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The Complexity of Coming Out

When I opened Facebook last weekend, and I saw that it was National Coming Out Day, I felt what I always feel on that day: a mix of emotions. First of all, when I was a scared and confused teenager, more drawn to my female friends than my male friends, it never occurred to me in a million years that I would ever see a day like this. For that, I am very grateful, as I am for Gay Pride Month and the fact that so many people chided her when Amy Coney Barrett talked about sexual preference rather than sexual orientation. But I also find myself feeling a little annoyed on this day because, although I know the positive symbolism behind it, I also know that there is so much more to coming out than could ever be done in a day.

If you did grow up LGBTQ, coming out mostly meant telling your parents and your family. If you were like me, this was a conversation you practiced many times, making up various responses from your mom and dad—always hoping for the best, but knowing it probably wouldn’t go that way. My mother sobbed, and then asked me, through her tears, how long I’d known. When I said, “Probably forever,” she said, “Me, too.” I guess she just spent the first 20 years of my life hoping she was wrong. Not unlike our Supreme Court nominee, she then said, “I worry that you’ve just chosen such a hard road.” I tried explaining that this wasn’t really something I’d chosen, but I was pretty much drowned out by her tears.

Self-pride takes a long time.

My mother eventually came to accept me being a lesbian, particularly because she truly loved my partner. But, when we broke up many years later, and I eventually started dating other women, introducing them to my mother was like having to come out again. In fact, coming out is a regular part of life for most of the LGBTQ people I know. When you meet someone new, they may sense that you’re gay, but if you’re going to be close to them, you have to tell them in some way. You introduce your partner or find another way to bring it into the conversation. Then you have to wonder how they will respond. Fortunately, as I’ve gotten older, I don’t worry much about other people's feelings about my sexual orientation, but it's still a hurdle to get over in some way. Maybe more for me than them. Self-pride takes a long time.

Recently, I read an Instagram comment from an artist who said she always loses hundreds of social media followers when she mentions being a lesbian. She chalked it up, fortunately, to being their problem and not hers, but it reminds me that who we sleep with seems to be important to a lot of other people. It’s like having to come out all over again every time we mention to a new audience that we are in love with people of our own gender.

When Pride Month and Coming Out Day come around, I’m also incredibly grateful for so many other things, not the least of which is that my mother cried when I told her, but didn’t throw me out in the streets. I know many people to whom this has happened, even still, and it breaks my heart to think of this unimaginable occurrence. I am also thrilled that I know many adults who are so proud of their gay kids and who stand behind them and next to them whenever they can.

On the sad side, our new openness also reminds me of people I know who still can’t come out and still don’t feel safe being who they are. It’s easy on some level to “pass,” to pretend to be straight—because who needs to know? But I also know the shame I felt growing up and knowing I was not like everyone else. I didn’t have the wherewithal then to understand that no one is like everyone else, and that I really was OK just as I was. But I carried that shame with me for many years, trying to date boys, to look more feminine than I did, and to squint enough to see if I could imagine myself just trying to be straight. At this point in my life, I shudder to think of the time I wasted in those self-hate reveries.

So, I’m glad in a million ways to have lived long enough to see people cheering for gay people to come out. But I also know that there are still many people who hope the Supreme Court will end marriage equality. There aren’t enough National Coming Out Days possible to balance my horror and disappointment at that idea, and so I know we are not through coming out yet.

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