Her name was Teegan. My 14-year-old self struggled to process her wavy, sandy blonde hair and her even longer legs and torso. I couldn’t stop watching her run up and down the soccer field. She wore neon cleats years before they were cool. On anyone else, they would have been obnoxious. But I was mesmerized.
I could not deny that she was attractive. But I was not attracted. Of course not. I just admired people, and she was a person. I admired her like I admired art. Obviously.
I did not come out until two years later. Between this moment — when, instead of playing my position, I stared at Teegan as she ran down the field — and actually telling people that I was attracted to women, I had two boyfriends and kissed a bunch of others. I even fell in love with my best friend — but dragged another friend, Luke, to a supply closet in the music building rather than tell that girl how I felt. It was certainly not my finest moment, but it worked.
The process of finally admitting I loved this friend, however, helped me find the courage to admit my feelings to others. But since coming out, I have often been asked when I knew I liked women. That question has always felt arbitrary, so I never answered. There are more important things to me than the moment I knew unequivocally that I was not straight, such as why I waited two years to say anything after Teegan knocked me off my feet — what held me back from coming out for so long?
Even though I came of age just as the discourse around being LGBTQ was beginning to change — Will & Grace was on TV, Ellen DeGeneres was out, and people were beginning to say that it was OK to be different — I didn’t always feel that progress as a kid in rural Indiana. I played games like "smear the queer" on the playground, and referred to songs as "gay." Sometimes, I even called my friends "fags." The meaning of those slurs was lost on me; the idea that being different was not desirable was ingrained. Despite the best efforts of my parents, who chastised me each time I had the gall to use homophobic slurs in their presence, I hardly felt alleviated from this internalized shame.
Once I came out, I began to openly explore both my sexuality and my gender. While I still felt shame upon recognizing my attraction to women, the idea that I would encounter actual discrimination for being queer seemed laughable. I was prepared to face discrimination due to the color of my skin because I had been raised to expect that. My father’s family told stories over dinner about encountering racism, and my parents often discussed the difficulties they faced as an interracial couple. But while I assumed that the racial discrimination we faced was the product of other people's perceptions, I didn't think the same was true of my sexuality. I viewed my previous struggle to accept my sexuality as purely my own. Though it may sound absurd, I never imagined that being queer would matter to other people: My friends, my family, television shows, movies, books, and beyond all told me that being queer isn’t a problem.
But neither of my parents could educate me about these similarities, about what being queer would actually feel like beyond their own fear and their promises to love me whether I wore a tie or a dress. In fact, my mother once told me after I came out that she was afraid certain doors would be closed for me because of my sexuality. I could not understand her fear. This was the woman who spent the majority of my young life telling me that I could be whoever I wanted to be. She held my hand as I dragged her to the boys’ section, begging for another red-and-black shirt. She encouraged me to shoot for the stars. But suddenly she was afraid?
The truth, I soon found, is that being queer doesn’t matter — until it does. There is a space between recognition and acceptance, and still more between acceptance and pride. It is a space filled with my parents’ hugs and reassurances, my sister’s pleas for rainbow artifacts from Pride, the consistent deaths of LGBTQ characters on television shows (and of LGBTQ people in real life, like in the massacre at Pulse), the attempts of friends, loved ones, and coworkers to refer to me by my correct pronouns, Edie Windsor’s smile after her Supreme Court win, the suicides of LGBTQ youth, and each seemingly innocuous moment I spend as part of this community every day.
Perhaps what fills the most space between recognition, acceptance, and pride is the seduction of a linear understanding of "progress." There is an easy, widely accepted narrative about coming out: Queer people struggle alone in the closet until they decide to come out, and then they are blessed with a rainbow cape, they move to a city, and they live happily ever after. While that narrative is true for some, the majority face a much more complicated reality.
Homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia exist in every corner of this country. Being queer matters. But despite the horror at Pulse, the numerous murders of trans women each year, the staggeringly high rates of LGBTQ homeless youth, and the ever-growing number of legislative measures meant to criminalize our existence, this upsetting reality is often forgotten.
Today, I am much more aware of who I am than I was at 14, drooling over Teegan. I am happier, more honest with myself and others, and irrevocably in love. In that sense, I feel that life has certainly gotten better for me. At the same time, I am also more afraid today than I have ever been. I feel more vulnerable, more exposed, and more aware of others’ judgments of my gender expression.
Neither of these feelings is more valid or true than the other. They exist together, in the messy space of my queer identity, which I’ve learned to love nonetheless.
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