Coming out is a process for most people, myself included. I tried to write about it and realized that to do so in one post would be possible but not ideal. For me, it was an evolution. A collection of starts, stops, and pauses. I will write it as such.
Read previous installments in the Coming Out series.
Talking is kind of my thing. I have quite the big mouth and my life story is available for anyone who dares to ask about it. I am also terrible at keeping all but the most important secrets. The fact that it took me almost fifteen years to tell another soul that I am attracted to women astonishes me.
I share plenty of things with various family members but my friends are my true confidants and were an obvious go-to. It didn’t even occur to me to start telling family about my romantic feelings toward women. In 2000, I had two clear choices about to whom I should come out: my high school BFF, Leigh, or new college bestie, Emily (Em).
I felt like I’d known Leigh forever. We were soul sisters. But, I wasn’t sure how she would handle my news. We had shared everything for so long. She had shared all her dreams and fears with me but I had hidden something very important from her. I was afraid that she would be mad at me for lying, uncomfortable because of our past friendly physical intimacy (shared beds, etc.), or that it would change our relationship in any number of ways.
Em seemed to be a much better choice. I knew that she was comfortable with gayness, would keep my confidence, and that she always gave excellent advice. Plus, part of the point of telling someone was so that I could receive some help finding a girl to date. It would have been impossible for Leigh to do that- she went to school four hours away.
After my short-lived relationship with Dana, I was desperate to share my experience with Em. I just needed to find the right time to tell her. It didn’t take long.
Em was a member of the crew team which had an initiation party every year for incoming freshmen (think less hazing, more drunken revelry). I wasn’t on the team, but since my three best (college) friends were, I was invited. After the team did their not-so-secret bonding ritual, honorary crew friends such as myself got to go to the after-party.
Hmmm. Skip the 5:00 am workout, show up for free 10:00 pm drinks? Don’t mind if I do.
This is how I found myself sitting on a back porch, in a chair, with Em on my lap (it was the only seat), drunkenly talking about sex.
I had been so scared to say something but the alcohol certainly served me well that night. Several jungle juices in, I didn’t have the brain power to worry in anticipation of the big moment. Rather, the words tripped off my tongue and I had just one moment of sheer panic. Physically, it felt like I was teleported onto and then off of a roller coaster: my insides seemed to bounce.
Instead, Em accepted my statement with ease. She was much more concerned with the details than with the fact of my coming out. She immediately wanted to know if I would be telling other friends, if I was going to try to date women, etc. It was such a relief not to have to really explain my feelings. I told her about searching online, dating Dana, and wanting Morgan. Suddenly, I realized: I had poked my head out of the closet and it hadn’t been chopped off.
Em and I had several discussions in the days after our first talk. She asked me if I would tell our other friends, my family, etc. and I told her that I thought that I would start with our friends. Once the words were out of my mouth she was quick to encourage me to proceed. I’m not sure why it mattered so much to her but, as soon as Em knew that I planned to tell them at some point, she wanted me to go ahead and get it over with. She even eagerly offered to do it herself. Maybe my secret was so big that she was having trouble containing it, too.
I told our best dorm mates, Sarah and Elle, just a week or so later. This resulted in more questions, a few jabs because I waited so long to tell them, and a fairly thorough examination of my online dating profile. It was done, though. I was still in the closet but I had unlocked the door and thrown away the key. Now that a few people knew, there was no turning back. And, since my admission had gone so well, I was emboldened to tell more people.
I came out to several friends at school, began hinting to acquaintances, and spent the year getting more involved in the women, gender, and sexuality studies activities on campus so that I could make friends with people who were queer and queer allies. I was still desperate to impress the “cool” kids in the women studies program, and get noticed by Morgan Hersill, so I slowly but surely spread the word that I was bi and looking.
Then, tragedy struck. One day, Morgan Hersill was up for grabs and the next, she was dating a freshman that I’d never heard of, named Catherine. A smart, beautiful, funny, outgoing, and impossibly radical feminist who suddenly entered our little circle and changed everything.
While I was busy trying to turn my little queer spark into a flame, Catherine blew up like a supernova. She was immediately accepted into the group, getting noticed for things that I’d been trying to get noticed for for the better part of a year. Just like that, Morgan was no longer an option for me (though, that didn’t stop me from trying to get her attention).
That year, Morgan was the lead coordinator of the first annual conference on gender issues being hosted by the Women Studies department at our school. She opened a call for abstract proposals to students, faculty, and even gender studies professionals that were unaffiliated with the college to invite them to submit presentation ideas for consideration. Never the best student (I was always both one of the brightest and laziest kids in my classes), I took one look at the other people that were presenting and knew I was outclassed. I didn’t bother submitting an abstract. I was a second year student with only a handful (maybe three) women studies classes under my belt and had no interest in embarrassing myself in front of my intellectual betters.
That’s when she called me. Morgan had received several proposals but needed more in order to fill out the agenda. Would I consider putting a presentation together?
This was huge! Morgan and I had known each other for about a year. We had had one class together and now saw each other at least once per week at our feminist club meetings. I had even been invited to her house for a few parties. But, she had never called me before and had certainly never indicated that she thought anything of me, one way or another. Having someone whom I idolized for her intelligence call me to ask me to participate in an academic pursuit as a favor, to help her out, was mind blowing. I immediately said yes.
Then, I got off the phone and actually cried. I’m not a crier and I’m not really sure what that was about. Maybe it was partially because she caught me by surprise or because it was a relief that she actually seemed to see me. I was definitely happy to have been contacted. But, I also think that there was a part of me that was upset- horrified that I was so overwrought by a simple phone call. I had thought about my sexuality so much, spent so much time worrying about it, that I think my emotions about this crush were just too close to the surface.
As soon as my 15 seconds of tears were over, my heart started to pound for an entirely new reason: I had agreed to speak at this event and had absolutely nothing to say. What the hell was I going to do? Suddenly, I was the youngest student, and only sophomore, to present at a conference featuring twenty of my idols and I had nothing to say.
In the end, I got lucky. I was taking a class with my favorite women studies professor at the time (the same one who had introduced me to feminist thought in the first place) and I had two last papers coming up before the end of the semester. She and I had already discussed how I wanted to write something about the invisibility of lesbian adolescents and I thought that the topic would also be the perfect fit for the conference.
At the time, nearly all research being done about homosexuality focused on adult males. There was almost nothing out there about bisexuality or transgender issues. There was very little formal talk about queerness in school health classes and I believed that it was evident that lesbian girls (especially) were suffering for it. I found research suggesting that there were corollaries between how comfortable teens and young adults were with their sexuality and when they were coming out and then also found that women were coming out about ten years later than their male counterparts, which I attributed to a lack of discussion, education, and understanding of these forgotten girls. I asked my professor if I could combine my two papers into one, more detailed, assignment, write it like a speech, present at the conference, and then turn my background research and lecture notes instead.
I still can’t believe she said ‘yes.’ 😉
By the middle of my sophomore year, I was effectively out on campus. I thought nothing of choosing homosexuality as a topic rather than any number of other feminist issues. The only problem was that I was living a double life back home: my family, Leigh, and my other high school friends still had no idea. And now I was going to have to introduce my parents to my little queer community and then stand in front of them and talk about how hard it is to grow up as a lesbian, all without coming out.
Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t just come out to them then. I think that, in addition to the fear, I just had too many stressful things happening at the time. Regardless, I wasn’t ready. I told my dad that they could come, and then carefully explained the topic and how I was interested in feminist issues as they related to controlling female sexuality, etc. and just hoped that that would cover me. He didn’t ask any questions so I just crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
The day that I gave my first lecture was easily the most nervous I’d ever been in my life. It was my first attempt at being an academic in the truest sense and I felt completely inadequate. Worse, the audience was absolutely nightmarish. Sure, my best friends were there. But, I also had my parents, who I was terrified would think I was gay; professors that I respected in the room, one of whom was actually grading my performance; and, my year-long crush, who would certainly see me crash and burn. I was so shaky beforehand that Morgan actually noticed I was pale and (gently) made fun of me.
I made it to the podium and babbled for about 15 minutes, then took questions. When I sat down after speaking my hand was shaking so hard that Em actually reached out to hold it. At first, I had no idea how I’d done but it turned out just fine. I talked too fast but people seemed to like it. I got compliments later from two professors and eventually received an A from my mentor on my women studies assignment. The only hiccup happened two hours later when I was in the car with my parents on the way to dinner.
I just had so much adrenaline. I was sitting in their backseat, talking about feminism and went to say, “I’m a feminist.” Instead, I said, “I’m a lesbanist.” Oops. I was mortified but, if they noticed my skip, neither said a thing.
After the “big speech” I felt so relieved. I was as out as I could get at school and, though Morgan wasn’t available, I was finally getting some positive attention from her. She even asked me to take over the next year as president of the feminist club, which meant that I was on track to being the most visible, eligible, bi chick on campus. I had even started broaching the topic of LGTBQ issues with my parents and no one had disowned me or given me the ever-dreaded “disappointment face.”
For the first time in my life, my big mouth had done me some favors. Now, I just needed it to see me through the biggest hurdle of all.