Coming out is a choice we make over and over again in our lifetimes.
The truth is -- there is not just one coming out moment. I have come out to so many people over the years -- to friends, colleagues, bosses, siblings, and parents. The two experiences that matter most, the ones I remember most vividly, were also the most difficult to do.
I was 16 when I admitted to myself that I was gay. Coming out to myself was hard enough -- I barely had the language to name my feelings for the first girl I ever kissed. I didn’t know of any role models or road maps. Growing up in the South in the 1970s, I didn’t know any LGBTQ+ people period. And all my life, I had been told that being LGBTQ+ was dangerous, or sinful, or something to be ashamed of.
I needed to talk to someone.
And my teacher, Ms. Ann Gray, was the adult I trusted the most.
I remember feeling terrified to say the words as I approached her before class one day. I could barely hear myself speak over the sound of my own heart pounding in my ears as I said something like, “I think...I’m gay, I know that sounds crazy, I know that you’re going to say I need help,” to my teacher. I just knew she was going to send me to the guidance counselor, or worse, insist on calling my parents right then and there.
Instead, Ms. Gray gently took my hand, placed it in hers, and said:
“Joni -- There is absolutely nothing wrong with you. You are perfect just the way you are.”
With this simple moment, my high school English teacher changed my life. For the first time in my sixteen years, I felt like my identity -- whether my friends and family knew what it was or not -- was valid. In that one affirming moment, Ms. Gray gave me the gift of a lifetime.
I carried this feeling with me past the walls of my high school, out of my home state of North Carolina, and through my young adulthood into my early thirties.
I was 32 years old when I finally worked up the courage to do something I had known was necessary for 16 years: I was ready to come out to my mom.
Here I was, half a life after finding myself, knowing that this moment would define one of my most important relationships forever. But no matter how much I tried to talk myself out of it, I needed her to know that I had found my true self.
So, even though I had always imagined myself blurting my truth out to my mom over the kitchen table, I decided to write her a letter. I wrote to her about my life and my partner at that time. I remember writing, “I know that our short term pain will be in the long term, a life shared openly and honestly, together.” I sealed the envelope, sent it via certified mail. I just had to know when she received it.
It took about five days before my mom left me a voicemail on my office phone. She told me that she had received the letter and needed some time to think, asking me to give her that time and space. It was the first time in my life that I felt that I was in “time out” with my mom.
I remember waiting almost three weeks, which felt like three months, before I received a letter from my mom. In my 32 years, I had never gone this long without talking to my mother. This is why I was the most nervous I had ever been as I opened the letter and ran my eyes over my mom’s words. She had chosen to be just as honest with me as I was with her. She wrote that she loved me and that she was proud to have me as a daughter. But my mom was also scared for me. In a world filled with judgment and hate, she was nervous about how I would be treated as someone who doesn’t adhere to norms.
More important than her fear though, was the strongest feeling that filled her letter: unconditional love. I realized then that I had never really considered the phrase before. But there I sat crying, allowing this unrealized but incredibly powerful unconditional love to wash over me. There it was, in my mother’s beautiful handwriting. Not only did I know that I could be free, but I could also be appreciated and loved for who I actually am.
Coming out, whether it is easy, challenging, or seemingly impossible for you, is your own journey to embark on. It won’t be a straight shot and it might take a lifetime.
I am so thankful that coming out for me has opened up a world of possibilities. I have found the love of my life, I have found a home at the Human Rights Campaign, and have risen through the ranks from a volunteer to, now, our interim president. That 16-year-old girl, who was sure something was wrong with her, now leads the nation’s largest civil rights organization fighting for LGBTQ+ rights.
But perhaps most importantly, I found a deeper connection with my mother.
If you are reading this and are considering your own coming-out journey, know that I am right here with you. When you are ready, there will be a beautiful, diverse, and accepting community ready to embrace you, including the members and staff of HRC. The risks are still real, but we’re working every day to erase them. And, when you are ready, we have a plethora of resources to help you come out and live openly at home, at work, and in your community.
I, along with my colleagues, am doing what I can to make sure that you can live your truth in a world that is more just and more inclusive than the one I grew up in, more equal than the one we live in now.
Today, and every day, know that you are perfect just as you are.