Birthdays are a time of reflection for me and to see how far I’ve come in the last year. These past several years have been the most difficult and painful time of my life, yet the most beautiful, creative and healing.
For those of you who don’t know my story, I finally had the courage to admit to myself and to others that I was gay.* Cue the gasps and join the other 99 per cent of people who were shocked with this information.
It wasn’t an easy thing to admit, especially growing up Christian and constantly being seen as polished and put together. Being gay didn’t seem to fit the “Jenna” package I had created and thought I had to be – or so I believed.
This post has been forming in my heart, mind and fingers for quite some time. I’m scared to put such personal parts of my story out in the public and I don’t want to be reduced to simply being this label. However, I know the impact of people being vulnerable and sharing their stories, and the importance of knowing you’re not the only one going through your experiences.
I also think about all the other LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer) people who are suffering in silence and believe they’re not worth loving. You may be one of those people reading this post right now. I was one of those people for many years and I would never wish that experience on anyone.
As a result, I can no longer be silent in my story.
I’ll never have the opportunity to tell the Jenna of my past just how awesome she is and there’s nothing damaged in her that needs to be fixed. It breaks my heart to think of my former self who experienced so much unnecessary pain, guilt, tears and self-hatred. However, I do know there are other “Jennas” out there who don’t believe they’re valuable, beautiful and worth loving.
You are so awesome and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
I also think about the amount of stigma around people who are LGBTQ and the alarming number of youth in this group who think about, attempt or actually die by suicide. This is a real issue facing many LGBTQ people due to the homophobia that is still rampant in our society, especially in certain communities.
I’ve learned so much in my life and I want to share 30 lessons I’ve learned from coming out as gay. This is part 1 of 3 posts, and I’ll share the other lessons over the next few days. I would love to hear what you’ve learned, and I believe it’s powerful when we can connect and grow from one another’s stories.
*Note: When I say gay, feel free to substitute LGBTQ or your experience into that spot.
Part 1: What I wish I knew
- You will survive. Listen to Gloria, it’s true. I believed if I said the words out loud, my world would end. I thought people would hate and no longer respect me, and I was afraid of losing everything. So far, I’m still here and have had a lot of support from many people.
- You are amazing just the way you are. You may not believe how awesome you are now, but you are. Look at my sign! I tried to change and hide who I was, and it was way too much work micromanaging every word, action and even the types of people I associated with. There’s nothing wrong with you that needs to be fixed, so just be you.
- Give yourself time. Just because you tell one person doesn’t mean you have to tell everyone. Coming out is a process and it takes time to become comfortable in your own skin. Sometimes I would take one step forward and eight steps back, and would get frustrated with myself. It’s an ongoing journey, so give yourself some slack and time to work through the challenges you’ll face.
- The little steps matter. You won’t realize it in the moment, but every step counts. Like writing it down. Or telling the first person. Or the 19th person. Talking openly about your sexuality in a coffee shop without whispering. Buying a book about being gay instead of ordering it over the Internet. These steps may seem like nothing, but these little victories are important so give yourself a high five!
- Some people will give you a high five. True story. Receiving a high five was probably one of my favourite reactions after I came out to a good friend. When you’re hiding you never believe people will love you for this part, let alone give you a high five or love you even more. Many people do, so please don’t go through this alone.
- Others will hurt you, but they still love you. Here are some of my “favourite” reactions: “You’re not gay. Are you sure? No really, are you sure? It’s just a phase. But you’re so pretty. God didn’t make you this way.” I’ve had people deny who I was and tell me why I was feeling this way. It seemed like they had the solution for my experience and could “fix” me. Despite these hurtful words, I know those people really love me, but it took a while for me to get there.**
- Everyone is gay. Okay, that’s not true, but you’re not the only one. When I started coming out, it seemed like everyone was gay. I ran into old friends and acquaintances who I discovered were also gay. Amazing! They were always there, but I was afraid of getting too close and opening myself up to the diversity of people around me. Also, check out the website, Everyone Is Gay. It’s hilarious and a helpful resource as you come to terms with your sexuality.
- Lesbians wear dresses, too. I told my friend I needed to change my clothes, cut my hair, and act a certain way to fit in and “look gay.” She said, “Isn’t coming out, coming out as who you really are?” Her comment hit me. Coming out as gay wasn’t about conforming to a certain culture, community or way of dressing. It’s about being yourself and not being afraid to express who you are. I didn’t cut my hair and I still wear dresses. Everyone expresses who they are in different ways and you shouldn’t feel pressure to conform to any community.
- People can keep secrets. Think about how great you were about keeping your secret. Other people have secrets as well and can be trusted. One of my biggest fears was believing my friends and family would “out” me and tell others my secret. They respected where I was and didn’t tell other people. Unfortunately, some do gossip and many people are obsessed with a person’s sexuality, so find someone who you trust. They do exist.
- Acceptance starts with you. Since I hated and didn’t love myself, I never believed others would feel the same way. I was constantly afraid of people’s reactions, and didn’t believe my story and voice mattered. Fear, guilt and shame ruled my life. One of my friends constantly reminded me if I couldn’t accept who I was, I would never believe others accepted this part of me. No matter how many times people told me they loved me and being gay wasn’t a big deal, I didn’t believe I was worth loving until I actually loved myself. Acceptance starts with you and there is no shame in being gay, despite what society, friends, family, religion, etc. may tell you.
What are some lessons you wish you knew?
**Note to people who aren’t LGBTQ: If and when someone comes out to you, many of them are already petrified you’ll reject them (especially if you’re one of the first people they tell). They simply need to be loved in those moments and know they’re valuable. In my coming out experiences – especially the initial ones – I vividly remember how people made me feel.
I recall those moments when friends and family simply hugged me, and told me they loved me as I cried in their arms. I also remember those times when others told me I wasn’t gay and God didn’t make me this way. I’ve let go of a lot of those hurts, but I’ll never forgot how terrible I felt in those moments. Even if you don’t agree, please have the discussion later and just let the person know how much you care for them.