For a long time, I didn’t give any thought to my sexuality. By my third year of university, it was the only thing I could think about. 

While growing up in Northern Ontario and attending Catholic schools my whole life, I hardly knew any gay people, let alone thought being gay myself was an option. We didn’t talk about sexual orientation at school or in my social circles at all. 

In hindsight, I probably didn’t even know what it meant to be gay until I got to Western and was exposed to a much, much more diverse peer group. 

The first time I even entertained the idea was in the summer of 2016, after my first year of university. After two subsequent years of painful and deeply personal self-reflection, I came out as “not-straight” to a close childhood friend in 2018. 

Over time, the number of people who knew filled one hand, then two and then I began to lose count and control of my story, which was a particularly confusing feeling after I had held onto the secret alone for so long.

I remember saying to my friends that my sexual orientation was the worst thing about me — the one thing I couldn’t change and the one thing that was going to overshadow all of the other things I worked so hard for in my life. 

I’ve since found a really unexpected feeling of connection and shared experience with others in the LGBTQ2+ community. While everyone’s experience is unique, a common theme I’ve observed is a past period of raw and lonely self-discovery among gay people. 

My self-discovery was over two years long and involved consuming a lot of LGBTQ2+ literature and media: gay teen novels, same-sex romance films in any language, Reddit threads and YouTube coming out videos — a real staple for many questioning youth.

Yet, while going through this process in my third year, I still cried myself to sleep more nights than I didn’t. My real tipping point was being on the receiving end of homophobic slurs while I was a residence don and being dissatisfied with the university’s response, to say the least. 

I didn’t come out because I was ready or because I was sure; I came out because it was too painful to stay in the closet alone any longer. 

Contrary to my initial assumptions, most of my relationships were significantly strengthened by the vulnerability that accompanied my coming out. I am lucky that my friends and family stood by me unequivocally and remained patient as I slowly accepted myself. Of course, not every LGBTQ2+ person is so fortunate.

The reason I share this context is because from the outside, I think most people around me would have assumed that I had my life put together during a time when I was fighting a deep, internal battle. As an RA and don, then an Ivey guru and an HBA1 peer-to-peer supporter, part of my role was to build community and influence culture, with the goal of helping every student feel like they belonged. 

In these roles, I had conversations with multiple students at Western University and Ivey about their sexuality and fear of coming out. I referred students to resources and encouraged them to be their true, authentic selves, all the while being deeply closeted and unable to act upon the advice I was giving to others. 

Today, I can’t help but regret the opportunities I missed to be a role model in the LGBTQ2+ community on campus — to be someone who younger students could look to as out and proud, sending a signal that our campus was a safe place to be their authentic selves. 

I guess in a way, this article is my last-ditch attempt to be an openly gay role model in my final months on Western's campus.

When I was applying for my current position at the USC, I had no intention of coming out at work, even as I was becoming more comfortable in my social circles. I thought there was no way university administrators would take me seriously if they knew I was gay.  

Then I met Alan Shepard, Western’s new openly-gay president, and I thought to myself, "if they have to take him seriously, then I guess they’ll take me seriously too." When I brought my partner to a few of Western’s fall football games and we had the chance to chat with Alan, his partner and their kids, the feeling was surreal. By Christmas, I considered myself "out" for all intents and purposes.  

My message to anyone reading this piece is that you never know who around you is going through the same thing I’ve described. While our society has evolved significantly, recent political dialogue is a painful reminder that it wasn’t that long ago when even our campus community was not a safe place for LGBTQ2+ people. 

It isn’t enough to not be anti-LGBTQ2+; the people who catalyzed my coming out were unquestionably pro-LGBTQ2+ and made their support known before they knew I was questioning. 

I remember every single conversation over the last four years that had even the most remote reference to others’ views on LGBTQ2+ people. Every “no-homo” joke, every eye-roll at the notion of Pride and every mockery of a gay person behind their back. But I also remember every casual indication that a friend supports same-sex marriage, every compliment of a gay peer and every use of gender neutral language when asking about significant others. 

Each of these instances was a powerful litmus test that helped shape who I could come out to and when. 

The best thing you can do for the countless students who are still closeted on our campus is to go out of your way to send clear signals that you support them and that they belong in our community. Don’t kid yourself, there are many places around the world where they aren’t welcomed, and some of those places aren’t as far away as you’d think.

Lastly, I can’t thank my friends, my family and my partner enough for helping me find a place where I can be happy and feel like my authentic self, for the first time in a long time. The sense of acceptance you made me feel is something I will never forget.

If you’re someone reading this who is still closeted and struggling to understand if you can ever feel like you belong in this funny world, know that you are not alone and that it really does get better. Please don’t wait four years just to realize this isn’t such a scary place to be gay after all. 

— Nico Waltenbury, University Students' Council Communications Officer

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