Nearly two years ago, I got a strange voicemail from my mother: “Hi sweetheart, I hear you’re having a hard time, and I just want to let you know that I love you whatever you do or whoever you love. So if you want to talk, I’m here.”
I called her back, confused because I didn’t know what “hard time” she was referring to. In talking to her, I discovered that she thought I was leaving my husband Brendan for someone else. And not just someone else: She thought I was leaving him for a woman.
A couple of weeks before the conversation with my mom, I had come out as queer on Facebook for National Coming Out Day. It turned out that my mom, along with some other people in my family, misunderstood what this declaration meant. I ultimately came out for myself, to be at peace with the years of reflection on my sexual identity, to finally live in accordance with my own personal values.
For so long, I debated with myself about how to come out — or whether I even should. Brendan and I met in high school; he was the first and only serious relationship I’d ever had.
Shortly before we began dating, I realized at 15 that I was bisexual. I’d always been interested in girls but didn’t recognize this interest as attraction, since it seemed different from the way I felt about boys. Growing up in a red state where queer role models were invisible, I was never given the language to talk about my sexual identity, nor did I have anyone to talk about it with. But as I entered the latter half of my teen years and saw a couple of people at my high school come out as gay or lesbian, I could finally begin putting words to the way I felt.
Brendan was the first person I ever came out to, mostly by accident. We were going through our school yearbook over the phone one night, and he asked me about girls that I thought were hot. He’d have no trouble saying now that he was just being a dumb horny boy trying to get his girlfriend to play into his own lesbian fantasy.
But when I offered up more names than he expected, he asked me point-blank, “Krista, are you bi?”
I’d never admitted it out loud — I had only ever explored my feelings writing in a journal, or by wringing my hands over sex dreams about girls and wondering what they meant. But I didn’t want to lie either. “Yeah,” I said hesitantly. I held my breath.
“That’s great.” I exhaled.
I didn’t know it then, but his unconditional acceptance of my sexuality was a crucial step in my own self-acceptance. At first, it was an exciting secret we shared, our attraction to girls a commonality that bonded us. But what was the point of telling anyone else? As a teenager, I didn’t understand the nuanced ways in which relationship status and sexual identity could be mutually exclusive from one another.
Over time, I felt as though I was missing out on something, like I was hiding a part of myself from the rest of the world. A few years later, I told my younger brother when he simultaneously came out to me. We had a texting conversation that went something like this:
So, Krista, I’m bi.
Cool, me too.
No, I’m serious.
I know, me too.
It felt better to have the support of the two most important people in my life. After that, I decided I wasn’t going to necessarily hide my identity from people, even if I never made a formal announcement about it. Living in the Bay Area made this easier, since I could more safely assume that the folks I told would be more queer-friendly. I outed myself to my entire MFA cohort through an essay I wrote detailing the experience of that coming out conversation with my brother. After that, I continued rolling it out to other people in my life, mostly new friends and coworkers, but in less direct ways. Whenever the opportunity arose, I tried to be nonchalant, as if I were discussing just another characteristic about me like my eye color or shoe size (“Oh, you think Olivia Wilde is hot too? I would totally fuck her.”).
But I was still unsatisfied, as if living in this state of being half-in and half-out of the closet while I was with a man meant that people couldn’t take my queerness seriously. I had trouble determining how much to even take myself seriously. Aside from a couple of fumbling threesomes with Brendan early on in our relationship, I had no experience with women, sexual or otherwise. I felt that I hadn’t earned a place in the queer community. I understood that my decade-long relationship gave me passing straight privilege and that was something I couldn’t discount. I may have had my share of challenges, but they couldn’t compare to the same struggles of others who have no choice but to be out, wholly and completely. And I wanted to be respectful of that disparity. I felt stuck. Just as I have struggled to call myself a person of color when I pass as white, there are these identities in which I don’t feel a right to occupy, intersections of marginalization that I don’t feel I deserve to claim.
Another reason I waited was because I began to question how exactly I identified. I had always thought of myself as bisexual, but the more exposed to queer culture I became, the less confident I felt about the label. Learning about other orientations like pansexuality opened my mind to other ways of identifying. So, perhaps as an excuse, I told myself I should wait to come out until I knew for sure which label I wanted to use to be less confusing to others; in reality, I was waiting to be less confusing to myself.
As I began rounding the corner of my 20s, I was finally becoming more comfortable with who I was, even if I didn’t fully understand what I was. So, I decided to post on Facebook for National Coming Out Day. This was what coming out meant to me, as I didn’t think this announcement necessitated individually contacting my friends and family with an email or phone call. I wanted to approach it more casually because, after all this time, I knew that it had become a much bigger deal in my head than it deserved to be.
“I think for visibility reasons, it’s important to be out if it’s right and safe for you to do so,” I wrote. “A lot of people close to me know, and I’ve had a partner who not only accepts me for who I am, but encourages me to fully embrace my identity. So it’s time to finally be out to the world: I’m queer.” My post was met with a lot of support, with “likes” from friends, coworkers, and certain family members — some who already knew, but many who didn’t.
I didn’t experience the relief I expected or feel a sense of bravery for finally deciding to do it. Instead, I felt slightly embarrassed for inviting the attention; I was self-conscious about the way the proclamation seemed self-important. It didn’t feel like a celebration, but rather a task I’d finally completed that was long overdue. I felt a sense of guilt for not doing it sooner. It would be months before I would finally be proud of myself for choosing to be out, the feeling I had long strived for.
I didn’t actually expect my parents to see my coming out post, because neither of them really know how to use Facebook. I didn’t intend on talking to either of them about it individually, either. My homophobic father has refused to acknowledge my brother’s queerness for over a decade, so I expected him to ignore my post even if he did see it. He and I have never even had a real conversation about my marriage. The only time he has ever been concerned about my relationship was when I moved in with Brendan at 18, pulling him aside days before we left for California, intimidating him with a hollow threat along the lines of, “You better take care of my daughter — or else.”
My mother, on the other hand, has dementia, and I knew a coming out conversation would create more confusion than clarity; it would be a conversation she wouldn’t even remember a day later. I had long ago made peace with the fact that I’d never really be out to my parents in a way that they’d understand or be able to talk about. It wasn’t necessarily important for me to be out to them in particular, but to be out in general, for the rest of the world to see me in a way that I’d felt invisible through my teens and early adulthood.
But a family friend saw my Facebook post and told my mom, which was when she called me and left me that voicemail thinking I wanted out of my marriage to be with a woman instead. I assured her that everything between Brendan and me was fine. I explained that by coming out, I was only acknowledging that I have the capacity within me to love a woman or other genders, and I wanted people to know that about me. She seemed to understand this and said again that she supported me no matter what. “As long as you’re happy, I’m happy,” she said. She and I haven’t talked about it again since.
Shortly after that bizarre conversation with my mom, my brother called to tell me that a couple of distant family members had reached out to him, people who were also confused about my coming out. They asked him whether things were okay in my marriage, if Brendan and I were still happy together. I laughed and rolled my eyes, wondering how many other people had speculated the same thing but just chose to mind their own business about it. This was something I hadn’t considered when I decided to come out: that people might assume something was wrong, because why else would I do so if I was satisfied in my current relationship? Just as I hadn’t understood as a baby queer that someone’s relationship might only reflect a portion of their sexual identity, I recognized there were many other people out there who didn’t understand this either.
Though some people totally missed the point of my coming out, I realized that I didn’t care. I didn’t become concerned about clarifying why I was coming out or assuring people that I wasn’t heading for a divorce. I could have driven myself crazy worrying if I cared too much about how others perceived this news. Ultimately, I came out for me, to embrace all the parts of myself that might not be apparent to others at first glance, to give myself permission to navigate the world as a queer person.
Two years later, I look back on my decision to come out with a sense of fulfillment. Would things have been better if I decided to do it earlier? Maybe. But I also have a lot of compassion for my younger, closeted self, a girl who was just doing the best she could with the limited support and tools she had. A girl who had a boy she loved but also had sex dreams about girls, a girl who couldn’t have imagined what it would feel like to live a life guided by openness and self-acceptance.