College is a great time to explore who you are from your career interests to your personal identity, including what you want in a relationship. But not everyone comes into college knowing exactly what they’re looking for, especially when it comes to sexual orientation. Gay, bisexual, straight, asexual—you name it: there’s an entire spectrum of sexual orientations out there and it can be frustrating to sort out if you’re questioning. We talked to students and Rosemary Nicolosi, staff counselor and coordinator of services for LGBT students at the Johns Hopkins University Counseling Center for advice on opening up about your sexuality.
What does “questioning my sexuality” even mean?
Just ask any gender studies major: sexual orientation is a tricky thing. It’s a term used to talk about whom you’re sexually attracted to (or not attracted to). Females who primarily like males are heterosexual (straight) and females who primarily like other females are homosexual (gay/lesbian). But there’s also a lot in between!
- Heterosexual (straight): People who are interested in the opposite sex as them.
- Homosexual (gay, lesbian): People who are interested in the same sex as them.
- Bisexual: People who are interested in both males and females.
- Asexual: People who are not sexually attracted to others.
- Transsexual: People who identify with a gender that is inconsistent with their biological sex.
- Transgender: People who self-identify their gender as the opposite of what their biological sex is.
- Queer: A blanket term that applies to everyone who is not heterosexual.
- Pansexual: People who are sexually attracted to all biological sexes and all genders.
But if you are starting to question that assumption about yourself, you’re questioning your sexuality. It may take years to truly discover who you are. Virginia, a collegiette at University of Notre Dame, had questioned her sexuality for years before she finally came out to a few close friends and family her junior year of high school. “Growing up, I had always crushed on people of the opposite sex, so I assumed I was straight,” she says. “But then I realized I'm also attracted to people of the same sex. It was confusing because, while I knew bisexuals exist, I thought I was ‘becoming’ gay because everyone only ever talks about gay or straight. No one ever mentions ‘bisexual’ as a valid sexuality.”
How do I know what my sexual orientation is?
Unfortunately, there’s no test for sexual orientation. Some people know just intuitively, and for others, it takes a few relationships before they realize whom they like.
For Eva, a bisexual student at Colby College, her sexuality became clear after a physical relationship with a girl. “You know how girls find girls attractive and will remark on it to one another in a friendly, non-sexual way? I thought that most of my attractions to girls was that until I actually had physical contact with one.”
Alice, a bisexual student at Johns Hopkins, had a similar experience. “I first figured [out I was bi] when I kissed my best friend. It scared me a lot at first, because it was so weird to me and it would be an entirely different lifestyle,” she says.
For others like Virginia, who has never had romantic physical contact with another girl, sexual orientation is just something you know intuitively.
According to Nicolosi, college tends to be a prime time for questioning because of the new environment and the exposure to all sorts of people. “Students may arrive at college with knowledge or inclinations that they are or maybe LGBT. Prior to arriving on campus, they may not have acted on these feelings due to family, peer and societal pressures,” she says. “Often in their home environments, LGBT people are not [seen] as role models. Once liberated at college, many of these students are able to explore their sexuality.”
Akriti, a student at Johns Hopkins University, found college was key to truly discovering her sexual identity. “I think college is a much more chill atmosphere. College kids are liberal. I started college off not hiding my sexuality like I had throughout most of high school. It's also easier to date because I don't have to worry about parents watching what I'm doing or anything like that – takes a lot of the pressure off,” she says.
How should I tell my friends and family?
Coming out seems daunting and scary, but it doesn’t have to be. For Virginia, coming out was nerve-wracking but worth it. “The first two people I told were my closest friends. I told them I thought I was becoming gay. It was terrifying telling them. I was so afraid they would see me differently, like all of a sudden I wouldn't be ME, but some stranger, which is ridiculous because sexuality is only one facet of a person's identity,” she says.
Now, telling people is no big deal for her.
Nicolosi agrees: coming out can be tricky but often worth the peace of mind. Here are her tips for talking to friends and family:
Talk to someone who’s been there
“Speaking with LGBT friends about their experiences is a good start,” Nicolosi says. Ask them what their experiences were like and how they approached coming out: what strategies worked and what do they wish they could have done differently when talking to friends and family? If you don’t have close friends who are in the LGBT community, most colleges have a gay-straight alliance or LGBT student club that can often point you in the right direction.
“Coming in ready contact with LGBT people provides [questioning students] an opportunity to speak with or observe out and proud LGBT folks,” she says.
Make a strategy
Coming out is major, so don’t just blurt it out. And you don’t have to tell everyone, as many of the girls in this article do not. “Anticipate what might happen. Evaluate the pros and cons,” Nicolosi says.
Alice tested the waters by telling a few people before she told her sorority sisters. “If people ask, I always admit it, but I don't bring it up otherwise,” she says.
For Eva, her sexual identity is not her defining trait, but she will bring up the topic to mostly anyone because of the welcoming atmosphere at Colby.
“I tell people I'm close with willingly, then otherwise it usually gets introduced in conversation when my close friends mention it. Otherwise if people ask me directly I'll tell them,” she says.
Coming out on Facebook probably isn’t the best way to tell people the news. Nicolosi advises starting with just a trustworthy friend. “When you share your feelings with a friend ask them to listen only,” she says. All of the student sources for this article reported having very positive reactions from friends they’ve told.
“It's been scary telling people, but I’ve found [the community] so much more accepting than expected,” Alice says. “I’ve never had a bad reaction here.”
Parents can be more difficult to talk to. Nicolosi advises putting yourself in your parents’ shoes. “As you have gone through an often long and difficult process to identify your sexuality, it most likely [will] be a similar process for family members. Give them time,” she says.
Your parents may not be OK with it at first, but giving them time to adjust will help. Their reactions may surprise you. Virginia is out to her parents, and received a warm reaction. But for Akriti, Eva and Alice – they have not told their parents because they do not believe their parents would be OK with it.
If you think certain people will not be open minded about the subject, Alice advises waiting or just not telling them. Telling just one other person, though, is an important first step.
“If people truly know and love you, they won't care if you're straight, gay, bi, asexual, whatever,” Virginia says. “They'll support and love you no matter what. But don't be afraid to talk through what's going on, even if it's with one other person.”
Not comfortable talking to friends and family yet? Seeking professional support can really help. “Seeking outside counseling may be useful. Remember that counseling does not suggest that you have a mental health problem. Counseling is a nonjudgmental, safe, and confidential space for you to continue to explore and gain support,” Nicolosi says. You can also seek support from online communities like Go Ask Alice and Scarleteen.
Dating when you’ve come out
Coming out is daunting enough, but it can sometimes be harder to meet and create relationships with people. For Eva, meeting lesbian or bi girls is no harder than meeting guys. LGBT students in college have similar romantic struggles as heterosexual students. “I'm genuinely tired of the hook-up culture here. I want to be genuine friends with someone and be able to talk to them during the week without it being awkward. And I want a connection,” she says.
Akriti is in her first serious relationship with a girl. “You have to be patient and you have to not be afraid of putting yourself out there. It took me a year and a half of many failed attempts and frustration and ridiculous stories until it finally worked out. And when it did it was really simple and wonderful and totally worth it,” she says. Akriti says coming out was scary, but once you finally open up and try a relationship, it can be a really wonderful thing.
Regardless of your sexual orientation, college is difficult – but with the right support of a few close friends and family members, coming out can be completely worth it.