feature image photo credit Taylor Hatmaker
Many years ago I attended college, right here in the beautiful state of North Carolina, and I had a lot of close friends that were girls. My friends were smart girls, talented girls, beautiful girls who were charming and had great senses of humor. We would hang out together in our dorm rooms, giggling and telling secrets and eating cookies til late at night. I would paint their nails, braid their hair, spend hours getting ready with them before heading off to some campus party where we would stay for only twenty minutes before heading back to our dorms because it was more fun when it was just us. I felt jealous when these girls spent a lot of time with their boyfriends. I thought it was because their boyfriends were, more often than not, pieces of crap who treated my friends like doormats, but years later I would be able to look back on many of my relationships with girls and realize that I hated the way they were treated because I knew I could treat them better. Turns out, I was actually crazy about them.
Coming to grips with my various identities was a long, weird process. I grew up in Birmingham, AL as one of the only biracial kids in a predominantly white school. We were poor and my parents weren’t together any more, and nothing about me or my family fit in with the community in which I grew up. Everyone always looked at me like they felt pity for me; pity for the color of my skin, pity for our socio-economic status, pity that we weren’t active members of the Baptist church. So I made it my job to assimilate as much as possible. I refused to stand out for anything but excellence. I was always on the honor roll; I didn’t do drugs, drink alcohol, or have sex; I held a part time job; I made the cheerleading squad and the dance team; I straightened my hair so it looked more like the other girls’; I won state theatre competitions and I got all the solos in show choir. It was easy to immerse myself in school because I had no dating life — the guys who flirted with me did so mostly in secret, afraid of what others would think of their interest in a girl that looked like me. At the time I thought that my dedication to school was an effort to prove to people that I didn’t need any pity, that I was doing just fine, but as much as it pains me to say it now, I think there was a part of me that was trying to apologize for my blackness since everyone outside of my family seemed to dislike it so much.
As you can imagine, this was not a very nurturing environment in which to grow up, let alone come out. Once, and only once, did I ever let my brain consider the possibility that I might like girls in a way that was different than what was expected of me. I considered this thought, honestly and quietly, knowing that this had the potential to rip my world apart, and then I reminded myself that I barely knew how to survive with the identity I already had. I didn’t know how to be poor, and black, and biracial, AND queer. So I wasn’t. I shut it down. I quieted the voice inside of me, convincing it that this was not a world in which it could survive. I had seen no examples of anyone like me, not in my life, not on tv, not in books, so rather than be the first of my kind, I decided not to exist.
Do you know how traumatizing it is to live your life thinking that you don’t exist?
I couldn’t wait for high school to be over, and my only prerequisite for college was that it be far away from Alabama. My good grades landed me at a private school in Salisbury, NC, the majority of my four years of tuition paid for by scholarships, and, finally, several hundred miles away from everything I had ever known, I began the process of shedding the armor I had learned how to wear as a kid. It was scary. It was exhilarating. I learned what to keep and what to discard through a complicated process of trial and error. My college was more diverse than my high school, filled with people of all ethnicities from all over the country. They seemed to appreciate all the things that made me unique — my goofiness, my ability to break out in dance with absolutely no warning, my love of theatre, the color of my skin, the curls in my hair. I started to embrace my blackness in a way that I never had before. Even though my Mom and Dad raised us to feel proud of our brown skin and our biracial identity, the opinions of the rest of the world had a much bigger impact on how I felt about myself growing up. But in college, my community was suddenly a mirror; not only did I see aspects of myself reflected in others, I also felt love and acceptance and appreciation from people who were not like me at all. I had never experienced anything like it before.
And yet there I was, still unknowingly harboring crushes on the amazing women in my life, completely oblivious to the implications of my fierce loyalty to them. I wasn’t in denial, I had just become extremely successful at compartmentalizing difficult emotions that I had no idea what to do with. My college years concluded with a newfound pride for my beautiful skin but with no better understanding of what love was than when I had left Alabama. And that’s what is tricky about having and acknowledging one’s own intersecting identities — the rules for certain parts of your life don’t always apply to the others. I am a feminist and I am a woman of color and I am queer. None of these parts of me exists alone, yet the pace at which I was finally able to begin healing from the oppressive, racist environment that I grew up in is not the same pace at which I was able to recognize my sexuality, accept it, and live my life proudly and openly. The discrimination that I experience as a woman feels different from what I face as a member of the LGBTQIA community and still different from what I face as a biracial individual. The only thing that connects all the various ways in which I navigate this world is the pride I take in doing it.
Being proud of all our parts, from the ones that are easy to share to the ones that aren’t, takes tremendous courage and faith. And there might be times in life, because of who we are with or where we live or how we feel, where our own acceptance of ourselves may falter. But this doesn’t make us failures. Protecting ourselves doesn’t make us failures. Nothing can make us a failure as long as we are patient, as long as we treat ourselves with grace and kindness and allow ourselves the space to have a complex identity that can grow and change. We are allowed to have complex identities and not have to apologize for them. I know this now to be true.
When I finally came out to myself, it was peaceful. I was 25 years old. I was filming on location and wandering through a new city when I met a woman in a store who was beautiful and charming and had a nice sense of humor. I was very familiar with women like this — they had accompanied me through all my years of college. What I wasn’t familiar with was one of them asking for my number. Surprisingly, even with an imagination as adept as mine, I had never before actually considered that an impressive woman would be interested in me. The prospect did rip my world apart, in the best possible way.