I don’t remember my first kiss. I remember my second kiss, the kiss I told everyone for seven years was my first kiss because I was so ashamed of my real first kiss being with a girl. Years of lying and internalized homophobia completely erased any memory of my first kiss. I can’t help but wonder what else I’ve lost because of the homophobic environment in which I was raised.
As a lesbian living in Oklahoma, I grew up around constant homophobia. Of course, nobody—myself included—realized I was gay while I was living there. I spent 21 years thinking I was a heterosexual woman when I didn’t even like speaking to men. I know there are layers to this. Obviously, I was in denial about my sexuality—that much is a given. I still get caught up in that even though I would regularly make out with my best friend; I still thought I wasn’t gay.
If I were gay, wouldn’t I just know? “This was just about experimenting,” I thought. Everyone does it at some point! That level of cognitive dissonance makes me wonder if perhaps part of my own denial was rooted in a subconscious desire to keep myself safe.
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I Realized I Was Lesbian Over the Pandemic
It wasn’t unusual for families to kick their kids out in my hometown if they were gay. I was lucky enough to make friends in high school who showed me that everyone isn’t like that. To be clear, my family didn’t ever kick me out or threaten to do so, but they made it crystal clear that the “gay lifestyle” was not one that they accepted or thought my sister or I would be a part of.
I remember the first time I met gay people in real life (that I knew of, anyway); my dad introduced me to a lesbian couple with whom he’d been working for over a decade. He later told me that he didn’t mind them, specifically because they “didn’t rub their sexuality in [his] face.” From an elementary age, it was beaten into my head that gay people should live their lives silently and in hiding. I’d watch TV with my family only to hear negative comments during the rare times there was any kind of queer representation. “Ugh, I don’t know why that is necessary,” or, “I just wasn’t raised to think that is OK,” or, from a grandparent I thought was more progressive, “Ew, so they let fags on TV now?” The word “gay” was rarely ever used, as if it were dirty and we’d catch it if we spent too much time even hearing queer terms.
I was two years into my college and over a thousand miles away from my hometown before I realized I might possibly be into women. Even when I came to this realization, it was only because I was surrounded by queer friends and realized that everything they said about being queer felt like they were taking thoughts I didn’t even realize were inherently queer directly out of my head. It took a pandemic and months of isolation and self-reflection (plus a not-so-subtle comment from a lesbian friend that every man I had ever found attractive looked like a woman) to realize I wasn’t into men at all—to realize I was a lesbian.
Since then, I have become vocal about LGBTQ+ rights, as well as my own lesbian identity on social media, much to the apparent chagrin of my family. When I came out publicly, everyone on my dad’s side of the family stopped talking to me. I spent two years almost entirely outcast from my family. I wasn’t invited to holidays, family events or even my cousin’s wedding.
I’m Trying to Understand Parents Who Forced Me to Repress My True Self
My family now says they’re not homophobic. In fact, they “never have been” and they’re sorry I’ve ever “felt that way.” The kid in me who never felt accepted by her parents wants to believe them, if not just so I can have the relationship I have always craved. I want to be able to ignore our past. I want to be able to have a relationship separate from opinions on sexuality, but how can I do that when so much of my identity is related to being a lesbian?
I often look back and think about how my life would have been different if I knew I was gay growing up. Would I have had a girlfriend before college? Would I have avoided my abusive relationship for almost a year? I watch movies and TV shows about queer teens that have come out in recent years and think to myself, “This could have been me, if only I had known.” The perspective has shifted a bit—all the signs were right in front of me.
As a freshman in high school, I regularly kissed a female friend and had suspiciously close female friendships that typically ended in explosive friendship breakups. I had absolutely zero interest in men—even when I was dating them. Of course, ignorance probably played a role in my denial, but I think, for the most part, I was so scared of what could happen to me if I were gay that I couldn’t even let myself consider it.
I want to push down my feelings toward my family. I’m torn between wanting to form a relationship with my parents for my younger self and cutting myself off from my family to protect my queer identity and my future self. Sometimes, I can succeed in repressing my feelings of resentment toward my mother, but forgiving her for 18 years of conditioning me to hate a fundamental part of who I am feels like a betrayal. It’s not just a betrayal to my younger self but a betrayal to all of the young LGBTQ+ kids in hostile home environments who may not have the opportunity or ability to fight back.
Coming to terms with and understanding my sexuality was a process that came with a great deal of grief, self-loathing and abandonment from family and friends alike. I had to grieve the idea of myself created in the image of what people wanted me to be. I had to grieve the aspirations I had for the future, which I wasn’t attached to until I realized they no longer fit in the picture. I’m still realizing daily that things I have dreamed of for years were never my dreams to begin with. The more I discover about myself, the more I realize I hardly knew myself at all. I was a shell of who I could be, who I’m desperately trying to be now, masquerading as anything everyone else wanted me to be.
I Still Can’t Trust That My Family Loves Me Unconditionally
Now I’m faced with a family who says they love me for who I am, a family who wants to see me, spend time with me and have a relationship with me. I’m out, I’m loud and I am proud of who I am, but when I spend time with my family, I feel small, defenseless, exposed and uncertain. I’m constantly reminded that while they may say that they accept me for who I am, they wish I was someone else. Someone who agrees with them, who marries a nice man and settles down to pop out a few kids—definitely not a vocal lesbian with tattoos, piercings and an inclination to start arguments with just about anyone when necessary.
Can they even love me if they have to compartmentalize my personality to do so? Can they love me if they would choose to have a different baby almost 24 years ago if it meant that baby would be straight? I want to believe that they can, but the 14-year-old queer kid who thought she was a disgusting mistake for kissing her best friend is having a much harder time accepting that.
My gut says I should leave my family behind and rely on found family and myself. Unfortunately, my heart still has a hard time letting them go, and I find myself wanting to see the best in them and hoping that one day they will change. Why is it that after 24 years of proving to me who they are as people, I still find myself not believing them?