The first time I came out, it wasn’t by choice. At 16 years old, I was outed as gay by my best friend in her attempt to save my soul (I grew up Mormon). It didn’t take long for the backlash and self-hate to begin. Within a month, my father confronted me. I elected to go to the Mormon equivalent of ex-gay therapy, and I was essentially on house arrest for the rest of the year.
What was a shock for my parents wasn’t a surprise to my older brother Steffen. As children, Steffen and I were pretty close. He taught me how to do math and how to play soccer, and he always stood up for me, no matter what. But the older we got, the more we grew apart. The big split came shortly after I skipped from the fourth grade into the fifth grade with him.
That transition was difficult for both of us, and we took our frustrations out on each other. By the time we got to high school, not much had changed. We were still in the same grade in a small-town school, where gossip is a staple. I’m not sure if he had heard I was gay from someone at school, or if he figured it out himself, but when I was outed at 16, Steffen already knew, and we avoided talking about it altogether. We both went to boot camp after we graduated the following summer, and by fall, everyone pretended it had never happened.
Two years later, just a few weeks after my 19th birthday, I came out a second time–this time by choice. I left the Mormon church and came out to myself and my close friends as gay. I told almost everyone in my family, and I got a mixture of responses, including being disowned by a lot of people. When I finally worked up the confidence to tell Steffen, shortly after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he surprised me. Time and distance had eased a lot of the old tensions between us, but I never expected him to tell me that he loved me and accepted me.
Maybe he didn’t, either, because the tension between us started building up again after he became a father. The idea that queer people could be parents was becoming harder for him to accept as the Mormon church started taking a more decided stance on LGBTQIA+ issues. It wasn’t long until we had another falling out. Just two years after telling me he accepted me, he told me that he believed in the Mormon church’s stance on the family, which meant he didn’t think queer people should be parents. Our relationship was broken again. We didn’t talk for several months until we saw each other at Christmas, when he apologized and told me he thought I would be a great parent. I wanted to think everything was fixed, but I had a hard time trusting that he actually accepted me for who I was.
The third time I came out was in December of 2015, when I came out publicly as genderqueer/non-binary (gender identity) and queer (sexual orientation). In the past, coming out as gay had always felt weird and awkward for me, not to mention 1000% terrifying. My family had often found it hilarious to “count the signs,” saying they should have known or that they knew from the time I was a toddler. (Why were they thinking about my sexuality when I was a toddler?!) After all, what little boy plays with barbie dolls, chooses the violin over the trumpet, would rather dance than play football, and only has girl friends that he never wants to be his girlfriends? (Disclaimer: I actually did have girlfriends growing up, but I was always more attracted to boys than girls.)
But when I came out as genderqueer/non-binary, these jokes and games stopped. This time, it was different. My family could handle a gay son, brother, grandson, cousin, nephew, and uncle. But someone who isn’t a man or a woman? Long story short, it wasn’t pleasant. I now talk to only about six people from my family out of 36 (yes, Mormons do have big families).
There was a silver lining in this story, though, when it came to my relationship with Steffen. At first, I decided that I wasn’t going to tell him. I was conflicted about my decision, but all I could think about was the pain from our last fight. I think that’s what shocked me so much when he called in January. I answered the phone expecting to talk about homework (we’re both in college, so homework talk is pretty common). Instead, I felt my anxiety spike with the first thing he said: “Hey Kai.”
I hadn’t told him I was genderqueer/non-binary, or that I was going by Kai now, so I knew right away that someone else had told him. The conversation started out awkward, but quickly turned into something I never thought would happen. First, we discussed why I chose not to tell him. After all, coming out is a difficult thing to do, especially when there is so much pain associated with it. Rather than get angry with me for not telling him, he said he wanted things to be better between us. He talked to me about the importance of family, said that he loved me no matter what, and apologized for how he acted in the past regarding my sexual orientation. Most importantly, he told me that both he and his wife wanted me in their lives and in their children’s lives, and added that being open about my gender identity and sexual orientation made me a more honest person.
Steffen showed me what so many others in my family preach, but never seem to put into practice: unconditional love. And he did it knowing that he would never understand what it was like to be transgender or queer. He did it knowing that when I’m around his children, I can’t conceal my piercings or painted nails the way I could conceal the fact that my partner is a man. He did it knowing that he would have to make a serious effort to unlearn nearly 24 years of calling me by a different name and pronouns.
Above all, he chose empathy and love over ignorance and anger, and that made a world of difference. When I came out the third time, Steffen showed me that we’re not only family by birth, but family by choice.
Kai River Blevins is a genderqueer/femme poet, community organizer, and graduate student from western New York who now lives in Salem, Oregon. When Kai isn’t doing homework or writing on their blog, Queer as Life, they love to read, color, cook delicious vegan food, and spend time with their loving partner and adorable fur-child, Sir Reginald, the Earl of Puppydom. Follow them on Twitter @queeraslife
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