The Thrill is proud to feature personal narratives courtesy of the Project for Open Voices. Today’s essay is titled “On Being a Closeted Queer,” and was authored anonymously. POV is always accepting new submissions, so if you want to share your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org – if you prefer to submit anonymously, the login password is kenyoncollege.
This is how it happens:
It’s a day into spring break and you’re marking the occasion by sitting curled up on your bed, quietly and completely losing your shit. It’s the panic attack of the century, something like having liquid fire poured down into your lungs, and you’re staring across the room at the Van Gogh decal on your wall hard enough to make the colors swim and go loose. You’re stuck, you’re stuck, you’re fucking stuck. The shivers hit you like an earthquake, and with each sharp shudder of bones there’s some relief, because maybe if you shake hard enough you can break out, be free. Your body’s suddenly three sizes too small and it hurts and your brain keeps screaming that you’re stuck, you’re up shit creek, there’s no way out.
It’s necessary to back up a little so you know how you came to this point.
It starts because you come back from Kenyon loud. You come back from Kenyon with a voice you used to firmly muzzle, with a voice tinged in copper from all the blood in your mouth after years of biting your tongue. You come back from Kenyon argumentative about it, about queer rights and same-sex marriage and deconstructing gender norms. You come back speaking in a way that makes your mom smile exasperatedly and talk about how “the liberals” are warping your mind in a tone that isn’t joking enough to be insincere. You think that you kind of brought this on yourself, in your more self-loathing moments; that maybe if you shut up like you had for years, the transition wouldn’t be so bad. That if you kept quiet, your brother wouldn’t say fag just to see you get riled up, that your mom wouldn’t start reminding you about how homosexuality is a sin, that your dad wouldn’t frown so pointedly when talking about Minnesota passing same-sex marriage. But you come back loud and maybe that’s what makes it more palpable, that’s what sends you spiraling into the shock of coming back into a culture, in a home, so furiously against who you are. You’ve been in the closet since you were a sophomore in high school, and it was manageable because you’d never had space to embrace it. But coming back from Kenyon is like moving from freedom to slavery again, and there’s a buzz under your skin that builds all day until you’re shaking with it, because you’re being shoved back into an identity that doesn’t fit you and it chafes.
The main thought that acts an anchor drawing you down into your panic is that you’re alone here. You have friends from Kenyon on Skype you can talk to, and two friends you’ve come out to just before break started. But one of those options is distant and the other is—fresh. You came out and they were fine and happy, it was all super pleasant, but you don’t know how queer you’re allowed to be around them yet. You don’t want to ruin your new position in their minds as some very self-sufficient, completely-the-same-but-also-likes-girls queer person by dragging in the family problems you’ve been carrying around like the proverbial globe for these last few years.
But if you were at Kenyon—if you were at Kenyon, well what?
You have your friends here, but at some point dragging all of your familial problems to them, all your tears and panic attacks, starts making you feel self-conscious. Somewhere in the back of your mind you wait until they get sick of it, until they start calling you a one trick pony, “yeah man we know shit sucks at home, hit us with another.” You’ve had friends straight up tell you that your problems are not their responsibility, that they don’t know your family, so really, how much can they help you? You’ve had friends, both straight and queer, tell you that maybe if you come out, it’ll all be better. As if you live in some Hallmark world where all it takes is having a daughter that’s queer to cure the case of homophobia. As if your life and your experience is only there to make you into some lesson, in the proverbial queer person in those stories that start out “well, I used to be homophobic, but then I met ____ and realized (shocker) queer people are just dandy!”
So what are you (what am I) supposed to do when you start feeling like a burden to your friends, when they don’t understand you, when they make well-meaning suggestions that over simplify things? Theoretically, you have Unity House, or Queer Women’s Collective.
Not to get you wrong; you love Unity House and Q-Dubs. They have given you a sense of community that you didn’t have back home, gave you a validity and an understanding that is empowering. You think they do a lot of good work; but you don’t feel welcome there.
It starts (maybe it really starts) at a snacks and sexuality discussion you go to way at the beginning of the year, when you’re still new to wearing your sexuality easy and plain like an old t-shirt. You’re kind of excited, as everyone files in. You’re curious, and interested, and want to connect.
And then it opens up with coming out stories.
You have a mixed relationship with the closet; National Coming Out Day has always felt like National Guilt Trip Day to you. There’s something shameful in not coming out, despite how many people understand and tell you that you don’t have to if (as in your case) it would do more harm than good. And as you listen to these people talk about coming out, a theme develops: it’s the story of having liberal parents, and struggling to tell them, and, after some road bumps, being accepted rather happily. Sometimes aunt and uncles are even mentioned. As you listen, you feel a disconnect. As you listen, you feel cowardly.
It’s not that you’re not happy for them—you are! You’re glad to live in a time and place where so many people, so many of your friends, come out and are happily accepted for it. You’re ecstatic for them, you’re excited, for all those queer people that came out and were easily accepted. It gives you a lot of hope for the future.
But you’re not one of them, and as the meeting goes on, you start to feel more and more left out and self-conscious. A friend who came with you keeps nudging you to talk, but you can’t. Your throat is tight and you don’t want to break the mold, don’t want to bring your stories rolling in like thunderhead on a clear day. You look at all these happy people, all so lucky to have such accepting families, all with happy Disney endings, and wonder what you’re supposed to tell them. Are you supposed to talk about the time your grandparents talked about how homosexuality was the largest sin in the book when you were sixteen and just on the cusp of your sexuality, about how they told you that your people were going to be stuck in hell while you sat trapped in the backseat of their van, your heart jack-hammering against your ribs? Are you supposed to tell about how you cried for an hour when you got home, because you knew your grandma, who taught you so much about love and loyalty, would never accept you if you showed up holding hands with a girl? Are you supposed to tell them about the night you told your brother, half-hesitant, that you simply believe that queer people weren’t morally wrong, no more no less, and your mother found out and sat you down and asked how you could believe such a thing. How her tone implied that such a belief was on par in thinking genocide was right, or that you supported pedophilia. Are you supposed to tell them about how she said you should start going to church more after that? Are you supposed to tell them that there were nights you laid awake wondering how you were supposed to believe in a God who didn’t believe in love?
You couldn’t, in the end. You sat quiet and felt off-center, because you couldn’t do it. You couldn’t make yourself into that person, the queer still under fire, the queer living some life of quiet desperation. You couldn’t do that to yourself because it felt too much like a pity trip, like making a spectacle of yourself and ruining the vision of a nice, queer-friendly future. You walked away feeling alone.
And it’s not as if you don’t realize there are other queers with bad home situations. You’ve talked to a few and recognized the ways their smiles go tight and their tones casual when they talk about it, the ever tremulous flippancy in their voice as they say “yeah, my parent’s don’t know…it’s not something that would…yeah.” You recognize the hunch in their shoulders and the forced casualness because you’ve played it up so often yourself. You see yourself in them.
But how do you got to Unity House, or Q-Dubs, and start talking about not being accepted? It’s hard. It’s true I might not have caught all the programming, but I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen an event specifically devoted to talking about problematic home or friend situations. And that’s a problem for organizations that are on campus to support queer people. It’s a problem that I (and you) can’t feel comfortable talking about ourselves because there is never any casual way to do it. I love Unity House and Q-Dubs, but I’ve never felt entirely comfortable there. And that’s not something I can let go.
Because people who have panic attacks about their sexuality over break? I’m out there (you’re out there) but unless space opens up for us, you might never know it.