Here's a story you don't hear every day: My ex-boyfriend helped me come out as a lesbian. Truly! Peter*, my ex, helped me become my most authentic self, and I’ve never experienced a love quite as transformative as ours.
By the time I came out at 26, I had been in the closet for a long time — maybe since my mom came out to me and my older sister when I was 10 years old. I actually ran into my mom's bedroom closet. I desperately wanted to peek my head out and say, “Mom, get your butt back in here. There’s room!”
Everything I was taught in our small, Pennsylvania, Christian town told me that gay people were mean, creepy pedophiles. It didn’t make any sense. My mom couldn’t be gay, I thought… She was nice!
I had a lot to learn.
Sixteen years later, I found the courage to finally come out with the supportive love of my very heterosexual ex. Peter and I first met in the fourth grade. Our nerdy brains landed us both in the same gifted class, and he soon became my first-ever boyfriend. When we broke up after a month, I gave him back the cross necklace that he had given me for Christmas, and he snapped it in half. I cried and told everyone that he was an “atheist who broke Jesus’s cross!” How naïve I was to try to use God against him when six months later, our entire local community would use God as an excuse to socially abandon my family after my mom came out. Karma is a real b*tch.
Our next attempt at a relationship lasted a lot longer. When we were 19, we dated again — this time, for six years. The first time I really felt conflicted by my sexuality was when Peter and I both came home from our respective colleges on winter break, and we dressed up for a screening of the The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He went as Dr. Frank N. Furter and wore this sultry red lipstick. I found myself so attracted to him when he looked like a woman… it freaked me out. There was no way that I could be gay! I had spent my entire childhood denying that my mom was gay for our safety, and one tube of Velvet Rush wasn’t going to change that.
I made him take it off.
Lipstick or no, every day, I’d think obsessively about whether or not I would ever date a woman. I didn't want to confront the thought; if I was into women, that meant I'd have to give up Peter. I tried to be honest with him about my feelings, but it was a fine line between keeping our relationship safe and figuring out what my desires really meant.
After we graduated college, we moved to California together. At that point, I didn’t feel at home in my body. Often during sex, I would cry after I had an orgasm. Peter and I were always gentle with each other, but I didn’t know if the crying was from sex or from sexual trauma I had experienced with a previous boyfriend. Was I gay or was I just broken downstairs? This question rang like a siren in my brain. I needed help.
I started to see a therapist, and she suggested that I work with a pelvic floor specialist to address the potential vaginismus and PTSD I was experiencing. She also suggested that Peter and I try an open relationship to give me room to figure myself out sexually. It was scary because we both grew up thinking monogamy was the only “appropriate” lifestyle. But Peter found it in his heart to let us try. He outlined a few rules:
1. You cannot fall in love.
2. Tell me when you’re going out, but I do not want to know about the experience.
3. You cannot do it in our bed.
I’d leave for a hookup, and I’d get a text from Peter that said, “Have a great time! I love you.” I felt so guilty and loved and confused. What had I done to deserve this level of kindness? I always hoped that my dates would go badly so that I could prove to myself that I was straight.
But, of course, I fell in love with a married woman. We would rent Airbnbs and pretend we lived there together, just us, even if it was only for the night. I still cried when she and I had sex, but I felt different in my body when I was around her. A small part of me was coming home. We tried to convince ourselves that the casual hookups could be enough, but every goodbye was a little harder than the last.
Peter confronted me about the relationship while we were on vacation. He had found our messages through Facebook. I was mortified. Falling in love was against the rules, and I had broken them. I was so ashamed and scared of losing him that I broke up with her immediately.
He begged me to be honest with myself. “I want you to be happy," he said. "Please live your truth.”
Peter led me to our bedroom where we held each other for the next four hours, crying. I hated myself for having these desires, but I knew he was right. Ignoring my interest in women made me want to kill myself, yet it felt like I couldn’t live without Peter. He valued my happiness, so I had to learn to value it, too.
We decided to separate romantically but still live in the same place. I moved into the second bedroom of our shared apartment, and we both began to date other people. It was weird at first, but it was also incredibly loving. We were best friends who ate meals together, texted each other funny YouTube clips of cats, and watched The Bachelor like nothing had changed. We were like a lesbian version of Will & Grace, except we had actually slept together.
About four months after our separation, he helped me throw a Rocky Horror Picture Show-themed coming-out party for my 26th birthday. We invited my new queer friends, and Peter made a beautiful four-layered rainbow cake. My closet doors had opened.
It was like I could relive my childhood experience of my mother coming out, but this time, the people that I loved didn’t abandon me. Instead, they dressed in drag and sang along to the song “Don’t Dream It, Be It.”
Finally, I was able to learn what Dr. Frank N. Furter was singing about: Real love isn’t about power and possession — it's about growth. It's about walking alongside someone else who says, "I want to love you for who you are. Please show me."
Peter dressed up as Dr. Frank N. Furter again, wearing the same sultry red lipstick that peaked my conflicting desires in college. When I saw him, I started to tear up. He pulled me aside and asked me what was wrong.
I held his hand and said, “Nothing. You look great.”
*Name has been changed.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.