My Coming Out Story
Like most kids in fifth-grade, I started to discover my identity apart from my mother—by shaving my legs and becoming a die-hard fan of The X-Files. The show had already been on the air for a few years, so to catch up with what I’d missed, I asked my mom to buy a case of blank VCR tapes so I could record every re-run that aired on TV. It didn’t take long before I had every single episode of The X-Files to-date recorded to watch at my leisure. I drew X-Files logos on my notebooks at school, covered my bedroom wall with X-Files posters, and subscribed to The X-Files magazine.
I daydreamed about being Scully’s partner-in-crime, and when I met another girl at school who also liked the show, I blurted out “Isn’t Scully beautiful?” at the same time she said “Isn’t Mulder hot?” Her statement caught me off guard—I’d never thought about Mulder in that way. I agreed with her and thought, “Yeah but he doesn’t have Scully’s fiery hair and voluptuous lips…”
I refused to ask anyone what being attracted to other girls meant because I’d just accepted Jesus as my personal savior, and knew I shouldn’t think about sex until I got married—I didn’t want to be an adulterer! But I had sexually charged dreams involving other girls at school, actresses, and women I’d never seen before. Around this time, Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay in 1997, four days before my eleventh birthday, and my church collectively reacted with disappointment that Ellen had turned out to be such a bad role model—and then her network cancelled the show. I thought being gay must be a bad thing, but I didn’t even know what being gay meant, and I definitely didn’t know why people thought of it as a sin.
I decided to ignore my affinity for girls, but in junior high, when everyone cut out magazine pictures of their favorite celebrities to tape on their lockers and bedroom walls, I covered most of my wall space with pictures of Julia Roberts, Gillian Anderson, Drew Barrymore, Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Keri Russell, Lauryn Hill, Alicia Silverstone, Gwen Stefani, and Halle Berry. I realized that my other friends mostly had pictures of heartthrob boys like Leonardo DiCaprio or Justin Timberlake on their walls, and thought that I needed to balance out my fully female-covered wall with some hot guys. I flipped through hundreds of old magazines, angry and frustrated and ashamed that I couldn’t find any pictures of a guy I wanted on my wall. I knew this definitely wasn’t normal, so I tore down all of my pictures and told myself I needed to grow up.
Fast-forward four years later and several attempts at going on dates with boys only to cringe at their touch or kiss—my senior year of high school. I was committed to remaining a virgin until marriage, until my best friend’s ex-boyfriend, Jared, raped me. After that, my goal was to have sex normally—to enjoy sex without fear or pain. If I could manage that, then I could gain back one of the things that he’d taken from me.
The problem was that I didn’t want to have sex, especially not with a man. I had an inkling that I might be gay or bisexual or something other than what I thought everybody else was, but I didn’t know how to figure it out. It seemed so complicated and confusing. And now that I’d been with Jared, I didn’t think I could tell people I wasn’t interested in men. If anyone actually believed that I hadn’t wanted that to happen, they’d think I hated men or feared them because boys had been mean to me in the past. And the people who thought I did choose to have sex with my best friend’s lover wouldn’t believe I was a lesbian because lesbians don’t have sex with men. Not being believed when I told somebody the truth of my reality was one of the most disempowering feelings, one that was difficult to survive. So I decided to keep trying to be straight.
Two years later, I was raped again. This felt like a punishment. Was I being punished for not taking that damn True Love Waits pledge in high school? Was I being punished for thinking about women? I felt so ashamed for “letting myself get raped” twice and then sleeping around with a bunch of guys, and I felt so guilty for wasting my potential on drugs and alcohol. I especially hated myself for not being interested in men—I didn’t know if I was gay or lesbian or what the difference was, but anytime I’d notice myself attracted to women, I’d beat myself up about it for days. “What’s wrong with you? This isn’t normal. Why do you look at her like that?”
Fast-forward to my 25-year-old self, having not gone a day without drinking in 5 years, now a newly-minted “recovering alcoholic.” When I thought about the last thing I remembered before I stopped drinking—my time at home sleeping next to my favorite girlfriend—my first revelation was, “oh my God, I’m a lesbian.”
I slowly began to realize that an intimate relationship with a man, physically or emotionally, didn’t feel natural to me. I thought about all of the close relationships I’d ever had in my life, all of the people to whom I’d ever been physically attracted, with whom I wanted to be intimate, for whom I yearned, for whom I’d do anything—and they were all women. I could name every person I’d ever had a crush on since fifth grade—and they were all women. I became cognizant of the people I noticed in a bar or at the gym or walking down the street—and they were all women. I thought about with whom I wanted to live, build a life, raise children, cook dinner, argue, watch movies, grocery shop, vacation, miss—and it was a woman. “Oh, my God, I’m a lesbian.”
When I realized I’d either have to spend my life alone or accept my sexuality, I wondered why I’d been so against being gay in the first place. When so much of my life had been completely broken, I had this one part of myself that survived the storm because it’d been buried underground from the beginning, and I realized there was nothing wrong with me—whom I love is a fundamental part of who I am. And who I am is someone who’s going to be okay.
Suddenly, my whole future opened up. I became hopeful that I might be happy someday, that I wouldn’t be alone forever. Thereafter, when I found myself attracted to a woman, I wouldn’t hate myself and tell myself there was something wrong with me and try to force myself to be attracted to some guy. Instead, I felt so elated because I finally let myself feel what I naturally felt.
I developed a huge crush on the phlebotomist who drew my blood and offered me apple juice in my first year of recovery while my doctor kept an eye on my liver enzymes and cholesterol. I did my hair and put on my favorite shirt, and if she wasn’t in the office when I went to get my monthly blood samples taken, I waited to come back on a day she worked. After the third time of seeing her, I finally worked up enough courage to actually speak to her. My heart fluttered and so did my stomach. I finally grasped a sense of my true self that I’d lost so many years ago—I started to love myself.
When I no longer felt ashamed of my inner-self, I suddenly became comfortable with my natural outward appearance. Hiding behind my straightened hair, blackened eyes, and penciled-in eyebrows, I used to sleep with my makeup on if there was a chance anyone would see me in the morning before I had time to get ready. If I ever stayed with friends or shared a hotel room with somebody, I slept in my makeup and woke up several hours before everyone else so I could shower and put on a fresh face before anyone else saw me. Sometimes I slept with my makeup on because I didn’t want to see myself without it. Whenever I saw myself in the mirror au naturale, I didn’t recognize the reflection. I wondered who that person was staring at me in my bathroom. But after I accepted my lesbian-self, the face I hid behind slowly began to fall away. I stopped wearing twenty pounds of makeup, I stopped straightening my hair, and I’d even go to the store or work without any makeup on whatsoever if I didn’t feel the need to get ready that day.
I’d finally accepted my natural sexual orientation, and I went through this process alone. I initially planned to wait to come out until I had a girlfriend. I thought it would be much easier to bring up the topic once I started dating someone, rather than say, “Hey everyone, I’m a lesbian!” completely out of the blue. Hey everyone, you’ve known me for years, but that was all a lie! I also worried that people wouldn’t believe me or would think I was just going through some phase, especially because I didn’t look gay at all. In a culture that assumed everybody’s heterosexuality, not looking like a “typical lesbian” presented challenges in not only attracting other women but also keeping men from pursuing me.
I felt like I needed some external validation of who I was, so since I was sans girlfriend, I thought about chopping all my hair off and wearing cargo shorts and t-shirts to say hey everyone, I’m a lesbian! but that just wasn’t me, so I didn’t know what to do. I decided to slowly start telling people I was gay. I didn’t want to live one more second of my life knowing that everybody saw some version of me that was a lie.
The first friend I told responded in such an accepting and loving manner. She told me she was so happy for me, and I thought This isn’t so hard at all! A few days later, I called my mom, and told her I was gay.
“I’ve been expecting that,” she said with the same tone she used when she responded to my DUI call from the police station.
My mom told me that she didn’t know if being gay was a sin or not, but she didn’t think God would send me to hell for it. What? I didn’t ask my mom’s theological opinion on homosexuality. My mom told me that she’d love me unconditionally anyway, which I appreciated, but I still thought she believed something was wrong with me.
All I wanted was for people to accept me for who I was, and for the most part, they did. I’d never before felt so loved for being myself—but that was because I never was truly myself. I developed deeper relationships and felt so much more love than I’d ever felt once I allowed myself to be open with the people I saw every day. Feeling vulnerable terrified me, especially when I’d been hurt so much before just by speaking my truth, but I knew it was the only way I could make a truly fulfilling life for myself. I couldn’t hide my true self any longer.
I voiced my frustration to my cousin about not knowing how to be gay or how to date women, and she suggested that I make a profile on an online dating site. My heart pounded as I selected the “I am a gay woman” option on OKCupid and searched through my matches. I had no idea there were so many lesbians in Grand Rapids, which was dominated by Calvinist right-wing conservatives. I exchanged messages with potential matches, and when I went on my first in-person date with a woman, I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be. I’d never before experienced anticipation for a date or for a kiss—with men, it was always dread and boredom—but with women, it felt natural.
But after a month-long relationship with a woman that ended horribly, I decided to take a break from meeting any new potential matches. I always scoffed when people said things like “you’ll find someone the minute you stop looking,” but that’s exactly what happened to me. And the fact that my life became one of those stupid clichés kind of irritated me.
JOURNAL ENTRY: JANUARY 25, 2013
“I met this girl online Monday, and it was so completely unexpected, but I felt like I’d just met myself for the first time. I don’t know how we started talking about all of the most intimate details of our lives because our conversation started out talking about building couch cushion forts and bouncy balls, but when we were talking about college and she said “life happened” to her and she ended up on a completely different path than she ever expected, I sensed some kind of connection between us. I told her that life happened to me too and some traumatic experiences completely derailed me for many years, but I’m back on track now. That’s when we started slowly sharing little snippets of what we’d each been through, and then we realized how similar our lives had been. She said she completely lost herself under this mask she created, and she worked so hard at making everyone around her think that she was happy that she never actually got to be happy herself. It was a year ago that she got clean and sober and started therapy, just like me. And she’s written a few books. She said writing was what saved her, and it’s her most effective way of coping and understanding herself and true feelings. Anyway, I could go on and on about the similarities between us, I even considered the possibility that I just created this person as a figment of my imagination and that I’ve just been talking to myself this whole week.”
* * *
This “girl online” was Mandy, and a few days after we exchanged dozens of messages a day, we decided to meet in real life. I never believed in “love at first sight,” but that was exactly what happened, and that my life had become a cliché love story baffled me. I saw her from across the room and every person and every sound faded away until only a single spotlight shone on the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. We stayed out all night, sang karaoke, played pool, and flirted. Every time my arm grazed hers or our hands just fell into one another’s, I wanted to stay there forever and never let go.
Mandy came over to my apartment the next day for a “Netflix double feature pajama party,” and I was so excited when she actually showed up in her pajamas. I thought she may have been joking when she asked if I wanted to have a pajama party. Who goes on their second date in pajamas? We shared our first electrifying kiss, and it was the best day of my life.
JOURNAL ENTRY: JANUARY 28, 2013
“I think something really significant between us is happening. I couldn’t stop staring at Mandy, learning every line and freckle on her face. Learning every curve of her body, every scar, every blemish. Learning the array of her facial expressions. Just when I thought I’d learned every part of Mandy’s face, she would make an expression I hadn’t seen yet or I would notice another freckle or another pigment in her dark brown eyes, and it was like seeing a newborn enter the world. We described our favorite areas of each other’s bodies, and it was what I imagine a blind person would feel like when someone describes to them the colors of the changing leaves in the fall. Hearing Mandy describe my own body to me made me feel more present in my own skin than I’ve ever felt before. Our bodies fit together like puzzle pieces or cogs in a wheel. On the rare occasion that I took my eyes off of her for a second, I would be amazed at her beauty every time my eyes returned to her. Mandy has such complex scents all over her body—her hair has its own scent, her neck has its own scent, her stomach has its own scent, and there are certain regions where these different scents combine to make a new scent. It felt like we’d known each other a lifetime. I’m still considering the possibility that this woman is a figment of my imagination. As much as I see myself in Mandy, I also see her unique vulnerabilities and strengths. When Mandy has her eyes closed, and I look at her, I don’t understand how anybody could possibly want to hurt her. I feel this anger and mourning and need to protect and comfort her that I never felt for myself. I feel like by seeing her for who she is, and giving her the care I never received, I’m simultaneously receiving that for myself. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again after meeting Mandy. If last night was the last night of my life, I would’ve died happy.”
* * *
I never knew what love was until I met Mandy, and I loved every part of her. This was how it was always supposed to be. I didn’t believe that it could be possible that I’d just met the person I’d spend the rest of my life with. It just couldn’t be true. With a relationship that started this intensely, this quickly, I thought it must be a sign of something unhealthy.
JOURNAL ENTRY: JANUARY 29, 2013
“This can’t be the rest of forever, can it? I don’t know what the future will hold for Mandy and I—this could all be over next week or it could last a lifetime—but I do know that if we were on the Titanic right now, I would get off the boat with Mandy and leave behind whatever intents I originally had. This has completely shaken me to my core. Nothing in my life has ever positively affected me as much as the last three days I spent with her. I almost want to say that the degree to which this has positively affected me is the same as the degree to which rape negatively affected me—this is like the polar opposite of rape.”
Spoiler alert—we got married. Read about that here.