In OprahMag.com's series Coming Out, LGBTQ change-makers reflect on their journey toward self-acceptance. While it's beautiful to bravely share your identity with the world, choosing to do so is entirely up to you—period.
Genevieve Hudson is the author of Boys of Alabama as well as Pretend We Live Here: Stories, a LAMBDA Literary Award finalist. In this personal essay, Hudson shares their story of growing up in Alabama and the one summer in Charleston, South Carolina when they discovered a queer community that opened a door they didn’t know existed.
In May 2009, I graduated from college in Charleston, South Carolina. Tradition was important at my Southern liberal arts school, and the spring commencement ceremony called on each graduating student to carry red roses and wear either a white dress or a white dinner jacket in place of a cap and gown.
My boyfriend was not graduating—he was younger than I was—but we got ready together in my creaking, pastel-yellow college house. The open windows let in the hot spring air, the screens in place to keep Palmetto bugs from scuttling inside. He stood before me in a getup I admired: a skinny linen tie with floral accents and a lavender shirt. I was in a high-waisted white dress, hemmed in lace. Turquoise studs in my ears, my long hair was pulled back in a braid. Looking back, I’m in awe that I ever felt comfortable walking in public wearing something so feminine. Today, I would be wearing my boyfriend’s corduroy trousers with his tweed coat.
We arrived at the ceremony which took place outside, under a canopy of live oak trees and Spanish moss. The graduating seniors stood adorned in virginal white before one of the college’s most distinct buildings. We all played into the gendered dress code, except Lou, whom I had known since freshman year. An activist and artist, Lou was not wearing a dress like the rest of us women, but instead, white American Apparel jeans, a white oxford button up, and two-toned cowboy boots. She carried red paper roses. I felt unsettled watching her cross the yard; I knew she was queer, and a deep, and unexamined desire turned over inside of me. After commencement, the graduates walked back into the city under a 19th century arch that bore the Greek inscription, “Know Thyself.” That was what these last four years of school were supposed to do for us—usher us back out into the world filled with self-knowledge. I was to know myself. But something told me I didn’t yet.
I grew up in a college town in Alabama. I know now that there must have been queer people living there, but to young me, they were invisible. It was not safe to be openly gay at that time, in the town where I grew up. The absence of representation, to my child self, felt like an absence of existence. I was searching for reflections of myself, but I didn’t know what that looked like yet. I just hoped I’d know it when I saw it.
When I left Alabama for Charleston, a coastal town eight hours away, I felt like I was leaving for the big city. At 18, my first visit to Charleston had seemed cosmopolitan—the wide, bustling streets shared by cars, horse-drawn carriages, and bike taxis. The freedom of walkability. At night, people shrieked down the sidewalks and out of bars into dark alleys overgrown with ivy. In the mornings, the air smelled like spilled whiskey and the salt water that had blown in on the wind to wash it all clean. I saw punk kids clad in all black with chunky metal bike locks flung over their shoulders. The city had cafes that served vegetarian food and coffee shops that roasted their own beans. Things were happening in Charleston, and if I was there, things would happen to me, too.
When I arrived, my life expanded—but I was not greeted with boundless possibility. What I had overlooked as a young person magnetized by the city’s charm were the deep roots of conservatism that bound this town to a specific set of ethics and traditions. Like many cities in the south, Charleston attracted liberals and progressives from the rest of the state...but they were the exception, not the rule. Charleston was fancy, with a preference for boat shoes, pearl necklaces, preppy collar shirts, and a certain brand of Christianity that believed in traditional marriage and traditional gender roles. This ideal left little space for questions.
My college boyfriend had big, kind eyes, and we were part of a community of activist straight couples that protested plastic water bottles, participated in collective trash pickups at the coast on the weekends, and ate vegan potlucks under magnolia trees. It was more than I could have imagined when I lived in Alabama, and I felt selfish to feel unsatisfied, to admit that something seemed to be missing from my life.
By the time I saw Lou walk at graduation, I had already begun to question my sexuality. During my last semester at school, I had taken my first feminist studies class and discovered two books that changed everything—She Came to Stay by Simone de Beauvoir, and The Diary of Anais Nin. Both of the female narrators in these books were in relationships with men, like me. But what I encountered were passages of desire pointed at other women. That’s the thing I remember most about those books today, the queerness in their pages. I broke out into a cold sweat while reading outside on the library lawn, looking around, sure I was being exposed. As I gathered my things, I felt a sudden need for privacy; something was happening. A seed had been planted, and as I stepped down the streets thick with wisteria blooms, I knew I was walking away from one life and toward another.
After graduation, my boyfriend went out of town, and I was left with my thoughts, a stack of gender studies books, and six seasons of The L Word streaming on Netflix. Primed by this new queer syllabus, I said it to myself: I’m bisexual. A small step toward the middle. Not a lesbian. Not queer. Those words felt too certain, too scary, at the time. I needed a safer definition that I could ease into. I had never even kissed a woman.
My boyfriend was my best friend. We raced bicycles through town, built a climbing wall in his bedroom, wrote Shakespeare papers in the library side by side, and spent many nights laying in the grass outside, dreaming of where our lives would lead us. I could tell him anything, and now I had to tell him this—because what was shaking loose inside of me felt too big to hold on my own. But I did not want to imagine life without him. It might be a phase, I told him. But I had to find out. By choosing myself, I was losing the closest person to me.
To compound the pain, the circle of friends we shared did not understand the new life I was stepping into. I had hurt someone they cared about, and for what—experimentation? They turned away. Soon after we broke up, I ran into a group of our friends at a dive bar in town. My boyfriend was not with them; he was sad, and at home alone. I had yet to work up the courage to directly come out to anyone besides him, but these friends had heard the news. Our run-in at the bar was proof to them that I was happy, maybe even dating a woman already, getting on with life.
I remember one of them coming up to me in a dark corner, his body looming, shaking his head in disgust. He had seen me laughing. How could you? is what his face said, lip curled in anger. I saw another shared friend at a party later that week. The two of us skipped out on the crowd and went walking through the midnight streets. Under a row of skinny palm trees, I stumbled through telling her about my crushes on women. I couldn’t find the right words. Couldn’t produce an explanation. I wanted to apologize for being different. She listened quietly and nodded. No, she said. She had never felt that way. She didn’t quite understand, but I could tell she wanted to.
The weeks after I came out to him were some of the loneliest of my life. But Charleston summer had begun, and I felt hopeful. And Lou, it turned out, was not the only queer person in town. In the middle of an ordinary afternoon, while ordering an iced coffee, I met a woman who wanted to kiss me. She named my bicycle Mango and called me Boy. She bought us matching outfits at the thrift store to wear to a flamboyant party that promised to be full of camp. I felt I had stepped into a moment from The L Word; my life was becoming one of the lesbian scenes I’d been streaming alone in bed. She took me to eat nachos with other gay people.
Yet it wasn’t the new woman who changed me—our fling was fleeting. It was the community she brought me into that summer that led to my real transformation. That was when I befriended a gay painter and my future best friend, who was always writing Tanka poems and pulling tarot cards and spending late nights in his studio on campus. And the lesbian couple at the center of it all, who seemed impossibly happy and impossibly cool; suddenly, their happiness felt accessible to me, too. There was the sculpture major and radical punk, whose dank basement apartment became like a haven, a place to sprawl out on the rug and hear the latest gay gossip and learn about whatever cause had fired her up. And there was the young vegan chef who I practiced yoga with, the person who could put me into stitches of laughter quicker than anyone.
A void opened in my life when I came out. My conversations with old friends felt awkward and stilted, as if something had been wedged between us. But these new friends were experts in the experience of coming out. They had done it, and they knew how to help me navigate this new terrain. They showed me what my queer future could be. Their lives told me a story, and I wanted to live in that story with them. I was not alone. They showed me the power of community, especially for marginalized communities in conservative places—and that made me brave.
I practiced telling the people around me I was dating women. Each time I had to say it—to my mom, to my dad, to old friends who had only known me dating boys—I felt tongue-tied and shy, nervous that I would be rejected. But I had a roadmap now, friends for the journey.
I entered that summer questioning and open to experience. But by the time August arrived, I was different, transformed in the profound way that comes from stepping into your power and taking a risk to be yourself. Seeing queerness allowed me to recognize it in myself. It allowed me to be found. Perhaps the most profound thing about my new friendships was not the representation they offered, but the respite. They gave me a place to sit down for the first time, my place set at the table, where I could truly feel like myself.
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