I find myself giving people advice now. Apparently I have “figured out” sexuality, which I think can never really happen. The definition of queer, which I introduced to a friend last night, has been striking me as powerful, though I resist using it.
When I came out to myself I struggled with the terms, wanting to fit in. Last night, I told my friend, who is also struggling with coming out,well, not struggling, more like wanting to get to a conclusion that, which I also resent myself, is that you never come to a conclusion about sexuality. The thing I like about the term queer is that it describes how sexuality changes over time.
She is going through what I went through at the end of middle school/beginning of high school. Questioning, dismantling, and destroying what you thought you were, assumed you were, etc.
Also coming out, though…I sort of don’t like that term, but I guess you can use it for anything such as religion, class, race, anything that doesn’t appear on the surface that you can “come out” about.
What influenced my experience and process
What I sometimes forget to note is where, when, what age, and everything else that affected my coming out. I grew up in Palo Alto, California (for the most part) in an affluent area. Palo Alto is suburban, mostly white, and upper-middle class. California is a democratic state (which is definitely of importance when considering yourself to be sexually different). Both of my parents are college educated, work in technological fields, and are “liberal-minded”. Palo Alto is a medium sized city (as of 2000, had a population of 58,598 people) and has probably been built around the private elite school, Stanford.
I do not see my friends around Palo Alto (I went to school in San Jose for high school), rarely bump into people I know at the grocery store (though I don’t really do the shopping), and do not have to worry about a Brendan Teena recurrence everytime I happen to go outside. I do not hear drive-bys where people call out “faggot” or “dyke” though maybe I am just lucky. I have happened to hear shushed whispers about bisexuality when in middle school and giggles when “gay” was mentioned, but have never encountered any violent act against anyone who has considered themselves gay within Palo Alto, though I may be missing something. I live in the rich part of Palo Alto (or rather, my parents do) and have encountered many of which people may consider the bourgeois life style. My childhood was fairly innocent, very actually. I hated when people called me “innocent” because of the sexual connotations behind it, but I now know how little I knew or how lucky I was. I am lucky because I did not have to come out in a place like Jamaica, where Homophobia is fierce, or to parents who are fundamentalist Christians.
I did not grow up in a rural area, in a conservative area, with racial stigma (well, if you consider being Jewish a race then…), or much of any national stigma. My coming out process was not especially difficult or rigorous, although I did encounter a lot of questioning from my mom.
How it started
I remember coming out to myself first, acknowledging in my head that if there was anything that I was, it was anything but straight. I remember first thinking “I like my best friend” and that was all, but then it translated to “I like this girl” and that’s when my brain started to freak out because even when you’re thirteen, you know, somewhere in your head, that you are not of the majority. Even at ten, or eight, which is probably more accurate.
The moment I realized “why yes, I am quite gay” except more like “holy shit I like my best friend…what the hell do I do now?”, was on a car trip traveling to Mammoth with my family. I remember looking over at my friend, who was reading the nanny diaries, and thinking “wow, she’s hot” and that is when my mind froze. The entire week my family stayed in Mammoth, I avoided direct eye contact with my friend when in the bathroom, tried not to sleep too close, and tried never to touch her unless I gave myself away. I thought my mind made a mistake and so put the thought away to simmer.
In middle school, before I realized this about my friend (which I think was post 8th grade summer), one of my other good friends came out to our class of thirty girls with her then girlfriend. I wasn’t surprised, but the surprising thing was that I was not mad at her because of her sexuality, but because she did not tell me and thought I would (possibly) not talk to her again, when the opposite was true. I wanted to share my feelings, that I had barely even started to recognize within myself, with my friend. The strange thing was, that my friend, who went to Mammoth with me, was the person to out my friend to me.
I did not start, what I know think of as a process, coming out with recognition until my freshman year of high school. I found someone, who now I am closer with than I was in high school, who I subconsciously searched out, to be my coming out mentor. My friend who went to Mammoth with me went to my high school and I liked her again during the second semester of my freshman year, realized how I liked her (wild obsession-infatuation), and told my friend (and was convinced to come out to a couple of friends and tell my friend I liked her) I liked her in an online chat room (do not do this at home, or ever). That ended badly, but during my sophomore year, I recognized that I liked girls, talked about it, claiming the word bisexual to refer to myself, but that never fit quite right. I would talk about liking girls, but was never fully comfortable with it in high school. I would curl up into myself when anyone mentioned it, become deathly quiet, and not acknowledge it. It was a paradox, mentionable to my friends and deniable to the aghast. It wasn’t a secret, I wasn’t ashamed, but I was not confident.
How I survived
I remember that I had this sense, or that’s what it felt like, for the people who projected anything, sort of like an attitude, about their sexuality. I found all of the bi people, the questioning, the lesbians, at my all girls catholic high school. Once you admit it to yourself that you are a sexual being and that you are attracted to people, whatever sex or gender, its like puberty. It is not limited to age. I know some people in college still going on with their coming out puberty who talk about boys and/or girls incessantly. I remember in high school I found my comrades, my coming out puberty compatriots, and talked about sex until my throat was dry. We covered fetishes, songs, romantic jargon, the cute girl, the boyfriend, girlfriend, drama, etc. Also, we bonded on what shows had the scenes with the lesbian or gay couple. We tried to sense if our crushes weren’t straight and we fawned over the older girls who seemed to flirt with us. It was a good time because I knew where to look. I didn’t have glbtq youth centers or a gsa until my junior year of high school, but I had my non-hetero friends.
In high school I was more in the closet to my peers, than to myself. I told select friends about my crushes and was careful who I told because in high school the influence of parents is the highest. Two of my best friends were bi and came out to me, the first two who confessed to me besides family members. We were like a love triangle, all of us having crushes on the other two, or a harboring confusion about close friendship and sexual attraction. My two friends dated, which ended in disaster, and one of the friends going back to her boyfriend who she has been with ever since.
How I told my parents…the journey
I told my mom one night, before I went to bed, that I liked girls. It didnt seem like much at the time and the next morning it was quite the surprise what her retort was. I never told my Dad I liked girls, though I assumed that my mom told him of my “alternative” desire.
Although my Mom seemed accepting at first as did my sister, there was constant questioning (especially on my mom’s part). My mom said it was a phase, said I shouldn’t label myself yet, and the silence around asking about girls. My mom didn’t ask much about who I liked in general so we didn’t talk about much. It didn’t seem like there was much of a concern, at least, not that she voiced.
I had boyfriends in highschool, two to be exact. My parents were nice about my boyfriends, my mom wanted to know if we had sex (and voiced her encouragement at getting birth control), and asked about the sex. She did not ask about the relationship, at least, not that I remember.
It wasn’t until the summer before my sophomore year of college that my mom said, while I was single, that I hope you find some boy or girl that will make you happy. Then she started only saying significant other. That’s when she started thinking I was a lesbian and asked me over facebook if I was in denial because I had been going to all of these glbtq meetings, pride, and a gay club. What my mother does not know, is that my articulation (finally) about doing these things does not make me a lesbian (which she probably does know), but I was convinced at the time that the only gender I could fall in love with, was girls. Though I do, more likely and more often, fall easily in love with girls, that does not make me a lesbian (though I do fit into that label).
After having a girlfriend, I came out to my parents again. “Hey mom and dad, guess what? I am in a relationship with a girl”. My mom now actively asks me questions about my girlfriend, though my dad stays silent. When my sister had a girlfriend, he called my sister’s girlfriend “her girlfriend” only when my sister and her had broken up. I am hoping that my dad will some day ask me about my girlfriend, though I am not sure when that will be.
I am very lucky to have the parents I do. Though I don’t really talk to them about my relationships, I am glad that they support me and are there for me. I am lucky that they have not kicked me out or denied my attraction, even though at one point my mom thought it was a phase.
Other helpful things
Some of the most comforting things to me during my coming out process was knowing I wasn’t alone. I remember being immensely close and attached to all of my friends who were girls. I think now I know why. With any best friend there sometimes is sexual tension no matter their gender, I just didn’t understand why I was so attached and why detachment from any friend who was a girl was so harmful. I did not understand my feelings and did not have the language or the rational to explain them.
Books, movies, and any form of media has always been a comfort to me because of the stories and meanings behind them. My friend, who I found as a mentor during my freshman year of high school , let me borrow a book about a love story between two girls. After that I began searching in libraries for girl-on-girl love stories, music, movies, and tv shows. I found multiple books (including one of them below), lipkandy, the L word, the Logo Channel, Queer as Folk, Bound, Bend it like Beckham, etc, etc.
Media was one of the most helpful things to me during my exploration and contemplation of sexuality. It helped me feel as if I wasn’t alone and that is one of the most important things.
I realized that as I was looking for colleges, something I really needed was a glbtq community (which if you don’t know the acronym stands for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transexual/transgender, queer…its longer and includes questioning, intersexed, etc…the acronym is sort of ridiculous, I think and should be anything but straight). In looking for it, I kept in my mind a school that I had toured while in the northwest of the US with my mom. Safe space stickers were everywhere and I kept that in mind for a reason for the school to be my first choice. Luckily, by my decent grades and test scores, I ended up there.
College is where I “figured out” my sexuality I guess. When I entered college, I had a boyfriend and he and I stayed together until the thanksgiving break of my freshman year, when I broke up with him due to complications with an open relationship. While at school I joined both the anonymous glbtq club and the Coalition Against Homophobia, which I became the president of during my sophomore year. In those clubs I was able to talk about sex, meet other people who identified as being anything other than straight, and potential dates. In that group I met one of my good friends who I hung out with for most of my freshman year and people who were just coming out. In those two groups I developed confidence about talking even to strangers about my sexuality. I never felt so confident in my life.
During my freshman year, I had a fling with a girl that went on and off a few times and ended. Eventually we became close friends, but it took a few awkward moments (a lot, actually). Through that relationship, though it wasn’t ever really a relationship, I realized what I wanted and needed from a person. I also realized my sexual feelings towards the female body were much stronger than towards the masculine body. I began to think and be convinced that I was a lesbian.
After I had “figured” it all out, I put sexuality on the back burner until my sophomore year. During the summer between my freshman and sophomore year I wasn’t attracted to anybody and it was such a relief. When I returned to school, I was happy, carefree. Mid-semester freshman year CAH, the coalition against homophobia, holds a queer prom. During that weekend, I remember having three crushes and then I started questioning my sexuality all over again. All of them were different ages and for the first time in my life, crushes weren’t just unrequited, I was friends or had some relationship which each one of them. One of them lived on the same floor I did, another I barely saw except when passing to a class, and the third was my climbing instructor. As it turned out, I had many conversations with my climbing instructor, told her I liked her, and then that fell flat because she graduated this year. The one who lived on the same floor barely talks to me, and the one who I barely saw is now within my major and I had two classes with her during the spring semester. During my getting to know all of them I realized something.
Talking to my climbing instructor, I realized the most crucial thing. Sexuality is not a label, which I also learned while taking a class, Gender and Society. I told her I just like people. “I’m a rainbow” I told her. During my winter break of sophomore year I read a book:
Same Sex in the City: So Your Prince Charming Is Really a Cinderella
This is the term that I most identify with, but what I have figured out from day one about sexuality is that people want a simple answer when they ask: “so who turns you on?” or “what’s your sexuality?” and its not that simple. Sexuality is complicated and influenced by many factors such as race, religion, culture, nationality, gender, class etc. Yes, biologists can study it, sociologists can analyze it, and gender studies majors (like myself) can try and figure it out, but I don’t think the human race can ever pin it down, just like anything else. The labels are an example of people trying to pin sexuality down, try and put it in a box to keep it manageable within in our analytical brains because as Descartes says “I think therefore I am”, but in this generation we need to change that idea because sexuality is not a thinking behavior (though it can be). Sexuality is feeling and it will never be understood if people don’t experience it for themselves.
I have a problem with labels now, but once, they were comforting. Its nice, comforting, easy to stick to a label because within labels you find communities, people who are like you, and society understands you a little better. Even within labels, there is space to move. Even if we do label ourselves, we are not the labels, though we may fit into them. I am not my sexuality, though it is an important aspect of who I am. When I was first coming out, labels were the most helpful because they left me with a beginning, with a language, with something that I desperately needed. I needed a name for my feelings, validation, recognition. I found recognition in a label, which may or may not be good, but sometimes labels are needed to understand the world around us as well as ourselves.
Coming out would not be such a big deal and the glbtq labels would not be so important to the community if heterosexuality was so revered. Coming out would not be a term if people didn’t have to feel as if they had to hide their sexuality, as if heterosexuality was the norm and homosexuality is not (though reports have said that homosexual behavior only exists in 10% of the population). Coming out may dissapear as a phenomena in a century when maybe having sex with the same gender or sex wouldn’t be something shameful or something to whisper about. If we all “come out” of our shells, whatever minority status they may have (as everyone does have one), the world may slowly become more understanding.