One Year Out

It’s a Friday night.  I’m sitting at a dining room table in a charming brownstone in Brooklyn, drinking wine and snacking on French cheese, surrounded by a circle of my peers.  My professor has invited us to her home for an end-of-semester celebration.  We’re adults now, we can sit around drinking and talking about literature. The world of academia is a world I’ve chosen to spend the next five years in, a world I will probably spend most of my life in, and it’s important to me that I feel at home here.

For me, an essential part of feeling at home is being out.  It’s something I’ve had to work on ever since I graduated from Mount Holyoke, where by the time I was a senior you were pretty much queer until proven straight.  That’s not the world we live in, unfortunately, and when I moved to New York City, I had to decide whether, and how, I would come out.

It didn’t happen all at once.  It started first with friends, and then with fellow students, and then with a not-so-subtle comment about lesbians in my history class, and then with a heart-to-heart with my boss at work, and by the time the spring semester hit, there was no going back.  I was out to my professors, colleagues, and co-workers, and I felt lucky to be in a place where that was possible.

I joke sometimes that I’m the “token queer” in my department, always talking about the social construction of gender and writing papers about lesbians.  I’m proud to be “that feminist,” the one who never lets you get away with a racist, sexist, or homophobic comment, the one who always brings it back to the patriarchy, the one who talks about periods when there are men in the room (the bloodier, the better).

By now, people have more or less gotten used to it.  They laugh at my raunchy jokes, they ask me about my date with the cute girl I’ve been gushing about, they nod politely when I go on a feminist rant in the middle of class.  

And then, they start asking questions.

“When did you know you were gay?” they’ll begin, and then, “How did your parents react?” and before you know it, “How do you have sex?” (or even, in one instance, “Who plays the man?”)

I used to think it was my duty to educate: These poor straight people, I reasoned, they just don’t even know what they’re talking about.  They’ve never talked to a real live queer person.  They just want to understand.  They mean well.

It would be easier if I could just make a blanket statement about these scenarios, say which questions a straight person can ask and which they can’t, what responses to offer and when to offer them. But the truth is, it’s different every time.  It’s different being asked about my coming out story by a new friend when we’re bonding over coffee than it is being asked by a professor who barely knows me in a classroom full of fellow students.

This is what happened last week, as we sat around drinking wine and talking about literature in my professor’s adorable Brooklyn brownstone.  Somehow, we got onto the topic of college.  With tears in my eyes, I told the story of the first time I ever visited Mount Holyoke, the way I fell in love with the college as my parents and I drove past the clock tower on that crisp April evening, the way I felt at home the minute I stepped foot on the campus.

“Were they cool?”  My professor asked, referring to my parents, who I had mentioned only in passing.

“Cool?”  I replied, caught of guard.

“With you being gay?”

I felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of me.  We hadn’t even been talking about my coming out, and the story I was in the process of telling really had nothing to do with my journey into queerness.  But instead of letting on that my professor’s question–asked completely out of context–had made me feel like the smallest version of myself, I mumbled some kind of a vague response, and changed the subject.

As the evening went on, this continued happening: questions thrown at me as if I were a walking encyclopedia of queerness, eyes turned to me every time anyone mentioned anything that was even remotely “gay,” homophobic jokes veiled as clever jibes.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire and respect my professor, and I appreciate my peers (all straight women, I should add) and the work we’ve done together over the course of the semester, but as the night went on, I began to realize that while everyone else was beginning to feel more and more and home, I was beginning to feel more and more like a stranger, or worse, like nothing more than the search box on google.gay.  

It’s hard for me to write about this night for several reasons.  First of all, I am mortified to think that my professor or peers might someday read this post, and tell me that I was overreacting.  “It was all in good fun,” they might say.  Or worse, “I never said that!”

The second reason why it’s difficult to write this is because it’s about more than just one evening of uncomfortable questioning.  It’s about the fact that coming out can be as terrifying as it is liberating, and that some nights, it’s more of a burden than it is a relief.  

But at the heart of all of this is a deeper question: when you live with an identity that has historically been invisibilized, misunderstood, and antagonized, how do you fight for visibility, understanding, and empathy without losing yourself in the process?  

The reason why it bothered me so much to have my professor ask about my coming out was not because I am ashamed of the story, or because it is too painful to tell.  It bothered me because that story matters to me.  There is no simple answer to the question “how did you come out?”  It is a story that needs time.  It is a story that needs a dedicated listener.  It is a story full of pregnant pauses, colorful details, and vulnerable confessions.  It is a story that I cherish.  It is a story that is profoundly and uniquely my own.

Part of the reason why Marnie and I started this blog in the first place was because we both longed for a space where we could share these stories with readers who cared, with people we trusted, in a space where we had the time and freedom to craft these stories in an intentional and meaningful way.

One of the main reasons why we longed for this kind of space is because we had already experienced it.  For four wonderful years, we had lived at Mount Holyoke, a place where coming out felt more like coming in.  

Thinking back on it now, it’s not so surprising that I teared up while telling my classmates about the first time I ever visited Mount Holyoke.  Because here’s the thing, it wasn’t just the way the clock tower looked that April evening, lit up by the vibrant colors of a New England sunset. It was the fact that, on the first night I ever spent on campus, I found myself sitting at a dining room table in the Rockies, surrounded by a group of friendly, intelligent, beautiful young women, welcomed into a space where storytelling was not just a momentary distraction, but a way of life.  The stories we shared that night, and every night since, were the colorful threads that formed the fabric of community.  What I knew that evening, more than anything else, was that I was already home.

It’s been one year since I left Mount Holyoke, and one year since I started coming out to the wider world.  If I’ve learned anything in that year, it’s that home is a story only you can tell.

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Image courtesy of MHC Archives
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