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The other day, I was dining in a restaurant—one of our most frequented places—with my girlfriend.
At one point, I reached across the table to gently grab her hand and hold it in my own. For a few moments, I forgot where we were as we gazed tenderly into each other’s eyes and talked about how much we enjoyed our time together the previous evening. On a whim, we had booked one night at a fall’s view hotel to celebrate my new job and enjoy some time near the Grand Rapids before the season fully sets in and all the lush greenery left over from the summer browns.
When I glanced over my shoulder, I noticed an older woman sitting with her friend. Her eyes focused in on us, intently, becoming increasingly narrow. Immediately, I could tell that she was not the least bit amused by our innocuous demonstration of affection—and for just a second, I felt a throb of shame.
Maybe she thinks we’re hyper-sexual or perverted, I wondered. Maybe she is an Evangelical Christian and believes that we’re sinful and going to hell. Or, most embarrassing of all, what if she thought I was looking at her because I have the hots for her, too?
I swiftly let go of my partner’s hand and tried to act normal. Suddenly, a wave of indignation crashed up against my belly.
Why should I feel I have to hide who I am anywhere? It’s 2021, for goodness’ sake! I live in North America!
You would think that as someone who has been openly gay for several years and previously married to another woman, I would by now be well-acquainted with these kinds of judgmental glances. For the most part, I most certainly am—especially because my now ex-wife was older than me. However, even though I’ve been mostly out of the closet since the age of 19 or 20, there are still times I catch myself feeling insecure and falling back into the rabbit hole of worrying about what other people might be thinking.
The cold, hard fact of the matter is that when you’re a member of the LGBTQ+ community, coming out is an ongoing struggle—and certainly not a linear one.
I was 17 when I told my mother that I was almost certain I was a lesbian. The year before, I had been dating a young man who was a grade ahead of me. From an objective point of view, I realized he was a catch. He was tall, relatively handsome, respectful, and reliable. He loved me and so did his family. In my own way, I loved him too—just not in a romantic or sexual way.
My mother used to say to me: “Marry a good man who is going to give you a good life. Travel, buy a house, save money, and don’t have kids—they’ll only weigh you down.” Until my teenage years, I never really thought too deeply about nor questioned why each time she said this, the male figure I had in my mind kept on slipping away, like a mental image made of quicksand. In fact, I can even remember being 12 or 13 years old and asking her whether or not it was normal for a girl to like another girl. Interestingly, I cannot recall her response to my inquiry, but a few years later—after I officially came out—she told me that at the time I had asked, she simply thought I was confused. Never did she feel an overarching need to probe any further.
After attending my boyfriend’s senior prom, the uncomfortable reality of the likelihood of me being gay encroached upon me. I couldn’t wait to get home that night. I didn’t like the way I felt when his hands traveled down my back or the heat of his breath against my cheek. I did not enjoy the stubble on his chin when he tried to kiss me. Nor was I electrified at his touch.
The only excitement I felt was when we headed to his car and he drove me back at 2 a.m. Later that morning, I felt a peculiar mixture of sadness and betrayal. I wondered if I had betrayed myself or if he had betrayed what I hoped would be a purely platonic connection. I refused to answer his text message as I sat alone in my bedroom and cried in pain and confusion.
Deep down, I was aware of the truth: I was not interested in men.
While my boyfriend and I were mingling together on the dance floor the night before, I found myself staring at other girls, admiring their softness and their beauty. I even felt a twinge of envy thinking about their boyfriends, how they must have felt to be able to wrap their arms around their waists. Meanwhile, a man’s touch felt to me like a strange violation of my unspoken right to be who I truly was beneath the heterosexual façade.
Finally, I texted him back.
For the next several minutes, it was as if someone had pulled the plug on the radio.
“What,” he typed, in utter disbelief.
“It isn’t your fault, but I’m not attracted to guys,” I continued. “I’ve been feeling this way for a long time. I’ve been trying to hide it.”
Of course, like many people would likely do under the same circumstances, he took my disclosure personally, wondering whether or not he had done something wrong, or far worse than that, wasn’t man enough for me.
That afternoon, my mother eagerly asked me how prom night went. I told her, without much enthusiasm, that it was alright.
“Oh, but he is such a nice boy,” she raved to me. I could see the glimmering stars of hope in her eyes. It was clear to me that she wanted me to keep him. He was the epitome of everything she wanted for me in a boyfriend or a husband.
My mother and I had always shared a close bond. She had always been my best friend, my greatest and most trusted confidant. I was also her only child, which sometimes made me feel as though I had to fulfill her every hope and dream. After all, if I didn’t get married, she would never have the privilege of proudly watching her child walk down the aisle. How could I rob her of such a life-altering moment?
I wanted so badly to tell her how I really felt and that I was harboring a shameful acknowledgement in some secret crevice in my heart. With a pensive expression, my eyes swelled with more tears. Something inside of me was boiling. I couldn’t contain it any longer.
“Mom, I’m not going to marry him, okay? You know why? Because I’m gay.”
With that, I felt ethereal—as if I had just left my body. It was surreal. Feeling disassociated, I got up and quickly walked out of the room. I could not believe what had just happened, nor could I completely process what I had just said. Nevertheless, I expected some sort of recrimination. She knocked on my bedroom door.
“Sarah, let’s talk about this,” she pleaded in a desperate tone “Maybe you’re confused.” Upon hearing this, I felt myself become defensive, impatient.
“I’m not confused, Mom,” I insisted.
“But Sarah, you’ve never been a tomboy,” she shot back, as if trying to convince the both of us that it wasn’t true.
Apparently, she had forgotten that even at the tender age of four or five, I never expressed any interest in owning a Ken doll. Instead, I obsessed over Barbie and Disney princesses. I refused to color in anyone but the female characters in my coloring books, and each stuffed animal I owned had, at my insistence, a female name.
At eight years old, I watched “Grease” and “Gone with The Wind” multiple times over due to the fact that I had a crush on the female protagonists. At 11, I wrote prolific letters to Avril Lavigne, often signing off with an abundance of hugs and kisses and sending her small gifts and some of my allowance money through the mail. In fact, until about age 13, my bedroom wall looked like a shrine in her honor. Clearly, the signs were there, however subtle, but no one could seem to connect the dots.
It was difficult for my mother, and my family and friends, to believe what I told them about my sexual orientation. I did not fit the images and stereotypes they had in their heads of what a lesbian should look and act like. I was a feminine “girly girl” who liked makeup and clothes. I took dance lessons. I dated boys, but conveniently sabotaged the connections so that I didn’t have to go on a second date, often telling everyone in my life who inquired that there was something wrong with them and that I’d effectively decided to move on. Regardless, I had my friends believing I was “boy-crazy” and tried my hardest to fit in with them.
For the next couple of years, I vacillated between levels of certainty and minor remnants of doubt. Not only did I not fit other people’s stereotypes, I barely fit my own.
For years, my parents and I traveled to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and while we were there, we’d often drive to Provincetown, a quaint and lively town on the tip of the state. There were many LGBTQ+ people there and the streets and shops were often filled with pride flags. Although I was mesmerized by all the colorful people, romance novels written by lesbian authors, and the over all free-spirited nature of the place, I looked around me and wondered why I didn’t look like a lot of the other women walking down the streets—the ones who were arguably more easily identified as queer.
As ridiculous as it seems in hindsight, at the time the question of why I wasn’t like some of the so-called masculine-presenting lesbians gnawed at me. Sometimes I felt as though I didn’t quite fit in anywhere: I was too gay for straight women and too girly for other lesbians. Due to these presumptuous stereotypes, it took me a long time to recognize that gender-identity and expression is on a much broader spectrum than so many of us realize or are willing to accept.
Years ago, someone in college made an ignorant comment. This person said to me: “It must be easier for you since you can easily hide your sexual orientation behind your femininity.” I was so appalled by this statement that I didn’t even know how to respond to it. Were they being serious when they said that? Were they simply stupid? Did they actually believe I wanted to hide?
Moreover, if that were indeed true, why would my experience necessarily be easier? Regardless of my gender-typical presentation, I still faced the same problems and concerns as any other openly gay woman out there. I knew that coming out to any new friend or acquaintance meant having to accept the subsequent risks associated with such an intimate disclosure, and that it might mean they’d lose respect for me and refuse to be around me any longer.
Also, my parents themselves feared the possible repercussions associated with telling the people who knew them that their only daughter—only child, more specifically—was gay. And they had their own concerns for my well-being in the aftermath of my coming out process. In addition, I still faced many fears regarding being out in the workplace, wondering whether I’d be fired. Why, then, would my life be any easier? Truthfully, to this day, it still isn’t always easy, but in honoring my own being and truth, it is a risk I willingly accept and thus continue to take.
Six months ago, I had a conversation over Zoom with a friend who also writes for Elephant Journal. Together, she and I discussed the pros and cons of telling the truth. I said to her: “I worry that if I come out as a lesbian in one of my articles, someone who wants to hire me might read it and then it would be game over.” Her thoughtful response was this: “That’s bullsh*t. You should feel free to use your voice to make your own truth known and if someone has nothing better to do on a Friday night than to Google your name, read your work, and discriminate against you because of your sexual orientation, then perhaps you shouldn’t or wouldn’t want to work for them anyway.”
Well, that is true, I thought to myself, tentatively.
Over the next couple of months, I thought about it long and hard. Was I willing to accept any potential risks in honoring my truth by writing it? What would be the cost of my silence? After all, I had already spent years in the closet and passed up deeper friendships and other opportunities due to my own fear and unwillingness to be transparent. I’d allowed people to bully me into denying my own right to talk freely about who I loved. I couldn’t even come out to my grandparents while they were alive, which unfortunately left us estranged until the day they died.
Did I want to shrink and eventually erase myself behind the curtain that is suppression and crippling self-denial? The answer, of course, was an emphatic no. Of course not. So, I finally and bravely accepted the risks.
The keyword, sadly, is bravely. This brings me to my next central question:
Why should coming out in the 21st century still be considered an act of moral courage?
Better yet, why are people so obsessed with other people’s sex and personal lives? And why should the gender of the person I happen to love matter that much to anyone?
Why do some people still fear what it is that they refuse to understand and uphold the antiquated attitudes of their puritan ancestors?
Moreover, why is it not considered more of a taboo for those people to open their mouths and utter their bigoted statements? Why should I feel ashamed to share otherwise socially acceptable bits and pieces of my own life experiences just like everyone else on this platform?
Well, in honor of National Coming Out Day, which falls on October 11th, I decided to do just that.
I’ve decided to embody my own values and share my truth.