Coming Out Gay College Essay


“An essay like this should give a peek into who you are,” I’d counseled my son, a high school senior. By “an” I meant “your college essay.”

“Eh,” he’d replied. We climbed the hill near our house and his legs, longer than mine, moved quickly. Throughout the college-seeking process, we’d taken many walks and discussed schools he found most intriguing. “I’ll just write it in a day,” he told me. I tried not to worry about his approach, or his deadlines. I hoped that he’d say… something.

As my inbox filled with supplemental essay drafts, and a letter of intent to his top choice college, I began to feel impatient for receipt of “the” essay. Eventually, an email arrived, subject line “Main Essay.”

His essay began with his great-grandmother’s appearance (my grandmother) at the Supreme Court to argue a case about foster care in 1974 and quickly moved to 2015, the April day Obergefell v. Hodges, the gay marriage case, was to be argued. My son was outside the Court, thanks to a well-timed college visit in D.C. The gist of his essay was about the sense of home he experienced in that exuberant crowd. His takeaway about belonging — to the queer community and to the world of activists and change makers unwilling to tolerate injustice when the potential to ask for a better world existed — affirmed him.

In the middle of his college application essay, filled with big ideas about a more ideal and just world, he came out. He came out to essay readers, and he came out to his parents — his line editors.

I flashed back to how insistent he’d been about this college visit, more focused on Tuesday’s rally than Monday’s tour. We’d questioned taking another day off from school right after spring vacation, but he refused to budge. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at his insistence to witness it. The day same sex marriages became legal in Massachusetts my husband and I had taken him and his brother to City Hall before daycare. We’d wanted our kids to experience the day’s jubilance over a right we hoped would spread across the country. No one imagined just how quickly that might happen. So we agreed to the Tuesday in D.C.

That May morning years earlier, I’d breathed a tiny bit easier as I imagined what it might be like for my children to marry the person loved and chosen with legal protections in place. Among friends and neighbors, the mood was giddy. We hugged loads of people. There were balloons. The sun shone brightly. The air was cool, but not bracing. After dropping kids at daycare, I returned to City Hall. My best friend and I wound up at our friends’ wedding, witnesses along with their young twin boys. It was a moment.

My son wanted his moment. He sought it out; he drank it in. I wanted to focus on that, but he hadn’t asked me to chime in. He’d asked me to sift through stilted, earnest words he hoped would illustrate all that thoughtfulness and emotion, and those ideals he held with such deep conviction. I tried to excise cliché and rearrange a couple of paragraphs. As I did so, I stifled the urge to jot a note back in all caps (actually I wrote it then deleted the sentence: DID YOU MEAN TO COME OUT IN YOUR COLLEGE APPLICATION ESSAY?).

Obviously, he did.

The hardest part about my son’s essay wasn’t the coming out. What hurt was his reluctance to tell us face to face. Because this news arrived so quietly and under deadline, I felt like I had to attend to the essay revision when instead, I wanted to say something. Or hug him, or get him a rainbow cake. I stuck to the task at hand, reluctant to risk derailing his progress if I responded in the wrong way just then. Besides, he wasn’t asking for his parents’ approval, something he knew he already had. I tried to take his lead.

Essay complete, we walked up the hill the next day again. “So?” I asked.

He explained that, “everyone knows” except of course, his parents. “It’s not really news,” he continued. “I don’t talk about real things with you,” he assured me.

“Ouch,” I replied. “I just want to say, even if you don’t want to talk about it, I’m here whenever you do. And it’s great news, even if it’s not news.”

I had to console myself with this: he did, in his way, tell us, and not in a mumble. He revealed to us how strongly he felt about his discovery of his place in the world. I hope and trust that no matter what the admissions people decide, he knows, as we do, what a brave and wondrous declaration it was, and is—and that although he might not profess to care, we heard him. Our response, if muted and cautious, came with love—and pride.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a writer and can be found on twitter @Standshadows.

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For the first, I asked a number of current L.G.B.T. undergrads how they had handled this issue on their college applications. One current student told me: “In the end, I didn’t include any mention of that aspect of my identity in my essays. I didn’t want to have even the slightest chances of affecting my chances of admission.” Others said they believed that coming out in their essays had played a part in their being rejected by schools they should have gotten into. Still others thought that by coming out they could increase the odds of admission at a school committed to a diverse student body.

I also called an expert, Christoph Guttentag, who is Duke’s dean of admissions and has read more than 50,000 essays. He replied that if a school has antigay policies or is generally L.G.B.T.–unfriendly (usually religious colleges), then he recommends putting a lid on your sexual orientation or gender identity. Otherwise, he told me, “When students present themselves as who they are, it’s rewarded in the admissions process. Authenticity is perhaps the attribute we see too rarely.”

On a more practical level, however, whatever your daughter says in her essay it’s not difficult for an admissions officer to learn about her sexuality. According to a 2013 Kaplan Test Prep survey, 31 percent of college admissions officers said they had visited a prospective applicant’s social media page – up 5 percentage points from a year ago. Even a cursory online search could reveal that an applicant has started a straight-gay alliance at their high school or posted a blog about the challenges of coming out, said Seppy Basili, a Kaplan vice president.

Are you confused yet? I don’t blame you — college admissions is a difficult, high-stakes game with rules that are opaque to the players (even more so than in our day). To make things more complicated, it’s the second part of your question that is the one with more profound implications.

Here’s why: There’s a big difference between sharing too much (which kids today admittedly do), and actively concealing something.

The Common App invites applicants to share “a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it.” I can think of several such topics that may feel core to a high school senior. If your daughter had been adopted, had had a life-altering accident, or were biracial, would you discourage her from writing about it? I doubt it. As one gay student told me, “My parents did something similar and it gave me a sense of shame, that there was something wrong with me that needed to be hidden.”

In the end, the strategic question probably can’t be definitely answered — nor may it be the best one to ask. In 20 years will she remember what her essay was about? I doubt it. As one mother wrote me, “In the end it actually matters very little what she decides to write in her application, but it matters a lot if she starts to think that her parents want her to hide who she is from the world.”

Clearly you’ve given your daughter a strong sense of self and the confidence to be who she is, even if the world is not as tolerant as we’d all hope. Sure, one of a parent’s jobs is to worry, but after 17 or so years you can’t be there for every important decision in life. So, please reconsider what message you are sending to her when you ask her to conceal her identity.

If you were the parent, how would you handle this situation? And do you think they really have any reason to worry in this post-Glee world?

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Correction: December 3, 2013

An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of Kaplan vice president. He is Seppy Basili, not Seppi.

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