photo by Jenny Rainbow

When I was in 6th grade, I wrote an essay arguing same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. It was 2008 — Proposition 8, which would ban same-sex marriage in California, would be on the ballot in November. As a 6th grader, the fact that same-sex marriage ought to be allowed seemed obvious to me. That everybody was to vote on the issue felt less like a contentious political battle and more like a formality to affirm what people should already know to be right.

My essay took second place in a classroom writing contest. Eagerly reporting this to my mom, I watched her eyes scan the paper. All she said was: “You just don’t understand these things yet. And you shouldn’t be writing about it.” I emphasized promptly, “Oh, but I’m not gay.”

It wasn’t until high school that I learned the term “internalized homophobia”, but the feeling had been following me since I took my paper back that day with an uneasy sense that I had done something wrong. I felt its weight every time I giggled out my crushes at a slumber party, found someone inexplicably pretty, and felt confused as to whether I wanted to be or be with. When queer friends came out to me, supporting them felt wholehearted, easy, and elating. Why this acceptance didn’t exactly extend to myself was a paradox easier left unengaged.

Then one night in college, my partner of one year suggested we go on a walk. We sat on a park bench being eaten by roots beneath and they told me they were transgender. “I’ve felt this way since I was a kid,” they explained, anxiously running their fingers up and down the bench. “I’ve spent the last 22 years hoping this feeling would go away, pretending to be someone I’m not. I can’t take it any longer; if I don’t transition now, I’ll have to keep pretend for the rest of my life. Do you want to stay with me?”

Because this was someone who mattered deeply to me, saying yes was deceptively easy. But I understood this meant I had to unravel, and unraveling meant confronting the reality that I worked for years to shut away a part of myself, deconstructing and re-rationalizing her in the hopes that eventually there would be nothing left. If we were to continue to be together, I had to reconcile, and I had to come out to myself.

For many years, I demanded from myself a specific answer. Now I ask for acceptance. Acceptance has been its own process of looking for answers, returning to memories of people, events, and feelings in a way that can feel like trying to solve a puzzle with shapes that are always changing.

Although I grew up on the relatively queer-friendly California coast, it was difficult for me to speak openly about myself or find stories from people who looked like me. Coming out is neither race nor gender neutral, and this directly complicated my relationship with my parents. As Chinese immigrants, they made life-changing choices in the pursuit of material stability, tirelessly tilling the ground so my brother and I could root and flourish. Arriving in 1989, they have seen many versions of America that rejected Chinese people. They have seen versions of America that rejected women and gay people. When I came out to them, they saw their daughter, already born into a life of punching up, taking a step down. They asked, “Why?”

At this point, I had come to understand that there was no “why”, there only was, and things would be different now. Coming out to the world can appear to be a singular event — a conversation at the dinner table, a Facebook post during Pride month, a long walk taken with your closest friend. But even as it’s been three years since we got up from that bench, fingertips stinging of splinters from nervous fidgeting, I am still coming out.

I am coming out to fellow patrons every time we sit side-by-side in a booth at the diner. I am coming out every time my mom asks, “Are you still together?”, posed with an incredulous inflection that’s hardest to hear when it buzzes audibly from the phone while we sit together on the couch. I’ve learned that less like a single flower unfurling, coming out is the entire rosebush, many buds blooming, some opening part way, others dying before they ever see the sky. Learning how to live the lives we are allowed to live is exhausting, but not doing so means only ever realizing as part of a whole. So I am coming out to everyone who reads this essay, and I am coming out to myself as I write and rewrite it, still figuring out what my story has been and can become.

There are so many good people in my life who have made doing this much more possible for me. You don’t want my thank yous because you don’t want to be thanked for allowing someone to be human. But you seeing me has helped me see myself, and I am so happy you are all part of this story I’m now ready to share. As much as coming out has been a self-commanding endeavor, it has also necessitated self-forgiveness — an ongoing reception to welcome home a version of me who never wanted to fight in the first place.