Coming Out

How Stonewall and RuPaul inspire me

by Shakeva Griswould

When I was 12 years old, I developed feelings for a girl. We had been friends since 3rd grade. She was funny and we cracked jokes together. She was a kind person and a true friend. Everyone got along with her. She was well-known because she was on our middle school basketball team. 

My heart beat a little faster whenever she texted me or we hung out. I couldn’t make sense of the feelings I had for her. 

I tried to deny what I felt. I thought that my feelings were something to be ashamed of. Up until then I had been attracted to boys. Realizing that I liked the same gender was confusing and new to me. Being queer was not something I had been exposed to, so I didn’t know what to do or who to talk to. Since I had been attracted to boys and I only had feelings for one girl, I came to the conclusion that I was bisexual. I thought that I would eventually be in a relationship with a boy. 

One night my mother saw some texts from the girl. So I told her I was bisexual. I thought she’d be mad but she dismissed it and told me that I was going through “a phase” and that eventually I would grow out of those feelings. I felt as if I wasn’t being taken seriously. I was upset that my story was being mapped out for me and that my mother expected me to conform to that blueprint. 

I told the girl how I felt, but she did not feel the same about me. I was hurt. I thought that being brave and telling her how I felt would give me the outcome that I wanted. 

When I was 13, I started seeing a boy I met in high school. He told me he wanted us to be together, so I passively went along. I didn’t have those same feelings he had for me, but I felt as if I needed to be with someone other than the girl I really felt for. I thought that getting into a relationship would make me forget her. 

But it didn’t work. I broke up with him a month later, because it was clear to me that not only was I not attracted to him, I wasn’t attracted to boys anymore, period. I only saw them as friends. 

Coming Clean 

I thought about my grandmother, who had passed away a year before. We were extremely close. Her death made me start to think about my life now that I realized I was queer. Although I was scared of how my parents would react if I told them, I felt they should know. 

By the time I was 15, I knew I was queer, so I wasn’t confused about my sexual identity. But since I wasn’t exposed to the LGBTQ community, I felt lost.

One night, I was in my room thinking about my grandmother and how she would have received the news. I wondered if this issue would have complicated our relationship and if my queerness would have drastically changed my grandmother’s feelings for me. If so, it would be like taking my heart out of my chest and crumpling it up. I would hate to have disappointed her. I impulsively called my dad, who doesn’t live with us, and told him I was gay. 

I held my breath; I was waiting for him to start yelling at me, telling me how upset he was. Instead, he spoke calmly. “I don’t care what you are,” he told me. “I’ll support you no matter what.” 

The relief washed over me. I asked him how he thought his mother would have handled the news if she were here. He chuckled a little. “She would probably just look at you like, ‘And?’ She wouldn’t care.” 

I felt my throat tighten and hot tears roll down my face. I cried while I clutched the phone in my hand. I felt the gravity of my father’s words, and I knew that he was right. Knowing that my grandmother would have accepted me for who I am was one of the most liberating feelings I’ve ever had. 

When I got off the phone with my father, I went into my mother’s room and stood by her bed. I took a deep breath. “Mom, I have to tell you something.” 

“What is it?” 

“I’m gay.” 

She looked at me and then looked back at the TV. “I thought you said you were bisexual?” she asked me. 

“I know that’s what I said, but that wasn’t true. I only like girls.” 

She looked at me, shrugged her shoulders, and then looked back at the TV again. 

“OK,” was her only response. I waited for her to say more so that we could have a conversation about it, but she didn’t seem open to that, and I didn’t want to push further. I had expected a dramatic reaction so it was a relief that she didn’t seem to care and it didn’t change how she felt about me. I walked back into my room with a weight lifted off of my chest. 

Keeping Her Feelings Hidden 

Although she acted like my queerness didn’t bother her, my mother’s behavior after I told her made me think otherwise. She snapped at me and was aggressive, not a way she’d normally act toward me. She’d raise her voice to get me up and do chores around the house. 

I felt like her true feelings—the ones she did not express to me when I came out to her—were coming through in the way she told me to do things. It felt passive-aggressive. I wish we could’ve had an honest conversation about who I was and how that wouldn’t change the relationship I had with her. 

I never told her how I felt about her behavior. I just kept it to myself and wrote poetry about it. She had told me that being gay was not something that was ever talked about among her family or friends. It was a topic kept to oneself. 

Although I didn’t like it I could understand her not wanting to talk about it openly. No one talked openly about being gay among my friends, either. Some of them identified as bisexual. But I was the only one open about only being attracted to the same sex. 

A few days later, my mother and I sat in the living room talking. Out of nowhere she said, “I had other ideas for how your life would turn out. I envisioned you getting married and having children with a man.” Then she added, “I liked you better when you were bisexual.” She said this in a joking manner, but I didn’t feel like laughing. I thought that those words, even though she said she was kidding, had some truth to them. I was upset that my mother didn’t fully accept me for who I was. 

Driven by Drag Queens 

By the time I was 15, I knew I was queer, so I wasn’t confused about my sexual identity. But since I wasn’t exposed to the LGBTQ community, I felt lost. I didn’t know any role models or heroes within that community to look up to. Then one day I stumbled on RuPauls’s Drag Race on TV. I was fascinated by the show; Drag Race seeks to crown the next drag queen superstar.

RuPaul has been a gay icon for decades, but I had never heard of him before. He hosts the show to find another drag queen to follow in his footsteps. I was enthralled with the confidence these different men had as drag queens. The way they carried themselves screamed that they were comfortable enough to show their feminine sides. I loved how confident they were in their sexuality. Seeing this show gave me a boost in the way I felt about myself. 

I wanted to know more about my history as a queer person. On Drag Race, a few of the contestants had a discussion about the Stonewall Riots. I looked it up online. They happened in the 1960s in the West Village. The Stonewall Inn is a popular bar and hangout spot for queer and transgender people. Back then, people were less accepting of these communities, so there were many attempts to discourage queer and trans folk. 

On occasion, police officers would storm into Stonewall, harassing and arresting people. One night, the people who were regularly harassed by officers had had enough. They decided to fight back. Mobs of angry people from inside the bar and around the neighborhood began fighting with the police, and a riot broke out. Rioting went on for several more nights. It became the spark that ignited the gay rights movement. 

The riots are an important moment in queer and transgender history and an example of the resilience of the LGBTQ community. This event is celebrated through the Pride Parade held in New York City every year and other Pride celebrations around the world. I was so inspired by the actions of the people at Stonewall because they were unafraid to be themselves and fight back against oppression. 

Learning this history helped me become more confident with my sexuality, and I wanted to discover more about LGBTQ culture. 

That Christmas, I got a book called Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, a lesbian author who grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Bushwick High School. The book is a collection of poetry detailing Woodson’s life as a child and young adult. I related to Woodson’s poems in which she described trying to fit in at school. She felt lonesome in her adolescence. I used to feel the same way. I was made fun of a lot because of the way I walked and how big my nose was. As the book went on, I saw Woodson become comfortable with who she was. Her book inspired me as a writer and a queer individual. 

RuPaul and Woodson are LGBTQ role models who inspire me to keep following my dreams despite what my mother or anyone else thinks I should be. Though I haven’t been in a relationship yet, I know now that I don’t have to be ashamed about who I am attracted to. When I do enter a relationship, I plan to tell my parents about my partner. However, I don’t want or need my parents’ approval or anyone else’s. Hearing the stories of others who are gay and not hiding their identities makes me feel like I can be whoever I want to be. My sexuality doesn’t define me; it is just a part of what makes me whole.  

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