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i recently came out, but i still feel like i’m hiding…
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other Wednesday, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to your problems and existential questions. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
dear mixed feelings,
I recently came out to a couple of people who are close to me, but not to everyone I know. My mom doesn’t really “get it” but the other people I’ve told have been super supportive. I’m feeling more comfortable and more confident in myself and in my identity, but I still feel like I’m hiding sometimes. I still feel like I’m dealing with a lot of internalized homophobia. I know these aren’t things that are going to change overnight, but I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing at all! And this is all on top of being 22 and trying to figure everything else out. How do I get over all of this so I can just start being me without listening to all of the noise? —TooMuchNoise, she/her
I didn’t come out as queer until the summer before senior year of high school, even though I was part of the GSA, had a few gay or queer teachers, and knew a few peers who identified as bisexuals and lesbians. Granted, this was over a decade ago, but when I came out as bisexual and then queer at 17, it was handled so poorly by some of my teachers, peers, and even people I considered “friends”, that it really scarred me. I wish I’d had a mentor to tell me that it was okay not to come out to everyone everywhere all at once. But I was a chronically online, OCD-and-anxiety-addled teenager on Tumblr convinced by the internet that I was somehow bad if I wasn’t being Myself™. In my mind, unless I came out to as many people as possible, I was somehow a poser, an imposter claiming queerness for some kind of social status—as if it isn’t a brave, often dangerous thing to do in the world we’re in, and something no one should ever be forced to disclose.
So, I’ll start by offering up one of the most consistent lessons I’ve learned in life: there are no two spaces you’ll be the same person in. That’s not only okay but also morally neutral. We change in every single context, around every friend, partner, or family member. Getting to a point where you’re comfortable enough with yourself to be honest about who you are—and having people you feel safe enough to be yourself with—is no small thing at all. It means you’ve cultivated a community that sees you and is invested in you—and that has made it possible for you to shed layers that weren’t working.
not everyone is for you, and you are not for everyone
There are just some people whose energy, care, communication, or personalities make us feel safer to relax and let our guards down. We don’t owe that to everyone we meet—nor would it make sense to give that to everyone. “Surround yourself with community that affirms your wholeness rather than expecting you to pick and choose discrete parts of yourself while sacrificing or denying others,” says Sahana Prasad, AM, LLMSW, an anti-oppressive trauma therapist who helps clients with relational healing. Even evolutionarily speaking, humans survived by creating small, cooperative groups that competed with other groups. So even today, we find our people and take care of them and they take care of us, protecting against those who might wish us ill.
Since this is anonymous, I’m not sure what other identities you hold that might also be making you fear disclosing who you are in some spaces. But if you’re also trans, or questioning your gender, or Black, or a person of color, or disabled, or experience mental illness, it’s very likely that your worries around your identity are compounded by other lived experiences that make it more likely that you might be mistreated or misunderstood—both by systems and people. Regardless of this, there will always be spaces where you know you can get at least some of your needs met, and spaces where you can’t get your needs met at all. So in no way are you any less brave or less valid in who you are for compartmentalizing yourself. To be human is to be a Russian doll.
there’s no “right” way to be queer
What if you are hiding in some moments or spaces? Is it a form of internalized homophobia, or is something else going on? In the last year alone, hundreds of anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been passed, including laws that have targeted queer and trans youth to prevent them from learning about gender and sexuality at all. And in the world at large, we’re not safe from discrimination and even violence. So there are plenty of reasons your body and brain might urge you to hide.
All this to say, perhaps you’re now feeling some of the same anxieties I and many other queer and trans people have felt throughout history. I’ve found that many queer people share this kinship: the anxiety that we are not “correct” the way we are. Whether that’s because someone has convinced us we’re being queer “wrong,” or because we’ve compared ourselves to others who seem to be doing it “right,” it doesn’t matter. We have to stop doing it, because it is the very antithesis of community.
That brings me to one of my most important points. Being queer is not about dressing or talking a certain way. It isn’t about the labels you use or even who you love or have sex with when and if you choose. It isn’t something we can actually see, even with a trained eye. The “gaydar,” for example, is a fake tool rooted in white supremacy, fatphobia, transphobia and homophobia that tries to tell us there is one way to be queer or trans—defined by white, cis, Eurocentric cultural standards.
You don’t have to feel shame in moving through the world in whatever way you must to keep yourself safe. “If you find yourself struggling with internalized homophobia, start by remembering that all of us are indoctrinated into compulsory heterosexuality, and that unlearning society's values takes time and care,” says Prasad. “Consider intentionally joining queer-centered and affirming spaces in your neighborhood or [elsewhere] to meet others who are, or have been, on similar journeys,” she adds. You can also cultivate a relationship with a supportive mentor, distant acquaintance, or mental health professional who has demonstrated pro-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and behavior. You deserve to be gentle and compassionate with yourself, but it’s also okay to need and accept that from others wherever possible.
you don’t just come out once
In the last decade, I have been many people. I have had to come out in different workplaces, or stay “in'' at others to be safe. I have moved through varying levels of panic and shame about that. As you’ve already experienced, there is no one-and-done coming out situation. If you so choose, you’ll “come out” as queer to many different people and in many different scenarios throughout your life. It’s also very likely that your identity, sense of self, and the labels that feel comfortable will change and that you’ll come out to yourself many times over the years, too. That’s a difficult but beautiful opportunity both to know yourself better and to find out who in your life deserves to know a fuller version of you.
As my understanding of my own identity has shifted and I was finally abe to come out as a genderqueer trans person, I’ve spent a lot of time flustered about how the outside world perceives me. Dysphoria is natural. But I’ve also felt blessed to have people who show up for me in many different forms—people who accept me even on the days when it’s hardest to accept myself. I wish everyone this gift—because it’s an amazing feeling. Still, it does require that you show up to difficult, maybe even terrifying situations, when you’re unprepared and uncertain of how you’ll be received.
When all is said and done, being queer is about holding each other accountable, celebrating each other, and fighting for each other and with each other against the powers in this world that seek to separate us and cut us down. It’s about finding ways to live out your politics. Being queer is about being in community with each other, and practicing community. And the wonderful thing about that is it means that there is no wrong way to be queer—and being queer isn’t about you, personally, at all.
So whether you’re “fully” out or not, whatever that means to you, how can you shift your mindset ? How can you stop thinking about being queer as an individual project, and how can you start thinking about being queer as how you move through life behaving towards others and yourself?
I will leave you with this: Maybe the noise is not something to tune out. Maybe the noise is something to work with, to understand with a little more nuance and perspective—and ultimately to befriend.