Often, when I tell people I'm gay, I get asked "When did you first know? Have you always known?" And always, I tell them this: the answer is complicated. In the deepest, darkest part of my heart, I knew when I was twelve. But I buried it so deep and hid it so well that it didn't float up to the surface until I was nineteen.
It's a story. Here goes.
I wasn't particularly conflicted as a child. I never fancied myself a princess in need of a prince, but I had casual crushes on boys in my class, had my first kiss with a dopey (but well-meaning) boy in sixth grade at the local carnival, was intrigued by stories of hook-ups and dates. I did have one short-lived obsession with a female villain from a popular children's cartoon, and although I knew there was something weird about it, I convinced myself to forget about it for fear the other kids would think I was weird.
But the summer I turned twelve, I fell in love for the first time. I was in my fourth year at an all-girls Jewish sleep-away camp. She was older, we barely knew each other. I barely remember how it happened, but all of a sudden she became the axis on which my whole world turned. In crowds, I frantically, single-mindedly sought her out. When she got on stage to perform silly choreographed dances with her bunkmates, I couldn't keep my eyes off of her. One night, there was an all-camp dance party, and when I watched her take two younger campers by the hand and playfully swing them around to the music, I felt like my whole world was falling apart. I cried so much that night, but I couldn't understand why.
This lasted for three years. At the bittersweet end, we became almost-friends, and she gave me a hug on one of her last nights as a camper. It felt like I had been struck by lightning.
Despite the intensity of my feelings toward this girl, and despite writing "I love her" over and over and over again in my angsty middle-school journals, if you can believe it, I never connected any of these things with the possibility of my being gay. Not that I was a stranger to the LGBTQ+ community, because I surely wasn't. I knew women who were gay - teachers at school, parents of friends. I was an avid fan of RENT. It's still hard for me even now to understand why there was such a disconnect inside of me all those years. Maybe it was internalized homophobia. Maybe it was because all the gay women I knew looked like men, and that wasn't how I thought of myself. Maybe it was the culture of hyper-femininity and overt heterosexuality at camp (more on that later). But honestly, maybe it was just the fact that the pressure to fit in and to be "normal" was louder in my ears than anything I heard from my heart.
Then came high school. I never really forgot about this girl, but I turned my focus away from her and on fitting in in a new school, in a new city, in a brand-new state. And part of that fitting in was, you guessed it, having relationships with boys. I had my fair share of relationships and hook-ups in high school, and they ran the gamut from just plain boring to downright manipulative to actually pretty enjoyable. I was even in a pretty serious relationship for almost two years.
Another question I've gotten a lot since I've come out has been about these past relationships: "Do you think you really loved them?" And I think the answer is yes. There are different types of love, and while I know more now about how I feel love, I don't think it's right to say that there was no love at all in my past relationships with boys. With that said, though, there were always things that felt...not quite right.
Then came college. I tried so hard to love the late-night frat-party drunk-hookup scene, but at the end of every night out, I came back to my dorm room alone, feeling like I had just dodged a bullet. I had a rough first two years of school. I felt alone, I felt like there was something wrong with me that I couldn't just enjoy college life like everyone else.
And then in my sophomore year, it happened again. I fell in love with a girl in one of my classes. When she spoke in class, I bit my plastic mechanical pencil so hard it broke. When I saw her perform on stage, I felt just like that twelve-year-old at camp again. It was terrifying.
To make a long story a little shorter, I took a good long look in the metaphorical mirror and was honest with myself about this not being the first time I'd felt this way about a girl. And by way of dating apps, I decided to try out a new version of myself. I still remember the terror I felt the first time I changed my Tinder preferences to women.
And from there, everything snowballed. I started to tell people about my crush on the girl in my class. I started talking to girls on my dating app, going on dates, telling the people closest to me what I was feeling. It was one of the scariest things I've ever done, but it felt so good to no longer stew in my own emotions until they made me feel like exploding.
The first girl I ever kissed was my very first girlfriend. And when I kissed her, really kissed her, it was, in the most cliche way possible, like fireworks went off inside my head. This was the way it was always supposed to feel, I thought, and I almost started to cry right then and there, for all the nights before where I hadn't felt like this.
Finally, meeting Jenni and falling in love with her was really the final push I needed to stop being scared and to embrace what I had been denying for so long. And it was perfect. She makes me feel safe and she laughs at all my stupid jokes and everything with her feels genuine. I am still unlearning and re-learning things about myself every day, but I don't think I would change anything about the coming-out experience that I had.
Coming out is never easy - not coming out to yourself, not coming out to the world - which LGBTQ+ people do every single day, over and over again. No one's experiences are exactly the same. I have been incredibly fortunate to have supportive friends and family members, and I know not everyone has this privilege. Coming out is intensely personal, often confusing, and self-definitions can change over time. Safety is paramount.
My parting advice is this: be honest with yourself. Take your time. Be kind to yourself.
And never fall in love with straight girls.