I’m queer. I have always been queer. And so I get a lot of questions about queerness: how to tell if you’re homo, if crushing on boys still qualifies you as queer, and what coming out was like. In this here article I’m gonna talk about that last thing.
The long and short of it is that I was very lucky. I never really had to “come out” to my friends and family, because they all suspected before I did that I was gay, and they were (mostly) OK with it. Even so, every time I come out to new people or to my mother for the hundredth (thousandth) time, I hold my breath a little because I still never know what’s going to happen. It can be scary and it can be dangerous, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
According to one study, 26% of gay teens who come out to their parents are told they have to leave home. That’s terrifying—we are meant to love our parents, but how can you love someone who can’t accept who you are?
When I finally told my parents, it was right after Tyler Clementi committed suicide. Tyler went to my school; he killed himself after his roommate secretly taped him kissing another boy and shared it with friends via Twitter. The people I had been living with at the time felt OK making jokes about Tyler when they knew I was queer. As a result, I was at my parents’ house a lot, thinking about my queerness and how similar (and how different) I was from this boy who killed himself. I wanted to tell my parents why I felt so unhappy—it wasn’t because I was queer, it was because it now felt dangerous to be queer. My sexual orientation loomed in my mind all of the time, and it felt like a physical weight on my shoulders. It was finally just too much. I had to say something to my parents. I had to. I needed them to tell me it was OK and that it didn’t matter what the kids in my dorm were saying, because they loved me. I needed someone to say that to me. So during dinner, when we were watching a news report on Tyler’s death, I blurted it out. And I just waited, nervous and scared and hopeful.
My dad? I knew he’d be OK with it, which is why I am so lucky. I have the best dad—he is my best friend, he is my everything. My mother is another story. I knew that she wouldn’t be OK with my orientation. I love her, and I know she loves me, but she has always been the most conservative person in our household. Still, it hurt when she said that my being queer was an illness and that she wouldn’t want to go to my wedding if I had one. You can’t really prepare to hear such a thing from someone you love. You just bear it. “This is my mother,” I thought, “the person who raised me and loved me and makes terrible meatloaf and drove me to swim practice every day after school. She loves me. How can she say this to me?”
I was afraid she’d kick me out of the house, but my dad would have none of it. If my mother didn’t like it, she could leave, he said. This house was for me, he said. Everything they had done was for me, he said. Whom I love was not up to them, he said. And he has stuck by me and supported me throughout. He asks me how my girlfriend is doing, he writes letters to newspapers on behalf of gay rights and sends me copies, he drives me to pride parades. He is the best man alive. I am unspeakably, wondrously lucky.
But the thing is, too, that I wasn’t seeking my mom’s approval. I still don’t seek her approval. There comes a point when you realize that your parents make mistakes just as often as you do, and that they are people, too, and they can be wrong. When you come to terms with that, their approval becomes unnecessary. You don’t ask them for their permission, just for their love. That’s why I’m still on good terms with my mom despite the fact that she’s grossed out by my queerness. When she asks me if I’m dating a cute boy, I just bluntly tell her that I’m more inclined to date a cute boi. It’s a friendly but firm reminder. I still love her, and it’s important to me that she knows exactly who I am. I know deep down that she is wrong on every level. I know that I am a healthy person, regardless of the gender of the person I love, and I am a good person because I am capable of loving, and my love is just as valid and beautiful as any hetero relationship.
The thing people don’t really tell you about coming out is that it is a perpetual, never-ending event. You don’t come out just once. You come out to your parents, you come out to your best friends, you come out to acquaintances, and you repeat this throughout your life with varying degrees of acceptance and success. It’s not always a banner event. Sometimes it’s just slipping “my girlfriend and I” into a conversation, or your partner calling you when you’re at work and a co-worker asking who it is, or the queer T-shirt you forgot you were wearing to class. You don’t always plan it. But you shield your heart and hope for the best every time. You realize who your true friends are. You realize a lot.
Now, coming out to someone else is a little different than coming to terms with it yourself, which, in my opinion, is messier. I don’t think I’ve met a lot of queers who knew point-blank from the very beginning that they were gay. We go through phases: I’m bi, I’m gay, I’m pansexual, I’m gay, I’m in a straight relationship but I’m curious, and so on and so forth. Not having a clue is fine, and it’s normal. I identified as bi for a while in high school, but then I realized the only people I liked were girls so I switched to gay, but then I realized I still crush on boys and genderqueers sometimes, so I went pansexual, but that still didn’t feel right to me. Being un-straight is hard because, before you can really come out as anything other than heterosexual, you need to figure out what the boundaries of each label actually are. And it’s harder than it sounds. We all feel love and lust differently, and it’s difficult to translate feelings into one word, especially when that word is supposed to encompass an entire identity. Most straight kids (and adults for that matter) never question their straightness and prefer to ask us, “How do you know you’re gay?” Straightness is represented everywhere. It’s the norm. It’s in every rom-com. It’s in every television show. It’s in our laws. It’s on the billboards. It’s in the books. Gays stick out because we’re different than what we’re told to be, and that scares the crap out of some people. It makes them want to hurt us because it makes them question what the very definition of “normal” is.
Enough about that. I’ve told you my coming-out story, and now I want to talk about yours, especially if you haven’t come out yet. I want you to know that it isn’t your obligation to come out to other people if you don’t want to. You don’t owe anybody anything that might risk your safety or home or livelihood. If you do come out—and I hope that you do eventually because it’s fun on the other side of that closet door, and you can go to queer parties and make eyes with pretty ladies and not feel bad about it—know that you are so, so strong for being able to do so. It changes your life, ideally for the better, but you’ve got to be ready for it. Once you take that step and admit it to yourself and to the person or people you’re coming out to, the rest…the rest is awesome. Or it should be. Find people who are out, too, and make them your support group. There is this thing called the internet (you may have heard of it?) that saves me every day that I feel down or unsure about myself. For instance, I like Tumblr, and fashion blogging led me to feminist fashion bloggers, who led me to queer feminist fashion bloggers. You can find friends and talk about things that you can’t really talk to straight people about. (Queers talk about queer life ALL THE TIME. It’s hilarious and awesome.) They will accept you for who you are. It might take a while, but that community is your home as much as your parents’ house, and it’s something to cherish.
If coming out doesn’t go well, there are other options, and you deserve love and support more than ever. Go to your nearest women’s center or queer shelter (here is a page of resources nationwide), and keep in mind that you are not alone, you are worth more than what was given to you, and you will live through this.
We are family, and I love you for who you are. ♦