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Caroline Catlin Headshot

The Season of Coming Out

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"Actually, I'm dating a girl."

The young woman behind the counter blushed profusely and slipped a little off her stool.

"Oh... that's okay."

Internally, I rated her response somewhere near the middle on my sliding scale of the-right-way-to-react-to-something-that-shouldn't-be-a-big-deal-but-still-is-somehow. She did not kick me out of the store; at least we are past that point. But she also seemed to feel a need to reassure me that my sexuality, the way I love, was acceptable. It was an offering of approval I hadn't realized I needed, and it felt like charity. As if she was patting herself on the back for granting me her kindness. Her pride at accepting my truth felt like a strong reminder that, still, in many places, to be honest is to risk, to be Queer is to be vulnerable.

Leaving the store with our ice cream, my friend watched my face, concerned.

"Wow. You kind of shocked her." She was perplexed, surprised by the awkwardness that followed the simplest of conversations about "abnormal" sexuality. I, meanwhile, was working hard to keep my unease from switching to a well-worn path of shame. This kind of honesty was new for me. In fact, I realized, this was the first time I had proudly told a stranger what was once my biggest and best kept secret. Deciding to say the words out loud was one thing. Steeling myself for unpredictable responses was another.

I was 12 when I first began to believe that something was amiss in my make up. That's the way I phrased it. That something was defective. Growing up in a small and supportive Vermont town, I am not sure where my panic and hatred for my sexuality developed. Regardless of source, my fear was great, and my shame was even greater. I swallowed the secret whole for years, disrespected and blamed my body for failing me, and prayed that my attraction to the same sex would somehow go away.

The phrase "coming out story" comes up often in conversation. The idea, however, has always perplexed me. A set story makes it sound like coming out is a one-time thing, as if you metaphorically step out bravely from a closet never to return. What I have always been afraid of, what I was always aware of as a young questioning teenager, was the extent to which I would have to "come out" in my lifetime. The idea exhausted me.

It still exhausts me, actually. Perhaps there is a season of coming out, a chapter of your life in which it happens most often. If so, I am in it. It was only a few weeks ago that I posted my relationship status on Facebook, accompanied with a photo of a kiss on the cheek from the beautiful young woman I get to call my girlfriend. It was only a little over a year ago that I told my parents that the person I had brought home was not "just" a friend. It was only this afternoon that I answered honestly when a childhood friend asked me if I was seeing anyone. This process has only just begun for me, and every step of it requires me to be unapologetic, a trick I've only just started to figure out.

I am well aware that this uncomfortable kind of bravery will never truly end. Should I marry a woman, I will "come out" each time I go for a walk with my family. Every time I make hotel reservations. When I go to high school reunions, to sporting events, to a restaurant for dinner. In many ways, I will spend much of my life coming out. At least I'll have a lot of practice. At least I'll be prepared next time, when a stranger assures me that I have made an "okay" life choice by dating a girl.

I think it'll get easier. Not resolved, but maybe a bit easier. And I think that somehow, someday, I will be grateful. Grateful for the strength in my core that I have built, for the way I am quickly becoming incredibly proud of the way I love and the people I care about. I hope the world will soften a bit, soften into its own kind of acceptance, of love, of joy, of celebrating difference.

That's my goal, at least. That's what keeps me going, keeps me telling others what I once swore I would take to my grave. I hope that someday, coming out will be as simple and casual as sharing any other facts about my life. That the season of coming out will end, that we as an entire complex and diverse community can learn enough about each other and ourselves that we stop assuming that everyone shares our normal.

For now though, by adding to the world of voices unapologetically sharing their stories, I hope that others will find the courage to share their truths, whatever they may be. There is so much to be celebrated in embracing difference and recognizing that what makes us most us, whether the way we love or the way we think, is so much better than just "okay."