Struggles in meeting the standards of sexuality: A personal essay

Illustration of a person coming out of a closet with the bisexual pride flag in it.
Yoonseo Lee/Staff

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When I was about 5 years old, I was first introduced to the concept of homosexuality. I was playing on my grandmother’s living room floor as my older brother and cousin were sitting on the couch, flipping through TV channels. “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” played for a few brief seconds, to which my cousin noted, “That lady’s a lesbian!” I had no clue what a lesbian was or even who Ellen was, so I just took note of the new word.

A few weeks later, I saw “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” playing as my mom was watching television. As soon as I recognized that same energetic blonde lady, I opened my 5-year-old mouth and blurted out exactly what my cousin had said, “That lady’s a lesbian!” to which my mother sharply turned and asked, “Where on earth did you learn that word?” I knew nothing about what I had just said, except what my mother’s tone implied, which was that it was wrong and nothing that a child should know about. 

My mother isn’t homophobic, but she was raised by my grandmother, a woman from Kansas who plays bridge on the weekends with other women exactly like her: white, Christian and capable of making incredible casseroles. My grandmother wasn’t able to go to college, and sometimes, it’s very evident how insecure she can be about that — an insecurity so loud that it can command an entire room. To spark an intellectual topic, she’ll make a performative statement on some topic, and oftentimes, the same one will pop up again and again. I couldn’t even begin to count how many times she’s asked if I know how many Americans died in the Civil War. I do know, but for a brief moment, I pretend not to. 

As of late, the question of interest has been if I believe gays should be allowed into heaven. The resounding answer is an ostensible yes, but there always seems to be an underlying tone of convincing themselves and each other that this is the proper answer. My mother is loving, accepting and progressive, but just like myself, she’s battling the norms of her upbringing. 

I “came out of the closet” about two years ago. Coming out didn’t matter to me because it doesn’t make me any more or less queer, but it felt as though it was expected of me before I could ever date another woman. It felt as if it was one hurdle I had to pass before reaching another. Finally saying it to my best friend in the back corner of one of my favorite cafes, it felt like an out-of-body experience, as if I was speaking for someone else because it didn’t feel like it mattered to who I am. It wasn’t something I had fully accepted, so I was rejecting the fact that it represented something about me, that it represented a topic that had been hushed around my entire life. 

I was in performing arts for about six years of my teens, which opened the door for nearly a quarter of my closest friends to be LGBTQ+. I would consider many of them to be some of my very best friends, and I accepted everything about them. But as I began to question my own sexuality, I never put myself in the same box as them. I didn’t understand why I secretly thought a girl was cute one day, then openly flirted with a boy the next. My sexuality felt like an internalized battle that I was constantly losing, so much so that I began to separate it from the experiences of others. 

Coming out didn’t matter to me because it doesn’t make me any more or less queer, but it felt as though it was expected of me before I could ever date another woman.

The worries about coming out aren’t just about how others will react to your identity. It’s also very much about how you, as an individual, cope and come to terms with who you are. When we hide in the “closet,” it isn’t just from our conservative grandmothers or certain heteronormative friends but also from ourselves. It’s an internal crisis of self-acceptance that’s battling against everything we normalized as children and even into adulthood. 

When I told my mother I was bisexual, we were on our way to work at a same-sex wedding, where gay love was just wafting through the air. My mom is an event planner, so same-sex marriages are a very hot topic in her industry. It flouts this competitive persona of who can get the biggest, loudest same-sex wedding and publicize it the best. It’s this exact attitude that makes LGBTQ+ folks often feel objectified as a catalyst for progessive marketing. 

I’m deeply convinced that my mom had all the best intentions of acceptance and love when I came out to her. She clapped her hands and said she was going to cry from joy, but I don’t think she understands how problematic such a reaction is. These reactions can make LGBTQ+ folks feel tokenized for our identity. It told me that she had preconceived notions of who I was and that she was excited I was fulfilling those notions. And when I inevitably didn’t, I questioned why, and if I truly was who I just told everyone I was. I suddenly felt like a fraud. 

When I finally came out to my dad, it was a very cathartic moment of heavy tears. The weight of the topic had been sitting on my chest for weeks, and I had so much to say when the time was finally right. As he turned to open the door and walk out of the room, I stopped him. The ever persistent weight in my throat was throbbing, allowing me only one sentence. I got out what I needed to say and his response was a deep hug, then he walked away and said nothing. That was two years ago, and he has still said nothing. 

I didn’t need him to clap and cry like my mother did, and in fact, I’m so grateful that he didn’t, but I needed something more. I needed to know that he understood and that he would still accept me, despite the fact that my sexuality doesn’t matter. I’m still his daughter and nothing would change that. Instead, I was met by a gust of feelings that he didn’t believe me, that he felt I was too young to have such complicated feelings and that I was attention-grabbing in an already far too dramatic moment. I felt like a child being dismissed, and two years later, I still do. The reactions I had received from my parents were two polarizing opposites of what I had needed; I just needed them to acknowledge and accept who I am, then move on from there. 

My parents loved to repeat many times throughout my teens that it would be OK if I was gay. I knew it would be OK, but I had no idea why they kept repeating it! Maybe it was because I never talked to boys and exclusively wore band T-shirts throughout my sophomore year. In hindsight, it felt like they were projecting an identity onto me based on their expectations of queerness that I wasn’t quite sure of yet. It wouldn’t be until college when I would understand why I was attracted to men but swooning over girls who I didn’t have the courage to talk to. My parents may have thought that their insistent reminders that it was OK to be gay and that they would still love me were supportive, but when I was ready to tell them just that, their responses felt flat. It was like I hadn’t met their standards of what it means to be queer, and so, in their eyes, I wasn’t.

All of the struggles with family feel escapable when I’m away from home and off at school, but I can’t escape the questions from other people. Without fail, every time I’m asked about my queer experiences, it feels as if I’m being expected to uphold someone’s standing ideas of what it means to be bisexual. I’m queer, but I have never had a relationship with a woman. Ever. I’ve been in numerous relationships with men, which have allowed me to be perceived as straight by the outside world, but I’m simply not, and my relationships with men don’t make me straight. Whether that’s the truth or not, it never feels like a sufficient answer when people try to pry about hookups, rendezvous and relationships with women. Sorry folks, I haven’t had any! But that doesn’t mean I’m not queer. 

All of these external pressures of questioning and being dismissed for your sexuality don’t remain external; they bleed inward and continue to press into my standing ideas of who I am.

All of these external pressures of questioning and being dismissed for your sexuality don’t remain external; they bleed inward and continue to press into my standing ideas of who I am. If I don’t hook up with a girl, am I really queer? Do I deserve to call myself queer when I’m not toting a rainbow flag and upholding the standards of the LGBTQ+ community? I actively try to understand my privilege and how it has allowed me to come as far as I have with my sexuality. I’m white, I was raised in a progressive community and my parents have never said anything hateful about LGBTQ+ folks, but I feel as if I’m not meeting certain rights of passage to be part of the LGBTQ+ community. My struggles feel so minute in terms of what many other LGBTQ+ folks experience. That makes me so lucky, and I’m endlessly grateful to be able to say that, but it makes me feel like the outsider in a band of outsiders. 

That isn’t to say I haven’t struggled with my sexuality; I’m constantly navigating the internal battle of feeling like a fraud who hasn’t met the preconceived notions of others of what it means to be gay. But if I ever finally meet those, will that change who I am? Sexuality is such a minor fragment of my greater self. My character hasn’t changed since I came to terms with my sexuality. Being queer is not my whole identity. I’m a whole slew of annoying liberal things that confuse my grandmother, but just like my sexuality, they don’t make up my character. Yeah, I think girls are hot and guys can be pretty OK too, but I’m so much more than that. 

This is why “coming out” sometimes feels pointless and counterproductive. If coming out impacts who you think I am, then why do it? I’m still who I was right before I told someone, so why should it matter? And if or when I finally date a woman, it shouldn’t change anyone’s notions of who I am because I didn’t finally become queer. I have always been queer, and I’m the only one who can decide what that means.

Contact Nat Gott at [email protected].