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I know I’m gay, but being out doesn’t mean I accept myself

I write about a lot of personal issues — mental health and surviving sexual abuse — but I tend to omit mentions of my sexual orientation. I am a lesbian, but I struggle with this part of my identity. On one hand, it’s not something I can change; it’s simply part of who I am, and I’ve been out for more than 15 years. On the other, this isn’t the life I imagined, especially as I attempt to untangle sexuality after sexual abuse.

The moment I knew I was gay, I was at the grocery store with my mom when a girl in cargo pants and a white tank top breezed through. I followed her with my eyes, smitten. The words formed in my head: I’m gay. I was 12 years old. I knew the word, but it didn’t sink in right away. I came out to a few friends my freshman year of high school a couple years later, but it didn’t make much difference. It was the late 1990s in rural Pennsylvania and I had a conservative family. Where I’m from, being gay isn’t something you were.

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My sexual confusion made me vulnerable to a sexually abusive relationship with a much older man (and teacher). I believed this trusted adult when he said I loved him. I still had crushes on female classmates, but he represented the “normal” I saw reflected all around me: heterosexuality. It wasn’t hard to lure me into his trap.

Eventually, I called off this abusive relationship, partially by admitting I thought I was gay, and entered that beautiful time of self-discovery in college. For the first time, I met other lesbians and was able to talk openly about my identity. I fell in love with a woman for the first time. I finally explored my true identity. I came out to most of my friends, enjoying the ability to freely tell people who I am. But the joy and freedom didn’t last long.

I found myself in a serious relationship with a girl I loved, but I knew my parents didn’t want me to be gay. Being the traditional people they were, my parents sat me down and said that while they still loved me they wouldn’t do anything to support this part of my life. Their reaction wasn’t a surprise, but it created internal shame.

The nail in the coffin came from my abuser. After reporting him, I testified at several hearings to speak against his ability to have any contact with young people. Reliving years of trauma in a court-like setting is an excruciating experience in itself, and I don’t remember much of what happened. I do remember the punch-in-the-gut moment when my abuser’s attorney hinged his argument on my sexuality: “It is our belief this witness is a lesbian and has therefore fabricated a heterosexual relationship.”

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In that moment, the small ray of pride I had crumbled. My lesbianism was thrown in my face, used to break me down. I didn’t falter in the moment, largely thanks to the attorney in charge of prosecuting my abuser, but I still haven’t recovered. Now, being a lesbian seemed both shameful and downright dangerous — something that could be used against me. I didn’t want this identity.

While I never outright denied my sexuality, I didn’t offer it up anymore either. I was essentially back in the closet.

Five years later, I was watching the TV show Glee when one of the female characters, Santana, came out as gay, and the moment struck an emotional chord: That’s who I am, who I am supposed to be. I was tired of carrying around an internal homophobia that didn’t belong to me. It was the first time I considered my sexuality in years, and suddenly it was all-consuming. I had to find some way back to comfort — if not pride — in who I am.

I’m out to my family, friends, most coworkers and in my writing when I broach the subject. But I still have a ways to go before fully accepting myself. I feel self-conscious discussing women I might find attractive, and I talk about past girlfriends in gender-neutral terms to avoid outing myself (even though people already know I’m gay). While my parents have come around, it’s still not an easy topic to talk about openly. I’m not ready to date again yet, and going to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender events evokes a boatload of anxiety. But I’ve finally started talking about it again.

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Many LGBT people struggle with their identity and coming out, and they’re not alone. I certainly have and do. Even though I’ve technically been out for years, self-acceptance hasn’t come easy and it’s something I build every day. However, I know working through my ambivalence on being gay will also lead me to a place of deep self-acceptance, even if it happens long after I have come out. And that’s something I can look forward to.

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