What I learned by coming out every single day of my 20s

What I learned by coming out every single day of my 20s
The Empire State Building is seen behind rainbow balloons during the 46th annual Gay Pride march in New York. Bryan R. Smith/Getty Images
The Empire State Building is seen behind rainbow balloons during the 46th annual Gay Pride march in New York. Bryan R. Smith/Getty Images
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When I came out to my mother in my 20s, I wish I'd known that coming out wasn't a one-time process, but an everyday obligation. I didn't expect to have to process the questions, independence and realities of my identity alongside my middle-aged mom; I didn't expect that my processing of all that would be so tied up in her processing of it, too.

Mine wasn’t the coming out story that I’d imagined, the one with a perfect narrative arc — a beginning, a middle and, most importantly, an end — where I’d work up the courage to make a declaration ("I'm gay!") and then march forward with that truth, triumphantly, into my rainbow-colored queer future. 

Instead, what I got when I told my mother was: "I don’t care what you do with your body."

It was my mother’s tacit way of conceding defeat in what had become a pitched battle over my sexuality, her response to the declaration that it took me some 10 years and 3,000 miles away from her to make.

Her saying it to me didn’t feel much like the victory I'd expected. Instead, it was a crushing realization that coming out as queer would be an everyday battle, that even my declaration was just another chapter in the ongoing saga of my coming out — as queer, as independent, as an adult who was capable and deserving of making decisions that were entirely my own. 

But it was hardly the first chapter. That came when I was 16 and on a class field trip, and got a call from my mom who urgently wanted to know why there was a girl’s name written in one of my school notebooks with hearts all around it. I didn’t have a manual for that moment; there was no step-by-step guide to Reassure Your Mother that You're Straight While Maintaining Your Self Worth as a Queer Person from which I could draw.

So I did what was easiest. I lied.

"No, Mom. That’s just a friend. It means nothing. I’m not gay. I’d tell you."

But I was extremely gay, and I didn’t tell her. I couldn't tell her. Not then, and not when I got my first girlfriend three years later.

The truth of my liking girls soon became another iteration of the physical distance I'd carved out for myself, first when I went to college and then after I graduated. Though I was still my mother's daughter, my identity was changing. I was becoming an adult, a black and queer one who craved freedom. 

My mother was changing, too, albeit more hesitatingly. What's a parent's job when their child no longer needs raising? My mom resented my independence because it seemingly made her feel as though she wasn't needed at all. I still needed her, but in different ways; those differences felt like independence to me and rejection to her.

So after years of struggle, the best she could do when I told her of my queerness — which she'd feared for so long — was to throw her hands up and lump my identity in with the rest of her losses. 

Maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised: My mom and I had always been close, and my queerness, so fundamental to the person I was becoming, was something I'd kept from her. Before that, I was an only child and she was a single mom, so we relied on each other in ways that maybe other families didn’t. Growing up, she worked as a bus driver and paid the bills every month. Without it ever being spelled out, I happily did the laundry, ironed her uniforms and packed lunches every day. Every once in a while, she’d pick me up early from school and take me on an adventure — usually thrift store shopping in the boutique shops that lined San Francisco's tiny Pacific Heights neighborhood. 

Humor held us together. When, over the span of 10 months in 1998, we lost my great-grandmother and grandmother to long illnesses, we laughed together at the last line of my grandmother's will, which read that the inscription on her gravestone should read, "I had a ball!"

Around that same time, I embarked on a months-long campaign to get my mom to stop smoking cigarettes by printing out colored photos of cancerous, smoke-infested lungs and taping them all around the kitchen. I even taped one to the front of her coffee maker. She got up early one morning for work, looked at the pictures — and laughed.

That was more or less how we rolled. We laughed at life's bruises. As black women, we knew life doled out its unfair doses of hardships. You couldn't stop life's punches, but you could bob and weave to lessen each blow. And, most importantly of all, we bobbed and weaved together. We were a team, never bogged down by sentiment and always willing to fight the next day.

And then I kept this thing from her, a thing that wasn't just about what I did, but who I was. It took years for her to understand my queerness isn't just about my body; it's about my heart. (A heart that still holds space for her, too.) But it had been a process for me to get there, and I had expected she wouldn't need the same time to understand the heart I'd kept her from knowing as completely as she once had.

What took me years to understand about her is that my mother was warranted her process, too.

My mother had spent the majority of her adult life being a parent. That meant she was used to being able to provide — either material support or guidance. When it came to my sexuality, it was terrain she hadn't quite traveled.

It was that lack of knowing that made her insecure, she told me later. But it's what she did know that made her afraid — that black women were punished for not bowing before patriarchy, that our worlds could all too easily become isolating.

What my mother needed was to feel needed again. Later, she got her chance, once a breakup rocked my foundation. That's when she told me my decision to live my truth wasn't selfish, but brave.

In the long run, it turns out, coming out wasn't a declaration: It is a battle against the world. And even if I'm all grown up, I still want her on my side in it.