creative nonfiction by Emma Bishop
Coming out is a journey most LGBT people go through at some point in their lives. My struggle started the same year I was a camp counsellor for the first time, at eighteen years old. One day, we were planning an activity: cardboard sword and shield-making. One of the counsellors suggested an alternative, fairy wings, for the girls. I bit my tongue. I knew what that meant: there was only one right way to be a girl or a boy. Later, I heard a counsellor say “looks like someone has a crush” because a boy was teasing a girl. Subtext: “Good job. You’re normal.” I debated whether I should say something and risk outing myself or keep quiet and stay safe. While I was dealing with this internal conflict, a kid at the camp asked me if a boy can marry another boy. I said “Yes, boys can marry boys. Girls can marry girls too,” but it never occurred to me that I might be one of those girls until I was seventeen years old, in my senior year of high school.
There was a girl who captivated me. I bumped into her in the hallway and blushed. I woke up from a dream in which I’d kissed her and I finally realized why I could never find words around her. This crush surprised me but looking back, I saw signs I ignored, such as the folder of photos I kept on my phone of Marina and the Diamonds, a pop singer. She was my #WomanCrushWednesday, my “girl crush.” I thought she was beautiful and hot and mesmerizing and yet I still considered myself straight until the crush on a girl in real life. I channelled my attraction to women towards a celebrity, someone untouchable, so that there weren’t consequences. I didn’t have to avert my eyes or control my body language. I could simply admire her. When I finally acknowledged a crush on a girl I knew in real life, I moved through the world differently. I was hyper aware of the way people talked about gay people, even the offhand comments like “that’s gay,” because I needed to know who would treat me the same.
I could feel the distance between my closest friends and family and myself growing as my awareness of my own sexuality grew. I became a porcupine, puffing up my quills so no one could get too close. I avoided conversations about crushes and dating. When my friend asked if there were any cute boys in my class, I faked a laugh. This facade made me feel isolated so I turned to SKAM, One Day at a Time and other movies and TV shows with LGBT characters that reflected my feelings. In these stories, I found the confidence to tell a few friends the truth.
I told one friend in the cafeteria. While stabbing hash browns with my fork, I launched into the preface I’d prepared by combing through online forums and reading the articles that show up when you google “how to come out to your friend”.
“So, I want to tell you something. I’m nervous because I don’t want this to change anything… Um…” I took a deep breath and looked out the window at the expanse of mountains.
“What is it?”
“It’s just hard to say it out loud. It’s not even a big deal… It’s just… I’m gay,” I said.
“Oh, that doesn’t change anything,” she said.
Later, on the bus to the grocery store, she leaned on my shoulder and I rested my head on hers.
Coming out to my dad was the biggest hurdle. Every time I considered it, something popped into my head: How he skipped past the LGBT section on Netflix or how he laughed at the homophobic jokes on F.R.I.E.N.D.S. His imitation of a gay man’s voice; The way he tensed up when we drove through town during the pride parade. I noticed every little change in tone and body language. Deep down, I always wanted the pride that made people uncomfortable. I wanted to be loud and unashamed. I didn’t want to hide my journal under my bed anymore or switch tabs on my computer when someone walked in the room but his words haunted me.
He used to say “when you have a husband…” and my stomach turned because I knew that wouldn’t happen. Later that year, he changed it to “when you have a boyfriend… or a girlfriend”. Maybe he was starting to see me. Was it my short hair, the Tegan and Sara concert I’d gone to or my advocacy for the LGBT community? Even so, I wanted to make it clear that I wouldn’t live in silence anymore. I found the words and put them in a letter one summer night, around 1 AM. I couldn’t fathom the idea of saying it to his face, to see his expression change, revealing disgust or disappointment in my worst nightmare. It took months before I got the courage to leave it on his desk. I psyched myself up with the song “Break Free” by Ariana Grande and coming out videos on YouTube. Then I went to the library, trying to stop the worry that I’d made a mistake by browsing the familiar shelves. I borrowed a graphic novel and went for sushi. As I was sitting down to eat, I got a text.
“Thanks for the letter and opening up to me. I’m really glad you did. It must have been hard. You are very brave. I’m proud of you for standing up and being who you are.”
Tears streamed down my face. I wiped them away and stuffed sushi in my mouth. Before this, I felt like I was chasing after a truck that kept moving further away every time I got close enough to touch it, unable to comprehend how I would ever get in but now I’d done it and I knew my life would never be the same.
The next summer, I worked at a different camp. The night before I left, I stayed up late, worrying about what the parents would think of me. How could they let a dirty dyke work with their children? Would my mere presence make them uncomfortable? Would they ask for their kids to be placed in a different group so they wouldn’t have to explain why some girls wear boys’ clothes’? However, when I started working there, my worries gradually faded. One day, I heard a camper say that another counsellor said he wanted to marry a boy. I later asked my boss what she’d done on the weekend and she told me she went to the Dyke March. A counsellor and I realized we have the same favourite book, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which is about two boys who fall in love. We didn’t say it but we knew we were family in that way. There was an older counsellor, with short hair and a nose ring who mentioned her girlfriend and played the guitar. I fell a little in love with her and told myself it was okay. I needed to give myself the love I would have given to any of these campers if they had told me they liked someone of the same gender. I would have told them we don’t need to change. We’re perfect the way they are.