard, tumultuous coming-out process,” McPherrin recalls. “He was home for the break, and he was edgy, just really out of character. One of my brothers stayed up all night with him talking, and my gay brother came out to him first. And then he made the rounds, telling each person in the family that he was gay. So I found out my brother was gay at four o’clock in the morning. But he just had to come out then. It was the right time for him.”
For McPherrin’s brother, conservative religious beliefs exacerbated the coming-out process. While many who decide to come out face the possibility of rejection by family and friends, students from very religious families often confront additional challenges.
“My brother came out within a large, male-dominated, Catholic household. In a situation like that, you’re really forced to confront your homophobia. And in some ways I think we’re really all acculturated to be homophobic,” McPherrin said.
Accepting one’s own sexual orientation is always the first step in the process, he said. However, the rest of the process is different for each person.
“The first step in coming out is coming out to one’s self. Then the rest is a lifelong process. ‘Who do I come out to next?’ I advise students that you don’t need to do it all at once,” McPherrin says.
“I don’t feel that I can pressure students to come out to their parents. Sometimes it’s just not the right time for it for the particular person. Sometimes students have loving relationships with their parents but they’re not sure if they can accept them in this one area,” he adds. “Everyone has their own way of doing this and you don’t have to tell everyone.”
Andrew, who requested that his real name be withheld, is a third-year international student studying economics at the University. Since middle school, Andrew has recognized his attraction to other men, but only this past summer did he come out to his mother.
“I came out last summer to my mom at home. I decided to come out to her because I’m really close to her and I didn’t want to lie to her anymore. She rejected that at first,” he relates. “She was not surprised, she had that fear that I might be gay. She told me she would support me in whatever I am, but I know she’s not totally supportive because she asked me whether I’m interested in seeing a psychologist to see whether I’m really gay or not. But I knew that wouldn’t work, I was totally sure.”
Although Andrew felt comfortable coming out to his mother and a few close friends from Chicago and home, he is not yet out to his extended family.
“Being from an Asian family, they’re not really accepting of these issues,” he explains.
“I actually told my mother not to tell anyone else. I actually have a big family and I don’t think that these people are ready for the truth yet. But after I came back for fall quarter last year, she ended up telling me on the phone that she told my father and my brother. I was a bit pissed at first. I would have been even more pissed if she had told my grandmother or other relatives.”
Daniel Rabe graduated from the College last year with degrees in biochemistry and chemistry. Currently a medical student at Ohio State University, Rabe came out the summer before his third year at the University of Chicago—first to himself and then to his mother.
“For me, coming out was first admitting to myself who I was attracted to, which was an integral part of who I was. Before coming out, I had, to some degree, not known something about myself,” he said in an e-mail interview. “I was essentially in denial—denial induced by the rampant yet often unspoken homophobia I had known growing up. Coming out to me was a way of discovering something about myself.”
“I came out the summer before my third year, first to my mother. She had always made it clear to my brothers and me that it made no difference to her, and that she hoped we would be willing to talk to her about it. I am out to my family—except my father’s side of the family—my friends, colleagues, and was out on my MD applications,” he wrote.
While both Andrew and Rabe knew that they were gay in high school, neither felt comfortable coming out prior to entering college.
“Being gay in high school was something that was not done where I grew up. Now, I know that in a graduating class of approximately 60, I am the only out student. Of the people I know from my school, only three others have come out since high school,” Rabe says.
After transferring to a different high school during junior year, Rabe recalls that he knew of lesbian students who were “promptly thrown out” after coming out about being gay.
“I only knew one person who was out in high school [at home],” Andrew adds. “Before coming to Chicago, I went to boarding school in Boston for a while. I only knew a few gay guys there. It was a bit conservative.”
Many students find that a larger, more diverse college environment presents the perfect opportunity for coming out to themselves and others.
“In college, you’re away from your parents and you can avoid the issue of acting gay near your parents. I think college is more intellectual and open about being gay. There are lots of resources and it’s bigger and there are other people who are gay,” Andrew says.
For Rabe, part of the coming-out process entailed getting involved in the University’s Queers and Associates (Q&A) group, the largest support group for queer students on campus. He became a member during his third year, and as a fourth-year served as Q&A co-president.
After coming out, Andrew also attended several Q&A meetings but found the more personalized LGBTQ Mentoring Program particularly helpful with working through his sexual identity. The program, which pairs undergraduate students with graduate students and faculty, provides mentees with the opportunity to talk with older mentors about queer identity issues.
“I have my own mentor, and it’s really casual. Last quarter we met twice. It’s just nice to talk with other gay guys who are a bit older,” Andrew said.
OpenSource resource groups and private counseling sessions are additional services available to students at the University of Chicago.
“The OpenSource groups run through the LGBTQ Resource Center are once-weekly confidential discussion groups organized by identity, meaning that there are five groups in total,” said Sarah Bouchat, programming intern at the University of Chicago’s LGBTQ Resource Center and a fourth-year in the College.
OpenSource discussions are student-moderated and separate groups are available for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, queer people of color, and transsexual or genderqueer students. Additionally, this quarter McPherrin is spearheading a new support group for gay men.
“I started the support group for gay men this year just because so many students came out to me in therapy last year. Once this gets underway, maybe we can get other staff members to do support groups for women and transgendered people,” he said.
McPherrin said that the University strives to foster appreciation of sexual diversity, both at the administrative and student-led levels. The openness of the student body mirrors the University administration’s own commitment to campus diversity, he said.
“My impression is that the University is accepting. I’m aware of gay people within the University, administrative people. These people are out, there’s no stigma. There are resources on campus. I think that the student body is pretty progressive. I’m sure not everyone is accepting, but I think in general—and this seems to be a trend—far fewer younger people have issues with sexual orientation than older generations,” he said.
McPherrin’s advice for students who are considering coming out is to be patient. Give family and friends the time to accept the news, he said.
“Not all parents come around, but if you give them time, most realize that their sons and daughters are exactly the same people they always were,” he adds.
“It’s really about love, who people want to spend their lives with.”