There is something vaguely confessional about “coming out” as though individuals owe an explanation for their sexuality and gender, something neat to package up and offer in conversation so no one feels uncomfortable. And funny still, even in the gay community and sometimes even more so, the things that should only bond us, laughing over backward caps and Clairo, can also make you feel deeply lonely. (Though I do love Clario. What a look. What a mood.)
There were many times when I first came out that I felt the kind of lonely of an adolescent kid listening to music on their bedroom floor, feeling the yawning abyss, of the childhood existential question: will anyone ever love me for who I am? It took me a long time to reclaim parts of myself over the loud noise of people asking me about being gay or joking about being gay or wanting to know what sex with a woman was like, even when I was confused myself. Alternatively, my mother’s first panicked commandments (that lessened and vanished altogether with time and conversation) “Don’t stop wearing dresses,” or “are you the man?” only confused me more.
I only started dated women and queer individuals outwardly (and quite frankly, anyone at all) when I was already in grad school, already having fallen in love once and ignored it because I felt ill-equipped and embarrassed to, what I thought at the time, burden someone with my feelings. As a shy and deeply passionate person, it felt strange that suddenly my sex life and personal feelings were now open for questioning by strangers and other young women who weren’t sure about their own sexuality. “When did you know?” something I’ve now been asked hundreds of times, felt like a strange question to me then, because it made being gay seem like some pre-ordained thing from birth, rather than a series of moments of attraction I started linking together. I think if I hope anything for young people it is that no one asks them this question. That instead, someone asks them “what do you like about her?” or “what do you like about him?” or “what do you like about them?” I hope we ask people about themselves and what they are feeling, what kind of food they like, and their favorite paintings rather than obsessing about what their sexuality is. Let people change their minds and be a little messy and figure it out, call themselves a million names until they find the right one.
I remember feeling defensive and frustrated with these conversations, because I had spent most of my college experience relatively alone, trying to keep my scholarship and writing short stories for my degree and taking long broody walks by the lake. By the time when it seemed I should have known myself, I was still just beginning to venture toward full understanding.
Both of my parents are notorious loners, my mother with her poetry, and my dad with his moods and anime. My father’s temper was the sun we circled around, and it didn’t leave much time to think about the things I really wanted and where I belonged. I thought that coming out would welcome me home, integrate me into a community, and suddenly everything would make sense. Instead, it was sort of anticlimactic. I was gay. I was academic. I had college debt. I read philosophy and romances and lit candles in my bedroom. I had sleepy eyes and thought myself to death. I wore dresses and was a little lazy in bed. I was still myself, except the intense close female friends I had I now called my girlfriends, and the fevered conversations in parks were now dates. I felt that nothing in my life had been changed really, just been renamed. Over time, I came to realize that I would still have to do some critical work on the way I loved myself, that coming out was only the beginning of a series of boundaries I would have to set, and that empathy would become the most important aspect of friendship for me.
Of course, I could not be more grateful to live authentically as a lesbian, even when I feel frustrated with the responses I sometimes recieve. I know that there are many countries where this is not a possibility. Dating women, and no longer dating men, changed me in critical ways that had nothing to do with how people saw me but how I started treating myself. For me, this was an act of unconditional love. I remember being on a train and thinking, ‘you really don’t have to go on a date with another guy if you don’t want to. You really don’t’. And the realization, that I owed my body and mind to no one but myself was earth shattering. It didn’t mean that there was anything wrong with men, it just wasn’t what I wanted or fantasized about. Because of this boundary I set for myself, I noticed over the years I treat my body and my mind gentler: I choose to sleep in if I need to or eat what I like, wear my favorite clothes, let one apology for a mistake be enough. It’s funny to think that so many parts of us are connected, that to love one part of ourselves, helps us love another. I know that self-acceptance is what eventually led me to dating the partner I am with now, and is what she found most attractive about me.
My girlfriend and I met several years after I had come out. I dated before her: for a while, a nonbinary partner who made me go to therapy and bought me books when I was poor even though we both knew we were ill-suited. A girl who was beautiful and wrote poetry, but reminded me a little too much of my mom. A girl who told me she’d buy me champagne and “take me places.” For a long time, Alexa was just my friend who I thought was pretty and who I talked with in bars about books. When we finally got together, she told me that being together was like “being alone with someone,” which is the best way to describe how easy it has been washing her laundry and writing different stories in the same room until we go to sleep. It is easy, I think, only because the real work of accepting myself has been done.
Now, I wave goodbye to my first coming out from the other shore, because in many ways coming out has more to do with other people and less to do with ourselves. Now, I live my life for myself, my girlfriend, the people who are touched by my writing, my cats. It is true, it does get better, but it gets harder too, because it is life and it contains a multitude of experiences. I still get frustrated by the ignorance of others’ but that doesn’t make me any less happy to be out, and doesn’t make me any less happy in my relationship. And I remind myself, there is still much more I want to create and I am young and my life is still just beginning.
Hi, my name is Kate Leffner and I am a writer in Boston, MA. I have a master’s of fine arts degree from Emerson in Fiction and I live with my girlfriend, Alexa and our two cats, Phoebe and Orchard. I write short stories that focus on kids that take on adult roles and I also hope to normalize queer experiences in writing. One of my short stories, “All Girls” was published recently in The Dillydoun Review and I have several articles coming out on the resourcefulness and struggles of low-income families. I believe that it is important to advocate for others and think you can only truly do so by knowing and understanding your own story and innate biases.