Not every queer or trans person has a Ring of Keys moment where they spot another queer or trans person out in the wild for the first time and are transformed, but nearly all queer and trans people remember the first queer or trans person we knew (and the first queer or trans person we saw on TV, or in movies, or in books or comic books or web series or fan fiction). This week our staff is opening up about the first queer and trans people we came in contact with in our own lives, and how they changed our perceptions of ourselves, and sometimes even our perceptions of the world.
Laneia, Executive Editor
The first queer person I knew was a super dykey high school girl whose name I can’t recall and who never knew I existed, probably because I was a 5th grader. Seeing her [through the lens of a patriarchal heterocentric beauty and gender standard!!] helped shape my misunderstanding of my sexual orientation. She had a boy’s haircut, wore oversized t-shirts and cargo shorts (it was the 90s, so the fact they were cargo shorts wasn’t the issue, it was that they clearly came from the men’s section) and acted — at least through my very limited exposure to her — like a run of the mill dude, so my sheltered 11 year old self just thought that being a gay woman meant wanting to be as much like a straight guy as possible, which wasn’t something I wanted, and therefore I was not and could not be gay.
Rachel, Managing Editor
Stephanie was (and still is) one of my mom’s friends; she was (and is) expansive and funny and warm and eccentric. One day when I was maybe 11, my mom asked if I wanted to go to Lilith Fair (that really carbon dates this story a bit) because Stephanie had had tickets to go with her girlfriend but they had broken up and she didn’t want to use them anymore. I didn’t comment on it out loud, trying to play it cool, but I rolled the word “girlfriend” around in my head like a marble. It wasn’t that I didn’t know women could have girlfriends, I did, but I didn’t know you were allowed to just SAY it like that, or let other people know about it. I couldn’t believe my mom just knew about this, this whole secret underlayer to the world where women wanted to have girlfriends, and just casually dropped it in conversation one day. I don’t think I would have been able to articulate at that time that that was something I also wanted for myself, but it blew my mind that being with girls was something you were allowed to just HAVE — and while I didn’t connect the dots, I think the casual presence of Stephanie in our lives made it possible for me to later make my small, meaningless-to-everyone-but-me forays into outness, like telling my middle school friends that “well, if I ever LIKE LIKED a girl, of course I would go out with her, why wouldn’t I?” Bless it.
I knew that this girl in my younger brother’s class had two Moms. They lived a few blocks from us, but I feel like I was told they were sisters at some point, or it was otherwise explained away. As a child, I remember feeling like they looked vaguely alike. It feels like there were always rumors about our female gym teachers and soccer and basketball coaches, but I don’t know if any of them were true. I did theater growing up and must have known some gay people there, although 9th grade is the first distinct memory I have of working with out gay boys. There may have even been a lesbian, but I might be confusing that girl’s actual sexual orientation with her role in “No Exit.” That same year, I think, there was a big scandal at my high school for letting a bisexual guy speak at Diversity Week and also this guy Justin (or Jason?) starting a Gay-Straight Alliance with the teacher who’d become my 10th grade Earth Science teacher and wanting to bring a boy to prom. I lived in an uber-liberal college town, so the fact that all this was still a thing probably shaped me in a million messed up ways.
Heather Hogan, Senior Editor
The first gay person I ever knew in real life is the first girl I fell for, and that’s also true for the second gay person I knew in real life. Or at least the first and second openly gay people I knew. They were both just beautiful, brilliant women with whom I formed instant and deep emotional connections — and next thing I knew, I was making out with them. The first gay, she didn’t stay gay; she got conversion therapied into marrying a man who works for a very conservative Christian group. Her main influence on my life was helping me finally fucking admit what I’d always known. The second gay, well, she was radical in her politics and unabashed in her queerness and she helped me see that I was wasting my life crunching numbers in a cube in small-town Georgia when I had a gift and passion for writing and a heart full of rage and pain at the patriarchy. She taught me the word patriarchy!
Abeni, Staff Writer
Jess was my co-worker at my second ever “realwp_postsjob, which wasn’t a real job, because it was with Americorps, so technically it was volunteering. And my first “realwp_postsjob was also volunteering, with “Lutheran Volunteer Corps,wp_postsso… well, whatever.
Anyway, Jess was a cute thick white co-worker who had an undercut and a facial piercing if I rememer correctly (and this was back in, like, 2010! When only the queers did it) and wore American Apparel and was an activist and I thought she was so cool. She introduced me to Nicki Minaj. And during the first week of working together I asked her if she liked girls, and she gave me a weird, frightened look, but I meant the BAND Girls, because she had said she was into low-fi music, and I explained, and she seemed relieved, but I KNEW. She told me she was queer not too long after that, but I bet I put her in a tough spot that day, on accident.
Jess was my best friend for many years. She sat with me as I drunkenly cried in a hotel hallway and said out loud, for the first time ever, “I think I might be queer.wp_postsAnd she was there for me when I broke up with my girlfriend of over three years, who I lived with at the time and thought I was going to marry, because I had to figure out what the fuck was going on with my gender and sexuality. She introduced me to the first non-binary and trans people I ever met, and told me that queer meant being against the building of the new youth jail and being anti-racist as much as it meant fucking different types of people, and that being trans was not only OK but beautiful. Imagine if the first “queerwp_postsfriend I’d ever made was some masc4masc cis gay assimilationist or something? Where the fuck would I be now? I owe so much to Jess.
I haven’t talked to her in years. We’re facebook friends; I think I need to tell her how much her friendship meant to me. Thanks Autostraddle Roundtable!
Sarah, Marketing & Design Director
I had been attending a small college-prep school for a year when Thom arrived. At the time there were no “out” gay people at my school and because it was such a small student body (less than 120 people), he definitely stood out. After graduation, several of us poked our heads out of the closet on social media, but Thom never had to. Despite having parents who didn’t accept his sexuality, he was never shy or apologetic about who he was. In fact, he celebrated it! He used to write me notes on beautiful stationary in perfect, elegant cursive about all the boys he’d like to date and which teachers had the hottest butts. Tom was my first gay friend — and the first person I tentatively came out to. I remember asking him to meet me underneath the library stairwell, quite literally the lowest and most hidden location at school, to tell him I “kinda liked girls too”. I remember his reaction was perfect — without a beat he said “Uh… OF COURSE YOU DO!” I think Thom made me realize that I wasn’t alone, and that feeling was momentous during a time where I felt so very isolated from my straight friends and their experiences.
Creatrix Tiara, Staff Writer
I feel like this would have to be someone I knew online, since being out as queer in Malaysia would have been precarious due to the criminalisation of homosexuality (especially circa 1997 when accusations of sodomy were used as an excuse for political repression). The first person that comes to mind was someone I met most likely on Kiwibox, an online social network structured like Facebook but with Myspace’s aesthetics — a young woman in either Canada or the US who would have been a year or two older than my teenage self. She was really into me and we were “girlfriends” for like a day before I freaked out! (I claimed that this is because I don’t know how relationships worked, but it was mainly because I was dealing with a massive crush on someone else at the time but couldn’t handle it and for some reason thought this would be “cheating” on the crush or something. I was a mess.)
The Internet generally was my only exposure to queer or trans people; I know that’s how I heard about Mx for the first time (early 2000s) and developed a sense of self as “androgynous” (if I knew the word “genderqueer” or “non-binary” then I’d have used that). I’m not sure how specifically that Kiwibox chick or anyone else I met only shaped my sexuality or gender, just because it was still at a distance, mediated by words and sometimes images. But at least it gave me some datapoints that such people EXISTED.
Laura M, Staff Writer
My high school Spanish teacher, Mr. Cook, was gay. It wasn’t a secret, exactly, but it definitely wasn’t something he talked about with the class. He would talk about his boyfriend sometimes after school, when his favorite students were around. I wasn’t one of them, and I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it at the time. I think the first time I heard this information I said something like “OH, that’s why he has such nice shoes.” Not the best reaction, but also not the worst!
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, Staff Writer
I’m going to keep this short, because the first out gay person I ever knew is no longer with us. He was loud and proud and so goddamn gay that for Halloween one year he went as a “straight guywp_postsand it was the funniest shit in the world and made it into our high school yearbook. He was kind of the human embodiment of moveimgay.gif. I never got the chance to come out to him, and that sucks.
My bisexual friend Emma in high school who brought me along to all the GSA meetings. Which prompted my mom to ask if I was gay over a meatloaf dinner. Which horrified me (I was a strict baptist christian, thank u very much). Anyways, she was WILD and she was REALLY FUCKING PISSED OFF all the time at everything and everyone and yah, that did influence me.
Alyssa, Comic Artist
The first and probably most influential out queer person I ever knew was my best friend throughout high school, Bob. He was always so sure of himself, and so willing to be himself despite being really isolated in his queerness in our town.
I don’t know that he necessarily shaped my understanding of my own orientation or identity, but he definitely was the comfort in feeling okay about it. Seeing him so confident and unapologetic, really was the green light in my feeling like it was perfectly fine for me to not only be queer but to feel GOOD about being queer. I could get very tender and go on and on but ultimately all that matters is that Bob’s the best and I love him. Very much.
Molly Priddy, Staff Writer
When I was in middle school and getting a bit older, starting to get crushes but basically just experiencing hormones, my mom told me about her gay cousins. She had two from the same family, and the gay man had written a book about his mother. That was what I knew about him, that basically his redeeming quality was that he wrote a book DESPITE of his gayness.
Then she told me about her childhood friend who ended up being a lesbian, which my mom was convinced was because her friend had been sexually abused by a man when she was a child. So those two things – sexual abuse = lesbian, gay man only ok because he made something – really shaped how I saw LGTBQ people as a young kid and a budding queer.
It was very scary, until this newspaper feature about a local basketball player in my town talked about how she was gay and in high school and how that was a tough thing. I was floored, and suddenly furious the whole town didn’t also know I was gay. I figured if she could do it, I could do it, too.
Erin, Staff Writer
The first out gay person I knew was my uncle! He lived out of state and only visited occasionally, but when he was around he was always very open about his life and would occasionally bring his then-partner home for holidays. This may not seem like a huge deal now, but this was in the late 80s/early 90s in the American South! Because he was so transparent and so seemingly enthusiastic about being a big ol’ mo, along with an immediate and extended family that seemed very unaffected by it all, being gay was very normalized for me from a very young age.
This was a huge advantage for me when I would come out a decade or so later, not just for how quickly I was able to embrace it, but for my coming out process. He is the reason I am as gay as I am today. I realize how rare a presence like that is even now, so I feel very lucky to have a Oscar to my Dorothy!!!!
Alexis, Staff Writer
The first out person I knew definitely were upperclassmen at my high school. They were black and wore a tux to prom and I was trying v hard to figure out how to follow that same path but I failed at step number one which was play sports not go do theatre but it all worked out I guess. Another I’d say is my cousin. We embrace it now and they were so happy when he found out they weren’t the only gay in the family but I didn’t know for sure for a long time and I thought it’d be really rude to ask and didn’t want to out them. Now 99% of the conversations we have in front of family are about our gayness and it’s truly beautiful.
Valerie Anne, Staff Writer
I’m sure I knew people before this, but the earliest I can think of is a girl I was friends with in high school. She was bisexual and not afraid to talk about it, despite it being very taboo in our Catholic high school. I remember wondering if she was really bisexual or if she was just being defiant, which wasn’t fair of me in retrospect, but I was young and dumb. But her confidence gave me hope; I was nowhere near ready to come out, but seeing her have/keep/make friends even after she admitted she liked kissing girls gave me that little spark of hope that maybe, just maybe, the adults were wrong. And even if they were right, if hell was full of people like her — people like us — maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
Yvonne Marquez, Senior Editor
I was racking my brain and trying to figure out who was the first “officialwp_postsout queer person I knew and it was really difficult for me to pinpoint. I surprisingly was surrounded by a lot of queer people in various states of outness while growing up and I didn’t realize that until I was an adult. But I think the first out queer people I knew were queer dudes I knew from band in high school. There were two out guys who were super loud, flamboyant and very gay. They were boyfriends and we were in band together but I didn’t really talk to them and to be honest, they informed my perception of “how gay people arewp_postswhich I thought was bad. My little homophobic brain thought “why do they have to be like that.wp_postsI wondered why they had to flaunt their gayness and be so “girly” and my thought process about them really informed how I would later navigate my own queerness as a teen, which was to be super closeted and stewing in internalized homophobia and shame. Then there was my other band friend Alonso who was the first out bisexual I ever knew. We were closer because he and I were the best clarinets (LOL) so we were section leaders together and sat next to each other for all the band things. Alonso was very unapologetic about being bisexual and looking back now, I was super horrible to him! I would tell him that he was actually just gay and I would dismiss his crushes on girls and thought he was just lying. But he was always adamant about being bisexual and always told me so and I think I picked on him so much because I knew he could sniff the queer in me and I was trying to deflect him. Alonso ended up being my prom date and before we went to prom we went to Wal-Mart all dressed up because he forgot his eyeliner. I love him so much and wish I could go back in time and apologize for saying a bunch of biphobic shit to him!
Vanessa Friedman, Community Editor
The first queer person I knew who I registered was queer was my friend K, in high school. We met when I was a freshman and K was a sophomore, and what I knew was that K was nothing like me. I didn’t know then that K was trans – I thought they were a dyke, because that’s what they told me – and I loved them, but also didn’t relate to them at all.
K was fat, and brave, and artsy, and made me my first mix CD featuring Le Tigre and Sleater Kinney. When I said I wanted to get “more into Ani DiFrancowp_postsK burnt me every CD in Ani’s discography which, if you’re an Ani fan, you know is KIND OF A LOT OF ALBUMS. K was dating a girl who broke K’s heart and I felt furious at this person, appalled that she would hurt K in such a way. I wanted to protect K. I wanted K to like me.
We went to an Ani DiFranco concert together later in high school – I think I was a junior, and K was a senior? – with another friend who, as far as I know, is straight and has always been straight. We took the T from our suburb outside of Boston into Harvard Square for the concert and we sung Ani songs the whole way, likely irritating all the other passengers. We mostly didn’t care. Except I remember, at one point, we got to the lyric MY CUNT IS BUILT LIKE A WOUND THAT WON’T HEAL and my straight friend and I got real quiet, we basically whispered that line, maybe we didn’t even say it, and K just belted it, just didn’t give a fuck who stopped and stared, and they did, everyone did, every person on that train stopped and stared, but K just really didn’t care at all, and it is that moment that is burned into my brain when I think DYKE, even though I know now that K isn’t one, because when I was 15 I just thought it was so brave, so cool, so fucking honest.
I was 15 and I thought I was straight and I thought K was a dyke, and K was so brave, and we were on the T and K yelled MY CUNT IS BUILT LIKE A WOUND THAT WON’T HEAL and everyone stared and K didn’t care and I remember thinking, wow, I remember thinking, that is what it means to be free.
I wondered if maybe I could be that brave, that free, one day. One day, maybe.
Carmen, Staff Writer
I grew up with a lot of gay people in my life. My mom’s best friend, who helped raise me and is very much like a second mother to me, is a lesbian. So I guess technically she was the first gay person I ever knew? (She’s also white, which isn’t usually relevant, but will be in this story.) Her daughter, who’s been a sister to me since the day I was born, is also a lesbian. Being gay wasn’t a secret in how I was raised. It wasn’t necessarily talked about — because it was normalized, in the same way that straightness wasn’t talked about. It was a cultural norm of my childhood. It was absorbed.
And maybe that’s one of the reasons I didn’t realize that I was gay until after I left my family home. When I was eighteen I was one of those people who said things like, “If I was gay — I would be gaywp_postsor “My politics are queer, but I’m not.wp_postsLiterally every person I know who used to say things like that is now out of the closet, but I digress. There was an image of “gaynesswp_postsin my head that I internalized, and it didn’t match who I understood myself to be. I didn’t know how to be gay and black; I didn’t know how to be gay and super, ridiculously, proudly femme. I didn’t know how to be gay and love Beyoncé and high heels and tight dresses. None of those things lined up with what I thought gayness was. So, I defaulted that I must be straight.
I had a college mentor who changed all that. She ran our university multicultural center. She reminded me a bit of Jill Scott. She was proudly black and respected hip hop and loved 90s R&B. She taught me about Audre Lorde. Sometimes, she allowed me to stay at her and her wife’s house during school breaks. Sipping coffee in their sunny drenched kitchen was the first time I really saw myself. I could imagine it. I could see how I could be gay and still… be me. Like everything before that morning felt complicated and all of a sudden it was so simple. Like a lightbulb switched on in my head.