I Always Knew I Was Gay, But It Took Me 21 Years to Realize It
My first memory of feeling attracted to a girl was very early in my childhood, when a friend and I accidentally kissed in a playful moment. I can remember the high afterwards — the feeling of “I want to do that again” — but somehow I had already learned to keep it hidden inside, locked away. And so I did.
When I plopped a kiss on a boy in kindergarten, I was happy with myself for having that level of confidence, and simply happy about kissing another human, but the feeling wasn’t the same.
For the rest of my childhood and adolescence I was what society would deem “boy crazy.” At recess in elementary school I’d participate in games like “girls chase the boys,” passing notes and writing in my diary about crushes, and as I grew older those behaviors amplified.
There was a moment of clarity for me, as a freshman in high school, that I only shared with my best friend at the time. It felt like a confession. I’d been binge watching Glee, and the cheerleaders Brittany and Santana were my first real exposure to gay characters in the media. Watching them together, I had the undeniable feeling of “I want that.” I texted my friend, the most non-judgmental and loyal person in my life:
“I think I might be bi.”
Eight years later, I still vividly remember typing that message. Her response was, as I knew it would be, incredibly kind, and we quickly moved on, as if it were a normal part of daily conversation. Because it was. It didn’t change her perception of me, and I never brought it up again, to her or to anyone. I pushed it out of my mind. For many years after that day, I firmly identified as straight if anyone asked about my sexuality.
I even remember seeing a photo of a shirtless man and thinking that I just wasn’t understanding something. What was it that I wasn’t getting? Somehow I convinced myself that I did, and that that was what I wanted.
So, I went after men who were bigger, who made me feel smaller, and in my mind I felt more attractive that way. And as a woman growing up in a society where small bodies are glorified, I can’t blame myself for those beliefs, but I do hold the responsibility of unlearning them.
It didn’t take long for me to fully convince myself that I was only attracted to men. I didn’t even feel like I was faking it, especially when my best friend and I would talk about boys as the center of many conversations. I felt genuinely excited about the topic, and I didn’t question my sexuality for several years.
During my senior year of high school my friend group had a running joke of teasing me by singing “Emma’s a dyke.” I’d laugh it off, but again the brainwashed part of me internally responded by thinking,
I must be too masculine — there must be something about me that’s perceived in an unattractive way for them to think that I’m not straight and feminine enough.
These weren’t beliefs that I actually had about people who are gay. I’d been raised in the most accepting family with queerness on both sides, and I was taught that I could be anything I wanted to be.
These were beliefs that I held about myself, rooted in fear, misogyny, internalized homophobia, and a lack of self love that ran years-deep.
I wanted so desperately to be seen as feminine. I found that by appealing to men, I gained the illusion of validation. Like many others, when I got to college I was seen as much more attractive than I was in high school. This newfound attention gave me a confidence boost that was rooted in ego and meaningless exchanges of energy that only ever left me feeling emptier inside.
At the same time, I’d been fueling a narrative that I was in love with a man close to me, and while I believe that to have been true in many ways, something — a lot of fear and a bit of intuition — always blocked me from doing anything about it.
When I had my first relationship, I never doubted my love for him, and for the first time I truly witnessed and developed a deep compassion for the softness and strength of men. My sexuality wasn’t something I ever questioned at that time.
I enjoyed being with a man for many reasons, and the love that was shared was real. However, I can recall him asking me questions like what was blocking me from showing more of myself, from going deeper in emotional vulnerability, and from showing more love.
I never knew how to answer those questions. When I looked within, not once did I find a lack of love. I found a love so deep, but what I wasn’t able to see was my lack of passion. This was because I hadn’t any idea of what passion really felt like.
Many months after that relationship came to a close, my intentions were focused on healing and cultivating more softness with myself. Over time I began reconnecting with a girl who I’d known since middle school, who had been in my close circle later in high school. Our Facetime conversations were filled with laughter and what can best be described as an unspoken mutual admiration simply for the other’s presence.
I soon found myself looking for reasons to talk to her.
It was when I first dreamt about her that I finally had an honest conversation with myself.
I remember waking up that morning in November and saying out loud, “What was that?” For the first time, my attraction felt like it wasn’t my decision. I wasn’t convincing myself that I was attracted to her, a practice I’d perfected since I taught myself how to do so with boys in high school. In fact, my attraction to her scared me. I responded by resisting and pushing those feelings down deeper, but I only wanted to talk to her more and more.
It can feel easier to resist than to admit you might identify with the thing you were brainwashed to have shame around.
When I came home from college and saw her in person, I couldn’t deny it to myself any longer. I can still feel my heartbeat racing and my hands shaking as I first told one friend, then another.
And I can still feel my body on that night in December, paralyzed from the foreign nature of hers pressed against mine, repeating my thoughts like a mantra. I won’t look away from love this time, I promised myself in the moment right before we first collided.
Although I write this in a state of clarity, my understanding of myself unfolds with each changing day. The labels I use have changed a few times since coming out. While I thought I was bi only a few months ago, I now identify as a lesbian. And on some days, the label I most identify with is “queer,” or often, nothing at all seems fitting.
Exploring your identity doesn’t have to be a mission to find the labels that you perfectly fit into. It can be an empowering journey of trying out different things: new physical and spiritual experiences, different styles and ways of presenting your appearance to the world, and developing the relationship with yourself that your heart has longed for.
It took me a very long time to understand the difference in my attraction to men and women. I’d like to add that I speak from experience with only those two genders, and that experience is likely reflected in my understanding of my sexual identity as well.
For anyone who may be asking questions such as: How can you identify as a lesbian after identifying as heterosexual for your whole life? And how can your attraction to men seemingly just disappear?
My answer is this: I see men as very beautiful, but I see women as works of art (it’s no surprise the female body has always been my artistic muse). The energy I’ve felt with men always had undertones of feeling forced, whereas the energy with the woman I’m with now is freeing in a way I could never have described before experiencing it.
My attraction to men always felt like a choice I was making, but with women, it was never mine to decide.
These past few months have been the most awakening and transformational of my entire life. In the midst of all the fear, shame, and uncertainty in my own identity, I committed myself to breathing into an open heart in the most important moments —in the ones where it most aches to close.
Your openness to love, your softness with yourself, and your willingness to step into who you are and unlearn everything that you are not, will project you into a sense of freedom that you may not have ever known existed. The endless love I now feel comes from both my girlfriend and from myself.
This love feels like a celebration rather than a decision.
By surrendering to my own resistance within, I’m now able to feel my own heart in the way it has always wanted to love. That love knows no limitations, judgment, or fear of who I am. It’s beautifully queer, authentic, and empowering. And the more I love myself, the more abundant a stream of love I can give to her.
If you’re struggling with your sexual and/or gender identity, or know someone who is, here are some resources that are helpful to navigating this journey. You are loved, powerful, and deserving of the joy that comes with freedom of expression.