Ten years ago today, on December 27th, 2009, I was in the car with my parents, about two hours into our five-hour trek from Boston to New York, when I told them I’m gay.
I always claim this as the date of my coming out, even though they weren’t the first people I told, nor the last I would have to. It wasn’t the day I figured it out, or the day I accepted it. It was just the day I told my parents, so it was the day I stopped hiding it, so it felt like an important milestone in the journey.
But if I’m being honest, I have at least two decades of milestones. And most of my other milestones involve fictional characters’ milestones.
I Think I’m Kinda Gay (1997-2004)
I was basically raised by TV. My dad had a full-time job and my mom worked two jobs from home, so the TV and I got close really quickly. Elmo taught me how to read, Barney was my first babysitter. Kimberly from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was my first crush, though I wouldn’t realize that until many years later.
Though I’m sure I was exposed to LGBTQ+ characters before this, just by the sheer amount of TV I watched, the first real queer characters in my life were Willow and Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Bianca Montgomery on All My Children. Funnily enough, Tara first appeared on Buffy in December in 1999, ten years before I came out, twenty years ago this month. I was twelve years old, and I had already been loving Willow (and the rest of the Scoobies) for two years. A kind of awkward nerd whose intelligence was her superpower? I loved Willow — and when Tara appeared and her chemistry with Willow sparked on my screen, I was enamored. Enchanted. Here was one of my favorite TV characters falling in love with another woman, and it was beautiful. It probably helped that my dad, my Buffy buddy, and the reason I was even “allowed” to watch the show in the first place (I found out later my mother had declared me too young to watch it but my dad and I had already watched half a season and he didn’t want to keep watching alone) didn’t really react to it.
When I did come out to him, in that car in 2009, he claimed to have always known. “I watched Buffy with you,” was his response, when I asked how he could possibly have known what I was only now coming to terms with. And in retrospect the drooling over Faith I thought totally normal and the heart-eyes over Willow and Tara were probably a dead giveaway to a perceptive father.
In December 2000, I was sitting at the kitchen counter watching All My Children with my mother (a common activity of my childhood, which in retrospect is a little ironic considering her chiding my father for letting me watch Buffy), when Bianca Montgomery came out to her mother. My eyes grew wider and wider as I watched Susan Lucci lose her mind about it. I asked my mother why Erica was so upset, and her explaining that some people approve of girls liking girls, or boys liking boys. I didn’t ask any follow up questions, this answer rattled around too loudly in my brain to process any more conversation.
When Tara and Willow kissed on screen for the first time a few months later, it was a warm, bright light in the middle of the darkest hour of television I had seen to date. It hit me hard like the truth, like a lightning bolt right to the heart.
At the time, I was in eighth grade at my small Catholic school. There were 18 kids in my class, most of them I’d known since I was five. We were at the age where the girls had moved on from the boys having cooties, but I was still there. They teased me for not having a boyfriend to the point where the year before, a friend of mine said he’d pretend to be my boyfriend so they would leave me alone. Despite having so few girls in the grade, cliques were starting to form anyway, and while I used to be able to seamlessly shift from one group of friends to another, I was feeling more and more isolated from my peers. Until she showed up. We’ll call her Madeline. She was new and she was different and I was fascinated by her extra-long hair and her unencumbered laugh and the way the bangles on her wrist tinkled when she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. She wasn’t hyper-feminine like the mean girls in my class were trying to be, rolling up their uniforms and coordinating matching hairdos. She was unique.
Every year, my elementary school took the 8th graders on a trip to Washington, DC. Despite the fact that the majority of us had known each other for 75% of our lives, it was the longest most of us had spent together at one time. We were all at the precipice of change in so many ways. Puberty was running rampant. We were weeks away from leaving the only school we’d known and splitting up to go to different high schools, where our homerooms alone would have more students than our entire grade. We were in a different state and staying in hotels and barely supervised. Our very skin was thrumming with the excitement of it all. On one of the last nights of the trip, we went on a dinner cruise. We got all dressed up and got on a boat that would sail out for a few hours before redocking. It all seemed very grown-up and romantic. We were on the cruise with other eighth grade classes from other cities around the country, so it was basically like the biggest middle-school dance we’d ever been to.
Maybe I should have known because of how Willow and Tara made me feel. But watching my friend kiss someone else was the tipping point. The moment I knew that I liked girls in a different way than my friends did.
At one point I lost track of Madeline, and asked another kid in our class where she was. He pointed, and I looked, and there she was, slow dancing with some boy from another school. And kissing him. It hit me hard like the truth, like a lightning bolt right to the heart. That was the moment I knew. Maybe I should have already known. Maybe I should have known when I started hating the Green Ranger after he started dating Kimberly. Maybe I should have known because of my recent investment in Bianca Montgomery. Maybe I should have known because of how Willow and Tara made me feel. But watching my friend kiss someone else was the tipping point. The moment I knew that I liked girls in a different way than my friends did.
It would be a long time until I really came to terms with it. While it never really came up in elementary school, my Catholic high school did the work to let me know that being gay was wrong and really barricaded that closet door for me. I spent those four years in extreme denial, though in retrospect it’s almost laughable that I thought I was fooling anyone. I was still obsessed with Willow and Tara; before “Once More with Feeling” aired, the WB released “Under Your Spell” early and I listened to it non-stop until the episode aired. I was obsessed with the ladies of Buffy and Charmed and Roswell. Where my peers had boy bands and teen heartthrobs, I had the mythical ladies of The WB’s supernatural shows I ripped from magazines plastered all over my bedroom walls.
But still I fought against it. The guilt and fear was driven deep in me, and while I’d be the first to point out to my religion teacher that saying we should love our neighbors but then have exceptions for non-Christians and gay people felt counter-intuitive, I was also the first to deny it when anyone so much as hinted on me and my best friend being an item, despite the fact that she was always sitting on my lap or holding my hand. Though I couldn’t stop myself from wanting to daydream about kissing girls, I wouldn’t even let my imagination get away with being gay, not fully. I would always imagine scenarios where we had to kiss. Usually truth or dare or spin the bottle. It was the only way I could let myself imagine it, if it didn’t really “count.” It’s not like I WANTED to kiss girls… but on TV plenty of straight girls kissed girls during party games, and it was fine. No one made a big deal of it. No one had to come out and cause drama and lose friends. I was in denial so deep I was hiding the truth from even myself.
Women Who Long, Love, Lust (2005-2008)
When I got to college in 2005, I didn’t have a TV, so I wasn’t really watching the weekly serial dramas anymore. (I call it “the dark years” when people now ask me if I’ve seen shows that are absolutely in my wheelhouse and I 100% would have loved if I saw them, like Fringe and Dexter.) But I didn’t avoid TV altogether. My friends had OC watch parties, and while I mostly avoided them, I did “happen” to catch all the Olivia Wilde episodes. I went to NYU, in the heart of New York City, where somehow being into girls didn’t seem like quite as big and scary as a concept as it had for years. So I slowly started to experiment with telling my friends I might be into girls… to mixed reactions. Mostly hand-waving “everyone feels that way in college, you’ll get over it” kind of reactions. And then, in my freshman year I heard about this show called The L Word. (Funnily enough, according to my LiveJournal, it was December 2005. There’s just something about December…)
I quickly became obsessed. The first two seasons had already aired, and I watched them both by the time the third season started airing in January. I devoured the episodes in my dorm room, hiding under my covers and making sure I had my headphones in so my roommate didn’t think I was watching porn. I liked it in a different way than I liked other shows, and it came to me at the time I think I needed it most. My friends weren’t being particularly supportive of my newly expressed queerness, but this show was validating my feelings in a way they weren’t. It still felt scary, though.
One time I got in the elevator and there was a girl there with a bleach-blonde pixie cut and a nose ring and she was just holding the bright pink case of The L Word DVDs and my heart almost beat full out of my chest — and I wasn’t even the one holding them! I had a crush on a girl in my Spanish class, and we ended up having an entire coded conversation where we came out to each other by comparing ourselves to L Word characters. (She ended up having a girlfriend so nothing happened but it was kind of validating to have the first girl I openly admitted to having a crush on actually be queer.)
At the end of my Freshman year, I mentioned something about being into girls again, and one of the friends who had been hand-wavey about it all along scoffed. “You’re still going on about that?” I had finally taken down the bars my high school experience had built across my closet door, but as soon as I started to creep the door open, I had it slammed in my face. I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble, and I stayed in that closet for a few more years.
One time I got in the elevator and there was a girl there with a bleach-blonde pixie cut and a nose ring and she was just holding the bright pink case of The L Word DVDs and my heart almost beat full out of my chest — and I wasn’t even the one holding them!
But then I met Bernadette. It was fall 2008, the first semester of my senior year of college, and I had just started a job at Barnes & Noble. I don’t really believe in love at first sight, but something definitely sparked in that first interaction. Something about her intrigued me. Something inside me was screaming for me to continue the conversation, where normally my social anxiety would be screaming for me to get out of it. So I did. I started talking about something, anything to keep talking to her. She must have felt the magnetic pull too, because before long we had exchanged numbers and became Facebook friends. I saw on her page that she liked Buffy, and I told her I had all the DVDs, so we made plans for her to come over to my dorm and watch.
The night before she came over, I was a wreck. I cleaned more than I had ever cleaned before, I was a bundle of nerves, I couldn’t sleep. We had only known each other for a few weeks but I couldn’t stop thinking about her, thinking about every time she put her hand on the small of my back when she walked by me, thinking about every time she brushed my hair out of my face and tucked it behind my ear. I Googled “what does being in love feel like” and read that it felt sort of like being on cocaine, which I had never done, but the symptoms tracked. When she came over, we watched hours and hours of Buffy, sitting closer and closer on the bed every time one of us got up and sat back down, eventually ending in our hands brushing over each other’s. At 4am, we decided it was time to stop binge-ing but also too late for her to come home, so she stayed over. She fell asleep with her head resting on my shoulder and for the second night in a row, I was wide awake.
The next morning, I thought about kissing her. As we took the elevator downstairs, I thought about kissing her. As we hugged goodbye in the lobby of my dorm, I thought about kissing her. But I didn’t kiss her. I regretted it for so long. I don’t know that it would have changed anything, but it might have.
Then again, maybe it wouldn’t have, because a few weeks later, we were at work talking to a group of people and she casually mentioned that she had a boyfriend. It hit me hard like the truth, like a lightning bolt right to the heart. Did I imagine everything between us?
Well, it turns out I didn’t. We eventually talked about it plainly, and she told me that she liked me, but that she’d been dating this boy for years, that they had been friends for longer before that, that he was living across the country right now, and that she just needs time to end it. She asked me to wait for her.
So I did. I waited. But in the meantime I was out of my mind in love and in torment so I started “coming out” to my friends. I put it in quotations because it wasn’t the way I would eventually come out to my parents, with a serious conversation and a declaration. It was “I’m in love I need help” and then casually mentioning it was a girl, allowing space for any surprise (there was little) and rambling on about my confused heart. I still wasn’t sure if I was bisexual or gay, I just knew I loved Bernadette.
I went home for Christmas break that December, and they didn’t have space for me at the Barnes & Noble when I got back in January, so I got a different retail job, but we kept texting. A group of cashiers from my semester decided to get together at the end of the month, and she was acting a little strange. She wasn’t being as warm as usual, it almost felt like she was avoiding me. And then someone asked her if her boyfriend was coming. It turns out she forgot to mention that he moved to New York. The conversation shifted but she could tell I was upset. We did that thing that people always think is so sly but is actually very obvious and annoying where we texted each other despite being in the same room. She told me she had to give it another chance with him. She told me she was sorry. I told her she broke my heart. She kissed me on the cheek before she left and I thought that would be the end of it.
It wasn’t. Months went by and she still would tell me she missed me all the time. She was living with him and telling me not to give up on her, that we could still happen someday. She was still asking me to wait for her, while she did nothing to prove she was going to make good on her side of the deal. But I waited, of course I waited.
But in the meantime I had my own sexuality to reckon with. I had started telling my friends I liked girls, but what did that even mean to me? In the Fall of 2009, I moved back to New York, into my first non-dorm apartment. I was starting grad school, but it was still just the start of the semester, so I had some time on my hands. I went searching for a show that would give me the answers I sought — and honestly probably something to fill the gay void The L Word ending left — and ended up finding South of Nowhere.
I’m Not Going To Apologize For My Heart (2009-2019)
South of Nowhere ended up being a turning point for me. In one episode, Spencer talks to Ashley about maybe being gay. About how it scares her, but she thinks it’s true. Ashley tells her the truth of it: it can be great, it can suck, but one thing’s for sure, you can’t fight it. If you’re gay, you’re gay. And that’s okay. Spencer’s line of questioning mirrored my own so clearly that I knew then. I knew the truth. As the show went on, Spencer and Ashley’s relationship unclouded my vision, unmuddied my heart. I remember little moments so vividly — like Ashley kissing Spencer on the shoulder while they looked in the refrigerator for something to eat. This is what I wanted. And I wasn’t afraid of wanting it anymore.
So in December 2009, I came out to my parents. I said it plainly, and I meant it. “I’m gay.”
And then in 2010, TV started to follow suit. While South of Nowhere was really all I could find when I was looking for my next gay show in 2009*, the following year starting bearing more fruits. Lost Girl came to town with a bisexual succubus, Pretty Little Liars apparated into our lives with lesbian swimmer Emily Fields. Santana and Brittany started making out on Glee, I discovered (albeit a little late) the magic of Naomi and Emily from Skins. TV recaps and Twitter were starting to pick up popularity, so I started to find friends online who liked the same things I did. People who would squeal with me every time Santana and Brittany locked pinkies. People who also watched the Emaya Popcorn Kiss a hundred times. People who also had to find creative ways to get their weekly Doccubus fix because they didn’t live in Canada.
*It’s worth nothing here that Callie Torres was already Doing the Work on primetime TV at this point, but I hadn’t fallen into my Grey’s Anatomy addiction quite yet.
I remember little moments so vividly — like Ashley kissing Spencer on the shoulder while they looked in the refrigerator for something to eat. This is what I wanted. And I wasn’t afraid of wanting it anymore.
Pretty Little Liars fandom ended up being more important to me than the show itself. We had our own language, thanks to Heather Hogan’s recaps we all shared a love for. We had our own corner of the internet, #BooRadleyVanCullen, where we could be as weird and gay as we wanted, no judgement.
The more I was able to see myself on TV, the more I was able to see myself, full stop. I was finding context and language for things I’d always felt but never knew how to express. I felt less alone in my feelings — and even referenced Santana’s famous, “He’s just a stupid boy,” moment in my final email to Bernadette, where I explained why I couldn’t keep waiting for her.
And still, despite this uptick in queer TV, when I first started writing recaps of my own in 2012, there weren’t enough shows to cover, so I was writing about a show that only had a subtext femslash ship at the time. But then the next year, Orphan Black started, Rookie Blue‘s Gail Peck came out, and the ball kept rolling. We lived through the best of times
It’s hard to imagine that ten years ago, when I came out, I was so desperate for queer content I had to look to Canada to find anything. And while today Canada still gives us some of our queerest content, it’s not all we have. Now, when I’m with other queer people and we’re trying to describe ourselves to each other, we don’t have to do it in L Word characters alone; we have a much bigger pool to select from. Instead of trying to explain all the ways I’m like Dana Fairbanks but also not quite exactly like her, I can say I’m two parts Waverly Earp and one part Cosima Niehaus. Waverly spoke to me in similar way to how Willow spoke to me all those years before, but I know this story won’t end quite as tragically.
In fact, there’s so much queer content now that it’s almost impossible to keep up with it all. And sometimes it can feel frustrating — especially after years of being able to consume literally any and all queer content — to have to pick and choose, but at the same time it’s kind of liberating to not HAVE to watch a show just because it has queer content. It makes me so happy to think of the kids who won’t have to hide under the blankets to watch The L Word afraid people will figure them out, because there will be queer content on every channel. Teenagers won’t have to feel so guilty about wanting to kiss girls they can’t even imagine what it looks like, because they will have a wide variety of examples of what it could look like everywhere they turn.
It’s also hard to imagine that a decade after embracing the thing I had been fighting for a decade before that is now my entire life. I joke sometimes that I’m a professional lesbian because my queer identity is part of what qualifies me for one of my jobs. I get asked to be on panels about LGBTQ+ representation in the media, I’ve interviewed and met some of my favorite creators and portrayers of queer content. I’ve met most of my best friends through the TV shows we love and the queer characters we saw ourselves in. Basically what I’m saying is, in the past ten years, TV got gayer, and so did I. And I can only hope the pattern will continue in the next ten years.