In this fourth instalment of our series on ‘coming out stories’, we continue to catch up with more of the Nonchalant contributors and friends. Asking them about what it was like for them growing up questioning their sexuality and how they ‘came out.’
1. Total Denial
You know when they say you just know? I did know… but I went straight (lol) into denial mode.
Going to school in West Sussex through the 90s and 00’s was classic for me. There was the one ‘known’ lesbian who I adored – well thought I did, she was a couple of years older and out and proud. She was sweet enough to take me to Brighton for a date day trip, but at just 14 I got caught up in who I should be, or even more so, who I was supposed to be.
I was a classic secret lesbian. I went to girl guides when I was a young teen… snogged A LOT of girls because it was a great way to practice snogging for boys. I never felt guilty though, I was totally into it and so good at kidding myself it was for when I had to get with a boy. At school, I fancied the hell out of my drama teacher. She absolutely knew I did too and loved a flirt, so that was always my happy place at school. Then there was the perk of growing up in Brighton and pretending I was going to Revenge for the Queens and to make gay friends…
When I hit 17 I had a serious boyfriend. He was lovely for a while, I knew it wasn’t for me, but I kept up with this façade because it was easier for all my family and friends. I just couldn’t handle the idea of putting myself first.
My biggest turning point? Meeting a girl on a ski holiday. I was 16, she was 21 and gay. Wow did I idolise her. We went out in a group, got drunk, snogged and she took my back to her place. I was so overwhelmed, I ended up falling over in the snow and crying in her room whilst she tried to hug me and stroke my hair. Five years later… we ended up hooking up on another ski holiday. Then it all clicked. I was gay. And that is when I came out to my friends. My heroes – they all accepted me and loved me regardless of my sexuality. In a group of heterosexuals, I was the only gay/lesbian. So being set-up with anyone was a challenge.
Bright blonde hair, tan, fake eyelashes – all those classic ‘not gay girl vibes’, made it tricky to flirt in public or for women to take me seriously. But I stuck at it, it was who I was (I’m still blonde, less make-up and far less tango now). I met my first serious girlfriend at 23 and that was the girl who changed my path. I was terrified how I was going to approach the subject. We had been dating for months, she’d met my family and I was clueless how to tell my parents. My brother found out earlier, he was a legend. He met the girl I hooked up with from skiing (there’s always that first one you stay in touch with) and said whatever made me happy made him happy.
So after my first serious girlfriend came over again (we’re talking 4 months in), I was sat in our family home kitchen, playing with my dog and drinking coffee. The next thing I know, my dad is looking at me. He said, ‘You spend a lot of time with Fran don’t you? Do you know what, I know a lesbian pilot.’ And it was that simple! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The huge relief, the tension I’d been holding on to and all the worrying. It wasn’t even worth it. My family loved me for me. Not for being something I wasn’t.
2. Finding the right words
I came out last week.
And the week before.
And the week before that.
In fact I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come out which seems inefficient as most people seem to do it once, properly, and then get on with the rest of their lives.
I, on the other hand, am in an almost aggressively traditional heteronormative relationship (monogamous, married, living in the burbs with two cats) but I have a visceral reaction to anyone labelling me as “straight”. The natural consequence of that is I now don’t talk about the time I came out but, instead, the first time I came out. It happened first when I was 23 and subsequently almost every month since then.
My memory is notoriously bad and, up until about a month ago, I thought I came out when I started university at 18 when in reality I knew I was queer when I was 5 but I didn’t actually come out till I was 23. I was a real slow starter.
I had a very traditional, rural childhood in a religious household with not only no queer role models but a message drilled into me from an early age that gay was not ok. I knew how I felt from very young but I didn’t have the words to express that until much later and it took 18 years for me to find the courage to say those words out loud.
When I eventually did find the courage it was a completely normal Wednesday lunchtime in a chain bar round the corner from the office, sitting opposite a friend who was digging into her salad whilst I cried into a bucket of red wine. Full of confusion, fear and exhausted at the idea of pretending any more I came out for the first time.
I remember feeling a full spectrum of emotions including relief and anticipation: now I can begin but how do I begin?
I used to hate labels. I thought that was because labels are “bullshit” and reductive, that life experiences don’t happen in categories but are unique to the place, the people involved and their emotional, physical and mental state at that specific moment. With all of those variables at play any sort of static tick-box identifier seemed impossible and pointless to me.
Recently I’ve realised that whilst I still don’t like a label I may need a label more than I thought I did. The free and happy choice I made to be in a heterosexual relationship coupled with a deep dislike of labels meant that, even though I was out, I still didn’t feel seen. To the casual observer or even a closer acquaintance I appeared to be straight and, without a label, I had no way easy way of expressing a fundamental part of who I was. A part that I spent the majority of my life wrestling with until I came to not just accept it but rejoice in it. After all that hard work it simply felt inauthentic to “pass” as straight so the search for the word began.
It took me a while to land on a label that fit and felt right, like a semantically confused Goldilocks, I tried various words to see how they sounded out loud and to see how my body reacted to them, having a couple of failed attempts before I hit on the term that felt “just right”.
Bisexual was the most obvious starting point and that was the term I used at 23, when I took my first step out of the closet, but I didn’t feel like it fit me. Other people’s reactions didn’t help: “does your husband mind?” or “you’re just fake gay”. The assumption that bisexuality is either a stepping stone to being gay or an indicator that you’re sex mad so you must struggle with a monogamous relationship is just pure ignorance and always left me feeling frustrated and misunderstood. Most importantly for me though my emotions and experience felt so fluid and, to my uneducated ears, the word bisexual still sounded binary and too restrictive compared to what I was feeling.
Gender simply isn’t a factor for me when it comes to love, so I tried Pansexual which sounded broader and as if it alluded to a spectrum of experience more so than any other label I’d heard before. That didn’t feel right either.
At this point I had a bit of a crisis of confidence. I was out, wasn’t that all I needed to do? I thought that was the biggest hurdle, once I was out everything would fit into place and make sense, I would have a glow up and be the person I was always meant to be but, instead, it all still felt like such a jumble.
During this identity crisis I had friends, fairly, asking me why other people’s assumptions mattered and they were right, I really shouldn’t have cared. In an ideal world people wouldn’t even need to come out, no assumptions would be made and it just wouldn’t matter. That isn’t the world I live in, those assumptions were made and I did care so I carried on privately searching for the right words to tell the world “I’m not straight” whilst simultaneously planning a big old traditional wedding to a wonderful man. Safe to say it was a confusing time for everyone involved.
Then I said a sentence out loud which made my brain and body feel peaceful and content. For the first time a word resonated with me in a way no other label had and I felt comfortable with saying that sentence to the world: I am queer.
A monosyllabic word that’s so small but has meant so many different things to different people over the decades. A word that was once considered an abusive term but is being triumphantly reclaimed. A word that still causes confusion when I say it to people (“what do you mean you’re queer? You’re married to a man”…as if I’d just forgotten) but now their confusion just doesn’t bother me because I found my word that fits me.
My need to come out to the world constantly, it turns out, is nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. The last 7 years have been an ever-evolving process of self-understanding, self-identification and self-acceptance. Now I’m working on not caring what other people might think or assume because for the first time in my life I know who I am and I am queer.