Everyone keeps asking me, “What was it like navigating the pageant world as a queer woman?” I’m honestly not sure what answer anyone is looking for, but the answer I have is simple: It wasn’t like anything. Why? Because I was strung out on denial. Denial is a real thing — it wasn’t just my a way to cope, it was my lifestyle. Living in denial changed my views, opinions, and perspectives on life and myself. So, when people have asked me what it was like to be queer in the pageant world, I haven’t had an extensive answer to give, because at the time, in my mind, I was not queer. I was simply a girl who thought she liked girls at one point in her life, prayed it away, and now life was good. Right? So, let’s backtrack to how I even got to the point of living so deeply in denial and then we’ll fast forward to how I let go of it.
Growing up, I took a special interest in the human body. It was not the kind of interest that would eventually lead me to dreams of med school, but it was definitely the type of interest that lead me to want to learn more. As a kid, I was especially intrigued by the (cis) female body. I was unable to decide whether or not my intrigue with the female body was “normal,” because what I had always seen and been taught was heteronormative — boys like girls and girls like boys. I understood that, but I couldn’t whole-heartedly agree. I needed to understand why what I was being taught was different from what I felt. Was it okay for girls to like girls? And if so, why didn’t I ever see it or hear anyone talking about it? There had to be some kind of explanation! So I decided to ask my mom. I purposely tried to formulate my inquiry in a way that would be general enough to keep her from feeling alarmed, but also specific enough to make her aware of my thoughts and curiosities. So I asked her, “Is there something wrong with looking at women’s bodies?” And without hesitation, my mom replied, “There is nothing wrong with the human body — it is beautiful. It is the perversion of the world that tries to make it a shameful, dirty thing.” Welp! I took that and stuck it in my back pocket. That was a green light of sorts for me. A confirmation, if you will, that I was okay, that my interest in the female body was okay.
As the years went by, my intrigue evolved into attraction, and that attraction went beyond just the physical body. It’s safe to say that by the time I was in the fifth grade, I was fully aware of what I felt: I liked girls. It wasn’t just about being intrigued with a body, but it was about an actual attraction to a person. I don’t know about everyone else’s experience, but I always found it interesting how us queer kids naturally gravitated to one another. I remember kissing and holding hands with girls on field trips, sports trips, and even during recess in whatever private space we could find. Looking back, it is so uncanny to me now because I have no idea the point at which either party ever had to “identify.” It’s almost as if there was this unspoken language — we just knew. I don’t remember ever having to ask, “Will it make you feel weird if I hold your hand, you know, since I’m a girl and you’re a girl?” or “Hey, are you into girls? Because I want to kiss you.” I don’t remember any of that happening, I just remember that things happened and questions were unnecessary. The queer waves were emitted into the air and the next thing I know, I was holding hands and making googly eyes at my team mate in the back of her mom’s Toyota, on our way back from a cross country meet in which she had done very well and I had not, but that’s besides the point. All we cared about was that her mother had no idea that two little queer girls were holding hands and making googly eyes in the back seat of her car.
The relationships and conversations that I had with other queer girls were kept tightly under wraps because it was around this same time that I was being taught that the feelings that I had were wrong. Confusion and conviction began to set in and I would soon find myself at a crossroads. I went to a conservative Southern Baptist school from 1st-8th grade — the kind of school where they taught us that one of our favorite Christian musicians was killed in a motorcycle accident, as a result of the sins that he hid. Umm, yeah. We took the Bible literally and we walked a fine line when it came to questioning anything about it. So you can imagine, when it came to the conversation surrounding homosexuality, it wasn’t much of a conversation at all. It was wrong and that was the bottom line. Homosexuality was a sure way to get yourself escorted to hell by Lucifer himself. Also, being a Christian was the most important thing to be in our household; sometimes it seemed more inherent than being black.
So with my faith in front of me and my queer escapades shadowing me, I was completely confused. It seemed like everything was going against everything. My faith was saying no and even my mother, who’d previously given me the green light, was now pulling me over and giving me a stiff ticket for cruising in the queer lane. What was I to do? I thought I was okay. What I felt came so naturally, I didn’t know it was wrong until someone told me it was. I was torn. My faith was so important to me and I only wanted to please God with every fiber of my being. But apparently I couldn’t live a life that was pleasing to God if I was making googly eyes and holding hands with girls. So, I did the only thing I could think to do: I ignored it and left “that part of my life” in the past. I made a conscious decision to live in denial.
So now, let’s fast forward to the pageant years. Navigating through the pageant world was cake. By that time, I was so deep in denial, it wasn’t even a thing to me. I was living my life in denial like, “I woke up like this”. Well, except for one moment I had with myself. Claire Buffie was my Miss New York (“my” as in, we held state titles at the same time). Her personal platform was working for LGBT equality, as a straight ally. I remember thinking to myself that what she was doing was so amazing. And it brought me to think: Is America ready for a queer Miss America? Not sure, but I know it’d be pretty cool. I wonder if that could be me? OR NOT. It couldn’t possibly be me because I’m not queer. I left that part of my life in the past a long time ago. Right? Riight. I had that one moment, and snapped out of it just as quickly as I’d snapped into it and that was about the extent of any queer navigation in my pageant life.
A few months after competing in Miss America, I went through a mini-process of liberation. Most pageant girls do. We get our hair cut, maybe change up our style a little, and honestly, people’s opinions matter a lotta bit less, and we get a little more comfortable with doing and being whoever and whatever we want. It was post Miss America, nearing the end of my Miss Kentucky reign, when I met a young woman, *Lauren.
Initially, it was nothing serious, aside from the fact that I could not even begin to deny my attraction to her. I met her one evening when I was out with friends. I didn’t get her number or anything, but it just seemed like, after that night, I saw her everywhere. And anytime I saw her somewhere, I made it a point to strike up a conversation or at least say hi. I had no idea what I was doing, I just knew that whatever I was feeling, I was allowing myself to go with it. I was ready to let go of denial. I had been living in denial for so long, I honestly didn’t know how to function without it, but I wanted to try.
I finally mustered up the (liquid) courage to ask Lauren for her number one night and she obliged. Lauren and I had an interesting run (read: it didn’t last) and she played a significant role in my initial steps of coming out to myself. We talked a lot about the “coming out” experience and we were able to relate in the realm of faith and spirituality because we’d both been brought up in similar homes. She taught me a lot about what I did and didn’t want in a relationship with a woman. She was my first step into a new world and journey that I’d denied myself for what felt like my whole life, and now I was ready.
Denial had been good to me and I always thought that it was protecting me, but I began to realize that it was actually holding me back. When denial was there, nothing was a lie and everything just seemed easier. Letting go of denial was scary because it wasn’t just about accepting my queer self. It was about understanding and navigating every aspect of my life, sans denial. How was I supposed to identify? How was I supposed to dress? How was I supposed to tell anyone? Had any of the rules changed since grade school? Were my queer vibes still working or was it now necessary to ask questions? Was I over-thinking this all? And of course, WHAT ABOUT MY FAITH? I was thankful to find comfort in talking to Lauren and my friends about my personal faith dilemma — the main thing that drove me to denial in the first place. It was refreshing to know that it wasn’t just me who was faced with this. Through prayer, conversations with friends, and documentaries like For the Bible Tells Me So and Fish Out of Water, I was able to comfortably live my life and navigate my faith without denial. It was beautiful and I felt free from all of the confusion that had caused me to run into the arms of denial. I was aliiiiiive!
Letting go of denial was one of the most rewarding “goodbyes” of my life — cue Tegan and Sara’s “Goodbye”. There was no more fighting or lying to myself and there was no more wondering “what if.” I traded in my all my years with denial for a one way ticket to freedom and I’m enjoying the ride.
*not her real name, for the sake of anonymity