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Thoughts on Orlando, or The Second Coming Out

Coming out was a painful process for me.

The first thoughts/inklings I ever had of being gay were in junior high when a friend of mine mentioned at a friend's slumber party about how lots of people are bisexual. I didn't entirely know what that meant, but I liked something about it.

I then went dormant in my thoughts of gaydom for another six or so years, and in hindsight, I must have been the butchest straight girl in high school and college. I had a boyfriend in college, and I dated men for a short bit, until I inadvertently met my first love at the end of undergrad. And so the story goes...

When I started coming out to people at age 23, I did so because I was in a relationship. It was easier to tell people I was dating a woman than to identify myself as gay/lesbian. So many unconscious messages--and overt ones--throughout my childhood alerted me that being gay was synonymous with "less than," "other," a sort of different that was bad. Even when I entered my first relationship with a woman, it didn't entirely feel real those first couple of years. I kept hearing messages in my head about how I couldn't really be in a relationship with a woman because gay couples couldn't do what straight couples did, sexually, marriage-wise, or any other hetero-normative approach to the world. It took a long time to convince myself otherwise.

Coming out to my family and friends sucked. It didn't suck in the ways most tragic tales go, where the child comes out to her parents and is summarily told that she is a disappointment and an abomination, and is asked to leave the house. My family not only was understanding, but more accepting of me than I was. I told my mom there was something wrong with me; she reassured me that I was fine and wonderful. My incredibly accepting brother did the good work of telling my dad, and even though my dad can be pretty racist, misogynist, and homophobic, he never treated my sexuality as something problematic. I was surprised at how easy it was to be accepted.

My friends accepted me as well, although for some friends, I think they just continued to treat me as straight and overlooked the gay part, not because of their discomfort, but because of mine. I hated having to cross the threshold of closeted to out. Saying the words "I'm gay" was like scaling a rock face; those two words erected a barrier between me and the straight world, who never had to announce what it was like to be heterosexual. I wish I could describe that kind of pain, and I guess the best way to characterize it is Shame. Self-loathing. Fear. Like I'm about to get in trouble for something huge, something I didn't even do.

In my early years of teaching I was selectively out. I was out to co-workers who would accept me, closeted to most others. And with students, being gay was high-risk. It was pretty obvious to most of my students that I was gay, and some of my classes would even try to suss it out of me ("Ms. Cohen, did you go to the club this weekend with your...significant other?" "Ms. Cohen, do you have a boyfriend?"...followed by laughter). Other students, mostly girls, would joke about ways to make me more feminine. One female student tried to hit on me, which could have cost me my job. I was on display in a whole new realm, this insidious, unspoken dance of sexuality, and my shame and fear increased. 

Eventually, being out became a political act. When our school started the Lesbian Gay Straight Alliance (LGSA), the student leaders needed allies to support them. I spoke on their behalf to the homophobic principal; I spoke on their behalf at city forums that were revising their legislation; I came out to students who were being targeted, bullied, and harassed for their sexuality, serving as an adult role model whom these students could confide in. 

Crossing that threshold of coming out never got easier, though. It stung with my principal; it stung at those community forums; and sadly, it even stung in my face-to-face moments with students who were suffering far more than I was.

Moving to my most recent school and living in San Francisco have eased my feelings of shame around being gay, but even that was a slow process. Our school is more accepting than one can imagine, and there even is a hallway with several bulletin boards that cover current events in the gay community (I endearingly call it, "The Hall of Gay"). And eventually, being out was no longer a selective act, although I still feel a slight sting when I introduce my partner to straight friends and co-workers, and I still feel on display in front of my students, all of whom are well aware that I am out. I could not be in a better place professionally or personally, and my shame still can nag at me like a stray hair out of place. Like a part of me will always be in trouble for something I didn't do or cause.

In the past year, though, I feel myself shifting. 

My first shift occurred when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage in June 2015. While California allowed for gay couples to marry, our nation as a whole didn't allow for it, which made me continue to feel less than, other. And I was surprised by the psychological shift that occurred in me when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of my humanity. I don't know how I feel about marriage as an institution, and in our capitalist society, I know that allowing more people to marry helps perpetuate our need to consume. And yet, knowing that I was now equal in this particular institution caused me to feel less shame, more human. It was startling. And striking. And I felt like I could breathe a little easier.

The second shift occurred more recently, in the wake of the Orlando shootings. And this shift has been dramatic.

It is poignant to me that the largest mass shooting in U.S. history occurred at the expense of the gay community and at the expense of people of color, most of whom also identified as gay. While the younger version of me may have reacted to this violent incident by retreating deeper into the closet, my current self feels compelled to shatter all the closets in the world--to be gay as fuck. Unapologetically. Proudly. Shamelessly.

The events in Orlando have catalyzed my own self-examination around being gay, and it makes me think of all those in this society who share similar stories of shame, otherness, disregard: people of color, Native peoples, transgender peoples, undocumented immigrants--anyone who doesn't fit the dominant paradigm. And now 49 people won't get the chance to continue telling their stories. 

I imagine those who were killed at the Pulse nightclub felt less shame than I did growing up. Or at least I hope so. I also imagine their struggles and challenges were different from mine. But under the banner of the rainbow flag, we share in the same community, and I feel wounded and galvanized by what happened.

For now, at least today, being out not only ensures my humanity, but also serves as deference to and homage for any gay or queer-identified person whose stories are cut short--or never told. And it's time to take my own pain, the pain of my community, and transform it into something that heals. 


  1. This is beautiful and moving. Thank you for writing this & for choosing to be gay as fuck!


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