When I was 19, there was a night when I went to bed as one person, and woke up the next day as someone else.
It was New Year’s Eve and I ended up in someone’s guest bed with a girl who asked me if I wanted to kiss. 19 was the age at which I “said yes to everything”—which was a horrible philosophy, and one I mostly used as an excuse to keep saying yes to the same few, wrong things—but it served me in good stead that night. Because when that girl kissed me, it was like my body was a car I’d been driving with the parking brake on up until that moment, and suddenly I was racing forward at top speed. To extend the car metaphor, it was also like having no seatbelt and no headlights and no brakes. I was so terrified I had to ask her to stop. When I woke up the next morning, it was a new year and a new world. And I was no less terrified, because until that night it had never occurred to me that I might be gay.
All my life, I had trumpeted my heterosexuality. I had a collage of magazine cutouts on my bedroom door that heavily featured the male form (RIP Heath Ledger) and I had two high school boyfriends under my (strictly figurative) belt. I was one of those girls who moaned, “I wish I was gay. It would be so much easier.” (P.S. if you are one of those girls now, I would advise you to stop. It’s not cute.) But the truth is, I just assumed I was straight in the same way I assumed it of everyone else.
And I took it incredibly hard when I realized that assumption was wrong. It wasn’t because I feared judgement (although the first few times I told people it made my heart race and palms sweat) or because I thought my future was ruined (although I did have an image of a white picket fence—imagery I had never even known I was attached to—being blown to matchsticks); it was that I couldn’t believe I had kept a secret this big from myself.
Middle and high school had been rough on me; I’d had to be my own best friend. But I figured that crippling loneliness was a fair price to pay for the self-knowledge I earned during those years. I thought that I knew myself inside and out. So realizing that I was attracted to women didn’t just feel like a surprise, it felt like a betrayal.
Because the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this truth had always been buried just beneath the surface. I’d been obsessed (like seriously, OBSESSED) with several girl friends. And it did help to explain why I’d always been so afraid to be physically close with girls. And there was the fact that I hated dresses and had shopped in the boys’ section until my mom made me stop. The list just went on (and on and on. To this day, I still dig up new pieces of evidence and wonder how on earth I didn’t figure it out sooner).
There was so much I had to reconfigure. For one thing, 19 felt awfully late to have a revelation of this magnitude; I felt surrounded by worldly and experienced queers. So to educate myself, I scoured the internet for pirated episodes of The L Word and any films, regardless of how terrible, that featured two women kissing. (A hobby which, incidentally, I ended up making a career out of.) I had to come out to the rest of the world (though my friends were almost disappointingly unsurprised). I had to find new words for myself: I started with “bisexual,” and came around to “gay,” which is a common though by no means universal journey. But most importantly, I had to learn to trust myself again.
After a lot of anguished journaling I realized something: I’d kept that big secret from myself out of self-preservation. I grew up in a small Southern town where life could be dangerous for kids who were different. I grew up in a family drowning in secrets. But when I got to college, I found some self-confidence and some accepting friends and my subconscious decided I was ready to deal with the truth. In retrospect, I’m kind of grateful.
Coming out to myself was the hardest, biggest, scariest journey of my life so far. And no one else’s journey is exactly like mine; no one else needs to draw exactly the same conclusions. But I have come to count it as a blessing that within all our lives we may experience these grand dramas, we may surprise ourselves, we may wake up tomorrow as someone new.