Coming Out by Jenny Neuman
Today, October 11, 2016 is National Coming Out Day. It is the 28th celebration of this important event in so many people's lives. To recognize the occasion, Jenny Neuman shares her experience coming out.
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I’m bisexual. I’ve known it since the first grade, and it’s been the single biggest influence on who I am, and how I got here.
It shaped how I thought of myself in grade school, who I became friends with in middle school, and the choices I made in high school.
Nobody taught me that being gay was a bad thing, but nobody taught me that it was a good thing either. Nobody even taught me it was a thing that it was possible to be. I knew from movies and picture books that two cartoon bears could get married, that a fork and a knife could too, as long as one was male and the other was female.
Since first grade, I lived in constant fear of myself, and what others might think. I was afraid that my teachers knew, or that I would go to the doctor for an annual check-up and my doctor would diagnose me, or that my best friend would pour some truth serum into my milk at lunch (alla Harry Potter) and I would accidentally come clean. All these possibilities terrified me, because if somebody else knew, it was likely that they would tell my parents. I loved my parents, and they loved me. But what would happen if they found out their perfect daughter was flawed?
My decision to come out to my family during my senior year of high school was not one that came easily. While many of my friends knew about my identity, I never had to formally “come out” to them. After a long journey of becoming comfortable with my own sexuality, I stopped worrying about whether or not others were comfortable with it too. By the time I entered high school, most of the other students knew I wasn’t straight, and it was easy to steer clear of the ones who had a problem with it, because they steered clear of me.
In search of a community, I tried attending local support groups and pride events. My parents knew that many of my friends were openly queer, so they quickly assumed I was going simply as an ally. They were fun at first, but I only attended a handful of meetings. I began to feel unwelcome. Not everybody there agreed that bisexuality really existed, and I felt like I constantly had to defend my reason for being there. Eventually, I stopped going altogether.
It was an exciting time to be queer. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had been repealed, more and more states were legalizing same-sex marriage, and some of my favorite characters on TV had come out as gay. Each day, I was more comfortable with myself and my identity. So comfortable, in fact, that I decided it was time to tell my family. It was my senior year, I was getting ready to leave for college, and I decided I wouldn’t leave without my parents knowing a vital part of the daughter they had spent eighteen years raising.
I was terrified. I was fortunate enough to know that the response wouldn’t be terrible. I knew I would still have a bed to sleep in after I told them. I also knew how lucky that was, considering how many people I had met who couldn’t say the same thing. Still, I was afraid. I didn’t know what the response would be, and if I didn’t like it, I was stuck with it. I couldn’t just quit like I had with the support groups or make new friends. But I had made my decision, and I was going to stick with it.
After watching youtube video after youtube video of dramatic coming out stories that always had the happiest of endings, my expectations were astronomically high. I convinced myself my parents would have an extremely positive reaction, and when they did, I would feel immensely better. I would ask myself why I didn’t come out earlier. I would bring a girl as my date to prom. That’s what I began telling myself.
I was desperately afraid of looking my parents in the eye and having an intense conversation about my deepest secret, so I decided I would make it as casual as possible. I would tell my mother and father separately (good idea), and I would tell my mother in the car (bad idea), as we were on our way to get our nails done together (really bad idea).
And so, I did just that. One Sunday afternoon, I took the plunge and told my mother as I sat in the passenger seat.
“Mom, I think there’s something about me you don’t know, and I’d like to tell you,” I began. “I don’t identify as straight. I identify as bisexual.”
My mother paused. “Oh,” she looked as if she had just taken a gulp of spoiled milk, but was trying not to vomit. “I didn’t know that.”
An awkward pause followed.
An extremely awkward pause.
A pause that went on…
“Well, I am,” I responded.
“Since I was born.”
She then went on to ask about personal details of my life and how I came to such a conclusion. She didn’t hesitate to inquire about the nitty gritty. After I told her I didn’t want to discuss such things, another long pause ensued.
We pulled into a parking space at the nail salon.
“Well, I still want grandchildren,” she told me.
I felt defeated. There were no fireworks, no confetti. I didn’t feel immediately better. I felt naked. Even worse, I felt regret. I wanted to climb back into the closet where I could imagine a world where my mom reacted exactly how I wanted her to. With lots of hugging and smiling and I love you’s. But I didn’t live in that world. And I never would.
I wanted to feel like somebody was proud of me. So, that night when my good friends threw a house party, I decided it was going to be in celebration of my coming out. It made me feel better for a little while, until one of my friends demanded I prove to him how I knew that my sexuality wasn’t just “a phase.”
Originally, I had planned on telling my dad the very next day. I thought I would be so elated about how it went with my mom that I probably wouldn’t be able to wait any longer to tell him. Instead, I delayed telling him for another two weeks.
This time, I decided a moving car was probably not the best place to have the conversation. One Tuesday night, I walked into my dad’s room while he was watching the Mets game, sat on his bed, and told him exactly what I initially told my mom.
He paused and looked into space.
“Oh, okay.” he said. “Go clean up that mess you made in the kitchen.”
My expectations were already lowered, so that response was all I needed. I was happy not to sit there and be questioned about the most intimate details of my sex life. I was happy to leave and clean up the kitchen.
The next night, five minutes after my dad came home from work, he announced to me that “there’s no reason why I would be coming out as bisexual unless I’m really just a lesbian,”
I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t say anything. I ran to my room and picked up a book by James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, given to me by a teacher of mine. I turned to a passage in the book I had recently read. Baldwin, a gay black man writing in 1963, told me it was not just okay to be different - it was amazing. It was incredible. It should be celebrated.
For a moment, I felt okay. A moment later, I felt happy. It was okay that my parents didn’t understand me, in fact it was a good thing. It made me stronger and connected me to amazing people in history, like James Baldwin himself.
The next day at lunch I returned the book to the teacher who had lent it to me. I told him how much I loved it, and how it helped me come out to my parents. After mentioning that coming out didn’t go exactly as planned, my teacher immediately turned away from his emails, and invited me to sit down to talk.
Amidst my emotional ranting, I briefly mentioned that I understood where my parents were coming from. “I get it. They probably wish I was straight, which is fine because I wish I was strai-“
My teacher stopped me mid-sentence.
“Really?” he asked. “You wish you were straight?”
“Y-yeah,” I stuttered.
“Because I don’t. I don’t wish you were straight,” he replied.
I didn’t know what to say. Nobody had ever said that to me before. Nobody had ever said anything like it.
“If you were straight, you wouldn’t be the Jenny that I know. And I wouldn’t wish that for a second.”
The bell rang.
I thanked him and left for my next class. His words rang in my head louder than that bell all throughout the rest of the day, and still continue to echo in my thoughts from time to time.
I had spent so much of my life wishing I was something I never would be. I accepted who I was, but still assumed my life would be better if I was heterosexual. And here, somebody was telling me that that was false. My life is better because I’m bisexual, and if somebody other than myself could recognize that, surely I could too.
To anybody who is not “out” and who may be reading this, I wish I could talk to you personally. But instead, I’ll say this:
Coming out is messy. It’s difficult. But that’s what makes it worth it. There’s no right way or right time. People will think of you differently, but some will think better of you and be amazed by you. You have so much to be proud of already, and even if someone tells you otherwise, being queer should be at the top of that list. You deserve to have people know just how incredible you are. And if any of you plan on coming out anytime soon, I suggest you pick up some James Baldwin first.