Feature: Forced out of the closet

By Jayce Ringwald

Are you straight?

It was not a question Karlien Schelfhaut prepared herself for in her first week of college. Karel de Grote was shaping up to be nothing like Sint-Norbertus High School, where Karlien’s graduating class was consisted of only ninety-nine students. Her hour-long commute and disinterest in sports kept her isolated from the other students. Karlien knew she wasn’t straight when she was sixteen, and only four people at Sint-Norbertus knew after she did.

Karel de Grote University appealed to Karlien because it focused on art whereas most of her high school classmates chose pre-med universities. “Going to a college in a bigger city meant being able to afford more freedom as a person,” Karlien said. The idea of being nearly anonymous was one of the biggest reasons she left her small town right out of high school.

Karlien wanted to treat coming out like it was no big deal. Her plan was to come out casually after she had made a few friends. Maybe she’d offhandedly mention Pride if it came up or talk about a show touching on LGBT+ topics. There was no plan for being asked directly, by a professor no less. “He had the habit of keeping direct eye contact going for longer than felt comfortable, like if he looked hard enough he could figure out the truths of the universe somehow,” Karlien said when she described Tom, a thirty-something-year-old humanities professor who made his freshman seminar arrange their desks into a crooked interpretation of the letter “U” so they could all see each other while he asked questions.

The icebreaker started with easy things like: Did you eat breakfast this morning? (Yes, though Karlien couldn’t remember what.) Do you take public transport to school? (It took 45 minutes for Karlien to get to school.) Do you have pets? (Three cats.) Are you religious? (Karlien was raised Catholic, but it never stuck.)

Are you straight?

Karlien didn’t want her new beginning to start with a lie, so she answered “no” and watched as all but one of her classmates answered “yes.” The only other “no” looked relieved he wasn’t the only one, but all Karlien could think was she was being stereotyped and judged by eleven people. She didn’t get the chance to gauge the reaction of all of them because Tom dismissed the class and several people had trains to catch. Karlien tuned out the stragglers’ plans and packed her bag, too wrapped up in the fact she just came out.

Being forced out of the closet before she was ready was uncomfortable, but the thought of future LGBT+ students being put through the same thing in the name of a silly icebreaker was enough to set Karlien on a rant the next time her freshman seminar met. She hadn’t expected her new start to be riddled with high school fears becoming reality. Tom was dismissive and didn’t really understand the impact coming out so suddenly had for Karlien. “I wouldn’t call it all a positive experience,” she said, “but looking back on it, I’m glad I just got it out of the way in one swoop.”

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