Illustration by Eden Taff.

Illustration by Eden Taff.

The startling sense of being able to go in any direction engulfed me after my last day of high school. Anxiety lifted with no return in sight, and I felt free for the first time. After three years of attending my school, which was a notably ultra-conservative institution, I felt stifled. There was a strange façade that implied that the community accepted everyone and brought all the lost children to Jesus, yet underneath it there was a quiet hatred, a silent voice that spoke ugliness about the different kinds of people that God doesn’t love. It was manifested in the utter lack of diversity, the sweeping under the rug, and the cover ups that continuously sought to stamp a certain type of person out—the kind that didn’t align with their misconstrued, pseudo-embracive values. I was always waiting to be outed as one of the targets.

I spent the entirety of my senior year sauntering through the halls attempting to give off the impression that I wasn’t isolating myself for my own safety. It was the nonchalant demeanor with which my peers spewed hate for the many diverse characteristics that make up people that I could no longer take. I wasn’t bullied or ridiculed, but instead was more or less labeled. I was not a person anymore, but an idea that existed as the antithesis of God’s girl. I spoke up, I was wickedly ambitious, and didn’t value myself in relation to the power I submitted to. The best option was to disconnect. I avoided the friendships I had tentatively strung along just to not be alone up until then. It simply wasn’t worth the effort to fit myself into a community I didn’t belong to or in.

It was embarrassing, painful, and unreal to exist in a body I used for this kind of survival and performance. I bent and sculpted myself into a shape over my formative years that I could no longer conform to. I became a circus of my own making, wearing purple lipstick on the weekends, my clothes distancing themselves from the appropriate shapes and cuts. I wanted to out myself further and express the things I gave myself to, and therefore made me who I was—yet I couldn’t due to the subtle indications that I was ultimately unsafe. It was genuinely weird to study the arts and humanities, due to the Bible already encompassing all the principles and views one could discover, and weird to voice strong, liberal opinions that I was immensely passionate about. I was tagged as dangerous territory for my peers by boys I’d never even talked to and those fighting to keep their overwhelmingly hegemonic world intact. I couldn’t let my guard down, and I was constantly and painfully anxious.

Between the last day of exams and graduation, I had something akin to an epiphany: I had been repressing everything, and that everything was that I am queer. It came to me while on shift at a part-time job. It wasn’t with a roar, but with a mere ripple. A tiny click told me that the reason I sought the attention of certain girls wasn’t because I wanted simply to be friends with them; I was silently, emotionally and physically, attracted to them. Although every sign and indication had manifested itself since I began feeling attraction to women when I was 11, I had psychologically repressed this realization until the moment I knew I could be free. The effects of the small deviations I made from what was acceptable told me everything I needed to know about how I would be treated. The casual usage of “fag” and “gay” as derogatory terms, as well as the assertion that queer people were most certainly going to capital H hell, contributed to my utter ignorance of myself. It was obvious that the ways I wanted to express myself were encompassed by the queerness I possessed, and feeling it for the first time as it was was so freeing, so incomparably right that that label fit over me like a second skin, which became my new home.

It didn’t feel earth shattering, it was just as though things were moving into place. The planets were aligning, the stars falling into constellations, it was a movie-esque moment when the metaphorical light bulb hovers over the character’s head like an exclamation point. It wasn’t just my sexuality I had discovered, but a way of being. The displacement I had felt in my school made sense. I belonged to a different community entirely. I was excited about this proverbial piece of the puzzle I had discovered. This monumental fixture to understanding myself had slipped between the cracks in the couch, and I finally one day rearranged the cushions. It didn’t feel like a huge, earth-shattering event, because now it didn’t have to be. I was one step closer to being able to live.

Queerness is a label that encompasses more than sexual orientation, although this is quite often overlooked. The LGBTQ+ community is combusting with people whose bodies and identities don’t interlock with one another. I wasn’t necessarily burdened by the way I presented myself, yet I didn’t feel that this part of myself deserved to be buried for others to be comfortable. After repressing such a foundational part of myself for fear of being ostracized by my peers and due to my own internalized homophobia, I felt that, in a strange way, I was robbing myself of living and experiencing life as who I actually was.

I chopped my hair into a bob before graduation, the shortest haircut I’d ever had. This was thrilling and liberating. This halfway point between the heteronormative, “feminine” style I’d had before, and a short “butch” cut, felt like a perfect compromise in exposing my interior. I wanted to remain femme, but not too femme as to remain unchanged. In many ways, the haircut was my first rejection of heteronormative ideals and standards (such as the well-known stereotype that straight men prefer long hair on women). I felt joy in killing it and hacking it off. I came out to my parents tentatively in August to comforting replies of, “Well, duh.” That felt good, and right, and like a step in the right direction. In this case, my insides began to match my exterior.

It was through this unconventional osmosis that I began to work up the courage to take control of my physical presentation in order to cohesively form a person I could be proud of. This undertaking was my summer romance, a delicate process of testing and trying out ways that would allow me to fall in love with myself. I was experimenting over and over, sculpting and re-sculpting. I went thrift shopping and bought clothing I couldn’t picture anyone else in except myself. My makeup became progressively more colorful and freeing as I applied it to expose the colors of my aura instead of reflecting the images projected onto me. I read a lot of Eileen Myles, drinking her poems in like the very water I needed to hydrate me. I researched, reflected on, and wrote about the worlds I was discovering both internally and externally as a queer woman born into a brand new community. It was the summer of self-care, self-worth, and self-providence.