I see coming out as a continual process. My process started in middle school, but has unfolded every day for the last 16 years, with each new environment presenting an opportunity to come out to a new group of people, allowing me to navigate my understanding of my identity in a new way. While I expected the worst, I’ve experienced everything from neutral to celebratory responses. I’ve been lucky. However, even with being lucky and surrounded by a generally supportive community, coming out for me has been a long, challenging, uplifting, soul-changing process. I don’t regret any of it. Each coming out experience has allowed me to live an increasingly authentic life.
I should note that there are multiple people who have contributed greatly to my coming out process, and I am grateful for all of them and the support and love they shared throughout the many pieces of this journey. However, for the sake of this space, I’m going to focus particularly on the ways that my parents and I navigated this together.
Ironically enough, my story began when I moved to San Francisco in seventh grade and started at an all-girls school. I had made a rainbow bracelet in jewelry-making class. Another girl in the class—a girl I admired a lot, and who I would later realize I had a crush on, made fun of the bracelet. “Why’d you make a rainbow bracelet? What are you? A lesbian?” My cheeks turned red. How could I not have realized that the rainbow was the signature symbol of all things gay?
Over the following months, I began to question my identity. I wavered between gentle curiosity (“I wonder what it would be like to kiss this girl”) and pure terror (“ I could never kiss her! I don’t really like her like that. Never mind!”) My subconscious was in a fight.
Finally, in ninth grade, I could admit to myself that I did indeed like this girl—that I had an actual crush on her. I sat in the car with my mom one day after school. I turned to her and cautiously admitted what had been going through my head for the last several months. “Mom, I think I like this girl.” She listened openly and asked sincere questions. I remember feeling safe. I told her not to tell anyone. She was the first person I came out to.
I thought at first that I just liked this girl—that maybe I was really straight, but just happened to like one girl. But then I went to performing arts camp. Once I developed feelings for a girl there, I knew that this wasn’t just a phase, and that something significant was going on for me.
My subconscious battled between my authentic self and the self I felt I needed to show the world. In my closely-knit all-girls high school, I thought my friends would be disgusted if they found out. I was sure they would bar me from a social life and I would become the outcast of my class. I also began to wonder, in a deep, tiny part of my brain, if ending up with a woman could be a reality for my future. However, I couldn’t begin to imagine a life where I was with a woman and completely out about it and accepted by everyone. Sometimes, when I was driving, I would begin to have flashes of this future, and get freaked out. I imagined jumping out of the car and into the road—that maybe I could just escape from it all and not have to deal with the agony of this dark secret anymore.
Fortunately, I decided to tell my friends, and they were warm, supportive, loving, and nonjudgmental. And as I came out to more people, I felt increasingly comfortable. I began to think that maybe this was actually okay—that maybe I could live an out life, and maybe one day I could be with a woman and that would be okay.
My dad, however, was the wild card. A traditional, successful, Jewish father who wore polo shirts, played golf, and smoked cigars, I assumed that he always envisioned me married to a nice Jewish man. At age 16, I gently broached the topic of my sexuality. “Dad, what do you think about gay people?” He responded, “Gay people are fine, as long as they’re not in my family.” “But what if my brother or I were gay?” “Well, you’re not. So that won’t be an issue.” My heart sunk as I let this news sink in. I guess I won’t be coming out to him anytime soon, I thought.
I continued to come out to other people. Even as I questioned my identity, I owned a piece of it now. I could be open about being interested in women and understood that I was okay. In a champagne-induced stupor on New Year’s Eve of my senior year of high school, I finally mustered up the courage to tell my dad. The next day, I confirmed it was true. We didn’t talk about it much after that, until after my first year of college.
I started freshman year at a small liberal arts school, where I immediately expanded on the work I had done throughout high school. I met fellow LGBTQ folks, attended meetings about sexuality and gender, and came out all over campus. Before college, I had come out apologetically. “By the way, I like girls, but don’t worry, I don’t like you like that,” I would say to my female friends. Until one day, I came out to my friend like this and she jokingly responded, “Are you saying you’re not attracted to me?! I’m so offended.” She made me realize that people would be lucky to be liked by me. I started coming out differently: “Oh and by the way, I date people regardless of gender. They just happen to be mostly women. Oh and what band do you like?”
As my sexuality became a steady part of my life, I was ready to address the topic with my dad again. I sat on the patio of our house in New Jersey the summer after freshman year. “So, Dad, what do you think of gay marriage?” I asked. He responded, “I think it’s fine. If you’re bringing this up because you think you’re gay, I don’t think you’re gay.” “Well, Dad,” I said, “it’s funny that you think you know my sexuality better than I do.” I challenged him, and we continued talking openly.
In the coming months, I went through several stages of preferred identity terms, starting with “bi” and ending with “queer,” but taking on everything from “omnisexual” (a term I created to signify my love for people, regardless of gender) to “questioning.” I thought deeply about stereotypes, as a previously feminine-presenting person, by wearing men’s clothing my sophomore year, considering shaving my head, and inserting my identity into unrelated conversation (“Oh, you like birds? Well, I’m gay, by the way”). I eventually came to realize that I could wear my hair however I wanted, and I could dress in flow-y skirts, blazers, or cardigans, depending on what I was in the mood for that day. I assisted friends with discovering their sexual identities by sharing my story and listening to theirs. And then people I didn’t know began to reach out to me to see if I could help them come out. I began to run the support groups I had once attended in secret. I began to date openly. A girl kissed me in public, right by the bus stop, and I was nervous inside, but I felt alive and exhilarated. This identity was a piece of my life, and I couldn’t hide it even if I wanted to.
As I grew more confident in my sexual identity, my conversations with my dad moved to a new place. “Well, I date girls and I’m still open to guys,” I explained. “So you’re bi?” he would ask. “Well, technically yes, but I identify as queer,” I would say. And we’d move on to something else.
My mom and I had remained close over the years, and talked regularly. She had been consistently supportive, willing to listen to my tales of woe about classes, friends, and dating. When I did end up dating a guy for a few weeks, however, she got excited, and proceeded to ask me about him for months afterward. I finally asked her, “Mom, why do you keep asking about that guy? He and I aren’t together, and I’m mainly interested in these other girls.” My mom acknowledged this. “Huh, I guess I have been doing that,” she said. “I just care about you and want you to be happy, and I get worried about your safety sometimes.” I assured her that living my life openly and dating who I wanted would give me strength and help me live a happy life. She stopped asking about the guy so much after that, and we continued to talk about the array of topics we’d always enjoyed discussing.
By senior year of college, when I would call and talk to my dad, he would ask things like, “So, what happened to that girl you were dating?” And I would smile to myself. Several years later, I started dating someone seriously. I said to my dad, “So, what do you think about the fact that I’m not only dating a woman, but she’s also black and Catholic?” His response: “I have no problem with that at all. Your mom and I just want you to be happy. She’s welcome here any time.”
In the months following, my parents stuck to their word. And while every moment wasn’t perfect, my parents worked hard to understand and be accepting. My mom brought my girlfriend up when she went to a wedding, explaining to our family friends that “People date people regardless of gender these days.” And my dad would talk with her about sports and grilling, bonding with her over some of his favorite rituals.
Though I’ve since moved on from that relationship, my parents can see that my sexuality is really a part of who I am. And more than this, it is now something that they stand up for within their own lives, as well. When I think back over the last 16 years, I am proud and grateful of the journey my parents and I have taken. My parents’ love and support never wavered, even as they yearned to understand. This goes to show that even accepting parents may need to work through their own process to get to a point where they can be fully accepting. Now, the dark secret that sat deep within is no longer dark or secret. And the future that I once ran away from—the future of me living an out life surrounded by loving family and friends, where I might end up with a woman on my wedding day—becomes more of a reality by the day.
A few weeks ago, my dad and I discussed stereotypes and the ways in which we’ve explored them in our lives as we kicked up the dust on a gravely road in Nantucket. The cool September air was brisk as we walked to the lighthouse. As we dug into our Jewish roots, he said that battling stereotypes is important to him. We talked openly for the next hour or so. I realized profoundly how much his desire to battle Jewish stereotypes spoke to me and my experience with my sexuality. “Dad,” I said, “when you talk about breaking down stereotypes, it makes me feel like you really get what I go through when people make assumptions about me and my sexuality. That’s really cool.” He nodded and smiled at me, and then shared the ways in which he has been supporting the growing gay community at his golf club. And we kept walking. And I realized then how truly far we had come.
Anna Krieger, MSW has been committed to social issues since her time as a student at Haverford College, where, as an out student, she led several student groups focused around providing support for the LGBTQ community. Post-graduation, Anna worked in several low-performing middle and high schools in Philadelphia as an Americorps member, and later as a social worker, after graduating from University of Pennsylvania with her MSW. Anna moved to New York last year, where she has focused her career on recruitment, most recently for a non-profit that provides programming for high-need middle schools around the country. In her spare time, Anna likes to sit in the park, eat soft serve ice cream with sprinkles, and attempts to remember to update her blog: www.nougatsofinspiration.blogspot.com.
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