The other day, my nine-year-old pointed out a rainbow flag to his best friend, and proudly announced “that represents my family!” This followed a (surprising) conversation with my six-year-old who answered her question-a-day card asking “what part of your family are you most proud of” with “my two moms”.
If you had asked my nine – or even nineteen – year old self if I ever thought I would feel such pride in my own personal queerness – I would have laughed out loud. Actually, I would have blanched and croaked “what do you mean?!?! I’m not gay! What are you talking about! Hahahahaha….no really, look away…”
As parents, my wife and I are committed to creating a family culture where our kids can ask questions about themselves, their bodies, their feelings, and our family, as a whole. We are annoyingly persistent in reminding them that we are here, we are open, that all people matter, and that no matter what, they can come to us with anything. It’s a constant effort in our attempts to raise decent humans, who aren’t afraid to love and accept their authentic selves.
I’m also reminded that my kids are growing up in a time wildly different then my own childhood. LGBTQ+ visibility, the broad impact of social media, an increased understanding of a spectrum of terminology, and a cultural evolution where coming out as queer in any sense is commonplace is a crazy contrast to my desperate, secretive attempts to learn more about myself in the world, all while keeping my true self hidden.
Ten years ago, I took part in the “It Gets Better” campaign, a social media movement created by writer Dan Savage and his partner, Terry Miller that focused on people sharing their personal stories to provide hope and encouragement to young LGBTQ+ people.
I remember the feeling of holding up my handmade sign and posing for my photo with a giant grin, both proud and honored to be a part of a movement that could potentially make a difference in an LGBTQ+ kid’s life. I also remember wishing something like that existed when I was young – deeply closeted, living a vivid internal life in my mind that I was too afraid to live out loud.
I was teased for being “different” as far back as elementary school, not much older than my son is now – and it continued through junior high, high school, and college. Not all the time and not by all people, though the people who saw through me — classmates, teammates, roommates — identified and called out the very parts of me I was so panicked to keep hidden.
In elementary school, boys teased me and called me “Brianne the Man” – a term decades later I still feel ashamed and embarrassed to repeat. Until this year, I don’t think I ever shared that name with anyone – not my parents, friends, or even my wife. That name made me feel exposed in a way I couldn’t explain back then, and fed into a shameful feeling that something about me wasn’t right.
I can see why I may have been an easy target for 12 year olds used to singling someone out when they didn’t quite make sense. My hair and clothes were always “off”, I carried myself in a way not quite like the other kids, I existed in a way that wasn’t like a girl…but wasn’t like a boy either. I was always somewhere in between, quietly searching for ways to calibrate myself within a culture that didn’t seem to have a spot that was right for me.
Later through junior high, high school, and college, snarky backhanded comments picked at my sexuality and off-hand passive aggressive remarks judged my relationship with my close friends and my then-boyfriend. I was constantly self-conscious about my platonic friendships with girls – even my best friends – and how they might be perceived. I was terrified of coming off as predatory in any way and was constantly vigilant in maintaining my non-threatening role as “funny best friend” who…don’t forget! Has a boyfriend! I’m chill…just one of the girls….I’m safe to be around! Haha!”
While on the outside, I was a fully-functioning honor student and 7-letter varsity athlete with a great family and a broad group of friends – inside I was living a double life.
One life, completely inside my head, was a place I could go through adolescence in a way that was real and authentic to me…while the other external persona played the part I thought the world needed me to be.
I simply couldn’t figure out how to reconcile both sides of me – how could I be this “model” person when I had this terrible secret that would collapse the image that my family, friends, and community had of me? I couldn’t understand how to come to terms with the image I created of myself – despite trying so hard to shove down the parts of me that would blow my cover.
I didn’t come out to my family until after college, once I moved to Washington, D.C. While my actual coming out experience was less than ideal (THAT is a whole other story!) I finally gained the confidence to share a major part of me that was emotionally holding me back, keeping me from being my real, authentic self with the people who mattered most.
Back then, it was a terrifyingly huge gamble to expose this secret and risk the foundation I built my entire identity upon. It took a lot for me to stand tall (enough) to embrace this side of me and decide that being proud of myself – and accepting who I am – was important enough to challenge my relationship with my (very private) parents, my siblings, my (very conservative) grandparents and my large, exuberant extended crew.
It was not easy and there were lots of difficult rocky parts. BUT there were also surprisingly wonderful moments too – and I never once doubted it was the right thing to do.
Fast-forward to today, I’m an out member of my rural, college town community, involved in helping LGBTQ+ people – and their families – gain visibility, support, and acceptance. I’m the incredibly proud non-binary parent (“Baba” for short) to two kind, empathetic, and fiercely inclusive kids. I’m married to my very supportive (and very cool) wife, who constantly advocates and encourages me to share my own stories. Every day, I am embracing more of my own identity, becoming just a little bit more comfortable with who I am and all the many parts.
It’s a far cry from my socially awkward, nervously closeted young self, who never imagined that a life like this could ever be possible.
Whether its for a family gathering or an elementary school event, being able to show up with my wife and kids, not feeling out of place, embarrassed, or ashamed is something I never take for granted. The ability to get married and celebrate my family and our love surrounded by those closest to us was an experience I never dared dream of as a kid. The (mostly) joys of parenthood and the ability to have a family and raise them in a community in which we feel safe and accepted reminds me every day how truly fortunate I am.
While it’s not always easy, I no longer feel compelled to hide or leave out key parts of myself, especially not to make other people feel comfortable around me. I don’t diminish who I am, who I love, and what my family looks like — even when it’s difficult.
I still work on overcoming my occasional insecurities, because living half your life in fearful secret doesn’t go away overnight. But as an example to my kids – and to other LGBTQ families – I am proof that it does get better. Choosing yourself is never the wrong decision and I’m certainly proud of that.