This is the hardest article I've ever had to write because it means putting my biggest secret on display for everyone to see and use to judge me. It's a secret I've guarded for years, a secret I've cried over, a secret I shouldn't be scared to share, but I am. So what is my secret? I'm gay. You'd think in this day and age, it should be easier to say who you love, but it isn't.
I'm not gay because I was hurt by a man or because I haven't met the right one and no, it's not a phase. It's who am I and who I've always been. I remember thinking girls were cute when I was young, but I still giggled about boys with my friends because I didn't understand what I was feeling. Then throughout middle school I noticed all the girls were getting boyfriends, but it was the combination of buck teeth and uncertainty that kept me from getting one. In high school I finally started dating. My boyfriends and I would date for months, but I'd feel it was an empty relationship. By this time, it finally hit me that I may be gay. I thought of women the way all my friends thought of men, but I continued to brush the feelings off. I didn't want to be gay. Being straight seemed easier and normal, but rebelling against your truth is toxic.
When I got to college I continued to meet guys, get their numbers and go on dates. Looking back at it though, I was only testing myself to see if I was attracted to them in any way. I always wanted the answer to be yes, but it never was.
Everywhere I looked, society was telling me I was supposed to end up with a man but by the end of my freshmen year in college, I knew I wasn't going to. I finally found the courage to accept that I was gay, but I was worried about the world accepting it too. I kept up a straight façade for years and I felt every aspect of my health decaying from it. The body under the mask I wore slowly faded in spirit and faith and I wondered if I'd ever be happy and free or if I'd be stuck where I was the rest of my life.
The past year was the hardest for me. I knew I was ready to come out, but I didn't know how. I fell into a depression from lying to everyone, but mostly for lying to myself. I always claimed to be an open book, but I wasn't. I was closed, hidden away and locked up. That is, until I finally had to speak up about my feelings.
The first person I ever came out to was my sister Sidney. We were at an amusement park on Halloween and I looked at her and asked what she thought would happen if I brought home a girl. She pondered it for a second then laughed and said she didn't know. That's when I told her we would find out because the next person I'd be bringing home would be a girl.
It took her a moment to figure out I was telling the truth and when she realized I was coming out to her she gave me a high five and told me she was excited for me. She was interested and asked me questions, let me vent about everything I had been holding back for years and, suddenly, I felt a little less alone. She helped me in ways she'll never understand just by being there for me on that night and every night since.
I'd been living in fear for so long, I nearly forgot what hope was, but my sister's acceptance of me gave me a taste once more. I used that hope to come out to some of my close friends and a couple of my cousins. They all accepted me because they knew I was the same girl, friend and confidant I had always been. I realized I had to stop being scared of what could go wrong when I came out and start focusing on what could go right.
Even with my friends knowing my secret though, I still felt alone. I continued to hide the truth from others around me, including two people I love more than anything, my parents. I felt distant from them because every time I was around them I reverted back to my old self. I was reliving the lie I'd finally shed and I hated it. I didn't try to avoid my parents, but it just ended up happening.
I couldn't sleep one night. It was nearly 3 a.m. and I was laying in bed crying, something I had begun to do more and more. I couldn't stand lying to my parents and everyone else any longer. I made the decision to come out to my mom and dad that night because once they knew, I felt the world could know too.
I was a wreck all day. I had a good feeling my parents would love me for who I am. But what would happen if they didn't?
That morning, my body was in class, but my mind was a million miles away. I wrote a letter, planning every word and pouring my heart into it because that night I was going to read it to my parents.
I had my friend Andrea come to my house before I left for my parent's. I cried as I read my letter to her and had a panic attack...laying on the floor shaking in fear.
When I got home, my parents looked so concerned when I walked them to the table with tears swelling in my eyes. I said I had to tell them something and to not interrupt me as I read. When I started, I didn't know if I'd be able to finish. My hands were shaking so much I could hardly read the letter, let alone see it through my tears.
My dad kept handing me tissues as I choked out my words, tears staining the pages I worked so hard to write. The last few words tumbled out of my mouth as my parents came to my side of the table and started hugging me. They said they still loved me and always would. I kept crying, but, for the first time in months, they were tears of joy.
Coming out is scary and difficult, but it's freeing. I thought I felt beautiful when I dressed up in fancy clothes, but I'd never felt more beautiful than when I was finally myself. I understand that not everyone will be able to accept me and I was lucky that all of the most important people in my life did. Even if they hadn't though, telling them now would have given them plenty of time to realize that I'm still me, I'm still Shelby. There's a part of me that is always going to wish I came out sooner, but the rest of me is happy I came out exactly when I did.
For so long society had been writing my story and I hated how it was going to end, but now, I hold the pen. I've started writing a new chapter and the first sentence in it is, "I'm gay and not scared to admit it, because now I fully love myself for it."
Note From Mary Alice Stephenson
I met Shelby Bilbruck when she volunteered to help with a fashion empowerment event held by my organization GLAM4GOOD. She was such a hardworking and dynamic young woman that I asked her to intern for GLAM4GOOD last summer.
Shelby and I talked about sharing her story here with you but I wanted her to talk to her family and make sure that this was a declaration she wanted to make to the world.
After a few weeks of thinking about it, Shelby got back to me and wanted to move forward with this post. I am so proud of Shelby. The story you just read is inspiring and beautiful and one that will resonate with many young people. It is an honor to support Shelby and we both hope that by posting this story we might be able to empower other young people feel comfortable and find the courage to open up and talk to their families about whatever it is they might be hiding.