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My coming out process is best described as The Five Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. My future, or the way I imagined it when I was a young teenager, centered on the loving husband who would affirm me unconditionally, and the three children who would make our family. I was never the type to sit around looking at bridal magazines or fantasizing about my big day, but I held some abstract ideas to be true: a white dress; a corridor of light that ended in a dark and handsome suit (in my vision his face was obscured by the years of uncertainty between my teenage self and the woman I would be when I married him); a band playing Sinatra; flowers. Although I was not conservative I was inarguably traditional, and as accepting as my community was, or the country was for that matter, anything less than traditional was not for me.
The first kiss I shared with another woman was the beginning of my husband’s slow and painful death, and every girlfriend afterward would be a nail in his coffin. At eighteen I was in full-fledged Denial. By nineteen, I was Angry as hell, blinded by the pain of a betrayal I had brought upon myself, and I didn’t foresee my rage subsiding any time soon. Even when I transferred from a conservative Jesuit University to a radical Liberal Arts College, I grasped desperately at the final shreds of my dying heterosexuality. I faced one major obstacle in my commitment to hate my orientation and nurture my disdain for homoerotic desires: my parents loved it all.
They were thrilled to have a daughter dating women (when I finally admitted to it after sixteen months of it’s-okay-ifs, love-you-no-matter-whats, and want-you-to-be-happys). They treated my sexuality as the pinnacle of good liberal parenting, evidence that they had properly indoctrinated me with open-minded, progressive values. Ah yes, the queer daughter, the embodiment of their success.
A true product of my age, I was ready to embark. After all, the tide was turning towards marriage equality. It was 2011. I, of course, well-bred leftist that I was, supported all forms of equality and alternative family structures (and women’s rights and gun control and healthcare subsidies and tax increases for the rich and prison reform and, and, and). But just because I felt that other people had the right and should have the freedom to live differently, didn’t mean I wanted to. I was traditional through-and-through. Thus I entered the paradox of being both a self-loathing queer and a bonafide radical.
No one ever told me it was wrong to be gay. On the contrary, my liberal suburban town waved its gay pride flags high long before marriage equality seized the national main stage in the early 2000s. The townsfolk were accepting, politically left and moderately vocal about their views, the type of people to point out two men holding hands on the street to comment on how “great it was to see.”
Although my mom boasts that our town is endlessly diverse – gay and lesbian families, interracial couples, interfaith couples, low-income families, affluent families, everything in between – my parents’ friends were always other straight, white couples, with few exceptions. So no matter how tolerant or accepting my family was in theory, I never saw much of anything happening in practice; it was more of a political stance than a personal philosophy.
“I went art school in the 70s, baby. Those guys were the original Alternative Lifestyle!” my dad likes to say. This was his response to my explanations of the term “queer,” in its reclaimed, inclusive, source-of-empowerment form, and the variety of identities that often go with it. One wintry afternoon during my sophomore year of college, he called me to catch up; I lay on my bed with my phone balanced on the side of my face. He, prying to get tiny pieces of information about the new girl I was seeing; I, shirking each question with monosyllabic and flippant answers.
“You’re really your own person,” he said, “not concerned with what anyone else is up to, doing your own thing.” He was quiet for a minute. “I’m proud of you for that, I love you for being different than the rest of these kids.” He loved me more and I loved me less.
By that time I was at stage three in the grieving process, twenty years old and bargaining with a higher power because I was in love with her, and if I could just keep her, maybe I’d forgive myself for it. I was finishing my second semester at Liberal Arts College, where I had been bombarded by queer intellectuals who demanded I position myself within the academic rhetoric of sexuality and identity from the day I arrived.
What the fuck was the academic rhetoric of sexuality and identity? What was a Foucault? Campus was a bastion of sexual fluidity. Anything less than total self-acceptance was considered archaic, and anyone found guilty of defending traditional ideologies would be tarred and feathered.
I tried to wade through the jargon to find what felt like an authentic identity, still keen on turning myself straight, with my parents cooing in my ear. My mom considered it brave to be gay. I couldn’t see how it was brave to be born as yourself – gay, black, a woman, or any other quality – but I didn’t argue with her. I resisted the word "gay" and despised the term "lesbian." My mom put weird emphasis on the word girlfriend when she said it aloud in conversation, but my dad took well to “queer.” Sexuality as a spectrum and orientation as a fluid concept made sense to him. He was even getting hip to the idea of gender fluidity.
The girl I was dating pushed me to do things like kiss and hold hands in public. Things that are untraditional and warrant attention, and the last thing I wanted was my mother’s kind liberal gaze – how “great it is to see” – or anyone else’s, lauding us for existing.
Shrouding myself in a blanket of guilt never helped me come to terms with being queer, but my girlfriend did. I conceded slowly because I loved her and as the months passed I became desensitized to my own horror to the point where, emboldened by a drink or two, I could kiss her in a bar.
When we broke up, I lost not only our relationship but also the hint of complacency I had started to feel about my queerness. I slept with one man, and then another. I hated myself for how bored I felt to fuck them. I skidded through my twenty-first birthday in a yearlong depression, flitting endlessly between both men and women whose lips I hoped could spell out who I was.
But the little hedonist in me answered that question. If, after all that time, I hadn’t kissed a man and enjoyed it, I wouldn’t kiss men at all. That didn’t make me a 6 on the Kinsey scale... when I met new people or spoke to my parents I would still drop hints at my hetero jaunts so I could avoid their labels. Over the past five years, I think I have exhausted myself avoiding and debunking other people’s labels rather than trying to discern who and what I am.
My parents finally caught on about the bragging and, despite that they continued to interrogate me endlessly about who I was seeing (it seemed like there was no limit to the facts they wanted to satisfy their interest), they broadcasted less. Maybe the novelty of my evolving sexual orientation wore off, or maybe they ran out of people to tell – who knows?
Sometime between then and now I stopped getting nauseated when I imagined myself marrying a woman. Queer? Yeah, shrug, I guess.
Is this acceptance? No, probably not. My skin still crawls if someone calls me a lesbian – but hey, I’m getting closer.