My grandparents’ house has a rarely-used attic, cluttered with old and mostly forgotten items. Leaning against one wall, spotted with a thin layer of dust, is a large print of my grandfather in his college years. You see, my grandpa went to Princeton University before women were admitted, which meant his theater department was all male. And of course, someone had to play the female roles. Which is how this attic ended up being graced by a photograph, several feet tall, of my grandfather in drag. Chest hair bristles out from under the hem of his leotard, his tutu and tights slightly askew-- as I noted the first time I saw the picture at age 12, he doesn’t make a very pretty ballerina.
And that is the story of the gayest shit I have ever seen from someone who is… well, kind of homophobic.
Despite his brief stint as a low-effort drag queen, my grandpa doesn’t love gay people, nor does his wife. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they hate gay people either; I don’t think they’d be willing to put forth the effort that hard-core homophobia requires. But when invited to a same-sex wedding, my grandpa did feel the need to let us know that he “just doesn’t understand” lesbianism.
Which was just fine with me, at the time. Seeing as my grandpa is a cishet man, I highly doubted any lesbians would be interested in him. He could stay confused; it didn’t concern him. Until, eventually, I realized that I was a lesbian. And then it fully hit me that of course his distaste towards queer people was a problem, because it affected the queer people around him.
It was selfish of me not to realize this until it affected me personally, I know. In my defense, though, I was only sixteen when I first started questioning my sexuality. Despite having an amazing support system of encouraging and open-minded friends, I found it incredibly difficult to come out in high school. By the time I accepted the fact that I was queer, I was in my senior year; I only managed to come out to my parents, my sister, and a few close friends before going off to college. At the time, I wasn’t sure why the words “I like girls” were so impossible to force out of my mouth. Looking back, it was probably a mixture of embarrassment, internalized homophobia, and uncertainty. I wanted to be “out and proud,” but at the same time coming out felt like such a huge risk, and for very little reward. Staying closeted was just easier, and knowing that made me feel like I was taking the coward’s way out, but I stayed closeted all the same.
So it’s fair to say that by the time I got to college, I had a lot of what could charitably be called “repressed gay shit.” And I vowed to be repressed no more; I quickly proclaimed my queerness to my new friends, joined LGBT student groups, and started discussions on queer issues in class. And fuck, it was hard at first. That first time I tried to casually make a joke about being gay to the friends I had just made, friends I still didn’t know very well and who I desperately wanted to like me, I felt like my heart was trying to claw its way out of my chest. But by the second semester, I was casually dropping, “As a member of the LGBTQ community myself…” into class discussions.
Look how far I had come. It felt great. And I had this neat little narrative about how I had been closeted in high school and then flourished in college as the fruity little lesbian I was always meant to be. I liked that narrative, even though it required ignoring a lot of things, including the fact that I was still not out to so many members of my family who were important to me.
Then things changed; which is to say, I went to a gay bar for the first time. It was Valentine’s Day. I was single, out to a drag show with a small group of friends. I had never been to a gay bar before; I was nervous, and my anxiety only increased throughout the night. I felt like everyone could see how out of place I was, how obviously I didn’t belong. (After all, I was sober, single, and completely unable to dance. In my defense, I’m much more of a “coffee shop” gay than a “queer club” gay.)
But what struck me most was how completely novel and surreal it felt to be surrounded by queer couples. The dance floor was a noisy, crowded, smelly display of queer joy, of queer love, of queer self expression and freedom. I had never seen a large number of LGBTQ people openly existing in public before, and I had certainly never seen a diverse range of same-sex couples openly expressing their love. It felt like a revelation, and I was surprised that it felt like a revelation. I was confused and upset. Wasn’t I a modern queer woman now? Wasn’t I “out and proud”? Why did this all seem so foreign, so exciting and new?
I left the bar feeling rather dazed. The next morning I woke up and started piecing things together. Gay bars felt exciting and new to me, I determined, because they were exciting and new. I couldn’t neatly divide my life into “before coming out” and “after coming out” sections; despite being out at school, I still had a lot to learn and experience. I was a person who was constantly evolving in relationship to myself, my sexuality, and what it meant to those around me.
But I couldn’t get the thought of the couples at the gay bar out of my head. The freedom, the liberation, the euphoria they seemed to represent just by being themselves in public-- I kept thinking about it. I wanted that freedom. I wanted to be out to everyone I loved, even if it was difficult. I wanted to be authentically myself.
And that’s what I wish I had known before starting the journey of coming out in the first place. That ultimately, coming out isn’t for other people. It’s something you do for yourself. And despite what I had initially thought, coming out comes with a huge reward, the ability to share who I truly am with others. What I should have been looking for when I came out wasn’t approval from others, although love and support from allies is so, so important. I should have been paying attention to the way a weight lifted off of my chest every time I spoke the words “I’m gay” aloud. I should have been reveling in the expression of who I was, fully, truly, and unconditionally.
Of course, it’s always easier to see that looking back. Even when I decided to call my grandparents and come out to them the morning after my night at the bar, I hadn’t fully understood what was compelling me. I called them, planning to say, “Grandpa, Grandma, I have something to tell you. I’m gay.” But it didn’t exactly happen like that; which is to say, I chickened out. I changed my mind and spent most of the call making aimless small talk.
Just as I was about to hang up, they asked me how I was keeping busy outside of class. And I found myself telling them about all the LGBTQ student groups I had joined. I guess I’m really doing this, I thought.
“So, yeah,” I weakly concluded. “It’s nice to be around so many other gay people like me. Like myself, I mean. Because being one of the only lesbians in high school was lonely, so it’s nice to be around other gay people. Other lesbians like me. Is what I mean.”
So not exactly the clear, straightforward, honest conversation I had hoped for. But at least I still had made my lesbianism obvious and impossible to ignore, right? Wrong! They didn’t react; they acted as if I hadn’t said anything. (Later, my mother would determine that they hadn’t understood what I was saying. I remain convinced that they hadn’t wanted to understand what I was saying.)
But whether they misunderstood, didn’t listen, or just refused to accept the existence of my queerness is beside the point. That’s not to say that it didn’t matter to me at all in the moment, or that it doesn’t still hurt that my coming out went unacknowledged. (I cried a lot after I hung up the phone.) But ultimately, I choose to think about my coming out as a gift to myself. I freed myself from having to pretend to be someone I’m not. I gave myself permission to let go of the anxiety, shame, and fear that I’d been hiding in, and stepping out from beneath that shadow was such a relief. I wish I had thought about it like that in the moment, so here I am writing it down now, hoping my story might help out someone else who is thinking about coming out of the closet.
My grandparents have never brought up the whole hey-I’m-a-lesbian thing since. I do still wish that I could share with them the joy that I’ve discovered in my queer identity, and that I could introduce them to my amazing girlfriend. But a few weeks after my coming out debacle, I called them again. After we talked for a while, I had started to hang up when my grandfather awkwardly cleared his throat and hesitantly said, “I want you to know… we love you very much.” I choked back tears (yes, I cry a lot) and managed to whisper, “I love you too.” And that, I have decided, will have to be enough.