On Coming Out
And why we need more stories about what it’s like to realize you’re queer
The first time I saw the film Milk, I got angry. Like, throw-my-computer-across-the-room-blast-the-emo-music-of-my-teen-years angry. I watched Harvey Milk, played by Sean Penn, proclaim “every gay person needs to come out” and felt like a forefather of the gay rights movement was attacking me from across the grave. “That’s outdated,” I raged. “That’s heteronormative!” “That’s unfair!”
I didn’t realize at the time that I was actually trying to say, “that’s terrifying.”
I was 24. It was only a year into my coming out process, both to myself and others. I had spent high school and college wondering why I didn’t really connect with guys, why boyfriends weren’t happening. My crushes remained surface-level and that seemed normal.
The winter after I graduated college, I was living in DC and spending a night out with friends. There was a new woman in the group, someone I’d never met before. At some point, she mentioned her ex-girlfriend was from New Jersey, where I grew up. We got another round.
On my way home that night, it hit me: I wasn’t just talking to her. I was flirting with her. The realization that I was attracted to women hit me like a lightning bolt.
I spent that rest of the weekend locked in my bedroom crying, in practically physical pain. All the metaphors work, and at the same time, none of them do: the wind was knocked out of me. My world was turned upside down. Etc. All I knew was that this realization would change everything, and I was completely unprepared.
The word “epiphany,” by the way, comes from the Ancient Greek term that describes the moment of a human soul leaving one’s body and being replaced by a divine presence. Like the Oracle at Delphi, who prophesied by becoming a sudden vessel for Apollo. Supernatural, celestial knowing.
There are certain types of people for whom coming out is supposed to be hard, society teaches us. They usually live in some fly-over state, in an ultra-conservative Christian family, go through their entire youth without meeting another gay person. They grow up feeling different, maybe having a crush on a first grade teacher. They realize that they’re queer sometime in adolescence (or earlier), and spend years struggling to accept it. They then take the courageous risk at some point in high school or college to come out to everyone in their life, lose some friends and family, but are ultimately welcomed into the community with rainbows and glitter.
This narrative is canon for a reason: there are many, many queer folks for whom this is true and accurate. That there’s some sort of sociological roadmap for their experience makes their own coming out no less difficult or traumatic.
But it wasn’t my experience. And the distance between my experience and what I thought it was supposed to look like became a trauma of its own.
I’m not the kind of person that’s supposed to struggle with coming out. I didn’t live in middle America; I grew up in Northern New Jersey, in the super-liberal New York City suburbs. There was no Christian hegemony in my way; my ridiculously accepting and progressive Jewish community that hired a woman rabbi at a time when it was still taboo held a Pride Shabbat at the synagogue every year. I didn’t wonder what life as a gay adult would look like — my aunt’s lesbian marriage was the paragon of love and partnership (still is). My straight sister was the president of our high school gay-straight alliance. My family never made me feel like it wouldn’t be ok to marry a woman. A non-Jew, maybe. A Red Sox fan, definitely. But never a woman. I never “had a feeling” when I was younger. I missed experimenting as a teenager and college student. I was straight — until one day, I wasn’t.
So the confusion and anxiety that can be a natural part of coming to terms with your sexuality was compounded by profound guilt and shame about coming out “late.” Why didn’t I know earlier? Could these feelings go away just as suddenly as they had arrived? If this was all just “in my head,” never compounded or verified by real-life experience, how did I know it was real? How did I know I wasn’t crazy? How would I ever find a community when I missed my chance to have a “normal” coming out experience? Would I ever be able to bring my gayness beyond the threshold of my bedroom? And so downward the spiral went, until I was so wracked with anxiety and depression that I was having near-daily panic attacks.
In that time, I found and confided in new, queer friends who were quite literally life-saving. I honestly don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for the people who held my hand over coffee and asked me “how’s your gayness?” in those early years. I called a lot of hotlines, usually sitting on the floor in the corner of my room, facing a wall, with music playing, lest (god forbid) my roommate overhear. Most conversations were validating and so needed. On another, a public health worker told me I would have known by now if I was gay, and that I was probably creating this so I could displace my job stress. That one wasn’t great.
It took me years to be able to say the word “lesbian” without crying. Years before I could tell my closest family members. Before all my friends knew. I’m still working through the baggage I’ve accumulated through the course of this process (and life too, probably). But today, I’m more out than I’ve ever been and ever thought I could be. And despite what I refused to believe for so long, it is a relief. It is even, at times, a joy.
If I have one hope for National Coming Out Day, it is this: that we expand our understanding of both what it means to be queer, and of what it means to come out. No one should have to suffer because their story doesn’t match the narrative we’ve come to understand as the “normal way” to come out. No one should be made to feel wrong or crazy or broken because they come to their queerness differently than the way that’s easiest for heteronormativity to understand.
May we make space for all narratives. May we accept all variations of experience. May we discard easy roads and work hard for understanding and inclusivity. May we embrace complexity. May we welcome any and all truth our people come to, whenever and however they come to it.
On this National Coming Out Day, I finally believe we can get there.