When you learn about coming out as gay, it seems like telling other people is the hardest. It’s hard, but it’s not the hardest. The hardest is coming out to yourself, and it was something I couldn’t bring myself to do.
I always felt different from most girls. Why didn’t I have a boyfriend? Why didn’t I want one? I barely knew the word gay before I was a teenager. As far as I knew, “gay” didn’t exist. And when I learned it, it was always used in a derogatory way, and I didn’t have any gay friends. A tiny voice deep inside my heart started to whisper that could be the missing piece. It poked at me when I saw a beautiful girl, and cleared it’s throat when I saw two girls kiss on TV. Before I could even acknowledge that voice, my internalized homophobia saw that I had a new “plant” (see my first piece here if you’re wondering what I mean). I didn’t have any space for a new plant, or piece of identity, especially a plant that was vehemently rejected by the Ismaili part of me. Before the plant could begin to grow (and wither away), I threw it in the trash.
I was so concerned about the parts of me that were already dying, that it just made sense to kill this one right off the bat and put it out of its misery. But it refused to die. I did everything I could to kill it. I couldn’t even bring myself to say the word “gay” in my head, let alone out loud. I already knew that if I neglected something enough it would eventually become so small that I could ignore it. I stuffed the gay in me so far down until I convinced myself it didn’t matter. Yet again, I was telling myself I didn’t need love to be happy, and I could get through life without it. There was a deep shame that came with being gay, and it was a shame I was too worn down to carry. The thing with shame though is the longer you try to ignore it, the heavier it gets.
I came out to my uncle first. He was gay, and made me feel like I wasn’t so alone. After denying it for so long, finally saying it out loud was harder than anything I’ve said before. And even after I said it out loud, there was a part of me that still didn’t accept it. Perhaps I could accept that I liked girls, but I couldn’t accept that the future I had built for myself, the future my parents had prayed I would have, wouldn’t be able to come true. I didn’t want to accept that with accepting my sexuality, I would also accept the baggage that came with it. I didn’t realize I was already carrying that baggage whether I wanted to or not. As I came out more and more, I realized that the reason it was so hard to come out wasn’t always because I was afraid of people’s reactions, but also because I was ashamed of it. I would never judge someone of see them differently if they came out to me, but I couldn’t make myself be okay with being gay even though I know there is absolutely nothing wrong with it and nothing to be ashamed of.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community are disproportionally impacted by mental illness or mental health issues, not because they just happen to be more genetically prone to them, but because they are often the victims of ignorance and discrimination in society. There is also an added layer of shame and guilt just for being LGBTQ+, and that can deteriorate a person’s mental health faster than anything else. From a young age, many of us are taught that LGBTQ+ people are weird or bad (see the original definition of the now-reclaimed word, “Queer”).
If we’re not openly taught to discriminate, we aren’t taught about LGBTQ+ people at all. Sex ed in school was heteronormative, and the movies, TV shows, books, and other forms of media I consumed when I was younger avoided LGBTQ+ storylines. As a result, I grew up without the language to explain and describe who I was. Without that language, I didn’t know I wasn’t alone, and I didn’t know that I wasn’t abnormal. Beyond that, if there is LGBTQ+ content in books or on TV, it’s reserved for an adult audience, as if exposing children to same-sex relationships is the same as exposing them to things that are far too sexual for their level of understanding. My heart knew I was gay long before I could watch content that was PG13 or 14A, so why couldn’t I have been taught that there were words for it, and people like me from a younger age?
Looking more into reality, why is it that I always knew which cousins or aunts or uncles were in heteronormative relationships, and met their significant others, but the significant others of LGBTQ+ family members were only referred to as “friends”? When I have a partner someday, will I have to hide them from the younger members of my family? Will I have to be this dark family secret that gets whispered about behind closed doors? Will I have to hold that shame in order to avoid showing that love can be good and pure, no matter who it’s with?
Due to years of constantly receiving messages (mostly unintentional, but impactful nonetheless) that being gay was a topic to avoid, or to only be discussed in hushed tones behind closed doors, I started to believe it was something to be ashamed of. Although I know better now, and every person in my life loves and accepts me no matter what my sexual orientation is, it’s hard to shed some of those old feelings. I remember thinking that my sexuality was a disappointment, not only to me, but to everyone around me. Luckily, that couldn’t be further than the truth, but the fact that I believed that for so long was enough to contribute to a more negative view of myself.
Even though I consider myself “out”, there are situations I’m not out in, Sometimes in a professional setting, I choose to not disclose my sexual identity because I worry that it could be a disadvantage. I worry I’ll be seen differently, or seen as less than, because these are still sad realities in our society. Going through life having to constantly wonder if being your authentic self will have negative consequences can get exhausting, and though I’m working hard to be proud of who I am, society doesn’t make it easier. My parents grew up in East Africa, where being gay is a criminal offence. In fact, in Uganda homosexuality is punishable by death. Though I never lived there, it’s still part of my cultural upbringing, and it’s difficult to embrace my culture when I know that part of it fundamentally rejects and punishes who I am. Despite being in Canada where being gay is totally okay, I’m still impacted by the thought that had things been slightly different, I easily could have been born in Tanzania.
Being gay has also made me more stressed or worried in situations that really shouldn’t be stressful or worrisome at all (a common phenomenon for miorities, referred to as part of “minority stress”). For many people, being in a relationship can make them feel more comfortable and safe. I’m sure that’s true for a number of LGBTQ+ couples as well, but for me it’s often been the opposite. When dating, I’ve always been worried about showing any public displays of affection, from holding hands to kissing goodbye, because I’m afraid that people would discriminate against me or be made uncomfortable. When I was in college, I came out to a bunch of friends in my first year not because I was ready, but because I was afraid they wouldn’t want to live with me if they found out I was gay and wanted to know their reaction before it was too late. I’m also constantly aware of how much affection and connection I show my femaie friends, so that I avoid the possibility of them thinking I like them. It started as a mechanism for protection, not wanting anyone to suspect I could be gay if I hugged them or got close to them. Once I came out, to my own surprise, I kept my distance even more to avoid the possible misconception that I might be romantically interested in a friend and that would make them uncomfortable.
Even now, I’ll pull away from a hug sooner rather than later, and sit further away on the couch than I need to. I even refuse to share a bed with my friends when they visit – I’ll opt for the couch or floor instead. You can see how all these thoughts and worries can get pretty exhausting. Physical touch with someone in your support system, even when platonic, can actually be quite healing and important when you struggle with your mental health. There’s a reason why being hugged or held when you’re upset is a common occurance – because it actually helps you feel better. Depriving myself of this when I need it the most has made it harder and more isolating when my mental health isn’t in an optimal state. I realize it’s silly to be so cautious and anxious about these things, and it’s something I’m working on. It might be taking longer than I’d like, but slow progress is still progress.
I’m still working on confronting my own internalized homophobia about being gay, and I’m very grateful that I’ve had a wonderful support system along the way. I couldn’t imagine dealing with all this, plus flagrant discrimination and hate. I think it’s going to be a lifelong process – to unlearn the harmful views I always held about sexual orientation, and to accept that a gay life is not a lesser life. It also means I’ll get to live a life full of acceptance and tolerance, but most of all, I’ll get to live a life full of love. What could be better than bursting with love, no matter who it is?
Keep Surviving by Living.