“Coming out” is a bizarre rite-of-passage for queer folks.
Part of what makes it so bizarre is it isn’t like there’s one “coming out” you do, like a Quinceañera, and then you’re set. You have the pleasure (or misfortune) of coming out over and over again in difference situations. Unless you gathered ALL of your family together for one big announcement, you probably come out to family in stages. Then there’s coming out to friends, and coworkers if you want to be out at work. And there’s a new coming out every time you make a new friend, or your sibling gets a new significant other, or you change jobs… it can get tiring, to be honest.
It’s also bizarre because there really aren’t many other situations where we require a person “come out” and announce who they are. You don’t have to come out as straight, or as an ethnicity, or left-handed, but queer? Gender other-than-normal? Attraction other than straight? You’re expected to present a dissertation on it to anyone you’ve ever exchanged a sentence with in your life. Even better if you include visuals–like a diagram of your genitals or a image-map that represents your kinkiest fantasies. (I’m kidding, folks, LGBTQ+ people don’t carry around press packets. But sometimes it feels like y’all want us to.)
If this doesn’t feel surreal and complicated enough yet, it gets better. There are different kinds of coming out. I’m 32-years-old now, and looking back I see that I’ve had three distinct stages of coming out over about a 12-year period, which is what I’m going to dissect in this post. The usual disclaimers–these experiences are my own and I do not speak for anyone but myself.
Stage 1: Admitting my sexuality
This one may or may not have been slightly complicated by my super well-meaning mother, who kept telling me over and over again as a teenager that, “It’s OK if you like girls!” At the time, frankly, I didn’t like much of anyone. I liked maths. I liked poetry. People were… messy. Plus I’m a contrarian, and specifically would not consider Smith for undergraduate school because that was my mother’s suggestion (in retrospect, she really knew, huh?).
In grade school I had friends, but by the time I got to high school my “best friend” of many years found a new and improved model and I just didn’t bother after that. I was OK being alone–I was used to it. I’m still used to it, still prefer it much of the time. The loneliness weighs on you when you’re younger, but eventually you learn to enjoy your own company. It’s weird for me because frankly, I don’t like myself very much, but I still often prefer my own company over anyone else’s. I might not like myself, but at least I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not when I’m alone. At least the part that hates me has seen what I’ve been through and understands me.
Anyhow, woo tangent. So, as an adult queer person, sometimes you look back on your life and notice what are, in retrospect, “queer cues” or, well, clues to your queerness. Some are stereotypical: for example I was very much a tomboy, I love baseball, and I’ve always preferred my hair shorter. Some are less obvious, like frequently identifying with the “other” or the “monster” in stories and media or always feeling a little out of place. If you don’t fit in with the status quo, even from a young age, you can’t help but notice. You don’t have words to put to it yet, but you know you’re… different, and most people don’t like it.
I am extremely lucky that my parents have been so open-minded about my journey in discovering my gender and sexuality, but even with supportive parents I still fell right into the trap of compulsory heterosexuality. I remember, in high school, acknowledging to myself that I found women attractive, and it being a full five years later that I put two and two together and realized, “Wait! I can actually date women!? Like, romantically??” It’s weird, right? You have those desires, but when you’ve been told, repeatedly, what you’re supposed to be attracted to, it doesn’t even matter, you just do what you’re told.
Well, super-clever-high-school me got herself a long-distance boyfriend (he’s real, he lives in Sweden, we still talk on occasion) which didn’t actually fool anyone but me, turns out. We dated for more than four years, but the amount of time we were actually physically in the same place was mere months. After spending the summer after I gradated high school together, I packed up and went off to college. And that’s where I saw a butch woman in person for the first time.
My long-distance relationship was already on the rocks: my boyfriend wanted me to sit in my room on the computer talking to him, but I was 18 and in college and I wanted to go out and meet people (weird for me, again) and see new things. And then I saw her, Sam* (names changed). If you’ve ever heard “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home, it felt just like that–the childlike wonder, the familiarity, the swagger that makes your heart forget how to beat. I felt like I’d been hit by lightning. Things didn’t work out between Sam and I, which was ultimately for the better, but now I actually knew something about my attraction: I knew that butch women, dykes, masculine-of-center, gender-non-conforming women make my heart go crazy.
Stage 2: Admitting my gender
Unfortunately, I took a flight directly from “I like masculine women” to the island of wrong assumptions. See, not having known many queer people growing up, and not knowing many when I came out for the first time, my knowledge was pretty limited. Sure, the Internet was actually picking up steam by the early 2000s, but where would I even have begun?
The incorrect thing I “knew” was that butch women like femme women. “Therefore,” I said to myself, “if I like butch women, I must be femme!” (Spoiler alert: This is complete bullshit. Queer relationships don’t “mimic” heterosexual ones; queer people of all gender presentations can be attracted to all manner of other queer folk.)
It took a long time for me to sort out my gender, in part because of the folks I had around me at the time and in part because of my own relationship with myself and the world at large. The first one is easier to articulate. Basically, my college best friend read “Stone Butch Blues” and then came out hard and fast as a butch dyke. I was supportive of my friend, of course, but after a time we started having problems where my friend would outright tell me that I’m femme and need to present that way. It didn’t feel good. In fact, it felt like they were trying to feminize me to highlight their own masculinity, which definitely feels like shit. Don’t force your friends into boxes to validate your own identity, I shouldn’t have to say it, but there it is.
The other piece is much more complicated. My personality is very service-oriented. Not “serve” as in “be subservient,” but serve as in provide services for–which could be anything from emotional labor to helping your friend paint their room. I’ve worked in the non-profit sector for more than a decade because I want to serve and help people. But, the line between “serving” and “being subservient” can be very thin, and it is easy to fall from one into the other if you’re not careful. The problem with being subservient, of course, is that you lose your sense of self. You become a physical manifestion of another person’s desires. And while that might be fun in a kinky way in the bedroom, it’s no good for daily life.
This tendency towards service-work combined with a habit of assuming, in any given situation, that if something is off it’s the fault of me or my brain, created a sizable problem.
Me dressing progressively more femme at the urging of my friend is a good example. I was still figuring out my gender, so I was rather vulnerable to opinions from people I trusted and cared about. I didn’t feel femme, but here my butch friend, who appeared knowledgeable to me, was telling me I was and I knew I wanted to date a MOC woman so… I went with it. For a while. Like, for years. But eventually it got to me, trying so hard to be something I’m not.
Femmes make it look effortless, but it sure as hell isn’t. The make-up, the hair, the clothes, the style–none of it comes to me naturally. I’ve never felt “girly.” I was the wrong type of girl when I was younger and I’m the wrong type of woman now that I’m an adult. When people ask me for help with fashion choices, I have to woefully inform them that I am “the wrong type of gay” for that. You need a bookshelf put together, I’m your gal, but fashion advice? Chic make-up looks? Can’t help you.
But I tried anyway. I tried wearing make-up, even though I hated it. I tried keeping my hair long, even though I’d usually put it up anyway. I tried wearing lovely dresses, but they don’t make lovely dresses above a size 12 or 14, I’ve found out. Men’s clothes actually fit my body better, since I have very few curves and very broad shoulders, so being fat AND shapeless makes it extra hard to be a proper femme. It’s not that I don’t like colors and prints and, even on occasion, something feminine, but… I’m wrong for it. My body is literally wrong for it. Even plus-size clothes are all designed with the assumption that if you’re big, you must have an enormous bosom and large, rounded hips. I have neither.
It is, in fact, possible to have such a deficit in hips that a good old belt can’t even help you. (Though, I’ve come to realize that that’s probably why suspenders were invented… I should just lean into it already.) I guess I am fortunate that I’ve never lost my pants in front of a professor, like my poor mum, but I have lost my pants on Commonwealth Avenue with my arms full of groceries. Fun times. Note to self: get some (non-rainbow) suspenders.
Anyhow, point is, my body has always been wrong in some regard. Too tall, too fat, too broad, too square, calves too big, boobs too small, hips too small, cheeks too big–always wrong in some fashion. Always. Being feminine was challenging enough, but considering what the genetic lottery gave me? It was all but hopeless. It’s no wonder I stood in that lesbian bar for three hours and the only people who spoke to me the whole time were two gay guys who were just asking me to watch their drinks while they went out for a smoke. I probably wouldn’t have talked to me either…
I was very lonely for a time, presenting in a way that didn’t feel authentic in attempts to attract someone. If you need to be someone other than yourself to attract someone, what’s the point anyway?
Eventually, I realized trying to be femme just didn’t make me feel the least bit sexy or confident. What made me feel sexy? Well, strength. Being strong, feeling strong, using my hands, building things–that was sexy to me. Please note, there is absolutely worlds of strength within femininity… but that’s not where I get my strength from, for whatever reason.
At that point, I decided to embrace my queer masculinity, knowing full-well finding a partner who I fit with would be a challenge. But I was also more relaxed by that point, relaxed with my own gender fluidity. I realized I could still wear that tie-dye rainbow dress to Pride, it didn’t negate my gender identity. (Some folks might try to tell you differently–they’re wrong.)
At some point in all this, I came out to my parents as “queer” rather than as a lesbian and the result was my well-meaning mother leaning over to me and saying, “So… you might still marry a man?” I think she’s deeply disappointed in knowing I will never accidentally get pregnant. But she loves her grandkitties.
Stage 3: “Nanette” aka Admitting I’m worth something
This has been the hardest stage by FAR.
Hannah Gadsby’s special “Nanette” was released on June 19th. I watched it with my partner on June 20th and it has taken me the better part of that month since to fully process everything it raised in me.
There are so many amazing lines in Nanette, all of them thought-provoking. But there was a moment where it felt like Hannah reached across the universe, grabbed my heart and gave it a good squeeze. (Ok, fine, that happened like 300 times during Nanette, but there was one part that really just knocked my brain out of my skull.) What was that moment for you? Mine was this:
“Do you understand what self -deprecation means from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.”
So here I am, someone who would definitely consider herself a “humble” person, someone who regularly strives for humility, and here comes Hannah like a freakin’ wreaking ball to demolish my self-image. Suddenly my mind is recalling every single time I have attempted to “humble” myself before another person, and realizing every single one was a humiliation.
Every. Single. Time. For more than thirty years.
Honestly, it messed me up pretty good. There is a LOT to process in “Nanette,” but that was the biggest reality check for me. You’re raised to “be humble,” to always think of others first, to hand them the shirt off your back if that is what they need. But is it… bullshit? I mean, yes, be kind, always be kind… but always be less than? Always diminish yourself for the comfort of others? Now that seems off…
But that’s what I’d been doing. My entire life, diminishing myself before others, making myself small and quiet, trying not to take up too much space because I don’t really believe I deserve any space at all. And Hannah is spot on: humiliating myself was always a requirement before I could speak. I had to somehow acknowledge, “Yes, I am a freak,” before I could express a viewpoint, even if my freak-status made my opinion more relevant than others. I had to justify my existence by being funny or jovial, to ease the tension created by my overt “not-normalness.”
And now that Hannah has pointed it out, I don’t want to do it ever again.
If only it were that simple. If only there were a switch to flip.
Not all of my self-hatred comes from internalized homophobia, probably not even the majority of it comes from that. Without getting into the details right now, let’s just say trauma will permanently warp a child’s brain. So, friendly reminder: don’t rape kids. I shouldn’t have to say that, but apparently I do. Don’t do it, folks.
It doesn’t really matter why you soak a child in shame, doing so will still shape them for life.
My first attempt at speaking without humiliating myself first was a complete catastrophe. There are many days when I drag myself to my bed feeling utterly defeated. But I get up each morning, Hannah’s voice ringing in my head now, and I keep trying. Again and again. Tiring, though it is. Tiring to constantly have to justify one’s right to take up space. But I try. Again and again and again.
At first, I just tried not being so mean to myself in my inner dialogue. That was not very successful. I’ve mentioned it before, but positive affirmations actually make me angry. They’re not personally helpful. So I realized I had to start smaller, somehow.
The whole “humiliating oneself to gain permission to exist” thing is also the flip-side of constantly seeking some kind of external validation–i.e. the actual permission. So, not only have I spent 30+ years humiliating myself, I also spent that same time desperately chasing approval. I knew I didn’t fit in, but unlike Hannah I did waste time trying to mold myself into something that would fit, at least a little. (And I am now developing some truly gnarly creases in my furrowed brow, but that’s beside the point.)
Point is, I finally accepted what I’d always known–that no matter how hard you try, you just can’t please everyone. So I thought to myself, instead of trying SO HARD to be someone other people deem “lovable,” what if I just worried about being “lovable” by my own standards? What if I just worried about being the kind of person *I* would like and respect, and not worry about being what other people want?
It has been a very small shift in my thinking, but already a significant one. I feel a lot of weight off my shoulders, no–off of my heart. I know you can’t “earn” love, but knowing that never stopped me from trying. Tried as I might, working so hard for something that should be given freely, and never getting it, was just depressing. So I’ve finally said, “ENOUGH ALREADY.” If loving myself is what matters anyway, then that’s what I’ll focus on: being self-lovable.
You don’t have to view yourself through the most critical lens the world has to offer. And only YOUR lens has the context you need to tell your story properly.