I've been out of the closet for the better part of a decade and lead a very "out and proud" lifestyle. I incessantly write about my sexuality on the cruelest forum on Earth: the Internet.
I have posted so many pictures on Instagram of myself kissing my ex-girlfriends; I'm surprised the anti-gay contingency hasn't swooped in and tried to shut down my account.
I'm officially out to my entire family (even my very extended, far removed family). I'm out at work. In fact, I'm pretty sure I outed myself in my first interview.
I'm out to the freaking doorman of my building!
I have a monthly dating advice column called, "Lez Get You Laid," so it's very safe to say the cat's out of the bag, babe. I'm a big, giant, mega lesbian. A flaming queer girl creature who refuses to snuff out her homosexual FIRE.
And you know what? I'm PROUD to be a lesbian. I have zero shame attached to my sexuality. I adore women and feel in the deepest part of my heart that the authentic love and magnetic attraction I have experienced with my own gender is so f*cking beautiful. It might be the purest part of who I am.
So I live my life in New York and endlessly gab to all my straight friends about my super gay dating life without censoring myself in the slightest. I troll the gay bars. I bum around the West Village like a good little Manhattan lez. I attend "out professionals" networking events. I council a slew of younger, troubled, baby gays who are struggling with their sexual identity.
I'm all about that queer life.
But while I appear to be all badass homo and fearlessly OUT, you might be surprised to find that I've been riddled with this underlying anxiety that has tugged at my soul since I was a teenager. It's like that toxic ex who won't let you move on -- always there lingering in the background, keeping you stuck in the pain of the past.
There has been a tightness in my gut, and a tension in my shoulders, and a suffocating feeling in my throat that makes it hurt to breathe. And trust me, I've sought "medical help."
"You have an anxiety disorder," Dr. Feelgood will say, yet again, dutifully writing out another Xanax prescription.
Thanks for all your help, Dr. Feelgood. It's been real.
And while Xanax does provide some temporary relief, I've worked too hard to become a pill-head. So recently, I started questioning: Where does this anxiety come from?
It's a question I've been at war with since I was in my adolescence, first discovering my attraction to women. And it's not something that can be simply medicated away. It cuts too deep. I knew it came from somewhere. And the broken pieces are starting to come together and create a solid image of where this anxiety is rooted.
Several weeks ago, I was getting a blowout at a low-key salon on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I love gossiping with hair and makeup people. They're MY kind of people. My first jobs were in beauty, and because of this, I feel a fierce loyalty to anyone in the beauty biz. My girl was from Jersey, and as she blew me dry, I coached her on how to breakup with her f*ckboy boyfriend.
"So, Zara do you have a boyfriend? YOU MUST HAVE A BOYFRIEND," she cooed, gently back-combing the top of my head.
"No," I answered, quickly changing the subject, circling the focus back to her. "Tell me more about the f*ckboy."
Did I want to keep talking to her about the f*ckboy? No, not really. We had been talking about him for 45 minutes. It was my turn to share.
I wanted to have a sisterly gossip session with her so badly. I wanted nothing more than to gush to her about MY girl crush like she had gushed to me about her f*ckboy. I wanted to tell her all about my last relationship, and how we broke up days after Christmas, and how we were fiery and passionate but totally doomed. Hell, I wanted her advice on what I should wear on my next date. You know, that sacred girl-to-girl hairdresser talk.
But I didn't say any of these things because I didn't want the good vibe to melt away. I didn't want the happy, positive energy to shift into an uncomfortable, foreign territory.
In simple terms: I didn't want to be the lesbian freak. I wanted to be a regular girl getting a blowout on a lonely Tuesday evening. But I will never be that girl. Because I will always be different. I will always be weird. I will always be "the queer."
Do you know how many times I've innocently spoken up about a girlfriend, and suddenly sh*t got weird? Just the mention of a little date I had with a woman and everyone in the salon starts exchanging glances. Their narrowed eyes will say it all: "I thought she was one of us."
In an instant, I'm kicked out of the girl's club. And all I've ever wanted was to be part of the girl's club. I'm a girly-girl, and I want to be accepted by the other girly-girls.
I don't want to be the person who sucks the air out of the room. So I stay quiet. Maybe not on social media, maybe not on the Internet, but in a more powerful place: real life.
And all this hiding has done something to me.
See, hiding things, even seemingly small things, chips away at your well-being in a very profound way. Secrets have a way of fostering anxiety.
I believe our sexuality lies at the very essence of who we are. And when we're hiding our sexuality, we're shutting down the most raw, real, stripped-down parts of ourselves. We're hiding our core.
Secrets are like heavy weights. And baby, I've been carrying heavy weights.
I will never forget the pivotal moment when I first was made to feel outcast in the workplace for my sexuality. I was 23 and freshly out of the closet, newly employed and feeling fantastic about life. My first week on the job I was sitting in the boardroom chatting with my colleagues before a very formal business meeting, when a co-worker asked the room "Where should my husband and I have dinner on Valentine's Day?"
Being the new kid at the job, I was hungry to connect with my new co-workers, so I enthusiastically chirped, "I don't know where to go with my girlfriend for Valentine's Day, either!"
I silenced the room. The word "girlfriend" hung heavy in the air.
An hour later, my boss called me into her office.
"We don't really talk about our personal life here, Zara," she gently told me.
But wait, didn't my colleague JUST ask about Valentine's Day? How had I "overshared"? What did I do wrong? I hadn't gabbed to the team about my sex life; I had just casually mentioned Valentine's Day -- what was so deeply personal about that? I pride myself on being a well-mannered, professional person, and I was flummoxed at what boundary I had crossed?
I'm a smart girl, and I got the memo pretty quickly. Somehow, me referring to my girlfriend was salacious and shocking. It had disturbed the heteronormative energy in the room. I heard the message loud and clear: The game is the same, but the rules are different for queer people.
I was so young and so excited to have a job that I simply nodded my head and shut up about my girlfriend for the next several years. The amount of times I just wanted to chime in, "Oh, my girlfriend and I saw that movie, too!" or "Yeah, my girlfriend geeks out to 'Star Wars' as well!" was endless.
But I learned to stifle my love life and keep my sexual orientation hidden because somehow being a lesbian is unprofessional.
And that's just one tiny example of all the times I've had to shift, compromise or hide my sexuality because of discrimination.
Yes, I live in a liberal city. And I'm so sensitive to the pressing pain of so many of my queer brothers and sisters who can't walk outside of their homes without the threat of physical violence or "heckling hell" every single day of their lives. But there is a specific kind of hell that exists in this repressed, underlying discrimination that I've encountered in my "progressive" life. It's subtle and quiet but speaks volumes. It's not a sock in the eye; it's a pin-prick to the skin. And after a while, it hurts.
I've held hands with my girlfriend at the movies only to have mothers hide their children from our view. Their disapproving gaze is palpable and penetrates into my spirit. It's a steel stare that says, "You're disgusting. This is a family movie." All while she is seemingly unaffected by the straight couple sucking face to her left.
I've had taxi drivers try to convert me to heterosexuality when I accidentally slipped up and told them I was on my way to my girlfriend's apartment. I've had friend's parents worry about their darling kids hanging out with me too much and having my gay rub off on them. I've made straight girls nervous and uncomfortable just by my presence because they've been afraid I was going to hit on them. I've had creepy old men chase me down in the street and sexually harass me just for linking arms in the street with a girl. ("Hey, baby. Hey baby, can I join?")
There have been so many times that my sexuality has made other people uncomfortable, rendered me objectified and harassed or just made me the token freak. F*ck, I've been an actress and a TV host for 10 years, and I can't tell you how many jobs I've lost because of my sexuality. The feedback is always the same: We wanted someone more "mainstream." Right, because I looked SO edgy in my girly dresses and hair extensions like all the other girls cast.
All of this made me feel like being gay is perceived as this weird, underground thing. Like we are not part of the culture; we are part of the subculture. And I just wanted to be mainstream and popular like everyone else.
My sexuality always made me the underdog. The weirdo kid at school who wears capes and sits in the back of the cafeteria.
It's like my whole life I've been faced with this choice: Do I own who I am or do I just sweetly smile and change the subject? Do I correct the masses when they ask me if I have a boyfriend? Is the risk worth the reward?
In the past, I've done the latter. I didn't correct anyone who asked me about my boyfriend. But I've quit playing that game. And my life, and anxiety, and, most of all, my writing has drastically improved. I no longer hide my sexual orientation in my articles. And yeah, sometimes the pageviews suffer because of it, and that's a shame.
But you know what's a bigger shame? Perpetuating discrimination by hiding behind one's own sexuality. Yeah, that's a hell of a lot worse in my book.
I mean, how will we ever get past this discrimination without fools like me pouring their pathetic hearts out on the Internet? Pouring your pathetic heart out on the Internet isn't just a game for straight people. And if I get harassed and hate-commented, so be it. I'm happy to take one for the team. Because I love my team. And I don't want any kids to feel the way I felt for way too long. Visibility is everything.
Hollywood can make us feel like we're not worthy of mainstream media. Bosses might instruct us to "keep our personal lives to ourselves." But I say screw it. Screw all of it.
If someone is uncomfortable about us tamely discussing our love lives, that's really not our problem at all, is it now, my precious queer kittens?
If people can't get past the fact that love is love and can't focus on reading a same-sex article or watching a same-sex love story, that's their loss. If people don't want to hire you because they can't look beyond your "lifestyle," well, to be honest, I'm really sad for them. I feel bad for anyone who has such a narrow view of what love looks like. If anyone is that easily disturbed and afraid of the unfamiliar, he or she must not be a very happy person. He or she must be a very sad, fragile person who is dealing with a lot of personal demons. And I will pray for that person. Because there is a beautiful movement of tolerance happening in the world, and what a shame it is that someone would stew in the misery of hate instead of basking in the power of love.
I'm no longer angry about all the discrimination I've experienced. Because now I understand that beneath the discrimination is a heavy sadness, and often, a person's own secret battle with his or her sexuality. It has nothing to do with me.
I'm not being pervy or wild by loving women. I'm just being me.
And most importantly, I've learned I can't control people's feelings, and it's not my job to make them feel comfortable (and the discomfort usually lies within themselves, anyway). But I can control the way I behave. So I've stopped catering to the discrimination of others.
Because, like I said earlier, I'm not ashamed of my sexuality. And even though I'm super "out," I realize that all those little moments of listening to the fear and swallowing my sexuality was cultivating the anxiety that has damaged most of my 20s.
I don't give a damn if I'm forever deemed the "lesbian freak" anymore. I would rather be the lesbian freak than pretend to be straight when I'm not. I would rather be the queer little underdog who has less of a following but has a real connection with her readers. (You guys are everything to me.) You can't have real connections with anyone -- your friends, your readers, your family -- if you're not being real with yourself.
And most of all, I choose to be free rather than tethered to lies.
And kids, we are getting there. Slowly but surely. Mainstream media can ignore us all they want. We are creating own content.
Some people out of the loop might still deem us underground wackos who only exist in edgy cities. But I have good news: Those people are becoming outnumbered at a rapid-fire pace. And I believe, in the deepest part of my heart, that love, authenticity and the beautiful realness of all of us who live our fabulously queer lives OPENLY are at the core of this great change.
When I'm thinking of hiding my sexuality, I just think about this: Maybe that little mention of my girlfriend in the taxi might make the taxi driver feel OK about his secret boyfriend. Sometimes it's the littlest, casual mention that can have a life-changing impact on another human being.
And that's a reward that's always worth the risk.