It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when we become “ourselves.”
I knew I was gay from a young age. I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand it at the time; it was always some puzzle that I put off unraveling. It wasn’t my identity, but it still managed to shift the sands beneath my feet whenever I thought I had found stable footing.
For a lot of LGBT* folks, identity is a constant negotiation between the way we see ourselves and they way we feel we’re supposed to be perceived. We try to draw lines separating our family’s values from our own opinions, society’s gaze from the reflection in the mirror. We spend a lot of time believing that there is no real way to “be yourself.”
Things change when you start living on your own. You can feel the eyes lifting off of your back. You finally have space to breathe. It’s like breaking out of a glass coffin.
College is often referred to as our “formative years,” and there is real truth to that. For most of us, it inevitably brings the ceaseless search for love — a journey that turns out to be more about self-discovery than actual match making.
Growing up, I never really let myself confront that sinking feeling in the back of my mind. There didn’t seem to be any point in accepting that I was gay if I didn’t have anyone to “be gay” with—gay friends, a boyfriend, a drag mother. Okay, I was actually terrified of drag queens back then, but now I can’t get enough.
I had never met a gay person before in my life, at least not that I knew of. I was only vaguely aware that other people like me existed. There was nothing grounding the insidious feeling of difference in reality. It was difficult to ignore, but impossible to embrace.
I had accepted that I wasn’t living a whole life—no matter how many little moments of happiness I found when I was younger, they always fell just short of the threshold that would bring contentedness. I felt like I was lying all the time, to my friends, my family, and of course, myself. I wanted to get away from everyone that knew me so I could hit reset and start living honestly. I had my tunnel vision set on college.
It didn’t disappoint.
Maybe it’s the clean slate, or the familial distance, or the first real gulps of alcohol, but somehow we newly-unleashed-burgeoning-adults were finally able to find authenticity away from home. The social strictures of high school seemed to (mostly) fade away. Friend groups shifted, styles changed, and fantastic personalities emerged.
In my first week I walked by a Pride Student Union display, excitedly supported by throng of students. Within a couple months I had fallen in with an out and proud group of guys that quickly became some of the best friends I’d ever had.
I didn’t come out to them then, that was an insidious process of letting down walls that would take much more time. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but gravitate towards their complete comfort with themselves and each other.
My first night at a gay club (masquerading as the token straight friend) was a transformative experience.I was surrounded by all different kinds of guys—reserved barflies, neon-haired flirts, drag performers, more than a few pole dancers—but if they were united by anything, it was the simple fact that they just did not care what anyone else thought of them. My old anxiety over identity felt like a lifetime ago. Suddenly that intangible concept of desire and longing was real and smiling at me from a dozen faces.
I wasn’t the only one looking. I wasn’t the only one lost.
That feeling I refused to let bubble to the surface was rising all around me. For the first time, it made sense to accept the inevitable.
My feelings were real, valid, and shared.
One of the biggest things holding people back from announcing their orientation is the knowledge that the people they tell will never truly understand the depth and nuance of the experience. Even positive responses can be disappointing, but more importantly, it’s not always safe to come out to a community that has no way of empathizing.
Dating can be an important ritual in college, if not for sexual satiation, then for the compassionate emotional connection. There is an understanding we search for, beyond the hookups (though those are nice too), that is undeniably liberating to find in another person.
For gay people, the level of empathy shared between partners is both heightened and necessitated by the disconnect we’ve lived with our entire lives.
Sexual orientation is relational, it is defined by your attraction (or lack thereof) for another human being. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. That’s why for many people, the feelings they’ve acknowledged their whole life don’t become “real” until they culminate in actually being with another person. That was certainly the case for me.
It was only after meeting an amazing guy, dating him, and allowing myself to express all the pent up feelings I’d been hoarding all my life that I was able to say the words. And it was liberating beyond belief, even more so to hear that he had gone through exactly the same journey.
After that, we didn’t have to talk much about being gay. The empathy was felt.
When two people share uncommonly similar struggles with identity, even the words that go unspoken feel decidedly reassuring.
Maybe I’m valorizing the college dating scene. I went to a massive, fairly liberal school and I was lucky to be surrounded with like-minded people. Whether I was looking for love or grasping for understanding, friends, boyfriends, and sages of gay wisdom seemed to keep popping out of the woodwork.
I woke up in the center of a network I had never set out to create, but was nonetheless grateful to have surrounding me. Somewhere in-between the flirtatious winky-faces, the late night talks and the long hard looks in the mirror, my identity solidified itself. The ground became stable.
I become myself.
Did you enjoy this post? Then make sure to check out This Gay Texting Guide Gives You the Low-Down.
About Coffee Meets Bagel (CMB): CMB is a free dating service that helps members make meaningful connections. It’s designed for busy singles who want to find something real with little or no effort.