Courtesy Willa Bennett

How Does It Feel To Be "Out"? Here's Why Coming Out Is More Complicated Than You Think

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In 2012, I came out for the first time in the comments section of a YouTube video. Half-asleep in bed, I analyzed coming out videos while quietly typing my own story below. With a single click, my identity had been given words — I could even see and touch them on the screen. I remember instantly wanting to take it all back, but simultaneously knowing that this was my chance to finally verbalize my truth. How does it to feel to "be out," like these strangers on the internet? This was just the beginning of many nights spent alone, reading comments and reciting the coming out speeches I had seen in videos to no one but my light pink wallpaper.

The more I rehearsed the coming out stories of others, the more painfully aware I became that I had still never verbalized my own. I had felt so brave typing the words through an online portal, but my closest friends still didn’t know they existed. My situation felt unfair — my straight friends didn’t appear to have to "come out" as heterosexual. Why did I have to speak about my sexuality out loud for it to be considered valid? At the heart of it, I was afraid. My only openly-gay peer had been kicked out their house after coming out to their parents. Subconsciously, I internalized this display of hatred. My fear of owning my identity led me to become an angry teenager — secluded and riddled with angst. I actively avoided celebrations like National Coming Out Day and the Pride Parade altogether, hesitant to confront the source of my anxiety. I didn't have the privilege of partaking in these celebrations as a community member, thus, I had no desire to attend.

As I tried to process my queer identity, it became easier to do so while keeping my confusing thoughts and feelings to myself. As a result, I amplified the white noise: I spoke up louder about Zac Efron in class, gushed about Chad Michael Murray at slumber parties, and made up boy crushes at school to stay under the radar until I felt ready to share my true self. I became a pro at living a double life. One version of me solely existed within the confines of my bedroom, finding communities of other like-minded teenagers shedding their closets on Tumblr and YouTube. The other side thrived at school, where I would strategically test out the waters by mentioning gay icons like Lady Gaga and Madonna, as a way to gauge my peers' attitudes towards queerness. I noticed that some of my friends were more naturally drawn to LGBTQIA+ musicians, like Tegan and Sara, or YouTubers like Connor Franta and Troye Sivan. I tried to envision how they might respond to me — not a star, but a closeted teenager.

I suddenly realized that for the first time in my life, I didn’t need to use anyone else’s story as a catalyst to tell my own.

It wasn’t until my freshman year in college that I finally found the courage to come out to someone for the first time, IRL. I was sitting in my dorm room, sharing a giant, salty BEC (bacon, egg, and cheese) with my best friend, laughing over her most recent campus crush. When it came time for me to reveal who I was crushing on, I admitted to having romantic feelings for a girl in our literature lecture. The words flung out of me without any inhibition, before I even had the chance to consider what I was saying or take them back. In that moment, I no longer needed the speech that I had memorized from all the YouTube videos. She stopped, looked up at me for a brief second, then smiled. She demanded that I pull up her Instagram. We spent the next 20 minutes marveling at the hazel color of her eyes.

“She's so hot!” she hollered, approvingly. I was terrified — discussing my feelings out loud was an entirely new territory for me. I suddenly realized that for the first time in my life, I didn’t need to use anyone else’s story as a catalyst to tell my own. In that broom closet-sized dorm room, over a greasy sandwich, I was finally able to candidly discuss my desire to kiss a beautiful girl with someone else. In return, my best friend listened earnestly and showed me unyielding support and unconditional love.

Her words filled me with some relief, but I still felt unsettled. On one hand, I was finally free. But on the other, I was growing painfully aware that I would have to come out over and over again. I now first-hand felt the freedom that came along with speaking my truth, but I grappled with the fact that in order to maintain this feeling, I would have to "come out" for the rest of my life.

In the months that followed, my best friend continued to make me feel both seen and heard. Not every conversation, however, always ended in such profound support. I was lucky — most of my college friends were accepting of my queer identity. But back home, my friends and family struggled to see me as anything but straight. Since I had dated a boy in high school, my community maintained a predisposed image of me that was seemingly "straight." But my heterosexual relationship was in the past, and that didn't define who I could love in the future.

I am now 24 years old, and still haven’t experienced that singular "coming out" moment that updates everyone about my sexuality. Maybe this is it. As I rewatch the YouTube videos that once meant so much to me, I finally accept that "coming out" is much more than one moment. While these videos once helped me to feel like a more valid part of LGBTQIA+ community, I have now found the same sense of belonging amongst the queer friends I have made IRL. The "coming out" process can be deeply personal to the point of feeling isolating, but because of the connections that I have made in the queer community, I know that I'm not alone.

On this National Coming Out Day, I consider myself lucky. The thought of celebrating my queerness no longer fills me with anxiety. I can openly speak about my sexuality out loud, without feeling riddled by fear. That being said, no matter how much I vocalize my queer identity, I will never forget the many years I spent alone in the closet. I can't just let go of the pain that can come with "coming out" countless times. I'm also unable to ignore the fact that many queer individuals still exists in spaces and grow up in a families that do not make these conversations safe experiences.

While I have personally felt the empowerment from standing proudly in one's truth, I also know that one does not need to “come out” for their identity to be valid. Coming out, much like learning yourself, is by no means a one-time thing — it's ever evolving.

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