An Essay by Kayla Bell
During my sophomore year of high school, my mom discovered a Valentine’s Day card that the girl I was seeing at the time, Violet, wrote for me. It wasn’t anything juicy, just a card from the UPS store near our school with a picture of two dogs on it, in which she wrote about how she was glad to have me in her life. I don’t think my mom would’ve thought twice about it, if she hadn’t signed it “love, your wife.” Obviously, this was not serious. We were fifteen. Gay marriage wasn’t even legal yet. Calling each other “wife” was an inside joke we’d made during one of our hours-long Skype calls where we planned what kind of house we’d live in when we were old and had adopted a bunch of kids. I honestly can’t even recall a lot of this fantasy plan other than how I wanted to move to California and she wanted to name one of the kids Lennon.
To my mother, this was nothing to take lightly. After finding the card peeking out of my coat pocket and reading it, she burst into my room, brandishing it like she’d discovered a smoking gun. She was so angry she was practically in tears.
“What the hell is this? How could you accept this?”
I was taken completely by surprise. To be honest, I had thought nothing of the card. When Violet had given it to me, handing it out before homeroom with the other ones she’d made for the people in our friend group, I’d given her a hug, shoved it in my pocket, and forgot about it for the rest of the day. As my mother stared at me, eyes dark with rage, I found myself at a loss for words. I tried to stutter out a response, an excuse, but nothing came.
Impatient, she continued. Now, she was analyzing every line, stopping at “your wife,” repeating those two words over and over. From there, she jumped into a diatribe about how this was destroying my reputation, how I should never see Violet again. As she blazed on, I tried to interrupt her by saying it was nothing more than a joke, but she wouldn’t have it. By this point in my life, I was more than aware of her opinions on queer people. When I was growing up, “lesbian” was a curse word on the same tier as “fuck” and she almost called yell at my third-grade teacher when I came home asking what it meant. Before she would drop me off to go meet my best friend Mateo, who was the only openly gay student at our school, she would turn to me, as though she was telling me a secret, and urge me not to let him turn me gay. Still, I didn’t expect her to get so upset about something as miniscule as this card.
“Lesbians are the scum of the earth. I mean, can you imagine? Wanting to have sex with other women? Disgusting. If I ever catch you embarrassing yourself and me like this ever again, I swear to god I will make your life a living hell.” With that, she threw the card in the garbage, turned on her heel, and slammed my bedroom door behind her.
That was the day I learned that my parents’ love for me was not always going to be stronger than their ignorance.
Shell shocked, the first thing I thought to do was lock the door. Tears started coming almost automatically, but all I could feel was detachment and fear. Slowly, I pulled the card out of the garbage can and pushed it into the back of a drawer in my desk where I didn’t think she’d look. Immediately, the adrenaline kicked in.
With every rapid beat of my heart my brain screamed for me to get the hell out. Fighting through chills, I opened my laptop and searched for plane tickets to San Francisco. Like many naïve, queer teenagers growing up far away from California, I saw San Francisco as a utopia where I could be myself and fully leave behind the stress and loathing I waded through each day. According to Expedia, a trip there would cost me 150 dollars. I reached on my tip toes and took the box holding all the babysitting money I’d saved up over the years from its place on top of a high bookshelf. I grabbed some clothes from my drawer and shoved them and the money into an old backpack. That backpack went to its spot in the back of my closet, where it still lives to this day in my parents’ house.
What I would do if I ever got there, I had no idea. But the simple thought of getting on a plane and getting away from my life stopped my panic attack in its tracks. I had a go bag. I had an out if shit hit the fan. I had a last resort. I think this is a pretty universal experience for those of us growing up with these identities: the constant awareness, somewhere between your brainstem and your heart, that someday you might have to run.
My first resort was to deny everything. I cleared the tears from my eyes and washed my face in cold water, then went downstairs to apologize to my mother and promise her I’d never talk to any girls like that again. For the rest of high school, my bisexuality existed only as silent thoughts in my head and overenthusiastic defenses of gay rights. Every day, I choked down the shame of pretending to be something I wasn’t and did what I needed to do to persist. I stopped spending time with Violet and Mateo. I went to senior prom with a guy I didn’t even like because me going with my female friend would have sent out the message that I wasn’t straight. I turned down every single person that asked me out because the thought of sitting across from someone in a restaurant and letting them see through my carefully crafted persona made my skin break out in hives. At my lowest point, I even convinced myself that I was straight, that the clear realization I’d had in middle school was just a phase. Eventually, though, the undeniable attraction and desire for relationships with other women would hit me again and I’d be back to the silence, to telling myself that every day was another day closer to leaving and becoming someone other than this version of me.
The problem was that every day in the closet, every day living the lie by omission, I lost myself more and more. Freshman year of college, away from my parents and perfectly capable of being free and open, I shrank into myself. Those years in the closet protected me, but they also convinced me that I deserved to be alone. So, I beelined away from the LGBT groups at the activities fair. I nodded when my roommate said she would never live with a lesbian. I kept pretending, even though it suffocated me. Pride felt a million miles away.
Second semester, I absolutely could not handle it anymore. The first time I said the words was in therapy the first week I got back from winter break. I was seeing a new therapist, an overly polite white lady who worked nights as an energy healer. I knew from the start that I wasn’t going to be coming back, so I figured that this would be as good a place as any to practice coming out. When I said it, the therapist nodded and kept writing on my health insurance forms. No reaction at all. As I sat on the bus ride back to campus, however, I felt simultaneously like I’d just ran a marathon and that I was lighter than air.
The second time I came out was the biggest time, at a meeting of the community service club I was in. This was where I had made pretty much all of my friends. We were doing an activity where the group leaders would put a stock photo on the board and list various identity markers for a fake community partner that we were hypothetically working with. On the walls of the lecture hall were Post-Its with the identity markers on them: gender identity, religion, class background, et cetera. Our job was to group together in front of the identities we had in common with the person for the first round, then in front of what we didn’t share in the second. The first few were pretty simple, focused on class, race, and religion. The third one, though, featured a bisexual, Asian, middle-class man.
I stared at that word for a while, knowing that I could choose to out myself here. Suddenly, the group leaders announced that it was time for us to move to the things we had in common. As the rest of the club floated to the various Post-It notes, I considered whether this is what I actually wanted to do. This was something I couldn’t take back.
I knew a lot of my friends in this group were also queer. Nevertheless, the fear that had settled into the deepest part of myself made my heart pound and my hands shake as I stepped in front of the sign for sexuality. The people already there smiled and high-fived me. Some of my other friends gave me thumbs-ups from across the room. A few minutes later, after we’d discussed our commonalities, we moved on. Later that night, back in my room, I cried tears of joy. Life seemed possible for me now. The high lasted throughout the rest of the week.
I came out a lot after this: at work, in class, at a party during a drunk game of Hot Seat. I made accounts on dating apps, put my sexuality right in my bio, and started going on dates with all kinds of people. None of them were good, obviously (online dating is a nightmare), but I was just so happy to be there. Inch by inch, I started to forgive my parents for behaving the way they were taught to behave their entire lives. I realized my own strength. I created a life that I didn’t have to run away from.
Towards the end of that semester, I visited an art museum. At the end of my visit I decided to stop by the gift shop. Because it was only six or so weeks away from June and the museum was showcasing an exhibit about gender nonconformity, they had a whole quarter of the shop devoted to gear for pride. I strolled through the rest of the shop, looking at the scarves and books and postcards. Soon, I found myself in the pride section, drawn to a table in the center of the room carrying socks patterned with the colors of different pride flags.
I looked at the Bi Pride socks for a while, thumbed them between my fingertips, and debated whether or not to buy them. I reveled in the fact that this was normal, that none of the other patrons were looking at me, that it was no big deal. What must have been five minutes later, I bit the bullet, grabbing the socks, rushing over to the cashier, and slamming them down before I had a chance to talk myself out of it. Twelve dollars later, I was a proud bisexual.
Logically, I was sure that I would never be able to wear these around my parents in their house, where I would be during pride month of that year. But that didn’t change anything for me. As I finished the semester, I often found myself reaching into the drawer and pulling the socks out, just holding them in my hands and admiring the pink, blue, and purple. Even if I never put them on, they’re a reminder that, little by little, I’m chipping away at the shame.
To me, pride means survival. It’s enduring the closet. It’s getting through every day in spite of the people who wish that you didn’t exist, regardless of whether or not you’ve said the words labelling your identity to them yet. It’s small victories. It’s becoming stronger than your regrets. It’s being kind to yourself even if you don’t quite love yourself yet.
Those socks are still in my drawer. This year, I think I might actually wear them.