The first couple of years after I graduated high school, I had an interesting reputation: that of a Satan-worshiping lesbian. I played it up, of course, kissing other girls in front of all the right people to keep the rumor going, and wearing really interesting clothes, dying my hair black, listening to disturbing music, you name it. I told a few people I was gay. I can’t remember if, at the time, I actually thought that I was gay, or was just doing it to cause a reaction. Living in a small town was starting to take its toll on me. I remember that girls who were trying to piss off their boyfriends would kiss me in front of them, to see what they would do. That kind of thing. Not as sexy as it might sound.
All through my twenties I had various hookups with women, mostly threesomes with other men. I didn’t mind the sex with women, though. I just didn’t really identify as queer, even though I spent most my time in gay bars and had mostly gay friends, and always kind of leaned towards the queer side of life. Still, I didn’t identify as queer. I didn’t identify as anything. I didn’t really think about it. I had only ever been in relationships with men – indeed, most of the lesbian sex I had was on the side while I was in a hetero relationship – and most of the sex I had with women was so that those women could get something from a man (usually drugs). So it never really occurred to me to question my orientation. I guess at that time I was ‘fluid’.
After I sobered up, I started realizing pretty quickly that I was at least as attracted to women as I was to men. Not that I didn’t already know that, but now I knew it in a way that I could feel. It wasn’t about having loaded sex with anyone I could get my hands on anymore. It was about feeling things in my mind and body and relating to them. For me, it was watching The L Word and during a hot sex scene I realized that I wanted to be one of the women, and I realized that I was queer. Actually queer, not just ‘watch me sleep with this girl for such-and-such’, or ‘look at me look at me, I’m kissing your girlfriend’.
Now, I am not one of those people who has a strict religious family, parents with hangups about what their children should be when they grow up or any of that stuff. My parents didn’t care what I did with my life, as long as I paid my own rent. And they always made it pretty clear that they had no position on who we were with romantically. So it’s not like I had this huge blowup waiting for me, at least not that I suspected. But it’s so much different when it’s down to the crunch and coming out becomes a reality. And it was important to me to come out, because right around that time there had been some horrific hate crimes on LGBTQ community members and, more than anything else, I wanted to make a political statement. I wanted to stand up for the queer community and make it clear who I was and that it wasn’t up for debate, debacle, or criticism. Now I just had to actually, y’know, tell people and stuff.
I started with my friends. They all took it well, but I felt weird. A significant part of my life was being altered. I didn’t really realize at the time what an impact it would have on me. Then I began telling family members. I think I told my mom first. Her response: ‘I think after everything else my kids have done, I can handle this’. (The lady ain’t wrong, we’ve pulled a lot of shit collectively.) My youngest sister and my brother were the second and third people I told. Sis’s response: ‘Yeah I knew that’. Bro’s response: ‘So you like the fish taco?’ I was more worried about telling my other sister. She has two little girls, the lights of my life, and I was afraid that Matt would have a problem with it and try to keep me away from the kids because he thought I was a pervert. It’s astounding how much I had already absorbed from such a hetero culture. When I came out to her, and shared my fears with her, she said, ‘That’s ridiculous. Even if he felt that way, he’d still have to go through me’.
Coming out to my dad and his partner was the hardest. She has a daughter, who was nine or so at the time, and again, I was worried that she wouldn’t want me around her anymore. She assured me quickly that she was more worried about my sibling’s drug habit than my sexual orientation, and that they loved me no matter what, and that my dad even suspected it already. I told my dad and he was fine with it too.
So why did I feel so out of sorts? I was terrified to tell him. I actually felt my blood run cold as I was dialing his number. I felt a similar version of that with each person I told.
I underwent some counseling a couple months after I came out. I’d already had a tattoo done on my 30th birthday that symbolized my recovery and coming out. I requested a lesbian counselor, hoping that maybe it would help me figure out some stuff. One thing she said to me, when I described to her the incredible confusion I was having around everything, is that coming out for her brought up a lot of things she hadn’t been prepared for, or even suspected: things like internalized homophobia, doubt, confusion and self-hatred. That made me feel a bit better, but I still felt conflicted. And I knew I wasn’t ready to have sex, and I wasn’t connected to the queer community at that point so I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself. Here I’d just gone and made a big scene about coming out and telling everyone I was bi, and then everything just stopped and I was left in a whirlwind of feelings and anticlimax.
My breakdown happened a few months later. To be clear, I do not relate the two things to one another. But the breakdown brought up a lot of stuff that I didn’t see coming. All of a sudden I was paranoid about being possessed by demons. I thought that God (whom I didn’t believe in – not the Christian version, anyway) was punishing me for being queer. And when I wasn’t obsessed with that, I was obsessed with thoughts of being a ‘fraud’; because I wasn’t 100% gay, and I was attracted to both men and women, I was haunted constantly by the idea that I wasn’t a real anything. I wasn’t really straight, I wasn’t really queer, I wasn’t anything. I couldn’t even hang out with my gay friends; they disgusted me. My skin crawled the entire time. I thought I was going to burn in hell for being friends with them. Every second of every day I wanted to rip the tattoo – very large, very prominent, with a beautiful rainbow ribbon – off my arm, scrape it off, disfigure myself. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I couldn’t sleep at night. My skin would crawl, and my stomach would heave, and I would curl into a ball and pray for it to go away. It was excruciating. I honestly have no idea how I got through that period of my life, but it lasted several months.
Gradually, though, it faded (for the most part), and I was left with periods of doubt again. I hadn’t done any sexual experimentation since coming out and still found myself frequently plagued by feelings of guilt, shame, and fraudulence. Sex in sobriety had not been good to me up to that point, and I was afraid that all sex would be the same so I was avoiding it. Plus I had some emotional issues that I felt I needed to get a better handle on before I went inflicting them on other people, which tended to be my pattern in the past. And I wasn’t sure I could do casual encounters anymore. All of the sex I’d ever had (save for one individual, for three weeks, around a year sober) had been loaded, and I’d had no inhibitions then but I was worried that I’d be all inhibited in my newfound sobriety, afraid of my body, afraid of being naked and vulnerable with another person, afraid of my own sexual power. It’s a lot to work through. I knew I wanted to have sex with women, and that I even wanted to explore being in a romantic relationship with a woman, but I had no idea where to start.
It’s almost impossible to describe what it’s like to have to navigate the just-came-out space while riding a mental and emotional breakdown. As if one of those things isn’t enough. I am still dealing with my sexual identity. I guess it’s a lifelong process. While I came out as bisexual, I have learned that I am actually what is referred to as pan- or omnisexual. Basically, I am attracted to everything under the sun. Yes, I’m serious. Everything. Or at least every orientation and subset out there that I know of. There is nothing strictly off limits for me. I didn’t realize this until just a few months ago, but it explains a lot, actually. I feel a lot more comfortable with myself since meeting that awareness. However, despite the fact that I am queer and embracing it, and more or less have the ability to embrace it quite fully, I still have periods of religious paranoia. I made the mistake of reading most of the Old Testament (part of a whole other story for a whole other article) while I was in psychosis. Incidentally, I don’t recommend this to anyone. I have an established faith that works really well for me but the darkness creeps in once in awhile, that nagging doubt and dread, the feeling that I’m not safe anywhere.
Whether you come out first or experience mental illness first, make sure you have support. Start small; tell the person you trust the most. If you need to, practice on someone. I just jumped into it, which I don’t really regret; it’s the way I do everything. But I don’t recommend that for everyone. With me, I rarely know what my emotional process is until it’s too late to backtrack. I usually end up having anxiety over something that happened three weeks ago because I just realized that I have a problem with it. So being aware of your emotional process prior to undertaking anything big is usually a good thing. It may also help to get connect to your local LGBTQ community, find out what the resources are. A lot of places have counseling for people who are just coming out. It’s a big deal. I didn’t realize that at the time, not really. I do now. Even though I had the acceptance of everyone in my immediate circle, I wasn’t prepared for the number it would do on me emotionally and psychologically.
Another thing that’s really helped me since coming out is exposing myself to queer television, film, websites, and print media (books, magazines, papers). It has helped to solidify my identity in more confused times, where the fact that I’d just come out wasn’t enough to make me feel any kind of resolution about it. I came out to have a stronger sense of identity but for at least a year or so afterwards it had a backwards effect and made me feel less whole. It made me feel fragmented somehow, like the person I’d been for nearly thirty years wasn’t the same person I was now (even though I’d slept with more women prior to coming out than I had since). Also, self-help books might help, and nonfiction, autobiographical books written by LGBTQ folks. I read a couple of Dan Savage’s books early on. I read a lot of lesbian erotica as well, and worked my way through the rest of The L Word and Queer as Folk (hadn’t seen a single episode prior to coming out). It may seem like small potatoes but if you are unable for whatever reason to create physical social supports, fictionalized ones and vicarious accounts can be the next best things. Masturbating while engaging in queer fantasies (which for me was anything from having sex with another woman to two men having sex) was a big help as well. It made me feel that although I wasn’t actually having sex, I was still exploring my sexuality and preparing myself for the next step, which, as it turns out now, I was.
Also, perhaps this goes without saying but try to limit your exposure to anti-gay anything, especially if you have a sensitive mental landscape. Things like reading the Old Testament and being around people who are anti-gay were big triggers for me, things that I didn’t know would trigger me at the time; subscribing to institutions that are anti-gay, anything that helps add to your sense of confusion or panic is not going to be very supportive. If the best you can do is create a fictional queer environment (see previous paragraph for what I mean on ‘fictional environment’), so be it. The rest will fall into place eventually. If you live in a tiny town and need support, access to the internet can put you in touch with groups of people who are also coming out, or who have come out already and are able to support others. This can be a lifeline if you live in a community with no openly gay members; I lived in such a place for most of my life. I know how tough it can be.
Coming out with or without mental illness can be heavy. Make sure, in addition to taking care of yourself while coming out, that you are getting the help you need for your mental health and wellness. It won’t make anything go away, or minimize the impact of change on your life, but it will minimize the risk of things like self-harm and impulsiveness and can help you feel more proactive about your situation. Keep yourself safe while stepping into this fuller vision of yourself. It’s awesome to be everything that I know I am, and for my outsides to match my insides, but it takes a lot of work. A lot of work, strength, courage, and perseverance.