From closeted to loud and all the in-betweens

These are personal stories from members of our LGBT+ Network to support Virtual Pride.

That one question … I dread on every dating app I like. What is your coming out story? Care to share your coming out story? When did you first know? When did you first start telling people? I soon understood that my fear had nothing to do with awkwardness of disclosing anything private, but everything to do with social conditioning and societal conventions — why is being “not straight” something to announce? Why are cis heterosexual folk not expected to make any announcements apart from engagements / weddings with folk identifying as the opposite sex? That has always made me angry. It still does. But also, I knew from the get-go that my story was going to be messy. That it would likely sadden a few empaths and even shock a few people from western countries who had led alternative lifestyles and been surrounded by non-conforming friends and family. I felt that it was a painful “talk” to give, and that many would not find it easy to comprehend why it was so distressing to me.

And so, I did this circumventing dance around the matter for years.

After placing all my bets on introspection, it dawned on me that I don’t have “A” coming-out story per se: it was a slow, excruciating at times, process, of knowing myself, accepting myself and presenting myself, it has so many stages I wouldn’t even know which to pick as the most relevant. Back to the self-discovery foundry, then.

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I was born and raised in Romania. My country is famous for … oh, hold on, my country is not famous at all. Except for some pockets of xenophobic and classist communities in Europe where Romania is “that place all our fruit pickers come from”, “the country where people eat children”, “definitely a Slavic nation located somewhere between Siberia and Ukraine”, “oh, that barbaric place where it is not safe to travel for a well off, educated white European”. For all the belittling comments I have had to hear, not once has anyone been forthcoming in expressing one of the really frustrating truths about my homeland: “Oh, that country where being gay is not safe”. Western Europeans have a really hard time believing me that if I had been completely out in my home country, I would have lost my job and could have exposed myself to increased risk of, not only brutal exclusion from public spaces, events, and hang outs with the “normal”, but also to coercive rape and beatings.

I was 12 years old when I first liked a girl in ways that did not quite tick, or should I be so bold as to say did not quite tickle, the friendship spectrum. I remember leaving a flower on her desk and then hearing all the disdainful comments from classmates, who were mostly laughing and acting surprised at something not even they could pinpoint — why was it laughable, why did it make them feel awkward? They stopped fairly quickly — in hindsight, I understand that this may have been a first-hand experience of “lesbian erasure”. It’s girl on girl, so it’s not real. It’s also silly, and … potentially hot. Either way, she will recover once she finds the right phallus, borne by the right male identifying person. And she is such a weirdo, who cares anyway.

I was troublesome during secondary school. I was coming from a broken family, and was already looking after my childish mother who had been damaged by trauma to such an extent that she could no longer adult properly.

I was watching a movie with my mother when I was 15, and two girls briefly kissed — it was late at night, and on a foreign channel — needless to say, seeing that on screen (albeit a very pristine kiss) was rare in the late 90-s everywhere in cinema, let alone in cinema that reached third world countries. I don’t remember thinking much of it, I watched it with the same facial expression I would watch someone pick up groceries, and did not feel anything towards it. I do realise now that consoling thoughts were starting to burrow in my head — along the lines of “it is fine to kiss whoever we want, does not have to be gendered”, all part of the wider narrative of you have nothing to fear if you like both, but don’t worry, you don’t only like girls. For, if you did, now that would surely need addressing.

My mother reacted quite abruptly to the scene, though — she quickly gave me an angry stare and commented: “I bet you like that, don’t you? I bet you are also like that? Deviant? And wrong?” To this I replied with a terrified look, and mumbled something along the lines of “No, I am not like that. But it doesn’t bother me, why should it bother me? Each to their own.” My mother did not seem convinced or impressed and retained the glare. Little did I know that words such as “abhorrent”, “deviant”, “wrong”, “twisted”, “perverted” and lots of other posh synonyms, would fly off from my mother’s brain and trample my self esteem for the next twenty years, becoming rooted in my unconscious and lighting up numerous pathways of unhealthy coping methods. How bacterial pathogens colonise their hosts and invade deeper tissues, eh?

And so, I more or less consigned my sexual preferences to an early tomb.

But sexual identities have a really annoying way of emerging at the most inconvenient of times. Fast forward to my early twenties, and uni days. My frighteningly unorthodox tastes surfaced once more, in the shape of a grey friendship with a colleague, and then meeting my first love, as they tend to call those people you become overly infatuated with at an early (or maybe not so early in my case) age, and then your brain goes into overdrive, seemingly conflicted by the emotions it produces in the first place. Science is appeasing, and I have always resorted to scientific highbrow articles to explain human failings and human greatness alike. But metaphors are also a soothing tool to untangle life with — science metaphors? Simply delicious. Love is, at best, overcoming an autoimmune disease, where the pathogen is your brain, and the target is …. uhm your brain? And, at its worst, well it’s succumbing to an autoimmune disease — your brain defeats itself.

But I have gone on such a tangent. The woman who inflamed my immune response to such an extent, and for the first time in my life, did not take it well. She was not at ease discussing such matters, acknowledging such diversity in others or herself for that matter. So, she broke my heart — or, rather, my brain went into overdrive and broke down over her. I did not own a smartphone back in those days — some people did, but not in my country, and certainly not with my budget. And so, I wrote a letter, asking that it be kept hidden from anyone else’s eyes, apart from this woman’s, of course. Because I was not entirely comfortable with my own sexuality, naturally. The letter was not kept private, and I became a bit of a freak in the local entourage. I was exceptionally distraught at this unrequited love, and my mother noticed. Our conversations around it did culminate at one point — where she was exasperatingly asking question after question, and I yielded: “Yes, I did fall in love with her! Is that a problem?”. There certainly was a problem — there were, in fact, many problems, ranging from “I was certain that you would disappoint me, that you were perverted” to “She does not deserve you! Don’t let her waste your time!”. Why, yes, those responses might seem fairly contradictory … this is because, as my favourite director / scriptwriter of all times, Xavier Dolan, put it: “She could be a good mom. She knew how. She gave me hope. That’s the worst thing you can give to a child if you’re not gonna follow through” (“Elephant Song” — 2014, damned good film, watch it! Or read the play that inspired it…). And she has yet to follow through.

I recovered, eventually. Part of the agonising healing process, I also became more at peace and at ease with my sexuality. I concluded that I most likely was “that way inclined” (a phrase a former workmate used to categorise people who just won’t embrace the normal), and that it was actually fine. Self-validation is still my most fruitful method of healing from trauma.

As years passed, I did get the fairy-tale love story everyone kept talking about — it ultimately crumbled, but it also exceeded my expectations in many ways. My partner was not at ease with her sexuality — my home town had two openly gay men — blatantly open — both ended up in the emergency room after beatings, on two occasions that I know of. My workmates would tease me about not displaying connections or attachment to a male identifying person — one of my workmates decided that my not returning his flirtatious advances was positively unacceptable and infuriating, and so pursued it past all boundaries that kept me feeling safe and dignified. I reported him to my manager at the time — the scandal was immense. He backed off, but only just barely. And would still act up whenever he saw me in the streets.

It all started making me angry. I slowly became far more open about my sexuality and vocal against homophobia on my social media and around my close friends. My friends knew me. My partner at the time did not embrace it to the same extent — let’s just say that past all the internalised homophobia which afflicts the best of people at times, there were practical reasons for this — if one is a freelancer one does not just simply bin their clients, the same reason for which I was not out in front of my workmates. Though I would suspect they gathered far more than I realised at the time.

I gave up on Romania. I gave up on my mother — for a long time — and I gave up on my workmates (and my career, which was pretty heart-breaking), I gave up on fighting for stray animals that were systemically and hideously abused on a daily basis. I emigrated to the UK, in hindsight, it was the fantasy of walking down the street holding hands with a female identifying partner that kept me going. I did not feel able, or safe, to disclose my sexuality to my first two landladies. The first one felt deeply Christian, and very much tolerant and accepting of diversity as a concept — it meant progress, and to her the Church was progressive. Once the concept materialised — in the form of a lodger (let’s just say I have always done a very bad job of hiding my gayness…) — it stopped being as clear cut or simple to her. My second landlady was lovely — and most certainly fine with the concept and the materialisation. But I still felt odd, to be open. My hopes for a swooping acceptance were further dented by my workmates, one of whom bravely (or should I say offensively) asked me if I felt like a bloke, since I liked girls. I was quite shocked at how an English born and bred 21-year-old was not able to differentiate between gender expression and sexual orientation. Room viewings did not always go well either — my ridiculously limited budget and my insomnia meant I could not share with housemates, but had to be a lodger. Most responses (I decided to tell everyone beforehand) were “oh, that’s fine love, I don’t have a problem with that.”, but some were non-verbal — a glare, I could discern fear and potentially some regret, in their glares: seemed like a nice girl, hm; oh, she’s one of the gays…. So I then got warned about how having girls around after clubbing would not be allowed, and how it was not a party house, and how no orgies would be tolerated. I had no friends at the time, I had a partner miles and miles away, from whom the distance was becoming wider and wider, and I was perpetually stressed out about money: no, orgies and clubbing were not really on my to-do list …

It took me years to become familiarised and connected to the local communities of misfits. But, as I continue on my path, it has only become clearer, and I now feel more strongly about my identity: I want to fight alongside the oppressed, the underdogs. The most valuable lesson I have learned is that being loud and open is linked to self-acceptance far more than I would have thought. I have also learned that children are still raised in a gender conforming and heteronormative setup, and that irrespective of how good legislation is in a given country — it’s in the small things, in the daily, informal culture, in our daily interactions with strangers that we uncover, or become starved for, the fuel to self-acceptance.

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