Anyone who is queer will tell you that you don’t simply “come out” once. You come out the first time, and then you never stop. I think that what worried me most about coming out — which was something I did when I was young, gradually, and not entirely of my own volition — was that people would see me differently. I was right to worry.
Throughout my childhood, I struggled with gender presentation. I wore boys’ shorts, got bullied for it, then switched back to leggings and hunched shoulders to express the discomfort of it all. I walked into my freshman year at my first high school with a new, ear-length haircut and debilitating nerves, and started what would come to be the worst two years of my life to date.
Seattle is the opposite of every one of my prior experiences. In my time at the UW, I’ve met countless queer people. I’ve noticed that we tend to swap our coming out stories like they’re war stories, often without knowing each other very well. At first, it felt like oversharing when we were saying the parts of our life stories out loud after being conditioned for so long to keep silent. The blatant acknowledgement of queerness made me uncomfortable, especially because I felt like I didn’t have a “moment,” like they did, to share. I had a series of awkward and sometimes painful emergences, probably helped along by the fact that I could not find it in me to say the words, “I am gay.” I couldn’t say something I knew to be true out loud.
But, a lot of the time, I didn’t have to say it out loud.
At my first school, almost everyone knew I was gay. If they didn’t, they just knew I was to be avoided and didn’t ask why. One instance stands out: I was sitting at a table alone with only empty chairs, eating my lunch, when a group of girls from my class approached. One stepped forward and, instead of sitting down, asked, “When will you be done with this table?”
There was room for all of us there.
It’s funny what stands out in retrospect. I had days far worse than that one, but that experience epitomized it all. There was more than enough room for all of us at that table, but sitting with me was unfathomable for them. It would’ve been social suicide. Can you imagine the shame? I can, because I sat with myself every day.
I never ate lunch at that school again. I’d either sit in the hallway until it was over, or I’d eat chips locked in a bathroom stall.
In Seattle, a new problem emerged. I spent a lot of my time in high school thinking about the future and where I’d be able to leave to. Once I finally did leave, the only place my mind had to go to was the past. Too often, I have flashbacks to instances of casual homophobia that are incredibly painful and specific. I can’t go a week without remembering those first two years of high school. Sometimes, it’s in a dream, and sometimes odd reminders take me back in the middle of the day. Either way, with no warning, I’m suddenly back in my sophomore year Spanish class with Señora Valdez and a particularly cruel group of fellow 15-year-olds.
When I started writing about myself, I tried to set one boundary — I would never write about anything unresolved. Any experience shared would be one I had already reconciled. Writing this, I am crossing that boundary, and I’m OK with it because I want to share my discomfort on the off chance I’m not alone in it.
I think back to the awkwardness of my adolescence. In my mind, at the time, my queerness was more of an unfortunate fact than it was an identity to be celebrated. I can’t separate the deep discomfort from the queer anymore — in my mind, the two experiences are still one and the same.
When I moved here, I thought I’d feel free. I was wrong. It turns out you carry the things that happened to you with you. They don’t get left behind in the spaces they occurred in. In my hometown, I felt like a fish out of water. Here, I’m in the water, and it's nice, but I just keep holding my breath. Maybe, if I open my mouth, I’ll be able to finally breathe underwater.
Reach writer Michele Rubinstein at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @michelehalleru
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