The first time I came out was on AIM

Ever since I was young, I’ve been very gay. 

I had a crush on Jason from “Power Rangers,” loved the Spice Girls and played with my sister’s My Little Ponies when she wasn’t around. I never really questioned my identity because I knew I liked boys and I knew I liked hanging out with girls, but I was also aware that me being perceived as feminine wasn’t considered a positive trait among those around me.

I kept my feelings to myself and tried not to act as flamboyant or call attention to myself. I found that at an early age, I was shrinking myself and I would only react, rather than behave how I wanted to be. I would watch the faces of others when I would do or say things and, based on their expressions, I would adjust to keep them ignorant to who I really was. Tapping into people’s social cues became my road map on how to get through youth without much criticism. 

The author and Jason from “Power Rangers.”
The author and Jason from “Power Rangers.”

There weren’t a lot of gay people on television when I was growing up. I vividly remember when Christina Aguilera’s “Stripped” album came out: I was 12 years old and had watched the premiere of her music video for “Beautiful” on MTV’s “TRL.” The video features two gay men who are about to kiss as people pass by and give them disapproving looks. As the song picks up, the couple starts to kiss and hold hands. 

Seeing my first gay kiss while sitting next to my mother wasn’t the easiest. I had to pretend that it was disgusting but, on the inside, I felt as if I was on fire — it was the first time I felt like someone understood what I was going through. These few moments in a music video felt braver than I was allowing myself to be. The way these men endured the looks from the crowd to just simply enjoy this moment was resistance in itself. 

Throughout my middle school years, AIM and Yahoo Messenger were pretty popular. I started looking at chat groups and found my way into a group called gayteens4gayteens. It was a chat moderated by other gay youth, and it immediately became a place for me to start feeling comfortable with myself.  

By the end of eighth grade, I was spending most of my time online. In the back of my mind, I thought about how, at 14 years old, I was leading a double life. I was a proud gay person online but would water myself down in person just to get myself through the day. That summer was a balancing act between the two worlds: I would have chats going with both my real life friends and my virtual gay friends. Because I was bullied at school for being gay, I would spend my time during the weekends talking to people like me who were sharing similar experiences. Having that support system online was cool, but I had no desire to sit behind a computer screen and live life that way — what I really desired was to feel accepted in the real world by my real friends. 

The author and a friend.
The author and a friend.

Living with a secret that big was weighing on me, and about two weeks before I started my freshman year of high school, I made the decision to come out to my IRL friends. I had hyped myself up so much that I knew I needed to tell someone soon or I was going to back down and things would never change. I wanted to tell my best friend, Courtney, because I thought I had the most security by experimenting with telling her, but she was away at camp. While I was trying to decide if I should just wait a little longer, I saw one of my other really good friends, Shaneè, come online. It was now or never. 

My heart started racing, but I clicked on her name and started talking to her pretty casually, at the same time my hands were shaking with every keystroke. I started the conversation asking her about her summer, even though I didn’t really care. All I could think about was that I needed to come out right now. Eventually, I worked up the courage to tell her that there was a reason for me messaging her and it was because I needed to tell her a secret. I told her I didn’t know how she’d feel about me after knowing what I had to tell her. Shaneè kept asking me what was going on and I wrote “I’m …”. She kept asking me to clarify, but I had hoped she would just know my secret from the ellipses alone, so I wouldn’t have to actually type it out. 

Finally after what seemed like forever, I typed out that I was gay and sent it. I started sobbing at my computer — the problem with being on AIM was that I couldn’t read Shaneè’s face immediately. I couldn’t adjust to her expression like I’d trained myself to do. But Shaneè reassured me that she would always be there for me and that it wasn’t something that mattered to her. I sat there for a while, reveling in the fact that someone knew my biggest secret. As the conversation with Shaneè transitioned into what celebrities I thought were cute, I felt like she was meeting me for the first time. It was an enormous relief. 

A few days later, I felt confident enough from my conversation with Shaneè to come out to a few more of my friends. I began to feel less reliant on the internet to be myself. The line between my online self and real self slowly blurred, and it initially felt great.

But then summer ended and the first day of my freshman year of high school began. 

It started off great — I had my group of friends with me, whom I’d confided in and come out to earlier that summer. I remember being in a class and hearing some whispering but I didn’t pay too much attention to it. Then a group of girls came up to me and, in a hushed tone, told me that they heard I was gay. I panicked and denied it very quickly. How did they know that I had come out when I really had only told a few people? I realized that although I was comfortable with my close friends knowing I was gay, I wasn’t comfortable with the whole school knowing and my coming out being the hottest gossip. 

I began to shrink again, denying my identity to anyone who asked. Over the course of my freshman year, I had closed myself off to almost everyone. I didn’t feel like I had any solid friendships because someone within my circle of close friends had outed me to the entire school. The moment of liberation I felt telling Shaneè over the summer was dimmed and I felt a lot of regret for coming out.     

It wasn’t until the end of the year, when I met a group of lovely goth girls two grades above me who called themselves “The Blob,” that I finally felt accepted and safe. On first impression, The Blob was intimidating — the girls wore all-black with fishnets and bondage pants. I, on the other hand, was a soft-spoken emo boy grappling with who I really was. 

The author and the Blob members.
The author and the Blob members.

But when I got to know the girls, I realized why it was so easy to bond with them. They knew what it was like to have someone look at them and immediately judge. They understood what it was like for other people to make wild assumptions about them and their personality. Yet, unlike everyone else, the girls accepted me for who I was and taught me how to accept myself. 

The Blob and I would have sleepovers and go on trips together, but the one memory that always stands out to me is my sophomore year when the girls took me to my first Pride. I grew up in a small town called Sumter in South Carolina and it was an hour away from the capital Columbia, where the annual Pride festival is held. 

Not to date myself, but when I was growing up there was no Pride month. Pride referred to the actual parade that happened on just one day out of the year in some cities sprinkled throughout the U.S. I remember getting into a packed car with The Blob, and some extended Blob family members, and we headed to Columbia. From the car window, I remember seeing all of the parade floats and vibrant community that I had longed to be a part of. After all these years of hiding behind a computer screen and talking to people online, I was surrounded by more gay people than I’d ever seen in one place before. Everyone seemed so confident and proud. It was happy and surreal and one of the most exciting moments of my formative years. While I was there, I remember really wanting to hold onto the moment and the feelings so I could revisit them forever, and to this day, I still do.

Having a solid support system allowed me to accept myself and stand firmly in who I was. Being out gave less room for anyone to say anything because their words didn’t hold any weight anymore. Coming out isn’t always easy and everyone’s experience isn’t always the same, but finding my tribe, and owning who I have, helped me develop into the person I am today.

If you enjoyed reading this personal essay, you should also check out Moriba Cummings’ essay on embracing his Caribbean heritage.

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