When I was four years old, I asked my parents if I could change my name.
This was a big request, and one that my parents didn’t understand at the time. They told me that “Katie” is a great name, and the previous seven generations of females on my mother’s side had all been named some form of “Katherine.” Kathy, Kacey, Kate, Katrina, going back seven generations.
But even at four years old, I didn’t feel like a “Katie.” Decades later, I’ve realized I’ve never felt like my name fits me. The closest I came to feeling somewhat comfortable with it was in elementary school when I wanted to change the spelling to “Katharine” because that’s how Katharine Hepburn spelled her name. I had a massive childhood crush on her. I still do as an adult.
When I was five years old, my parents were having some friends over and we were all sitting around a bonfire. I walked over and sat on a woman’s lap. I didn’t know her, but she seemed nice, and I was drawn to her kindness. Looking back, I see that same draw to women over the years. I always say that I knew I was LGBTQIA+ even at age five. It wasn’t a sexual attraction at that time, of course. But I had a strong pull towards the feminine, towards various women in my life.
At six years old, I asked my grandma if women could marry women. I remember her saying yes. I also remember dressing up in boys’ clothes and hiding my hair under my grandpa’s baseball hats. He would be away refereeing football games, and I would ask her if we could try to trick him when he got home; would she tell him that Katie went home and a nice neighborhood boy came over to hang out? She always said yes, and my grandpa played along when he got home, until I laughed and pulled his hat off my head, my long blond hair falling into place.
I think I’ve always felt androgynous, non-binary, even at these young ages of four, five, six. I see myself as not necessarily female, but not male either, even as, over the years, people have commented that I walk like a male, that my handwriting is masculine.
Although, when I write fiction, the majority of times I write from a male’s perspective, and usually in first person. I hadn’t really thought about that until recently, why most of my fiction is told from a male’s point of view.
I should add, just to confuse matters, that I had crushes on boys over the years. I thought boys were cute. But I also know that that was what was expected of me, and so it’s hard to tell whether that was societal pressure or just ambivalence about my identity.
When I was 13, one of my best friends was making jokes for a group of us. We were at my birthday party, and she was doing an impromptu stand-up routine while my parents were making us all dinner. To tease her, I threw a handful of M&M’s at her. She looked over and smiled at me.
Without missing a beat, she kept telling jokes. And something about that moment changed me forever. On my 13th birthday, I knew I loved her more than anyone else I’d ever loved.
I didn’t come out then, or at 16 when I felt something for a classmate I’d seen crying in the hallway. I didn’t come out at 18 when I had a crush on a woman who worked in the university cafeteria when I was a freshman in college.
But I did eventually come out, and I’m still coming out. Because, I’ve jumped *back* into the closet numerous times when I didn’t feel safe, or needed to protect the reputations or identities of those around me.
The first time I came out was to a high school teacher during my freshman year of college. I’d stayed in touch with a few teachers, and had gone back to visit them during a school break. We chatted, caught up, and then I told her that I thought I was gay. I said this to her very carefully and very slowly, scared of her reaction. She very quietly told me that she thought it was wrong, that the Bible was clear about homosexuality. I started crying. She told me that she still loved me. I kept crying. And I went back into the closet.
That summer, I turned 19 and spent the summer in New York where I fell in love with a straight woman. I’m sure it was obvious to everyone, including her, but we just hung out and nothing intimate happened between us. I knew we were both returning to our separate college towns at the end of the summer, and I just enjoyed being in her company.
The next year, as a sophomore in college, I started to feel more comfortable again with my sexuality. I shaved my head as soon as I returned from New York, I went to some LGBTQIA+ events at my university, and I confided in a close friend. And then I heard a couple other close friends make some gay jokes. I partially retreated back to the closet, but still kept one foot out with very select, safe people.
On my 21st birthday, four of my closest friends took me to a gay bar in my college town. My birthday happened to fall in a Sunday, in the summer when half the town’s population left for their hometowns. Needless to say, it wasn’t the gay gala that one would hope for on their 21st birthday. But my dear friends, two men and two women who were all straight, celebrated me and my queer identity more than I could have hoped for. Three of them were from Middle Eastern countries where being gay was frowned upon if not punishable by death (just another example of people not being accurately represented by their governments). All this to say, I was incredibly grateful for a night that made me feel accepted and loved.
I stayed out of the closet for an entire year. But then, a classmate’s boyfriend voiced his discomfort. He was concerned that a gay woman was hanging out with his girlfriend. It was becoming an issue in their relationship. She would try to assure him that she was straight, that we were just classmates and friends, and that he had nothing to worry about.
Since she and I hung out quite a bit, I climbed back into the closet. I went on a few dates with her boyfriend’s friend, a guy who was just looking for something casual and fun. I reassured that group of friends that I realized I was straight. It wasn’t purposefully dishonest, but part of me felt it would be easier if I was straight, and I tried to recall those childhood crushes I’d had in my younger years. I was essentially trying to “fake it til you make it” into straightness, but not fully realizing that that was impossible.
The guy figured it out very quickly, and we transitioned into being just friends. He actually figured out I was gay before I was willing to accept that again. I think that was because it was so painful each time I accepted it about myself, came out of the closet, and then felt shoved back in and had to hide that part of my identity from everyone all over again including myself. But this time, I didn’t come out of the closet again for years. Seven years, to be exact, after my classmate and her boyfriend had a kid and eventually got married. I figured, maybe that would be enough to help him feel secure in their relationship and it was safe for me to come out again.
This time, I came out to more of my friends and family, and then posted it on Facebook to everyone else.
The response was amazing. So much support and love and acceptance. I was on Cloud 9 for weeks.
Happily ever after. Right? Well, at one point in my early 30’s, a leader of an establishment that I was a part of decided it was a good idea to “out” me to the whole establishment, even though she and I had never talked about my sexuality. Because it was sexual harassment, it became a bit of a mess. I let the other members there know that I wasn’t gay, that I was dating a man, and even asked a guy friend to stop by the building to show his face around. And I went firmly back into the closet once again.
And then the pandemic happened. It’s been eight months since I’ve hugged someone other than my dog. I haven’t hung out inside another person’s home since March. All my social gatherings have occurred outside, in parks, in backyards, on decks where we are at least six feet apart.
And guess what? I’m alone. And that part is fine. But in the absence of pressures to closet myself, now that I’m away from sexual harassment and concerned boyfriends and inappropriate teachers, I feel more like myself than I have in years. Decades, maybe, since I was 19 and was returning from a summer in New York and immediately shaved my head. T
he pressure is gone, and I feel safer. This has been a heck of a year for all of us, and because of the pandemic we are literally fighting for our physical and mental and economic survival on a daily basis. Coming out of the closet doesn’t seem as scary as all of that.
A few days ago, I chopped off my hair again. Feeling this new isolation and almost exclusive time with myself, I decided I wanted to feel like, well, myself. I want my physical appearance to match my internal identity. Basically, I want the outside to match the inside. And more importantly, I realized I can’t climb back into the closet again. It’s too damaging, too stifling. It creates an identity disconnect, having both a public and a private persona that differ in appearance, gender, and sexuality.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in the USA; I don’t know if marriage equality will be overturned, if LGBTQIA+ and allies will have to march in the streets yet again to secure basic rights that should have been granted hundreds of years ago. But this tango that I’ve done in and out of the closet ends now.
If nothing else, 2020 will be the year I close that closet door and lock it up. It’s time to stay out, and be with my fellow LGBTQIA+ family. Instead of focusing on making others more comfortable at the sacrifice of my own authenticity, it’s time to embrace my true identity. Finally!