In graduate school I explored and developed a new side of myself. And no, I’m not talking about academics or hobbies, this was far more personal.
This was about coming to terms with being gay, finding a partner and telling my friends and family.
I want to share this story and how the awesome people at MIT accepted me and encouraged me during this process.
Starting at MIT was like starting my life from zero again. New city, new academic program, new friends. In a nutshell, new everything.
Moreover, moving to Boston felt like my first chance at freedom to be my true self. How so? Well, this area is more progressive and liberal than where I resided previously. I was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia, and moved to Ames, Iowa for my undergraduate when I was 18. These were both great places but not necessarily good environments to be openly gay (at least that’s what young German thought at the time). Not surprisingly, by the time I graduated I was not out to anybody.
A week or two after I moved here, I created profiles in two dating apps. I remember being apprehensive about what people from my program or graduate residence would say or do if they saw my profile. Nothing bad happened, thankfully, and I started chatting with a few interesting people. For as much as dating apps have been maligned, they were the best option at finding people at a time I had few friends and connections in the area.
One of the people I was chatting with worked as a research assistant at MIT. Like me, Jon had just moved to Cambridge. We hit it off, grabbed food together went to a concert at Kresge, and even attended some academic seminars together (typical MIT nerds, right?). Hanging out with Jon was a great break from the endless hours of homework and studying of the first semester. Things were going so well we decided to become exclusive in early November.
But soon after we hit a speed bump when I invited him to my ChemE friend group Thanksgiving dinner. While he didn’t want to force me to come out to them, Jon felt we were not being sincere if he was introduced just as “a friend”. I hadn’t told this group, my closest friends and study buddies, that I was gay. And as much as I wanted to have Jon at the Thanksgiving table, I was concerned about how my friends would react. It was 2014, I know, but people can be religious and/or socially conservative so I was concerned about negative reactions. However I made up my mind and told them that I was dating a guy. Their response was completely positive. Yay!
Since then I have told other friends, classmates, lab mates and MIT staff. Everyone has been cool with it, which shows the commitment of MIT to having an inclusive and supportive environment. Again, although this is probably expected for people in the Boston metro nowadays, this was very reassuring.
It was a huge relief not having to monitor what I said or to hide my relationship status to others. But I was still having a sort-of double life with my family, as I was still not out to them. Telling them was a far scarier prospect, though. There were no LGBT individuals in my extended family and I recalled hearing some homophobic comments from my cousins, so I was unsure about how they would react. I started doubting whether this was a good idea, and thought about possible scenarios if they did not take it well.
Thankfully I had Jon’s experience, support and encouragement. I was also empowered by the reactions I received from my peers. So I told my parents by phone on my way to a BSO concert in February, and their reactions were disbelief, confusion, shock… phone call two days later… realization, acceptance… Skype call three days after that… understanding, support.
Those days were an emotional rollercoaster, for both my parents and myself. The uncertainty and doubts were, at times, too much to bear while keeping a straight face (ha!) in the lab. However, everything worked out at the end and my parents met (and liked) Jon.
My story is overall a positive one, although I suspect that graduate school, the first semester especially, may not be an ideal time to come out.
This process created fears and doubts during a time I probably should have been focusing on classwork and research. However, starting grad school in a new environment was a unique opportunity to be more open about my true self.
So I don’t regret anything about my coming out process and having a chance to develop emotionally. And while I was very fortunate to have the support of Jon and of my peers, MIT and most universities have plenty of institutional resources you can tap into if you are in a tough situation.