We chose the theme for this “Issue” to honor National Coming Out Day, which was celebrated on October 11th of this year. Originally celebrated in 1988, National Coming Out Day was meant to emphasize and encourage what its founders considered the most fundamental form of LGBTQ+ activism: coming out to one’s friends and family and living an openly LGBTQ+ identity.
This idea of celebrating oneself and freely experiencing one’s identity is exactly what “The Issue” is all about. Since our first newsletter was published earlier this month, I have been blown away by the support, the excitement, and the dozens of personal stories people have been eager to share. They have varying themes - indignation, frustration, weariness, pain - but they all share one underlying idea: a strong desire to joyfully and confidently celebrate our diverse identities.
In Mae’s essay below, I read about a powerful exploration of self and heard a compelling story of her journey closer and closer towards embracing her identity. It describes the celebration represented by National Coming Out Day, but it does not shy away from the intense challenges that so many individuals face when making the choice to come out.
Halfway through the writing process, Mae told me that she had to start over with a new angle. The reason, she said, was that she had been writing as if her story had been resolved - and now, she realized that she was still only at the beginning.
I’d like to think that we’re all somewhere near the beginning, and that regular examination of these issues as well as conversations around them will help us move ever closer towards a limitless understanding of identity and self.
TIDAL WAVE - Mae Dodd
My journey to self-acceptance began on a chilly Fall evening when I was sixteen years old. I found my Mom in the kitchen cleaning up from dinner and asked her if we could speak in private. We walked out to the back porch together and she looked at me, face full of worry, and asked what was so urgent. I began to cry and said, “Mom, I am so confused. I think I like girls and I need help understanding what’s happening to me.” I knew that this declaration would not sit well with her. My Mom is a loving and open-minded person, but she is also a devout Christian, born and raised in the Bible belt. When I had imagined this conversation playing out, I never saw a scenario in which she would embrace me and accept me. Even though I thought that I had prepared myself for every possible outcome of our conversation, I was nevertheless blindsided by her response.
My Mom looked me right in the eyes and said, “Mae, can you choose?” I looked at her in confusion and stammered, “What do you mean?” She repeated, “Can you choose? Are you telling me you think you’re a lesbian, or are you telling me you think you like girls and boys?” I was so caught off guard that I didn’t know what to say. I began to completely panic. “I don’t know,” I said as my voice began to falter. “All I know is that I’ve started to notice that I’m attracted to girls.” My Mom took a deep breath and put her hand on my shoulder. “Mae, if you can choose, you need to choose to date men. You are too ambitious and have too much potential to be gay.” Her words hit me like a tidal wave. I had prepared for crying and disbelief. I had even prepared for screaming and anger. But I had not prepared for such cold and unfeeling logic.
Deep down I knew she was right. I was nothing if not ambitious. I didn’t yet know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I wanted to be the best at whatever I ended up doing. I imagined a life of success, prestige, and recognition. The very few people I knew who were out as LGBTQ+ at that time had to live very private and quiet lives. When people did mention their sexuality, it was whispered about like a terrible and embarrassing secret. I did not see a way to reconcile the future I envisioned for myself with the shame I saw as inherent to LGBTQ+ identity.
That night on the porch with my Mom, I made a decision. I decided that I would not only hide this part of myself but actively try to change it. I made a promise to myself and to my Mom that I would put an end to this desire in the same way that someone who was addicted to nicotine might decide to quit smoking cigarettes. That night was the start of the loneliest and darkest six years of my life.
Throughout the rest of high school, it was easy to forget that I had ever questioned my sexuality. Boys had crushes on me and flirted with me, and I attempted to flirt back. I went to prom with a very nice boy, and even asked a different boy to the Sadie’s dance. As far as anyone knew, I was just like every other straight girl. But, every now and then, I would find myself staring at a female classmate and imagining what it would feel like to hold her hand or stroke her hair. I never confided in a single other person about these fantasies. I thought that if I attempted to put these thoughts into words, I would not only sound like a creep, but I would also out myself and break the promise I had made. I simply forced them into the deepest part of my subconscious and forbid myself from thinking about them again.
By the time I started my freshman year at UNC Chapel Hill, my sexuality was the farthest thing from my mind. I was taking new and interesting classes and meeting the people who would become my closest friends in adulthood. For the first few months of college, I almost forgot about that night two years ago. However, late into my freshman year I was blindsided by a crush so strong and overwhelming that I knew it was impossible to ignore. I tried to disguise my feelings as innocent friendship, but I knew my feelings were beginning to show as something more. One night when she had been drinking, I decided to tell her how I felt because I knew she would not remember it. I had been talking with her all night and thought that I felt a spark between us. She told me that she was flattered, but that she was straight and not interested. I was devastated and embarrassed with myself for revealing my true feelings.
That experience completely changed me. I realized that my attempts to shove down my attraction to women had failed unequivocally. My suppressed emotions were starting to ferment and wreak emotional havoc upon my personal life. In my sophomore year, I lashed out at my friends frequently. They were hurt - baffled by my sudden change - and I only made it worse. I would not acknowledge that I had done anything wrong or that my actions caused them pain. My friends tried to help me, and at one point confronted me and demanded to know what was going on. I realized that if I couldn’t keep my emotions under control I would be asked these questions until they were met with satisfactory answers. I once again wrestled my true feelings and shoved them even deeper into my subconscious than before.
My perspective on my sexuality began to shift during my junior year of college. I decided to study abroad in Seville, Spain and I did not know a single person in my program. While I was abroad, I met five women who are some of the best people I have ever known and are some of my closest friends even today. With them, I felt like I could truly be myself and not worry about being judged. I began to question my decision to hide who I was. One night my friends and I were talking about who we thought were the hottest celebrities. Without thinking, I said, “Jennifer Lawrence” and then was horrified with myself because I thought they would notice and call me out. Instead, no one even acknowledged that there was something abnormal or unacceptable about finding a female celebrity attractive. I was starting to wonder if I had been incorrect to think that I would never be accepted as I was.
By the time I was about to graduate college, I realized how emotionally stunted and damaged I had become by harboring this secret. Not only had I denied myself opportunities to date and to grow from those experiences, I had also emotionally isolated myself from friends and family who could have helped me. As silly as it sounds, I actually made the decision to finally come out while watching an episode of "Queer Eye." Jonathan Van Ness talked about the importance of being authentically yourself, and I started to cry and realized that I needed to start being honest about who I am. The next day I decided to tell my roommate and one of my closest friends that I was going to start exploring my sexuality. She looked at me and hugged me and told me she was proud of me and that she loved and supported me no matter what.
Over the next week, I scheduled dinners with my various friends so that I could tell them about my sexuality. Each friend was completely supportive of me. I had lived in fear that I would lose friendships and opportunities by coming out, but every person in my life was encouraging. One of my roommates commented that she had never seen me so happy and had never heard me talk so openly about my emotions before. The change I saw in myself and that others saw in me was immediate and profound. I had never been so happy before.
Although I generally felt better, the process of coming out was still emotionally draining and difficult. My Mom did not react well to me coming out publicly, and I spent many nights on the phone with her while she wept about how much more difficult my life would be as an out lesbian. I also had to keep coming out to old acquaintances and friends, which became exhausting over time. After moving to Atlanta for a new job, I started to date openly. I finally experienced the rush and excitement of meeting someone with whom you have true chemistry, but I also experienced my first heartbreak.
Despite the difficulties, the change in my life was overwhelmingly positive. I began to care about my mental and physical health again and lost 45+ pounds in the year after I came out. I began to talk openly with my friends and family about all the feelings I had kept inside for so many years, and I started the ongoing process of emotionally healing. For the first time in my life, I am genuinely confident in myself. In the end, I would not trade any of the negative experiences I had after coming out for the half-life I lived before. I am far from perfect and do not have all, or even most, of the answers about how my sexuality will affect me going forward. But for the first time, I am happy and proud to be the person I am.
MORE TO THE STORY
"When Eve and Eve Bit the Apple." Read or listen to this New York Times story here.
Check out the HRC (Human Rights Campaign) Resource Guide to Coming Out: click here for more on "Coming Out as Your True Identity," "Family & Community," "Religion & Faith," "Workplace," "Healthcare," and "Recursos en español."
This week's recommendation from the author of "Tidal Wave":