Why Coming Out Takes Longer Than You Think

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Lesbian Paint on a Straight Canvas by Brook West 122404561

I was angrier searching for an anniversary card than I was when skinny jeans came into style, having lost my mind somewhere between the endless variations of “To my devoted Husband on our anniversary” and “Celebrating another year of love as Man and Wife.”

Coming up fast is my third anniversary with my one and only, Esmeralda (I’m calling her Esmeralda because this is likely the only time I can get away with it). I pinch myself every day trying to understand how such a wonderful person would want to hang out with me so much. So when I’m trolling the anniversary cards I want to find one that:

1. Does not have a picture of a guy dog and a girl dog.
2. Does not have a picture of a stick figure and another stick figure with a bow on its head.
3. Does not define love with binary gender language.

It is in these moments I realize I’m a lesbian living in a straight world. The rest of the time I enjoy cooking, writing and reading, being with friends, being anywhere with Esmeralda, communing with nature, and watching Breaking Bad. I’m living life and, since coming out five years ago, am no longer ashamed of being me. This allows me to go long periods of time when the differences between my relationship with Esmeralda and straight couples disrupts my life as often as yesterday’s weather report. It isn’t until an uncalculated moment—I can’t find a same-sex friendly anniversary card—when the differences flood to the front of my mind, and all the little moments that have accumulated since the last time I acknowledged how different I am,  rush together into an emotional pool of aggravation and raw resentment.

These little moments when the minority reality comes to call usually happen in social settings. I can’t say that my experience as a lesbian in a monogamous relationship and my attitude is the same for everyone on this side of the rainbow, and I enjoy stereotyping as much as I would popping my eardrums. But, and here comes the but, the part of my brain that values math and science and psychology can’t deny when common trends and behavior patterns predominately present themselves in individuals who happen to share basic traits. All this to say: I’m speaking from my own experience and any generalities are formed from my own opinion for the sake of my personal understanding.

I don’t like being asked how gay I am.

Nine times out of ten the person asking is a straight man. One time out of ten it’s a straight woman who, after a couple glasses of liquid courage, leans in and probes, “Do you miss it? The penis?”

I think it’s a valid question, considering sexuality exists as a spectrum, but an inappropriate one when I have just met you. I endure it time and time again, when the moment comes in the introduction or conversation when—shock!—it is revealed I am with a woman, and I’ll watch as the person’s eyes go out of focus for a moment and constrict again, and the man will ask with a hopeful smile, “Are you a lesbian all the way?”

If this is the first question you ask me you’re revealing how you view me—as gay first. Not as a compassionate, loving person or any of the other labels I hope to one day be worthy of that speak more to my character and less to what is none of your business.

And it gets uncomfortable. I don’t like having to blatantly say, “Yes, we can be friends, but Esmeralda and I will not have sex with you.” I recently said those exact words to an aggressively curious male co-worker. To my straight brothers and sisters I ask, to how many co-workers do you have to explain that your relationship is off limits to other people? How often do you have to defend wanting to sleep with only the opposite sex?

Coming out of the closet gets old.

By all means, if you’re comfortable, you go right ahead and let your spouse, your mom, your hair dresser, and everyone else know I’m gay because it’s one less person I have to tell.

Coming out of the closet doesn’t happen once. It happens every time I meet someone new. For me, coming out is easier than it used to be but—good grief—it is exhausting. I brace myself for every reaction, never sure what I’m going to get. The best reaction I’ve gotten is no reaction. This is when the conversation, task, whatever I was doing when my sexual orientation was announced, continues onward without making the nature of my relationship the main focus.

One reaction I’ll never get used to is:

Me: “I’m a lesbian.”
Them: “You’re joking!…right?”

This reaction is satisfying because I get to see the person’s expectation of a lesbian meet the conclusion that I do not match the picture of social oddity in comfortable shoes they had fabricated in their head.

This delicate moment is why the coming out process is so exhausting—I never know if I am the only gay person this straight person has ever known. I feel an enormous responsibility to be a positive example of the LGBT community and to let them know that not all gay people can be detected by outward appearance.

As much as I would like to take all the hate away from every prejudiced heart, I know it’s impossible as long as fear exists, the fear attached to the unfamiliar. But this reality won’t stop me from trying to change minds. I don’t want you to see how we are different; I want you to embrace how we are the same, enough so that maybe you’ll consider judging books by their content and not by their covers.

The worst reaction isn’t realized until a year or more after the coming out event. In that time, no hateful words are summoned, only distance. A friend I cherish, someone I used to talk to everyday and was supportive when I came out to her, was not available for dinner. When I tried to make plans to see the movie we had talked about, she told me it was a “busy month” and she would “let me know.” Sometime after that I realized I was no longer worthy of Facebook friendship. A few years later, after I found out she was married, I wrote an email to congratulate her. Her response is one that will never come.

Tread carefully when asking about future children.

When you ask a gay couple if they want to have kids, remember that you just asked a couple who cannot conceive if they want to have kids. Even if the couple doesn’t flinch when you ask, never assume that it is not a sensitive subject that they themselves are trying to navigate.

My answer, by the way, is, Yes! I want kids! I’m not sure when or how, and the fact I don’t know when or how terrifies me, but I know I want to be a mother.

The follow up question usually is, “Who will carry the child. You or Esmeralda?” So far, whenever this and all the other questions that follow it have been asked, I answer them as honestly as I can at the time, and am genuinely grateful to hold a parenting conversation with someone who knows a gay couple is just as capable of screwing up a human being as a straight couple.

There are days, however, when the thought of putting a price on my future child makes me unbearably sad. Whether I’m paying for sperm or an adoption lawyer, the conception of my future kids will come at a literal cost and will require adequate planning. (I would pay any cost, it’s the matter of having a monetary value assigned to a human life that repulses me.) There will never be a spontaneous month when it just happens. There will never be a person on this earth who is equal parts me, equal parts Esmeralda. And if I’m asked on the wrong day, all of this may come to the surface when you casually ask if we want to have children. It hasn’t happened yet, I’m just saying you’ve been warned.

Don’t make me prove I’m a lesbian.

This tends to happen at parties. Esmeralda and I have been asked to make-out in front of a group of guys who wanted us to prove we were in a relationship. We declined. At one point later the same night, when Esmeralda slid her hand over my knee as we sat next to each other on the couch, someone we met not fifteen minutes prior exclaimed, “So you really ARE together.”

Shouldn’t me introducing myself as, “Brook, this is my partner, Esmeralda,” be proof enough?

This is a key difference between lesbians and gay men. When a man says he’s gay, he is believed. When a woman says she’s gay, she is doubted. Because, as women (and some of our brothers in Texas will agree), we are helpless creatures when without a man to validate our decisions.

I’ll put it in plain English—I am a lesbian, not an open invitation for your sexual fantasies. I am devoted to one woman. Together we pay bills. We eat a concerning amount of tortilla chips during football season. We argue. We resolve. We are madly in love and love each other madly. We don’t want to be treated like a spectacle. I’m not confused. This isn’t a phase. I don’t need a man to “change me back.”

In a world where sex sells, it’s easy to forget that, for billions of people, sexuality is considered a private endeavor that doesn’t want to be dissected in public view. My advice to anyone trying to understand their LGBT co-worker, friend, cousin, but aren’t sure how to begin—think about what you say before you say it. It’s elementary advice that has a profound impact on general respect.

Remind yourself that any person who has to check a minority box battles hopes and fears, struggles and successes, and is another human sharing the same earth as you. Bridging the gap is as simple as being respectful. Words matter. Be kind. If you wish to seek atonement for analyzing people with the shallow logic needed to equate sexual orientation to human worth, you’ll have to apologize to our faces because sadly, there isn’t a card for every occasion.