The first people I came out to were my suitemates. It was truly surreal. It was my senior year of college. It was past midnight and I’d gone to bed a couple of hours before but my body was entirely too used to my college lifestyle to let me fall asleep any time before 2 am. I laid in bed, scrolling through Buzzfeed when the headline grabbed me. “Sorry Women Of The World, Samira Wiley And Lauren Morelli Are Engaged.” I didn’t even know who Samira Wiley was but there was a picture of the smiling couple as the thumbnail and queer Jesus be praised, I clicked it. That was honestly the moment I became queer. I fell down the rabbit hole of Samira’s Instagram, lusting and falling in love harder than I ever had before. Two hours later, I was in the living room I shared with my three suitemates confessing how goddamn queer I was. This was not a surprise to them as I’d been exploring my sexuality already. I’d recently given myself permission to let my gaze linger on a woman I found attractive or smile when I saw a rainbow flag. I’d even gone as far as to begin to identify as queer on forms within the confines of my University. This moment however, was the pivotal point where “Am I Queer?” changed into “Wow I’m So Queer.”
I wasn’t in the closet anymore, really, but I wasn’t all the way out either. I have never really been able to say that I was in the closet without clarifying the sentence in one way or another. I am in the closet but only [insert place here]. I have come to see the metaphorical closet as a safe-house. When I am surrounded by people who might harm me, I bolt the locks and exist entirely within its confines. But sometimes. Sometimes I throw the doors opens and leave it far behind. I let myself drown in unabashed queerness until I barely remember what the walls of the closet look like.
Before I graduated from college, I graduated from “Wow I’m So Queer” to “Everybody look at how queer I am.” Yet, if you asked me, I would have told you I was in the closet because I thought that unless I was out everywhere, then I wasn’t out. You were either in the closet or you were out and proud and I still cried too much about my sexuality to my therapist to consider myself out and proud. How I loathed being in the closet too. I once made my therapist teary eyed because my pain at being forced to hide my sexuality from my family was so palpable she could not help but feel it like it was hers too. I had anxiety attacks every time I flew home from school. I learned to avoid being at home.
I made so many excuses my parents eventually sat me down and asked why I was running from being home. I sat on the floor in my father’s room that day as he and my mother sat on his bed, both of them staring down at me. They were not so much asking if I was running from home but concluding that I was and asking why. I tried to convince them I was not at all running from home but every “I really am not running from home” was met with “Yes, you are.” And I was. I hadn’t been home for more than a week since the summer and this conversation was taking place in December. I had never wanted anything more than to just blurt out “I’m into women” in that moment and get it over with. I fantasized that they would laugh and say “is that it?” and hug me and I would be able to spend New Year with my family but I knew that was nothing but a fantasy. In reality, my mother would cry and my father would cry and they would all avoid looking at me and then they would pray and I would cry because it would be the end of my relationship with my family as I knew it. So instead of coming out to them, I retreated further into my closet and kept my mouth shut, waiting until I got into my room to cry quietly and text my friend so she could affirm that there was nothing wrong with me for loving women.
On National Coming Out day in 2016, I wrote an article for the magazine on campus. I’d walked down the main area of campus and seen the doorframe that people could walk through and take pictures in to symbolize their coming out. I think I smiled at the people taking pictures and kept walking, too aware of where the closet was to even think about it despite the fact I was in theory out at school. The closet I resided in was not just a doorframe. On the other end of their doorframe was freedom and open air and I understood the symbolism but that door did not represent my closet. The article detailed questions I’d asked myself and things I’d told myself about my sexuality as well as answers and rebuttals to those questions. I told the reader that it was not mandatory to come out and then a few days later, I cried to my therapist about how much I hated not being out because despite how “optional” I said it was, I wanted to be out. The longer I remained in the closet, the greater my anxiety that I would never come out. Being closeted stripped me of all power over myself, my desires and my future.. My biggest fear was that if I remained in the closet, I would lose my way out and I would end up in 20 years married to a man I don’t love with children I don’t want, all to please my parents.
“Are you gay?”
If I could illustrate the way that my heart constricted in my chest, it would probably be a gory drawing. I felt the doors to my closet rattle like a scene from the purge with someone waiting outside with a hatchet to destroy me. The safety of my closet has been threatened before but those were usually incidents like thinking about how hot a woman on TV was when my dad was next to me. This time, my mother was knocking on the door of the closet and I did not think she would like what she saw.
I sat on her bed that night. I’d asked her what she would do if I brought a woman home as the person I wanted to marry. I tried very hard to sound as nonchalant and hypothetical as possible, a question born out of curiosity. When my mother said that she would lose her will to live if I was anything but straight, I heard my own heart shatter.
“Are you gay?”
I crawled deeper into the crevices of my closet. The question was simple enough but it felt so violent, like the force of what she was asking me would bring down the walls around me and leave me exposed to be devoured by her homophobia. I shook my head in response.
“Are you a lesbian?”
My mother went down the LGBTQ acronym and I shook my head for each one of them and tried to keep the roof of my closet up over me. I stumbled when she asked if I was bisexual – because I am – and I am fairly certain she actually suspects that I am. I often wonder why she asked. What if I had said yes? What would she have done then? Promptly lose her will to live? In that moment, my confinement was as much for my safety as it was for hers. It protects me from being the reason my mother would want to die and it protects my mother from what for her would be the soul crushing agony of having a queer child.
I poked my head out of the closet long enough to come out to my brother. I sat in the passenger seat while he drove me home from the airport at the end of the summer. The last time he had picked me up from the airport a few months prior, I remember asking him how he felt about gay people. My brother, for context, does not feel strongly about many things, especially if they have nothing to do with him. So I wasn’t exactly surprised when he shrugged. “What does that have to do with me? Everybody live their life,” he’d said that time. This time, I asked him what he would do if I married a woman. Again, he shrugged. “I really don’t care, you do you,” he said. Then he added for good measure, “you could really marry your shoe and I wouldn’t care.” We sat in silence for a little bit because I couldn’t find the words to convey my gratitude. He had given me a respite from hiding, even if he didn’t realize it. His nonchalance and uncaring acceptance meant I had somebody at home who at least knew the real me, even if it was just one person. The door to the closet was open that day. I still sat in it and you really couldn’t move me out of it, but the fresh air that permeated it was refreshing. When we finally spoke again, it was for me to ask him not to say anything to either of our parents. He said, “oh yeah, if you tell them, that would be interesting.” My brother is also prone to understatements.
The closet is a brutal place sometimes. My identity and sense of self have never been easy things to choke down and hide inside of me. Before I started to realize my queerness, I had an open relationship with my mother in which we talked about most things, boys included. Then, on a trip home shortly after my Samira Wiley moment of realization, I sat next to my parents as we watched Amanda Nunes, the first openly lesbian UFC women’s champion, win a match. My crush on Amanda was instant but just as quickly, it gave way to a panic attack. The juxtaposition of affection for a woman while sitting between my parents combined with the effort it took to not blurt out “omg she’s so hot” as I often did with men I found attractive, overwhelmed me. It was made even worse by the fact that having a panic attack around my parents would lead them to question what the cause of it was and I couldn’t tell them! Being in the closet, for me, raises questions like this: If I come out to my family, will they stop loving me? If I remain in the closet but can no longer have the relationship I desire with my parents because of the mental strain, is it even worth staying closeted?
The first time I asked out a girl, I giggled so much it felt like I was a cartoon and bubbles would come spilling out of my mouth in hiccups so the world would know something miraculous was happening. Happiness did not truly encompass all of what I was feeling. But my giggle died and my happiness was muted soon as I realized the woman I was asking out was an out and proud lesbian.
“You should know, though, that I’m not out to my family,” I felt the need — and the moral duty — to disclose. I was a newly minted queer and everything I knew about queerness was rooted in coming out. I’d heard about the relief that came with coming out from everybody. If TV was to be believed, I would feel free even as my parents stopped looking me in the eye. So when I looked at the object of my affection, my happiness turned to guilt. How could I possibly ask her to share my closet when she was enjoying the freedom outside of hers? She said, “it’s okay for you not to be out everywhere. You don’t owe people information about whether you are in a relationship or not.” She said, “the narrative surrounding coming out is so rooted in whiteness and the experience of white people that it can never truly encompass everybody without doing a great disservice.” This comment and this idea took some of the guilt of being closeted off me. In that moment, I thought she was giving me permission to date and love and lust after openly queer people. Now, I realize her words give me permission to write my own narrative and the closet is only a small part of that. This idea is something that I carry around with me.
I have come to believe that every queer person, whether they are out or not, carries their closet around with them. It’s a safety net. It has our height markers and stains from the times we bled into it. We often have to ask ourselves how visibly queer we can be. If I wear traditionally masculine clothes in the workplace, how will their opinions of me change? When the heteronormative violence knocks, our closets protect us. I have since moved back home to live with my parents while I apply to graduate school and this has taught me to make the best of my closet. My closet is safer for me than the world outside of its doors and it is enough for me right now. But if I am going to exist in this space, I might as well make it my own. I have strung starry lights up and added Steven Universe pillows to make it cozier. I have put in windows that let me gauge how far I can stick my foot out without someone pulling me out entirely. Every wall is covered in pictures of Samira Wiley and a corner is specifically dedicated as a shrine to all my queer friends. Because they know I am here and they don’t leave me, they don’t forget about me. There is another corner dedicated to all the people I have come out to that support me and make me feel loved. Sometimes they come to visit and we drink tea in my closet and whisper about the people we are secretly in love with. When they leave, I know they will come back. They leave trinkets that make my closet into more of a home, a place that’s mine, where my chosen family can gather and laugh and be safe. And for now at least, that is enough for me.