Two years ago, I came out as queer, kinky, polyamorous, and transgender, all in the space of a few months. I’m not young; I’m approaching the age bracket known as “middle age.” In fact, I worried initially that my coming out explosion was some sort of midlife crisis brought on by reading too many queer comics and following too many Trans twitter accounts.
Part of me shies away from admitting all of this. I probably lose a lot of queer cred by revealing that I came out so recently. By age alone, I should be well on my way to queer elder status but, in fact, I’m just a metaphorical toddler. Admitting that I had doubts about my gender transition feels like admitting a weakness I dare not expose. It’s common, implicit dogma that all trans people were Born This Way, knew their true gender from the moment they could form the thought, and lived a secretive shadow life until they finally had the courage to step forward and live as themselves. Any less confident narrative would seem to give too much ammunition to those who seek to dehumanize us and deny us basic human rights.
But real lives and real narratives are messy, and the coming-out process is no exception. It’s vitally important that a variety of narratives be visible — and not just for the sake of “the movement” or the advancement of LGBT rights and recognition. Coming out is so often hindered by the pervasive message that if your experience doesn’t look or feel a certain way, then your identity is inauthentic or illusory. Queer and trans people’s survival literally depends on seeing people who are Like Us—knowing, in other words, that we are not alone.
I had no conscious inkling of queerness until my mid-thirties, nor of trans-ness until mere months before my public transition. I was a good little Baptist kid, eldest child of a minister, and a compliant little girl, buying into the entire doctrinal and behavioral framework of fundamentalism even as I struggled to live it and to reconcile its moral contradictions. I didn’t drink, or do drugs, or swear, or have sex as a teenager — or even as a young adult. I actually believed that Dungeons & Dragons and secular rock music were Satanic. I thought, unquestioningly, that I was a boy, and I only recognized sexual attraction to people I read as female.
I can’t say what would have been different if I’d known from an early age that there were people like me. It’s impossible to extrapolate the could-have-would-have alternate history that having access to certain thoughts would have unlocked. But I do know what life was like without access to those thoughts. My compliance was not contentment, and my ignorance was not bliss. I just…didn’t…work in relationships and gender dynamics, at least not in the roles I thought I was supposed to conform to. I struck an awkward balance of conforming to and rebelling against those expectations and, over the course of a decade and a half of adulthood, found myself in a string of painfully frustrating relationships and experienced an ever-increasing discomfort with my body and sexuality.
And so, in February of 2013, as I floundered in the throes of divorce, I started reevaluating every aspect of my life. I’d been privately questioning my sexuality for several years, and now the rest fell into place, culminating in May and June of that year with the discovery that I am a woman. It was indeed a crisis of identity, and it technically occurred at midlife, but the change has proven far more lasting than a self-indulgent whim.
For me, “coming out” didn’t mean coming clean about a secret I’d carried for decades. It looked like the dawning of a new understanding of who I was, and I shared it publicly almost immediately. I was coming out to myself as much as to anyone else. I was pushing forty and had no time to hem and haw over whether this was truly my identity. I had a life to live, and that life was literally half over. What some might spend years coming to terms with, I worked through in about half a year. I was clearly making up for lost time.
But that sudden-ness, the lack of a “closeted” self to be replaced by an “out” self, planted a seed of self-doubt, as it didn’t fit the standard coming-out narrative. I’d skipped an entire chapter of the official Queer Story. In a sense, my queer and trans identities felt unearned. I’d skipped years of potential living as my true self, yes, but I’d also skipped years of contempt and hatred and violence that surely would have come from living that truth. No one beat me up for my sexuality me or called me an it; no one freaked out in the bedroom because they were expecting different anatomy based on my gender presentation. I moved through the world as a more or less straight- and cis-passing person, drawing little negative attention via nonconformity.
I hesitated, especially, to claim identity as a woman. Could I, truly, claim to have a “woman’s experience” if I hadn’t realized that I was a woman for years and had accepted my labeling as male without question? Some women certainly object to someone like me claiming womanhood, and I hadn’t yet learned to recognize that position for the transmisogynist bigotry that it is. But I quickly realized that being a woman was the only thing that felt right, that “she” was home to me in a way that nothing had been previously. I came to terms with the fact that having been robbed of girlhood did not make me any less female, and that my experience is a woman’s experience — because I am a woman and that experience is mine.
I’ve also gradually come to recognize that many of my experiences make sense when viewed through the lens of queerdom and womanhood, even if I didn’t recognize that at the time. I’m a survivor of domestic abuse, struggled with body image issues for years, and was singled out throughout childhood and adolescence for bullying and ridicule. None of those things are outside the experience of heterosexual men, true, but it also makes perfect sense to contextualize them as expressions of cultural misogyny and queerphobia, even if no one consciously realized it at the time.
I cannot stress enough how much the lack of multiple narratives held me back. I had no real awareness that trans people even existed before I started spending a lot of time on Twitter in the mid-aughts. Similarly, my ideas of gay people were extremely limited by upbringing and media, and I had no notion of queer identity (which I define for myself as being attracted to people regardless of gender), until I discovered queer people unpacking their experiences on the Internet. Once I did grasp these identities as possibilities, I was still cautious to assume them, because I didn’t know a queer or trans narrative that fit my experience. I’m extremely thankful that I listened to my own inner knowing voice — and for my supportive friends who lent me the strength to claim who I truly am, narratives be damned.
“Coming out” looks like so many things for so many people. It can be the culmination of years of fear and denial, or it can be a sudden epiphany. Sometimes, it’s loud and public, and sometimes, it’s quiet and private. For some it’s a defiant break from a prison cell; for others, a peaceful realization. We need to make sure that all lived experiences are welcome under the Out and Proud banner. We need to acknowledge that staying closeted for peace and safety is no less valid, or else we build a new prison out of our Queer Orthodoxy, ensuring that those who dare to live a truth outside that orthodoxy will be exiled and isolated. Those who cannot see themselves in queerdom and transdom will not escape their cells for years, if at all.
[Headline image: The photograph shows two hands extended through gray prison bars with a gray chain and copper-colored lock next to them.]