I've known I was a lesbian since I was a kid, but I didn't fully come out of the closet until I was 22.
Before coming out as a lesbian, I dated both women and men. At various points, I identified as heterosexual, while at others, bisexual. In truth, I wasn't confused. I knew I wasn't straight. I knew I wasn't bisexual. So why didn't I just speak honestly and identify myself as a lesbian? Because I knew something else, which in some ways terrified me more than actually being a lesbian: I was terrified of losing my straight privilege.
Growing up, my mother's biggest hope for me was that I would find a husband. My mother, a traditionally feminine and beautiful woman, spent a lot of time dating and courting men. Some of my earliest memories of her involve her applying makeup and combing her hair in front of the vanity in her bedroom. I remember, distinctly, the excitement I felt when she let my stubby, child fingers fiddle with the clasps of her necklaces. I felt like I was being given a secret look into what it meant to be a woman.
When I started middle school, my mother allowed me to apply my own makeup; I scoured fashion magazines and tutorials for tips on applying mascara and how to determine exactly which shade of red lipstick flattered my skin tone. These same magazines taught me not above self-love and acceptance, but about how to obtain the ultimate goal: the love of a boyfriend, or better yet, multiple boyfriends. The language, images, and messages were clear and noninclusive: heteronormativity is good, and anything else doesn't deserve acknowledgment.
Personality wise, I was shy -- even a bit forlorn -- but that didn't stop my teachers and my mother's friends from teasing me about being boy crazy.
“Watch out for her when she starts dating,” they would advise my grandmother, who smiled in return. Like many other 12-year-old girls, I was assigned (and told) a sexual orientation before I had ever even kissed a boy (or a girl) on the mouth. I wrote my name and my crush's name, Michelle, in a heart in the corner of my notebooks. When teachers saw this, they were encouraging of our friendship -– it's great that Marissa and Michelle are the very best of friends, they would write on notes and evaluations sent home, the two of them are just inseparable!
Years later, when Michelle was my date for senior prom, people described us as “liberal” and “nonconformist” -- but for the wrong reasons. Classmates, teachers, our own families, told themselves (and told us) we were going as friends, two independent and academic girls who didn't need to muddy up their futures with boys. No one entertained the notion that it was a date. In the predominately heterosexual world into which I was born and raised, the possibility of my being a lesbian crossed no one's mind.
In retrospect, I've spent a lot of time wondering why I didn't come out as a lesbian as sooner. Coming out earlier had the potential to do a lot of good: I wouldn't have wasted my time dating men and men wouldn't have wasted their time dating me, to start.
More importantly, I would have lived my youth and adolescence more genuinely and openly –- I would have known, explored, and accepted myself a lot earlier, and that self-knowledge and acceptance would have opened the door to let other people know and accept the real me, too. But there are negatives to coming out of the closet, and sometimes it takes a long time for the cobwebs and dust to disintegrate entirely.
I didn't want to frustrate and disappoint my mother. I didn't want my female friends to think I had crushes on them and I didn't want boys to ask me questions about my sex life. I didn't know what words like “queer” and “pansexual” and “gender non-conforming” meant and I was equal parts intrigued and intimidated by the LGBTQ community. But the worry that stayed with me the longest was the one that I am most ashamed of: I didn't want to lose the benefits of my straight privilege.
Straight privilege is rooted in perception more so than in reality, which is something I learned throughout high school and college. If I was walking down the street with a boy, people assumed he was my boyfriend, if they thought of us at all. When I went to dinner with a boy, the waitstaff put the check on the table and angled it toward him. It didn't actually matter if I was dating the boy or not –- people naturally assumed that we were an item because we were a relatively young, gender-conforming male and female.
Regardless of the actual scenario or the individual boy, I knew that if I held his hand walking down the street, no one was going to call us names. I knew that if I kissed his cheek or his mouth on a street corner, no one was going to sexualize us. I did not have to worry about being aware of our surroundings or the reputation of a certain neighborhood because of statistics regarding hate crimes. I learned that I could identify as gay on the inside, and that was safe. My moderately feminine, gender-conforming appearance alongside a moderately masculine, gender-conforming man told the world we were straight -– and therein, we were safe.
Going to college outside of Boston meant that I had a number of gay bars, clubs, and rallies only a train ride away. My public college also had a sizable and active Pride center. But in college, I faced the same obstacles I faced in adolescence: Because of my appearance, people assumed I was straight. And did I tell them otherwise? Not at first, if ever.
Most people who knew that I identified as bisexual at the time gained that knowledge when they met my most serious college girlfriend, Emma –- but even then, I did not speak the words out loud. I said, “Hey, I want you to meet my girlfriend, Emma,” and overall people were pretty good at hiding their surprise.
But I also hid -– I knew I was a lesbian, but I refused to give up my options to live a protected, straight life, in spite of having open relationships with women. I was scared of myself, and scared of the world around me. Despite growing up in a very blue state, I experienced a lot of internalized homophobia, and I punished myself with that mindset for most of my life.
Since fully coming out as a lesbian, I have experienced all of my fears as realities. When I walk down the street holding my wife's hand, sometimes people ignore us (this is fine), sometimes people smile at us (this is the best), and sometimes people scream “dykes” and “Can I join?” out their windows while they drive by (this was my fear).
When I introduce new people to my wife, they are sometimes confused (“Wait, how are you married? Is that legal?”), sometimes they are doubtful (“Wait, you're gay? I had no idea”), and sometimes they are uncomfortable (“I don't think it's appropriate to discuss relationships in professional settings”).
As I have come out of the closet and shared my negative experiences with my peers, a lot of them express doubt and try to offer explanations which do not rely on privilege and homophobia. “How do you know they wouldn't say or do that if you were with a man? Some people are just rude/moody/intolerant in general,” people suggest, again and again, and a big part of me wants to believe that. But because of the years I masqueraded as straight, and benefited from straight privilege, I know firsthand these things never happened to me when society perceived me as heterosexual.
Some people within the LGBTQ community have expressed to me that they do not see the true value in being “out” to anyone aside from their closest circles. This is a valid and understandable decision, but one which I cannot will myself to partake in.
I acknowledge these facts: society sees me as a traditionally feminine, gender-conforming female. I do not represent any physical stereotypes (good or bad) associated with queer women. “Passing” as heterosexual is very possible for me, and in some ways, would make my life a lot easier. But it would also make it dishonest.
When I clung to my straight privilege, I was afraid –- afraid of myself, and afraid of how the world would treat me. When people say homophobic and intolerant things to my wife and I, it scares, upsets, and frustrates me -– it confirms the fears I had which kept me in the closet. But every time I stand up for myself, which ranges from confronting the person, to reporting the person, to simply walking away with my chin up, I know that I am making the choice to live genuinely and openly and that no amount of privilege is worth living in the closet.