As told to Alexandra Frost
As a child, when I watched shows with my mom and LGBTQ characters came on the screen, she would stick out her tongue in disgust and make a disapproving sound. At our Catholic church, where my family was deeply devoted, I listened, confused, to the ideologies: I didn’t understand why God would hate someone who loved someone of the same gender. These influences, among others, meant that I would spend my teen years, during which I identified as bisexual, hiding the truth from my family, and cushioning it for my few trusted friends who knew. “I like women, but I always picture myself marrying a man,” I’d tell them. Going to Catholic elementary and high school didn’t help either, as it was not only uncomfortable to come out, but could result in disciplinary action. I didn’t know it then, but it would be a decade before I finally revealed how I identify to my family.
High school was fraught with challenges and traumas that shaped the course of my life and my identity. I had — and still have — battles with depression, eating disorders and self-harming issues all complicated by a less-than-ideal relationship with my mother. During my sophomore year, I was sexually assaulted by a senior student on multiple occasions. When I reported him to my guidance counselor — a brother at the Catholic school I attended — he told me it was my fault for leading the senior on, further amplifying my depression and heightening my anxiety.
The first person I came out to was my sister, one of my three siblings, and her support encouraged me to confidently proceed in my journey toward understanding my true sexuality. She said, “I love you. Whatever makes you happy.” When I ultimately came out to the rest of my family years later, her support was invaluable.
My senior year of high school, I started dating a man, and we were quickly engaged when we were around age 20. It was a relationship that deepened my mistrust of men. He cheated on me twice, was extremely abusive, and would openly discuss how hot other women were to me, but when I expressed that I wanted to explore my attraction to women (especially since he pushed for an open relationship at a point in our engagement), he refused.
After my years-long engagement with my fiancé ended, I dated a transgender woman who still presented as a man at the time we started dating. She eventually came out to me as a transgender person. During the six months that we dated, we visited my family before Rachel* started transitioning or was publicly out. I had hesitated to bring anyone home after the judgment I’d felt from my family during my abusive relationship. They really hated my ex-fiancé (but looking back, I can see that they were just trying to protect me). At that time, bringing Rachel home before she transitioned didn't raise questions among my siblings, and my secret continued on. But our relationship didn’t last long.
During my time with Rachel, I started to research sexualities, trying again to find out who I was while also trying to help her navigate things. I had known very little about the trans community at that time but wanted to become better equipped with the right terminology to help Rachel if she needed support and to learn how I should be addressing topics in ways that were not offensive or triggering to her. As we were discussing and researching how she would identify, I became more curious about the new terms and identities that weren’t around years earlier. In doing so, I realized that I identify as pansexual, meaning the gender is not a factor in my romantic, sexual or emotional attraction, not bisexual. It became so obvious to me — gender is a construct, and I wasn’t, in fact, in need of a man or a woman, but rather a kind person.
Last year, in a spur-of-the-moment conversation on Christmas Eve, I came out to my family unexpectedly. We were having a great time with a smaller-than-normal pandemic-times celebration, and I threw caution — and years of hesitation — to the wind, realizing that if my family was going to throw a fit, then so be it. A relative asked, “Does the baby gate swing both ways?” I said to my sister, “Oh, like me” across the table, much louder than I intended. My dad looked around, with a face that read, “What’s happening?” And my sister said, “Yeah, like Julie. It swings both ways.” They enjoyed the joke, smiling and laughing. It was nothing like I’d anticipated. Nobody stopped and stared. Nobody had questions. I even dropped another joke in hopes that they’d truly understand what I meant.
I wished my family had clearly acknowledged what I’d said and confirmed that they love and accept me anyway but simultaneously felt grateful that it wasn’t a larger conversation. I don’t like being the center of attention, so that part of me was relieved. Without a true reaction from family members, not even a confirmation that they really understood, I remained a bit worried about whether my family members were talking about me behind my back. I especially wondered about my mom — she hadn’t said anything when I came out. But a few weeks later, when I mentioned I had a date, she asked if it was with a man or a woman. It wasn’t with disgust or judgment like I expected, but genuine curiosity, a much different reaction than she’d had to those TV shows when I was younger. I’m still not entirely sure if she’s accepted my sexuality as “permanent,” but I do think I could bring home whomever I wanted, as I’d always hoped.
If I could go back in time, I would tell my 16-year-old self not to be afraid to experiment more and to be more open to trying new things. I’d tell her that coming out will happen the way it needs to happen. I’d give her a heads up about all the hardship she would go through but I’d also tell her it’s OK in the end. I’d also implore her to get help sooner for her mental health issues and tell her, and others, to start building their own support system, even if they aren’t family, of like-minded individuals they can go to.
I hope for myself, and others, that regardless of sexual orientation or gender, we surround ourselves with people who are kind — to the planet, to animals, to each other. That’s how I want to live. That’s the kind of people I want in my life: good humans.
*Name has been changed for privacy