The confession catches behind the lump in my throat, but I force it out anyway. I don’t know yet if I’ll regret it, but I didn't want it to come out like this, trapped at the dining room table with my entire nuclear family. In my mind, I told them one at a time: first my more liberally-minded siblings, then my dad, and my mom last. I had wanted to keep it small, controlled. But I guess it’s too late for that now.
When did I first know I was gay?
It could have been as far back as the third grade, when my friend Angela and I partnered in Art to sculpt a dog, and our hands kept touching as we worked, and her brown skin looked so warm under the filtered lights that I had the inexplicable urge to kiss her.
Maybe it was when I was twelve, and we had a long-term sub in Pre-Algebra who couldn’t have been more than 26 years old and was absolutely beautiful. And I found that as she demonstrated equations on the board, I spent more time staring at her breasts than her face, or even the numbers and variables scrawled in loopy handwriting behind her.
Maybe it was when I was fifteen and confused, because all my friends were dating boys and I hadn’t even had a crush on one. So I turned to the internet, and spent hours locked in my bedroom, reading articles about people discovering their sexualities and taking quizzes called “Are You Gay?” and “Where Do You Fall on the Kinsey Scale?” And no matter how many tests I took, the answer was always the same: I liked girls. I liked girls. I liked girls.
My older sister Paige is the first to speak after a long and heavy silence. “What did you just say?” I can tell that she is trying to be casual, but her “what” comes out just a bit too sharp.
“I’m gay,” I repeat, as the pounding of my heart reverberates throughout my body. “Lesbian. I like girls.”
But when exactly did I first like a girl?
The answer to this is much more obvious, I think. It was the day I met Natalie. Beautiful, smart, friendly, confident, humble Natalie, who listened intently to every word I spoke, laughed at my pathetic jokes, and was never condescending when she explained infinite sequences to me in Pre-Calc. I had crushed on celebrities before, and a few girls in my grade, but Natalie was different. I loved talking to her, being near her. Our time together was somehow special, as if we were creating a bond that transcended normal friendship.
She didn’t subscribe to any of the typical stereotypes, so I had no idea until she told me. The only clue was the rainbow pin on her backpack, which, in my defense, could have meant anything. When she came out to me on her bedroom floor as we puzzled over matrices, I looked at the pin and asked her: “What does it feel like, to be attracted to a girl?”
I think she was surprised by that response, but she considered. “The same way it feels to like anybody, I guess. You think they’re beautiful, no matter how ugly they might be.” We both laughed. “You think all of their jokes are funny. You treasure your time together.”
That couldn’t be true, I thought, because that was how I felt about her, and we were just friends. But my heart knew better than my head, and it spoke for me. “I’m gay, too.”
It was then that she kissed me, there on the floor of her pink bedroom, surrounded by unfinished homework. As her soft lips pressed against my own, and as happiness radiated through me, I knew that nothing could ever be the same.
My dear Natalie. Sweet, beautiful Natalie, the light of my life. She smiles in my head as I prepare to regret my admission.
“You should think carefully about what you say next,” says my mother.
When did I first realize that the world hates gays?
It wasn’t in the fifth grade, when Timothy and Jordan, who really were just good friends, held hands on the playground and the class snickered about their perceived homosexuality for months. “Timothy is gay,” we would giggle. “Jordan likes boys.” It was a good thing Timothy and Jordan were such good friends, because they didn’t have any others, after that.
It wasn’t in the sixth grade either, when Lillian Henderson was suspended for punching the girl who had called her a “lesbo.”
It wasn’t even when, some nights after dinner, we would sit around watching the news and my parents would shake their heads and tsk when anyone on the television mentioned marriage equality. “Why should two men ever be allowed to marry?” my mother would ask.
No, it was on Christmas when I was 13 years old and my cousin Joshua didn’t attend the celebration at our grandmother’s house. He hadn’t been at Thanksgiving either, which I hadn’t really noticed because he was four years my senior and rarely spoke to me, but to miss two major holidays with the family? Something had to be wrong.
“Where’s Josh?” I asked his mother and my maternal aunt, Linda.
Her face reddened, and she sputtered briefly. “He couldn’t make it.” Her words were clipped, and she seemed unsure of herself.
“Why?” I asked, but she had already turned to another family member. She refused to look at me for the remainder of the night, so when I got home, I asked my mother. “Why wasn’t Josh at Christmas? Or Thanksgiving?”
She sighed. “Aunt Linda caught him kissing another boy in his bedroom. He’s a homosexual.” Spat from her lips, the word sounded sinful, diseased, ugly. “He tried to say that he likes girls, but that just made him a liar on top of it all. He had to leave the family.”
“You mean they kicked him out?”
“We could not support someone who made choices like that.” Like Aunt Linda’s, her words were terse.
“Why exactly is it so bad to be gay?” I asked.
Again, she sighed. “You’ve taken health class? You know how sex works?” I nodded. “Two men can’t have children. Neither can two women. It’s unnatural. If people were meant to be gay, God wouldn’t have designed them the way he did.”
At the time, I appreciated her honesty.
“Yes, think carefully,” says my father. “Is there any chance you could just be confused?”
“I’m not confused,” I tell him.
When did I understand what it means to be gay?
It must have been when Natalie and I first attended a GSA, or Gay-Straight Alliance, meeting together, as a couple. It was a whole practically-secret community of people just like us. We met so many wonderful people: Bianca, the freshman trans girl who was so excited to show off the skirts her parents had bought her; Ronny, the gay senior who had a different pair of rainbow socks for every day of the week; Melissa, the bisexual girl who could only date boys so her parents wouldn’t find out; Kevin, who was out only to those in the GSA and told everyone else that he attended meetings as a straight ally.
Being queer was suddenly so much more than an identity. I had a real-life support system of people with similar experiences and similar goals. I was part of a community. However, realizing my place within the community also made me realize the danger of being part of it.
My mother stands abruptly, her chair crashing against the wall behind her. Her lip curls with contempt, and she leans over the table. “I want you out of this house. Now.”
When did the consequences of being gay become real to me?
The answer to this is painfully obvious.
Not long after my first GSA meeting, I began to wonder about what had become of Josh. He wasn’t that hard to find; I only had to create a Facebook account and search his name. He still lived in the city, waiting tables and attending the community college. I messaged him with a few vague and awkward questions, and he agreed to meet me in the café at which he worked.
The air smelled strongly of coffee and hazelnuts, and he handed me something topped with whipped cream as he slid into the booth across from me. “It’s hot chocolate,” he said, pouring a packet of sugar into his own coffee.
“Thanks.” I fumbled for words. “How’ve you been?”
I decided to be straightforward. “Did your parents really kick you out for being gay?”
He almost spat out a mouthful of coffee. “Bisexual. But yes.”
“How did you manage?”
“At first, I stayed with my boyfriend’s family ‘till I could land a job. Then one of those LGBT programs helped me get an apartment. You know, when your parents decide that you aren’t part of the family anymore, they won’t pay for your college tuition? I had to take a gap year. I had to work my ass off just so I could go to community college. I’d been accepted to MIT, for god’s sake.” He paused to look at me suspiciously. “Why do you want to know, all of a sudden?”
I stared at my untouched hot chocolate. The whipped cream was beginning to melt. “Because I’m gay, too.”
He laughed bitterly, ripping open another packet of sugar and pouring it into his cup. “At least I’m not the only gay cousin anymore,” he said.
“Seriously, Josh. What do I do?”
“You don’t tell them.”
“I don’t know if I can do that.”
The whipped cream was now just a few white, chunky islands floating in a murky brown sea. “Because I have a girlfriend, and I love her, and I want them to know. I don’t want to hide such an integral part of myself anymore.”
“This isn’t about what you want,” Josh snapped. “This is about survival. If you come out to your parents, they’ll abandon you, just like mine abandoned me. Don’t you have goals? Aspirations? You need your family’s support for those things. At least hold off on telling them until you’ve gone through college. Tuition is expensive.”
All the way through college? That was six, no, eight more years including grad school. Could I really go that long pretending to be someone else? “Don’t you think it might be different for me?” I asked aloud. “Don’t you think that a familial bond trumps homophobia? I’m their daughter; they love me.”
Josh just sipped his coffee. “Before they kicked me out, I thought my parents loved me.”
My mother’s face is so contorted with hatred that she looks like a stranger. My heart, which had already been beating violently, now threatens to burst through my chest. The chandelier’s light is blinding and the utter quiet hurts my ears. I shrink down in my seat. I want to cry. I shouldn’t have said anything.
When did I feel the undeniable need to come out to my family?
It was just now, sitting around the dining room table. Like any other night, we were joking around and exchanging stories, and as it often did, the conversation turned to politics. But my younger brother just had to bring up gay rights. I fell silent as they trashed the LGBT community and agreed that we were undeserving of basic human rights. Their words hung in a dense cloud above the table, making it hard to breathe. I wished that they knew how hateful they sounded. I wished they knew it was me that they so despised. I wanted to stop it. I wanted to say something to defend myself and my community. So I said the only thing I was thinking.
“No,” says my father, and I have to hold back tears of relief. “She’s our daughter. We can’t just get rid of her.”
“I can’t support her,” says my mother. “I can’t support someone who makes choices like that.”
“It’s not a choice,” I cry. “Why would I choose to be gay when I know you would hate me for it?”
“We don’t hate you. Maybe you just need counseling,” my father says.
“No, Dad, you can’t counsel the gay out of someone.”
“Get out,” my mother repeats.
Paige speaks up again. “You can’t kick her out, Mom.” Even though she, too, was contributing to the prejudiced conversation moments ago, she looks disgusted that a mother would so quickly abandon her child. “You’re better than Aunt Linda.”
My mother looks angry, then conflicted, then tired. She pulls her chair back to the table and sits down, rubbing her temples. “All right. All right. Maybe we can work this out. You’re really gay, honey?”
“Yes. I’m gay.”