I remember it being the tail-end of my sophomore year in college, and I’d fallen in tremendous like with a girl and shot my shot, as they say. I wasn’t exactly sure how it worked: me, a girl, asking another girl if she wanted to go out “like that.” But I did, and I was glad. And in the way of springtime things, we grew.
May came and commencements, dorm room packing, and temporary goodbyes were said. My great-aunt, with whom I spent holiday breaks and was like a second mother to me, lived in Jackson, so my trip “home” was a short one.
I had two part-time jobs and no desire or reason to leave the city and travel to so-boring-guess-I’ll-watch-the-grass-grow Columbia for the summer. Not with my burgeoning love around. She stayed nearby, too, with a few friends, and it was easy for us to navigate the summer. I worked then just for the sake of having money to spend (the good ol’ days), and much of my time that wasn’t absorbed by work involved me taking us on cutesy dates and adventures. None of these, however, involved her coming to my aunt’s house.
There was a part of me then that felt secretive, deceptive even, for introducing her to even one family member as just my friend. She was my girlfriend, like that. And I knew that in all the love my great aunt had for me would go rigid and likely pale at hearing her dear, mannerable, Christian-raised niece proclaim herself bi-sexual. No. No. No. I was raised wholly and fiercely Missionary Baptist — liars, thieves, adulterers be damned. I was supposed to know that God turned his nose up to gay people, especially. It wouldn’t fly and the news would quickly trickle down to my parents in a couple of hushed phone calls. I knew it and wanted to avoid that drama for as long as possible.
I saw little use in giving anyone impetus to make me the family outlier. I didn’t want to be outcast any more than I already felt inside, being the only cousin who had still never brought anyone special around for the holidays. I didn’t want to be the topic of older family members’ gossip or have my girlfriend awkwardly labeled as my “friend girl” in conversations because she wasn’t that. I wanted my privacy, and even more than that, I wanted the respect that I knew I wouldn’t get. So I crept under the radar without ever drawing any suspicion to myself. I was only 20 then, but I’d never drawn any attention to the fact that I was dating (guys) and had never really had much desire to bring someone around my family.
I successfully kept my relationship a secret until it was time for fall semester once again. My dorm suite was once again a sanctuary where our FaceTime calls weren’t in whispers, and I could invite my girlfriend over as many times as I liked without raising questions.
Dating teenaged boys was always a source of groan-worthy disdain for me, so Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went during my junior year without issue until one day around New Year’s I made the mistake of mentioning my involvement with the campus’s gay-straight alliance to my great aunt.
“Gay-straight alliance?” she asked in an exaggerated tone. “Since when do you care about other people?”
I knew her suspicion had been piqued, some lightning-quick flash in her mind that made the connection she’d been missing all these months. I kept silent.
February rolls around and my girlfriend and I are closing in on one year of dating. I tell her I want us to go to Mardi Gras so she can know the glory of carnival. The atmosphere, the people, and the openly boozy traipsing down Canal Street are things everyone should experience (like a tourist) at least once. My father and his mother’s family are all native New Orleanians, and so my natural inclination was to call my grandmother up to ask if we — my cousin (another of her granddaughters), my girlfriend and I — could spend the weekend at her house while we enjoyed the festivities. (To be transparent, I didn’t mention she was my girlfriend. “Just a friend,” I said. Too much honesty would be bad, I reasoned.)
Several days before the trip, I get a phone call. It’s my dad and he’s at his angry, accusatory best: “You couldn’t even have the decency to be honest and let your grandmother know you planned on bringing your girlfriend into her home this weekend, huh? …You took away her choice to decide whether she wanted you two in her house. … Why wouldn’t you just get a hotel room?”
I was stunned by the venom in his voice. Did I take away my grandmother’s right to maybe err on the side of homophobia? If she felt that way, I wanted to hear her say it, I told him.
I mostly knew in my heart it was his own discontent that was being projected and I eventually hung up the phone after hearing enough. Furthermore, I was wondering how he, my grandmother, anyone knew. I retraced steps in my mind and all roads led back to my great aunt. She’d been suspicious ever since I’d mentioned being a representative for our GSA. To wit, I’d recently “big-chopped” and rocked an almost-fade at the time. I’d always had long, thick relaxed hair and this was move was a little disappointing to everyone.
I was chock full of disappointments then. The trickle down of whispers I’d been dodging for months was now a torrent in my ears. One of my dad’s sisters, another close family member, called me from New Orleans the next day. I vividly remember being fresh out of class when I got the call, still feeling angry, vulnerable, and frankly, heartbroken. I’d been outed on a hunch by someone who claimed to love and care about me. I felt angered mostly at no one caring enough to even ask if it were true.
“You know it goes against what your great aunt believes, but I accept you no matter what. It’s your life.” I told her it was true.
What followed was a whirlwind of accusations and inferences about what my life must be like. How I must have been drug-addled and maybe I should have gone to the much stricter and Catholic Xavier University in New Orleans that I’d originally had my heart set on.
We still went to Mardi Gras as planned, and it turned out that my grandmother never said any of those things, but the damage was done. There was no way we were staying overnight in her house. The air was too thick with disdain, and the last thing I wanted to face was the judgment of my family or subject my girlfriend to being treated poorly by strangers who disliked her.
Back in Jackson, I later confronted my great aunt and told her that in the same way she assumed I’d stripped my grandmother of autonomy, she’d stripped me of my choice to come out or stay in. I got hit with a bunch of religious justifications and talk of respect. How could it be a two-way street? I began to realize so long as they were void of abuse, my romantic relationships shouldn’t have been anyone’s concern. I had no interest in approval or support that accepted only part of me. I reluctantly pulled away from the people who wouldn’t respect the person they’d forced me to proclaim to be.
Relationships with my great aunt and father were never perfect, but they haven’t been the same since. Make no mistake — I love my family. This is mostly a “me” thing. I don’t believe much in the idea of closure that involves other people when it involves expectations of an apology from someone who doesn’t believe they owe you one. I try to adjust my expectations of people and forgive myself, instead, for giving my energy to situations that do not deserve it. I am an over-analyzer by nature and will think anything to death. It takes its toll.
Over the years, I’ve chiseled away at the resentment I harbor for being “othered,” for my own sake, but I won’t deny it happening or allow myself to be gaslighted by anyone — even family members. Still forgiving someone when they won’t fess up to harming you is hard (and is in no way required, let me say). And I won’t lie; it can be downright painful to set these boundaries with your family. You begin to worry about seeming selfish or unloyal for choosing yourself over your older, wiser family members’ “best intentions” for your life. Keep in mind that you deserve respect, too, and the freedom to figure out what path is yours. True acceptance looks and feels like being embraced without conditions or exceptions. We deserve that from our families.
The realities for young women who rely on their families for support after coming (or being forced) out can be much more severe than my own — I was lucky enough to have a job and the support of my mom that allowed me to continue providing for myself, though many young black queer women are not in such a situation — especially those who are still living at home or are younger than 18.
A few years have passed and my now-ex-girlfriend and I have long since broken up. Life happens. I still find a part of me feeling thankful for having the courage to set those boundaries for myself, although difficult. Establishing boundaries can be a tough practice to keep, but the sooner the better. Setting parameters for your dignity, your peace of mind, and your self-respect, regardless of who tries to overstep, are the greatest practices of self-care and accountability. Coming out, in many instances, is dangerous for girls. There’s no playbook to doing it right. There’s nothing to prepare you for what may come if you decide to step out, or even (Lord forbid) if you’re thrown out. What you can prepare yourself for, though, is the freeness in feeling openly and unashamedly you.