Names have been changed.
“Mami, what does gay mean?”
Mami paused before replying. I had just started kindergarten. My mom, my baby sister Rosa, and I were eating dinner.
“Why do you ask?” she said in a tentative voice.
“Some kids at school were calling Emmett gay.” Emmett was my best friend. He took ballet, liked to play with dolls, and was mostly friends with girls, so he was bullied by the other kids. They made fun of him for being feminine and made him feel like an outsider.
“Well, if someone is a man, and he loves another man, he’s gay. If someone is a woman, and she loves another woman, she’s a lesbian. But there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s totally OK to be gay, and Papi and I will love you just the same if you or Rosa realize you’re gay someday.”
As my mother spoke, I folded into myself, wanting to disappear into my chair. For some reason, from the moment I learned the definition of the word, it made me uncomfortable.
I’m lucky to have my family. My mom and her side of the family have always been cool with queer stuff.
My father is a former Mormon from the Dominican Republic, which according to him is one of the most homophobic and racist places on earth.
But luckily my dad isn’t like that, and neither is my abuela (my dad’s mother).
My parents said they’d love me no matter what. When me getting married came up, they used gender-neutral terms for my imaginary spouse.
So why did being gay terrify me from the moment I found out what it was?
To this day, I’m not sure. It could have been homophobic societal norms, played out as the bullying of Emmett for seeming “girly.” It could have been my super religious babysitter, who frequently referenced homosexuality as a sin and partially raised me for the first 12 years of my life.
It could have been the hundreds of straight characters I’d seen on TV and in movies, and read about in books compared to the handful of queer people. Anything I watched or read about queer people featured homophobia, reminding me that most of the world thought homosexuality was wrong.
I first suspected I was attracted to girls when I was 8, yet it took me until I was 14 to accept that I’m not straight. I was afraid. Not of a specific thing, like not being accepted, just afraid of being gay. Despite my accepting family, I had this idea that being gay was terrible, disgusting, and wrong. My internalized homophobia manifested as a spiral of self-hatred that took me six years to escape.
First Attractions and Guilt
“I don’t think people who are in love are the only ones who should kiss,” my best friend, Celia, said one day when we were lying on my bed. She had her head in my lap. We were in 3rd grade.
“What do you mean?”
“I like to kiss my friends, and I’m not in love with them. I think everybody should kiss people they like if they want to.”
My brain stirred up an idea, and I suggested it before I could talk myself out of it.
“Do you want to kiss?”
Celia looked up at me. “Do you want to?”
My mind thought yes. “No, not if you don’t want to.”
Celia sat up and moved closer. “I want to.”
“Oh. Well…so do I.”
So we kissed. But we were scared we’d get in trouble. We both thought our parents would be upset because we were both girls.
But we’d still do it whenever we could. Until my babysitter Marisol, who’s from Peru and is super religious and traditional, saw us kissing and made me pray.
I didn’t feel like a sinner, or like I had disappointed God, because I wasn’t religious. But I had disappointed Marisol, who wanted me to be “normal.” I felt bad about that, but also ashamed.
Not a Big Deal
Fast forward to 6th grade, when I became good friends with Shane and Eve, who were out and proud bisexuals—the first openly queer people I’d met. They made me feel comfortable enough to admit to myself that I might not be straight. My view of gayness shifted from this disgusting, wrong thing to something that was OK.
I read more books with queer characters. I went online and educated myself about the community.
I encouraged Shane and Eve to talk about queer stuff as much as they wanted. It was like exposure therapy—the more present it became in my life, the less scared of it I became.
After a while, I managed to feel neutral about queerness. I became more casual and cool about it. Around that time, I told my new friends I was bi-curious.
The summer before 8th grade, I told my best friend Celia, who I’d kissed four years prior, that I’d been attracted to girls.
“Do you think you would ever date a girl?” Celia asked.
“Yeah, I totally think I’d date a girl.”
“Then I think you’re bisexual.”
“OK. Then I’m bisexual.”
Celia made a sound of excitement and I felt a thrill as I contemplated that I could now date girls. I could kiss girls. I didn’t have to be straight.
I couldn’t contain my ecstasy. I excitedly texted Shane, Eve, and two other friends in that group, Donna and Neville, saying, “I’m bi.”
Eve said “welcome to the gay bandwagon”; Donna said “me too”; Shane said “cool”; and Neville said, “that’s what’s up, love who you love.”
But when we headed back to Celia’s house, the thrill turned to dread.
“Ugh, now it’s gonna be a whole thing ’cause I gotta tell my parents,” I groaned to Celia.
“They’ll be fine with it.”
Even though my parents had been reassuring me since I was 4 that being gay was fine, I didn’t want to talk to them about it.
“I just don’t want it to be a big deal, but I’m afraid it’s going to be a big deal. Papi’s gonna cry ’cause he always cries at everything and I really don’t want that,” I whined to Celia.
“Why don’t you just text your mom, and ask her to tell your dad for you?” Celia suggested.
So that’s what I did. I texted my mom:
i’m bisexual. can you tell papi cause i feel like if we talk about it in person it’ll be this whole thing and he’ll cry about how much he loves me and i just don’t want it to be a big deal
Mami texted back:
Lol okay What do you want for dinner
And then I realized that I had been so scared of being queer not because of the reactions I’d get from other people, but because the way I saw myself would change. I was the only one who’d be disappointed. I was the only one who would find it disgusting or wrong. I was the only one I had to be afraid of, all along.
No one hated me for being gay. I had been hating myself. So I thought, If I’m the only one I’ve had to be afraid of all this time, why don’t I just stop tormenting myself?
And little by little, I did.
Acceptance and Pride
Over time, I grew to become more accepting and even proud of being bi. I found online queer communities and didn’t repress my crushes on girls anymore. I was able to indulge in queer media without feeling uncomfortable and anxious. I looked at the bi flag and thought: Hey! It’s me! I was out and proud about my feelings for girls and boys and everyone in between.
But as months passed, I started to notice I didn’t really feel anything for boys. Or at least, I felt a lot more for girls.
That became clear in freshman year when I got my first girlfriend, Abby. When I was with her, I felt warm and giddy.
My former attractions to boys now seemed stale, lackluster, and forced.
With Abby, I was glowing inside. I thought she was the prettiest, sweetest, most adorable person I had ever met. I was euphoric to realize that attraction could feel this good and that a relationship could make me this happy.
So for a little over a year now, I’ve been an out and proud lesbian. I’ve had moments when internalized homophobia crept back in. Like this past Halloween, I saw one of my classmates in a Poison Ivy costume and was extremely attracted to her, but then felt guilty because I thought I was being predatory.
But for the most part, identifying as a lesbian makes me feel happy and empowered. My not-straight female friends and I laugh about how clueless we are when it comes to girls liking us, and we gush over their beauty.
I paint my face with glitter and rainbow war paint and wave flags at parades. I sing and write and talk about my queerness at every opportunity.
Most of all, I look back on everything that got me here: being afraid and guilty, repressing my feelings and living in denial, slowly realizing that queer people are people too, admitting to myself I’m queer, and being so happy with a girl that I forgot why I was ashamed in the first place.