Happy National Coming Out Day!
Coming out happens in all sorts of ways – it can be one big hoorah type of celebration, it can be in incremental steps over time, or some people don’t have one “coming out” moment, and other times, we’re outed or forced to come out before we’re ready. No matter how you do or don’t come out, you’re valid and your journey is just as important in understanding yourself. To those of you who were outed or forced to come out before you were ready, my heart truly goes out to you but know that you are loved here at the Queerblr and we’re proud of you.
Coming out is not an easy process for most people. For some lucky individuals, it just clicks and there’s really no internal debate or process of dealing with internalized homophobia. But for the majority of us in the LGBTQ+ community, it takes time to understand everything and come to terms with it ourselves, and then more time to be okay vocalizing it to others.
It has been over 14 years since I started my coming out journey and it has been about 6 years of being completely out in every facet of my life. Here’s a little bit of my story:
I knew that I liked girls when I was in third grade. My mom often sent me to school dressed in pinks and dresses and shirts with large kitten decals on them. I remember hating every second of being in those clothes. I felt more comfortable in loose-fitting neutral-colored clothing that allowed me full range of motion of my limbs so I could run and blend into the surrounding forest just outside of our apartment complex in Juneau, Alaska.
I distinctly remember being in third grade and watching a girl talk with the cool boy, Darryl, that all the girls seemed to really like. How they’d try and get his attention. How they’d talk with him once they had it. How they’d talk about him when he wasn’t within earshot. I remembered thinking, in my third-grade brain before I had any concept of sexual orientation or sexual attraction, that I wanted girls to talk to me the way they talked to Darryl. So, I started wearing my sisters’ clothing. My twin sisters are two years older than I am and they were allowed to wear jeans instead of sweat pant material because they were in fifth grade, getting ready to graduate to middle school. Their clothes were big on me, but I liked it. That’s how Darryl and his friend Nico dressed – loose fitting jeans that weren’t quite on their hips and comfortable looking hoodies. Once I started dressing like that I had the confidence to go up and talk to girls. Eventually, the girls even started talking with me the way they’d talk with Darryl, somewhat shy and plenty of giggling.
Late in my sophomore year of high school was when it all started to click. I had had several boyfriends for very short-lived relationships that scarcely went past pecks on the lips and hand holding. I never felt comfortable when I guy would try to do anything more.
I was 15 the first time I vocalized that I thought I was gay. I was on a trip to Gustavus, Alaska with a group of friends for a long weekend. We spent our days walking around the tiny town, floating lazy river style in slow-moving creeks, eating ice cream on the fishing dock, visiting horses out the road, sitting in the back of a pick-up and waving at everyone we passed, playing with a ouija board in the attic, and telling stories about a fictitious guy named Sven and his cabbages while we rotated through turns at a coin-op shower at the Glacier Bay hotel. It was an amazing weekend of fun and friendship.
On our last night in Gustavus, we were staying at Tamsen’s family cabin and Tamsen and the other Brittany (AKA, Bitty) were asleep in their sleeping bags on the bed in the other corner of the room. Angela and I shared a bed, cuddled up in our own separate sleeping bags. Neither of us could sleep and we just started talking and we eventually landed on my short-lived relationships and if either of us were interested in a certain guy. This moment, clutching my sleeping bag against the cold cabin air, was the first time I said that I thought that I was attracted to other girls out loud. Angela listened patiently as I rambled and fumbled through my thoughts. She offered that I may be gay, but that it also wasn’t wrong to acknowledge that other women were attractive or appreciate how other women looked.
A year later, Junior year, I asked out a girl out for the first time. Cate was an actress who I’d gotten to know when we both were in the fall play. I asked her out in the most stereotypical high school manner, in my opinion: We were in spring semester, working on the spring musical, and I asked her out via handwritten note that I’d nervously shoved into her hand when Chelsea’s mom was driving us all home after a late tech rehearsal and I was the first one to be dropped off. Before this particular evening, I’d voiced that I was gay to several people in the theatre department and was always met with acceptance. Theatre was my safe place to really be myself and discover more about me by exploring other people through acting or by watching others do so on stage while I worked whatever technical theatre position I was assigned to, which I did far more often than acted.
My first kiss with a girl was incredibly awkward. Cate had said yes to my cheesy love note asking her out the next day at school. I was a fumbling 16, almost 17-year-old who never really understood how dating worked since I’d never felt comfortable with the handful of boys I’d tried dating. A few days after we’d started dating, Cate and I were upstairs in the theatre department in one of the large prop storage rooms looking for a lamp and other small set pieces to include for a specific scene. We were talking and somehow came to a point in the conversation where Cate said: “Oh, I just have a super hard time saying no to people.”
My chest instantly went tight at those words. “You didn’t say yes to me asking you out because you–”
“No!” she cut me off and took me by the hands. “I said yes because I like you.”
She then pulled me in for what I thought was a hug but she thought was a kiss. It was awkward, to say the least.
Later that night, after rehearsal was over, she was catching a ride home and I still had work to do on the sheep prop that I was sewing together by sewing a wool fabric over a husky plush toy (we called him Frankensheep through the entire production). Cate asked me to walk out to the car with her and I did and it led to our first proper kiss. Kissing her in the parking lot was like everything I’d read or watched when two people kiss and everything just clicks. I wasn’t overcome with the feeling of needing to pull away like I had always felt when kissing boys. I wanted to be closer, in fact. And everything just seemed to fit.
The next step in my long coming out process was coming out to my mom. I probably didn’t time it very well, but it was the day before valentines day my Junior year of high school and I’d asked my mom to drive me to the grocery store before we went home so I could pick up roses for my friends. She thought it was a cute idea and we went. She then picked up on how much I was talking about this new girl she hadn’t met yet. My mom knew all my friends as we would often hang out at our house and threw an annual Halloween party every year; some of my friends even called her “Mama Buell,” when they referred to her.
“You keep mentioning this Cate girl. Who is she?” she asked as we went down a different aisle to get something for dinner.
Anyone who knows me personally knows that I can’t stand lying and I am the worlds worst liar, so I just don’t do it. I remember panicking slightly when my mom asked. I could have told her that she was a girl I met through theatre, which was technically true, but instead, I opted to tell her the truth while my hands were shoved nervously into my pockets.
“Well… she’s, uh, my girlfriend.”
A long argument in the grocery store was then followed by my mom calling Cate’s mom to discuss our “relationship.” While the two of them were on the phone, I overheard my mom say that it had to be a phase and that we were only experimenting with dating girls because all the other kids in the theatre department were doing it, too.
It was infuriating to listen to, sitting on the couch as anger welled in my core. But then my dad sat down next to me.
“So you’ve got a girlfriend.”
“Yeah,” was all I could say. I was too angry and upset to say more.
“Well,” he started as he gave me a one armed hug as we sat. “I still have to chaperone the first date.” I looked up at him and saw him simply smiling at me.
My mother only really accepted the fact that I was gay when I was named vice present (and later, president) of my college’s gay-straight alliance and was in my fourth relationship with another woman. At that point, she finally acknowledged that my sexuality wasn’t some kind of fad phase.
The last person I came out to was my grandmother. I’ll never forget her reaction.
Growing up, I was always the apple of to my grandpa chuck’s eye. He’d never admit that I was his favorite, but he didn’t have to. I idolized him and wanted to do everything that he did. I loved going over to help him with his flowers or run the register of the herb shop he ran out of his house while he napped in the spring and summer. In the winter months, I was always over helping him bake holiday treats and constructing gingerbread houses (we even made a three-foot-tall castle once). My love of my grandpa led to a lot of time at their house.
All the time spent there usually ended up with my grandparents telling and retelling stories. Through these stories, I learned that my grandma was the second oldest of thirteen children. She grew up in Oklahoma in the 1940s. When she was still a teen, she married her first husband and stole away to Hollywood, where she waitressed for fun. She never called it work because she saw it as socializing; she was well known among the actors of the time and would give them lip as if they were sitting at her dining room table.
I was terrified to tell my grandma that I was gay which stemmed from the fact that she was raised in Oklahoma. I think Grandpa Chuck knew I was gay because he’d always ask how things were with my female friends—he seemed to always figure out who I was dating by the conversations we’d have and would specifically ask about those friends. But that type of thing never came up when talking with grandma.
I was 23 when it finally happened. I’d moved back home with a girl I’d met at college. We (at the time) thought we were in it for the long haul and I brought her to meet my grandma on a Wednesday night family dinner. My grandpa would have loved her, but he’d passed away two years prior.
We walked in and introductions were made. My grandmother was happy to see me and glad that I was finally home. Naomi did well with meeting everyone and she fit right into our family. As we were leaving after dinner we hugged everyone and said our good nights and reminded people of who was bringing what next week. As I moved from hugging my grandma to hug my mom, I heard grandma say to Naomi, “I know I just met you, but I love you, too. Thank you for bringing her home.”
I had to hide the joyful tears that welled. But, knowing that my grandma grew up in the ’40s in Oklahoma still made me think that she was just happy to see me home and that she either didn’t understand that Naomi was my girlfriend or if that was going to be a whole different confrontation later.
When Naomi and I got engaged, we went to tell her. Grandma looked at us and said:
“I want you to remember something; there will be people who don’t understand and who will ridicule you for who you are. But don’t pay them any mind. All that matters is that you love each other and that you’re happy. You don’t need to listen to close-minded idiots.”
I was even more surprised when Thanksgiving rolled around that year. Growing up, my two sisters and I were always assigned something to do for Thanksgiving dinner. The options were appetizers, pies, or turkey. That year, Adara had moved to Arizona several years prior and Althea was busy working and was unable to come early to help out. Being my first Thanksgiving back, I was eager to go over and help. Food had to be made while we watched the Macy’s day parade and be done by the time that the Purina Dog Show started, as it was tradition to sit down with hot cocoa together and watch.
While I was cutting fruit for the fruit salad, grandma tentatively came up to me, very slowly and deliberately putting dishes in the sink.
“Now, you can tell me that it is none of my business, but I want to ask you a question.”
I looked up and chuckled. “Okay. Shoot.”
“When did you know you was gay?”
I blinked and stood for a long moment, placing the knife I had been using to cut the strawberries down so I wouldn’t accidentally cut into my thumb. I nervously rubbed the back of my opposite hand and thought of how to respond. Finally, I turned to her and said, “Third grade, Grandma. I knew in third grade that I liked girls.”
She bit her lips together between her gums. The other guests for the night hadn’t started arriving yet, so her dentures were in their place in the bathroom. Her hair was still in rollers and her tattered pink bathrobe was tied tight around her frail thin waist.
“So you’ve always been?”
I nodded slowly. “It definitely wasn’t a choice. Lord knows it would have been easier being straight all these years.”
She stood there, her fragile hands brought together in front of her. Her focus was somewhere else. Before I had the chance to ask why she had asked, she asked another question.
“Have I ever told you about Cousin Mike?”
I looked at her, confused as to where this was going. Technically, my cousin Mike was my mom’s cousin. I knew about him, but I’d never met him as he had died when I was still in diapers. According to my mom, he was a literal genius and had the IQ to prove it, drove like a Chihuahua on speed, and was as gay as they came. He had also, unfortunately, died of AIDS in the 90s.
“Mom’s told me about him,” I replied.
“When Kathleen–your mom–was born, we brought her over to meet the rest of the family,” my grandmother started. “She was wearing a pink frilly dress with white stockings. Mike sat on the couch, holding her, and out of nowhere, he started to cry. And I mean cry. Tears rolling down his cheeks. His dad came over and asked him, Mike, what’s wrong? Mike stroked Kathleen’s dress and said through his tears, I want to wear a pink dress, too. In that moment, we all knew Mike was gay. We’d had our suspicions before then, of course, but this confirmed those suspicions. His pop took in a deep breath and put his hands on Mike’s shoulder and told him I’m sorry, but you can’t wear a pink dress. Not cause I don’t want you too… it just isn’t safe.”
Grandma stood for a long moment, swaying on her feet a little. “We always knew Mike was gay. And we still loved him. God don’t make no mistakes. Mike was meant to be the way he was.” She looked me in the eyes and held my gaze. “And so were you. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”
I didn’t cry, but I felt tears welling in my eyes. I’ve never hugged her for as long as I did in that moment. In that moment, she taught me that it doesn’t matter when you’re born, where you’re raised—what matters is that your family is where you learn about discrimination or hate. In that moment, it didn’t matter that she grew up in the 40’s in Oklahoma. It mattered that she grew up with sense enough to think for herself and that was what she taught her children.
After coming out to my entire family, I didn’t feel that I needed to come out to anyone anymore. At work, if I’m ever asked about my personal life or relationships, I don’t hesitate and simply say my girlfriend. But, it wasn’t over night that I got to that point. It took me 8 years to finish my coming out process, systematically telling people as I was ready to tell them. I know that I’m incredibly lucky to have had a relatively easy coming out – I was never threatened to be disowned or kicked out of a living situation, I was never told I was an abomination or living in sin, or anything of the sort.
Coming out is incredibly personal and it takes time. Coming out happens in all types of ways, small and big, casually and methodically.
I hope by sharing my story that it helps in whatever way you need it to, whether it is showing that coming out can take a long time to do, showing you that our gut feelings as a child shouldn’t be ignored, that being who you truly are will make you happier than denying it ever will, or that sometimes your family will surprise you with how they respond.
Happy national coming out day, queerders. Know that you’re loved and if you ever need someone to talk to, I’m always a message away.