Twenty years ago on National Coming Out Day, I came out to my students for the first time. It wasn’t exactly intentional, but in the moment I knew it was the right thing to do.
2000 was my first year teaching at Gateway, after spending the previous five years at Homestead High School in Cupertino. The humanities teachers all agreed to talk about National Coming Out Day to reinforce our commitment to making Gateway a safe place for everyone to be fully themselves. I loved this idea. I had been surprised that, even in San Francisco, “that’s so gay” and other similar comments got thrown around frequently in the hallways.
Early in the conversation, one of my students said, “I don’t even understand why we need a National Coming Out Day anymore. People should just feel free to be who they are.”
I was almost entirely in the closet at that time. So, this comment hit close to home. It felt like a direct challenge. How could I tell my students it was safe for them to come out if I continued to remain closeted myself? At the same time, it also reminded me that many well-meaning people don’t realize the fear, discomfort, or sting of judgement that queer people contend with regularly, whether they are out or not.
I took a deep breath, put down my stack of handouts, and said, “I hadn’t planned to tell you this today, but I think it’s important to share. Honestly, I am a little nervous. I am gay.” I told them that one of the reasons I had moved to San Francisco and chosen to teach at Gateway was to join a community where I felt safe to be myself.
My classroom got really quiet. Then, my students started asking me questions. How did I know I was gay? What was it like to come out? Did I feel discriminated against? Had my family accepted me? Did I want kids? Was I currently in a relationship? Had I dated men in the past? I did my best to answer each question truthfully, without over-disclosing but also without holding back the heartache or complicated questions that remained for me.
That day was a turning point in my relationship with my students. As a result of being vulnerable and open, they saw me as a whole person. They learned that my path had not always been easy and that I understood the pressure to fit in. It’s possible there were a few students who did not approve, but by taking the risk to be honest, I made my classroom safer for many other students, especially those who were most in need of a sense of belonging and security.
That wasn’t the first time I came out. That’s the thing about coming out, you keep doing it again and again. Each time, you ask yourself, “In this moment, is the power of honesty greater than the risk of coming out?”
For me, the hardest was coming out to myself. I was 28.
I remember having a conversation with my dad when I was in high school about my soccer team. I played competitive soccer growing up, and many of my closest friends were my teammates. My dad pointed out that, statistically, it was likely that at least one of my soccer teammates was gay. Together, we wondered who it might be. In our minds, there was no judgement attached, but it was hard for us to imagine who could possibly be the “one.” Ironically, well more than 10% of my teammates came out as queer, and neither my dad nor I even considered at the time that I might be one of them.
Why was it so hard for me to recognize this important aspect of who I am?
No matter how open minded or self reflective I was, I was also committed to achieving success according to societal standards that I had internalized. I worked hard in school, strived to make an impact professionally, prioritized being a good friend and daughter. Finding success in the heterosexual world of dating and relationships was part of the picture. I would make people proud of me.
I had no alternative vision that I could place myself into and see a future that felt right to me. No role models who were gay and happy and sucessful in their own right. So, instead of paying attention to clear signals that I was barking up the wrong tree, I redoubled my efforts.
After 28 years of being stubbornly straight and trying hard to make romantic relationships work with men, realizing I was gay was a huge relief. Over the years, I had dated men who I loved dearly: extraordinary educators, future doctors, writers and artists. I was convinced that these relationships did not work out because there was something wrong with me. It was demoralizing, and I carried a sense of shame. When I finally understood that I was gay and came out to myself, I was filled with joy and lightness. Things made sense. I made sense. I was gay.
Today, I am inspired and blown away by Gateway students and teachers alike who live their truths with a level of honesty, self knowledge, and bravery that I certainly did not possess at their age. We have come so far. And, yet, coming out continues to be charged and risky for so many members of the LGTBQ+ community. Many of us still hold secrets about who we are, who we are attracted to, and who we love. Many are still seeking models of whom we can become. More than once I have had colleagues or students thank me for being a visible example of a lesbian in a leadership role – out, proud and whole.
So, hurray for another National Coming Out Day! To the many different ways we come out. To the many times we come out. To stories of pain and growth and joy and discovery and freedom. To love.