As queer people, we are constantly asked, “How old were you when you came out?” Though some queer people can pinpoint the first moment that they vocally acknowledged their queerness to others, this question reflects a common misunderstanding of what it means to “come out” which is that coming out is a singular event in a specific place and time, and that each queer person does it only once. In reality, coming out is an ongoing process that occurs throughout a queer person’s life, and it is arguably the most powerful tool at our disposal.
While navigating the world, queer people must decide when, where, and to whom they wish to acknowledge their queerness, taking into consideration necessity and safety, among other factors. If you know and love someone you know to be queer, then they more than likely came out to you at some point. Maybe you already knew they were queer before that or maybe you did not. Maybe you’ve only had one person come out to you at this point in your life or maybe you’ve had several. There is one thing I know for certain — even if you are the first person they’ve come out out to, most queer people come out to tens or even hundreds of people throughout their life. For many queer folks, coming out is a part of our every day existence.
I was seventeen the first time I came out to my mom and dad. I had already started telling my friends and my sister that I was queer, though anybody who knew me at that point could tell in an instant that I was anything but straight. As I left play rehearsal on the evening I planned to tell them, my best friend Melody offered words of support and encouragement, and several others offered a place to stay if I ever felt unsafe in my home or was told I was unwelcome there.
I was petrified of telling my parents, and when my sister ushered them into our living room to facilitate our conversation, I found myself unable to get the words out through my tears and uncontrollable shaking. My sister looked at me and asked if I would like her to tell them instead. I nodded. She told them that I didn’t know whether I was gay or bisexual, but that I currently had a boyfriend who they could meet if they liked. Her words lingered in the air through several moments of uncomfortable silence, after which my parents both cried and told me they loved me no matter what. I could see in both of their faces that they were struggling to take in the news, no matter how much they’d seen it coming — and goodness, had my queerness been obvious! I knew that my father struggled with my femininity, and as I began to explore my affinity for all things femme with increasing excitement and vigor, his discomfort became increasingly clear.
A few months later, my best friend Melody had been painting her nails in my bedroom and had asked if she could paint mine as well. I gleefully obliged, and though I felt vulnerable and exposed in exploring my femininity in such visible manner, I felt incredibly empowered and excited to wear my bright pink nail polish around my house. As soon as he saw it, my dad grew visibly uncomfortable. Later that evening, he approached me as I was watching TV, tears forming in the inner corners of his eyes. He told me that while he was beginning to come to terms with me being gay, he was “extremely uncomfortable” with my nail polish. As was my MO with my parents at the time, I quickly turned to anger and refused to take it off. I walked away hurt and invalidated, and I’m sure he didn’t feel heard, either. My mother — always the voice of reason in my arguments with my father — managed to calm me down shortly after and convince me to take it off to appease him, though she acknowledged that I shouldn’t have to. He continued to struggle with my femininity, which increasingly concerned me with each passing year as my womanhood grew more and more difficult to stifle.
The first time I came out as transgender was the fall of that same year during a very casual conversation with my older sister about something related to my being queer. It was unintentional but incredibly important. I don’t remember the exact context of the question, but as she was about to walk upstairs, she paused and asked, “Wait, does that mean I have a sister?” I chuckled and sighed, “Maybe, who knows.” Without missing a beat, she smiled and said, “Cool, just let me know!” Though I didn’t openly acknowledge my transness outside of brief interactions like these until almost two years later, realizing that I would have the support of my sister if I did ever decide to transition made this interaction incredibly important to me.
Though I knew at the very least my sister and likely my mother would support my transition, my father continued to struggle with the thought of even having a gay son. I suspected that finding out his child is transgender would only amplify his struggle, and I feared his reaction if I ever decided to come out to him. Out of fear, I shoved my femininity and once again my queerness down into the depths of my soul as a last ditch effort to deny the existence of my womanhood. Around my eighteenth birthday, I “came out” as a straight male and became increasingly sexually promiscuous in order to prove the validity of this identity.
My failed efforts to deny my trans identity devastated my mental health, which led to two psych hospital stays over the course of a two months (For more on this, read my post Trigger Warning: Suicide + Transgender Resource Guide). Within seven months, my parents felt they had no choice but to admit me to to long-term, inpatient therapeutic treatment.
My first residential placement was Second Nature Entrada, a wilderness therapy program based out of St. George, Utah. My experience in wilderness was nothing short of magical and transformative and provided me a safe space to question my identity. In wilderness, I did not have access to a razor and therefore was unable to shave my facial hair. This heightened my gender dysphoria substantially and forced me to face head-on the possibility that I might, maybe, possibly, perhaps, I DON’T KNOW MAYBE NOT, be transgender. By week ten in the wilderness, I told my group — which at that point was all women — that I was questioning my gender. For a day, I had them use she/her pronouns and call me “Gabby” (the first “girl” name I ever picked out was Gabrielle, which definitely didn’t feel right for me). I felt extremely uncomfortable being called “she” — not because it didn’t feel right, but rather because it did. I was painfully aware that the only reason they were calling me a girl was because I had asked them, not because they saw a woman when they looked at me. Left to their own devices, I knew that people would still refer to me as male, and it scared me that the gender with which I identified was such a far leap from how I presently appeared. I told them I needed more time to talk through my gender identity, and both staff and clients offered words of support for my journey.
When I got to Carlbrook, I very much expected to be met with the same overwhelming support for my identity exploration, though I’ve mentioned previously that they were anything but supportive. To test the waters on my first night, I confided in my new friend Laura (with whom I coincidentally also later went to college) that I was possibly transgender. She was incredibly supportive, as I hoped the rest of the school would be. A month later, on October 11, 2013, I sat in front of the entire school and came out as transgender. Even though I believed I’d made it clear that I was planning to come out to my parents when they visited the following week, my therapist reacted by outing me to my parents, who were consistently reassured that it was simply a ploy for attention from my new peers. I was forced into a phone call with them where they confronted me for “falling back into old patterns” that they believed I had “grown out of,” and berated me for attempting to tell my truth. My therapist robbed me of the chance to come out to them personally, robbed me of the chance to build a proper foundation for their understanding of my gender identity, robbed of the ability to write my own transgender narrative for them — instead, a white, cisgender, heterosexual man got to write it for me. I knew that my father would grasp at any possibility that I was lying about being transgender because I knew that he would not want to believe it was true. He was handed that possibility on a silver platter, and he clung to it firmly any time I so much as tried to bring up the topic in the few years that followed. Carlbrook’s administration continued to be unsupportive, and I eventually accepted that I would not be able to transition while I was there. They even got in my head so much as to make me fear and question whether they may have been right, because if a group of psychological professionals — people who were trusted to determine what was best for the mental health of their students — thought that I had only come out for attention, then maybe I had.
This fear infected my mind and prevented me from transitioning for more than eight months after I graduated Carlbrook. When I finally decided I was going to transition, I came out to my classmates, coworkers, and sister, but I found it absolutely pointless to come out to my father again. I knew that he would realize eventually that I had started to transition, and I felt that it was better to begin my transition and show him that this was what I wanted rather than wait to transition until he accepted that I was trans, which may never have happened. Prior to transitioning, though I was pretty certain (although admittedly not 100%) that I was a binary transgender woman, I was overwhelmed by fear about transitioning. I feared being misgendered and how it would make me feel and how people would treat me if they knew I was trans. I feared I would never find love and that people who were interested in dating me would lose interest once I disclosed my trans identity. I feared that I would always feel ugly and that no one would ever find me beautiful. I feared that my family would never accept me and that I would have to fight my way through the world without them by my side. Amongst all these doubts, one painful truth persisted, and it pushed me to come out and transition in spite of all my fears — if I chose to transition, unhappiness was a possibility. If I chose not to transition, unhappiness was a certainty.
Among trans people who are read as our assigned rather than our affirmed gender, we must make the difficult choice between coming out to every person we meet in hopes that some of them gender us correctly, or accepting that we will be misgendered by most new people we meet. For those of us who are consistently read as our affirmed gender, we must make an admittedly less difficult choice between coming out as transgender to each person we meet, or having that person assume that we are cisgender.
About a year into my transition, people rarely knew that I was transgender until I told them. I was initially comforted by the realization that I could finally live my life just like any other girl. It was only once the reality that I had wanted so badly for nearly my entire life was finally right in front of me that I realized I did not want it. I did not want to have my transgender identity erased for comfort’s sake. I did not want simply to fade into a comfortable, cisgender existence after I had fought so long and so hard simply for the right to be myself. I did not want to leave my transgender siblings in the dust to fend for themselves simply because I had begun to pass. I realized then that this fight is much bigger than myself — my fight is part of a centuries long battle by transgender people to be seen, to be loved, to be accepted just like anybody else. It is a fight for the right to exist that extends far beyond me, and even far beyond Sylvia, or Marsha, or Indya, or Laverne. I eventually decided to continue to come out to as many people as I can, whenever I feel safe, and I will continue to do so until all transgender people can feel safe and empowered to come out and live as their authentic selves, unhindered by hatred, bigotry, and discrimination.
Coming out as queer is both a right and a privilege — one that I am blessed to enjoy with relatively little resistance. Queer folks with politically and/or religiously conservative families, queer POC, and folks who live in the U.S. south or in more conservative nations may not enjoy this privilege as freely. Folks in these communities often face significantly increased violence and harassment, may be kicked out of their homes, or are often ostracized from their families and communities simply for coming out as queer. Many LGBTQ+ young folks are placed by their loved ones into conversion therapy camps, which use abusive tactics, such as manipulation and fear, in order to “turn” them straight or cisgender — these camps are still legal in 32 states as of September 2019, when Maine became the latest state to outlaw its use. Fear of these adverse reactions by those around them often prevents queer folks from coming out in the first place. Having lived in the closet for twenty years, I knew firsthand how painful it is — and to know with certainty that coming out would lead to such an overwhelmingly negative response from those around you is a special kind of torture. Yet in a true testament to the incredible courage and strength of queer folks, many of them still choose to come out in spite of all of this.
Tomorrow, October 11th, 2019, the queer community will celebrate National Coming Out Day (and I will celebrate the sixth anniversary of coming out at Carlbrook). This occasion serves as a reminder that one of the most powerful yet simple tools at our disposal as LGBTQ+ folks is making ourselves visible and being representatives for our community by coming out as queer. Coming out is a public declaration that we refuse to be erased, to be ignored, or to be silenced. Queerphobic individuals may continue to espouse hatred as a means of invalidating us, but the more we find the courage to relish our authenticity and thrive in spite of their hatred, the more we drive out their darkness with our light. Each time a queer person comes out, it creates a wave of affirmation that radiates outward to queer folks around them, assuring them that they are valid and loved and will have support if and when they choose to come out.
As I’ve continued to tell my story, I’ve seen and felt the way the world has responded to my authenticity. Nothing has been quite as powerful and validating as receiving messages from queer and trans folks asking for advice or telling me that my story has helped them to find the courage within them to live their truths. Nothing is quite as beautiful as seeing those same individuals begin to explore their identities more freely, and flourish as they grow into their authentic selves. Each of those individuals can then go on to inspire and validate others, and this chain continues indefinitely. This is simply the ripple effect that occurs when we come out.
As I hope is obvious from the existence of this blog, I have definitely found my happiness. But I was able to find happiness not purely through the work I’ve personally done in my own fight to live as my authentic self — I owe my happiness and right to live authentically to the Sylvias and Marshas who came before me, those who refused to hide or to be erased in an era where they were literally thrown out of nightclubs and arrested purely for the crime of being themselves. Years of powerful, inspiring, authentic queer people rising up against an oppressive cishetero patriarchy and coming out in spite of overwhelming hatred has brought us here. Let’s do them justice and fight for a better future for the queer folks of tomorrow by continuing to tell our stories.
If you are queer, and if you feel safe and empowered to come out, I have a challenge for you — to celebrate National Coming Out Day, come out to three new people in person, or come out on your social media if you haven’t already. Maybe the people you reach are also queer (tbh, everyone is a little bit queer) and will feel reassured & empowered by your story. Maybe they’re working on becoming an ally and will be inspired by your authenticity. Or maybe they’ve never met a queer person in their life, and your coming out to them will begin to shape the way they view the community as a whole. No matter what, coming out is one of the most uniquely powerful tools at our disposal. Let’s celebrate that today and every other day of our lives.