“When you’re getting better, it’s a jagged line,” goes a lyric from a Jenny Lewis song called “The Voyager.” I thought about that line a lot as I navigated my own coming-out process at the age of 24; there were days when I’d wake up feeling 100% secure in my identity and ready to take on the world, only to dip into depression by lunchtime.
The average age of people coming out as LGBTQ+ is steadily falling, a fact that thrilled me most of the time, but sometimes I couldn’t help mourning all the authentic experiences—not to mention relationships—I could have had if only I’d been as brave as today’s teenagers.
Now I’m more or less comfortable with where I’ve ended up, in large part because I’ve actively sought out stories of other people who came out as adults and learned that I’m not the only person who took some time to accept their sexuality. (And, of course, I know that coming out at 24 this past decade bears little comparison to the generations of queer people who often had to spend their whole lives obscuring their true selves.) This National Coming Out Day, we’re sharing the stories of six women and nonbinary people whose life experiences exemplify the fact that coming out isn’t always linear; it’s a journey, one that can involve setbacks and false starts but is eminently worth taking.
“Three Love Letters” by Amanda Richards
I’ve written exactly two ill-advised and emotionally fraught love letters in my life. One was in the fifth grade to a boy named Michael, carefully printed with a No. 2 and covered in my most precious stickers. Michael once offered to carry my saxophone to the music room—despite the fact that he bullied me 24/7, I took the gesture as a sign we would one day be wed.
I wrote the second love letter in my kitchen, illuminated only by my laptop screen and the light above the stove. Hunched over the table, I hammered away at the keys with the same lovesick fervor I’d had for Michael. Only this time, I wasn’t a hopeful, half-formed 10-year-old girl. I was a fully grown woman: 33, a newly out lesbian, intoxicated and feral and determined to convince a moody, emotionally unavailable woman to love me—despite the fact that most of the time, she made me feel like shit.
These two love letters were written decades apart, but the desperation, misplaced affections, and unsolicited emotional outpouring were very much the same. When you come out at a later age, you find yourself confronted with a paradox: You’ve spent all your time growing into the adult you’ve always wanted to be, and suddenly, especially when it comes to relationships, you’re just a dumb kid again. It’s not the same for everyone, but I regressed to my purest, most childish form: chasing the wrong romantic leads, spiraling into emotional turmoil with every decision, and writing love letters to people who didn’t deserve them.
I’ve decided recently, though, that instead of giving in to the chaos of unrequited yearning, maybe I should write a love letter to myself. After all, coming out has taught me more about who I am than I thought was left to learn. I’ve experienced more joy in the aftermath than in all the other years of my life combined (and it’s not just about all the sex, though that is a perk). It’s the joy of being simultaneously fractured and whole, of being harried and ripened but somehow brand-new. It’s the feeling of love for one’s self that finally feels worthy of a letter, one far more romantic than the others could ever be—after all, it took over 30 years to send.
Amanda Richards is a New York–based writer and the editorial director for Universal Standard.
“Finding Myself Through Finstas” by Jazmine Hughes
By most metrics—aside from time itself—I’m very, very old. I like routine and bad coffee and naps. I don’t like loud bars or new music or most new technologies. But when I came out last year, just over the edge of 26, I immediately flashed back into adolescence. It felt like stumbling upon a brand-new room in the house I’d lived in all my life; I delightedly rediscovered the new me over and over again. I wanted to change the way I dressed and the way I smelled and the way I carried myself; I needed everyone to treat me exactly the same and yet entirely differently.
This period was also very obnoxious—my terrible 20s. My emotions sat so close to the surface of my skin that I was constantly buzzing. I fought with my parents; I chose new, queer friends to be my stand-in parents and fought with them; I cried on my living room floor, the Beach Boys’s Pet Sounds on constant loop, and, for the first time, sang along without changing the pronouns. I was deluged by feelings—angst, pride, surprise—but I mostly felt very, very inexperienced and unsure of how to proceed as a person, so I did what any teen would do: I started a finstagram.
I learned about finstagrams, or secret Instagram accounts, from some cool high schoolers I know; “finstas” are intended as a venue to capture one’s “true self,” be that for an exclusive audience or for no one at all, as opposed to the person in your forward-facing, public Instagram, where you’re perpetually confident and well-lit. (They were popularized before Instagram introduced the “close friends” sharing option.) The teens used their finstas as a safe space to try out new looks or confess their true feelings; a stress researcher, I thought it’d be useful to assemble a bunch of ephemera that might point me in the direction of who I was soon to be.
I wasn’t sure if I was queer or a lesbian or a bisexual, so I followed something from every flavor. I followed history accounts, accounts with personal ads; I followed accounts of hot women in relationships with other hot women, a mood board for what my life might look like someday. But mostly, I followed meme accounts run by queer teens, all of them erratic and irresponsible, the teens unabashedly proud of themselves and their sexualities and completely unself-serious. Well-meaning friends lent me compelling, significant books by Susan Sontag or Audre Lorde, which didn’t match the tone of this particular existential crisis—just because I was queer didn’t mean that I was suddenly smart. The teens felt more like me: giddy, gay, and extremely online.
This particular Gen Z meme-infected approach to queerness is, perhaps, an unexpected outcome of decades of vicious queer struggle. But within their flippancy was a refusal to accept a world in which queerness wasn’t accepted, or beautiful, or fertile fodder for jokes. I didn’t feel particularly confused about being queer—it was just a fun, easily accepted surprise, like finding $100 in my back pocket—but I felt weird about not feeling weird, unsure if I was “born this way” or had just seen the light. The teens didn’t think about that: They were busy making memes about clipping their nails every time they saw a hot girl, or about how you can tell a bisexual from their exposed ankles, or what it was like to be both perfectly, flawlessly gay and yet impossibly stupid, and proud of each in equal measure. It was exactly what I needed.
Jazmine Hughes is a story editor at the New York Times Magazine.
“Writing Around It” by Madison Malone Kircher
Somewhere buried on the internet is a short piece I penned years ago after a not particularly user-friendly update to the Seamless app. So not user-friendly, in fact, that I had mistakenly ordered pizza using an ex’s credit card number I had on file.
When I wrote the piece, I omitted any mention of my ex’s gender. I was 23. I’d been openly dating women for several years at that point and had been hooking up with them in secret even longer. I’d posted joyful pictures with my face painted rainbow colors at Pride parades and I’d told my parents I was dating women, but I was also still clinging to the fear that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t actually gay. Admitting I was gay, literally writing it down, meant I would never be anything else in the eyes of everyone I knew. (I was still far from understanding the fluidness of sexual identities and coming to terms with my internalized homophobia.) So instead I wrote around it, clunkily describing “my ex” and “my former paramour,” and avoiding gender-neutral pronouns, concerned those might also out my queerness.
The following year, I tested a “smell dating” service for a story. I wore the same shirt without showering for three days and then mailed it away to be sniffed by potential matches. (Don’t let anybody tell you being a writer isn’t glamorous!) I noted that my eventual matches were all women, which I had described as “my preference.” I’d been seeing a female former colleague for months. Plenty of people in the office knew. Still, I wasn’t ready to type the words.
Months later, in October, I wrote a story about how a popular dating app was matching me with women using the app’s BFF-searching feature, even though I was swiping for people to sleep with. (I mean, uh, date.) It was the first time I called myself a gay woman. No hedging. No hiding. I’d finally reached a point where not calling myself a lesbian made me feel as uncomfortable as I’d felt about the label years earlier.
It sounds silly, my inability to articulate being gay for so long when I was tacitly doing so with every other aspect of my life. But I needed that gradualness. I needed the time to process and relearn who I was—who I am. It felt like when you write the wrong date on your class assignments and checks in the first few weeks of a new year. It takes time to get used to something new, even if it’s right. Now it’s second nature.
Madison Malone Kircher is a writer for New York magazine.
“Join Us” by R.O. Kwon
I’ve joked every now and then that so many of the people I know in San Francisco are queer that I’m always gently surprised when a new friend happens to be straight. In my circles, queerness almost feels like a majority, and gloriously so. But I’ve been thinking about this joke, and how it’s not quite a joke.
Not everyone is queer, of course: I didn’t even think I myself was until somewhat recently, and I wonder if it’s because of how I’ve experienced this world, and its patriarchy, as a woman. And it wasn’t until even more recently, just last fall, that I started talking publicly about it. (Why I waited to talk about it: I have a very religious family, I’m joyfully married to my first boyfriend, and I’m not inclined to disclose much about my personal life. Why I started talking about it: There are very few publicly queer Korean Americans, and I felt that, since I could, maybe I should.) Occasionally, when someone hears that I didn’t know for a long time that I’m queer—in my case, bisexual—they express confusion, even disbelief. “How did you not know?” I’ve been asked.
I have a few possible answers. There’s the fact that a lot of women start hearing early on an especially pernicious, ubiquitous message: that the greatest value we can offer this world, the best thing about us, is how we look—and not to anyone, but particularly to the men who might, if we’re lucky, desire us. Let’s keep in mind, too, the probability that most of the depictions a woman has encountered of other women in words, movies, paintings, ads, porn, and magazine covers have been refracted through the modifying gaze of a man, or multiple men. Then there’s the matter of how little some of us know our bodies, how ashamed we’re often taught to be of what’s between our legs, to such an extent that many a fully grown, sexually active cis woman is unfamiliar with the workings of her own vagina, or might not be sure where the clitoris is, or, or—
So, hey, it took a while. I had to make my way through a wilderness of misconceptions before I could get a clearer sense of who I am and what I want. It happens. If it takes you some time, too, to more fully understand what you want: Please know it’s not unusual. If you’ve gone your whole life thinking you’re straight, but more recently, you’ve begun to learn you might not be—and this can apply to anyone, not just women, since the patriarchy we’re living in is also heteronormative, binary-enforcing, and hateful toward pretty much any kind of difference from the limited so-called norm—then please don’t feel you did anything wrong. Not in the least. Your sexuality is yours to figure out, on your timeline, and it’s yours to define. And if you do realize you’re queer, and you find you want to start talking about it: Join us. It’s beautiful out here.
R.O. Kwon is a writer, and her first novel is the nationally best-selling The Incendiaries.
“Lighting the Match” by Rosemary Donahue
I grew up in Southern California, so I’ve seen what fire can do. While my East Coast cousins would get snow days, my brother and I stayed home in the fall as ash fell from the sky. Those days felt heavy as the air outside.
There’s a tenacity that’s instilled in us—those who have to steel themselves against fire and wind every year. We know what’s coming, how to prepare, and how to rebuild if all else fails. Perhaps this is why I’ve always been comforted by the idea that I can always start over. I’ve already done so a few times.
Yet transformation takes time. My previous attempts to begin again have felt like apocalyptic blazes, as younger versions of myself had been to fewer therapy sessions and didn’t care much about consequences. It didn’t strike me how different things could be until last year when I decided to burn it all down—metaphorically.
It was intentional. I lit the match when, in a couples therapy session a year and a half after our wedding, phrases like “open marriage” and “fuck other people” and “repressed sexuality” came spilling from my mouth. When it became clear over the course of the next month that what we needed instead was a divorce, the flames grew. Some thought the decision seemed sudden—that I was being selfish, or acting impulsively. But I was getting ahead of a bigger disaster.
I realized quickly that to explore 30 years of repressed queerness without resentment toward myself or my husband, I had to do it outside of my marriage. I had to extricate myself from the situation completely and immediately in order to start fresh. But that didn’t mean that it didn’t hurt, or that it wouldn’t get ugly before it got better.
Now, it’s nearly a year later, and I’ve spent the past 10 months exploring my queer identity. At times, I’ve wondered whether I was doing the right thing, as some of my closest relationships have been forever altered since the divorce. However, before coming out, I’d felt like I’d never truly been myself, almost as if I’d been sleepwalking through life. This profoundly affected my mental health, and though I’ll always deal with depression, the intensity of my suicidal ideation has lessened greatly since coming out.
So I’m comforted by this, and the fact that although I’ve razed my former life, I knew it was bound to catch fire at any moment, and I took things into my own hands instead. While things may not be as picturesque now as they once were, there’s finally space for new growth.
Rosemary Donahue is the digital wellness editor at Allure.
“Meeting Myself, With MTV’s Help” by Mila Myles
There’s one band that’s threaded throughout my coming-out journey. You know which one. In middle school, I fell hard for t.A.T.u’s music video “All the Things She Said.” In the video, the Russian duo portrayed themselves as teenage sapphic lovers destined to run away together in the rain in schoolgirl outfits—the ultimate romanticized bait for any teenaged closet case.
In my six-square-mile all-black town, gay people were called “punks, “sissies,” and “dykes,” or were said to have “sugar in their tank.” Growing up, I believed that being gay was something black people only did to achieve a closer proximity to whiteness, or because they were abused and needed to find love in unconventional ways. I never thought that was me.
In junior high, I lived with my father in a predominantly white middle-class town 15 minutes—and an entire world—away. The girl who lived next door would always pay me compliments about how cute I was. I thought she was just being nice, until she invited me to her 14th-birthday party—no boys showed up. When it was time to play Spin the Bottle, I tried to slowly break from the circle. But when I looked up, the bottle was pointing in my direction and a girl was leaning in for a kiss. After the kiss, I ran home, threw myself onto my bed, blasted t.A.T.u’s 200 km/h in the Wrong Lane, and cried for hours. I soon joined t.A.T.u’s fan chat room and admitted I was bi-curious there, but when I moved out of my father’s house that summer, I never spoke of it again.
In the last month of school a rumor went around about my sexuality. I had a secret tryst with a former track-and-field teammate and was terrified that people would find out. So, the next day, I preempted the revelations: I wore a rainbow bracelet and came out to my entire school in a speech. When I told my mom what had happened, though, she was silent. That summer, things were tense at home; my sister even asked why I couldn’t have waited until I left for college. I would stay in my room, blaring t.A.T.u’s “30 Minutes” as I fantasized about the day I would have a girlfriend to run away with.
A few weeks later, my mom asked me to accompany her to the store. But I soon realized we were actually pulling into the town’s infamous gay bar. This was her apology. My first time at any club, and my mama was convincing all the women to dance with her “shy daughter.” You might know that later, t.A.T.u. were revealed to be fakes, but at that moment, I believed in those lyrics more than ever. All this time, I had been willing to lose everything in order to love someone I hadn’t met yet, but really it wasn’t some imaginary girlfriend—it was myself. Suddenly, everything t.A.T.u. sang about felt possible again.
Mila Myles is a writer and stand-up comedian living in NYC by way of metro Detroit.
Originally Appeared on Vogue