Playwright and journalist Alexis Clements shares her coming out story with The Narrator for National Coming Out Day. Her play, Conversation, can be found in Volume 2 of the anthology Out of Time & Place (Women’s Project, 2010), which she co-edited. She regularly contributes to Hyperallergic and co-founded a queer writing group with In The Flesh Magazine in Brooklyn.
There are so many ways to tell a coming out story. You can start from the earliest inklings of feeling that you were different. But those memories may not be entirely clear, or if you already felt different from the people around you for any number of other reasons, then your sense of difference may not so clearly be tied to one thing or the other. You can start with your first serious crush or kiss or encounter with another person that made you understand you weren’t attracted to others in the way people assumed you were or told you that you should be. You can start from the first time you tried to talk about your sexuality with someone else, or the first time you were made fun of, or the cutting moment when someone else outed you.
There isn’t a switch that suddenly flips or a single instance when both you and everyone around you come to know this particular piece of you.
I didn’t come out until a few months before my 30th birthday, which wasn’t all that long ago. But once I did, I figured I’d already lost enough time as it was, so I decided to go all in, right away. Over the course of about four months, I came out to my closet friends, my immediate family, a number of my co-workers, and then, in a final flourish, to just about everyone else I knew, thanks to the magic of the Internet.
All of this culminated in my 30th birthday party, which I dubbed my “Gay-Wakening” and celebrated in a bar with friends, and friends of friends, and strangers who kept wandering in to see what all the colorful decorations were for. I made up silly lesbian-themed games. The boyfriend of one of my best friends DJ-ed, and we danced and laughed and drank. It was wonderful, and ridiculous, and all the people there, most of whom were straight (save an incredibly kind table of lesbians that a friend of mine had brought with her), were pretty great about the whole thing.
But there was also a feeling of frustration in me because I was single that night, and I desperately wanted this new life I imagined for myself to start right away. I felt like now that I had figured this out, I wanted to finally understand what this love thing was, right then, in that moment. I wanted to instantly erase those 30 years of uncertainty, all those feelings of exclusion, every one of my willful attempts at love in the past. I wanted to start all over again, immediately. But I had no idea with whom or how to do that.
And of course there had been difficulties during those four months leading up to the party that were still on my mind. People don’t advocate for ripping off the Bandaid because it doesn’t hurt. The hope is just that the pain will have a shorter duration. People kept telling me that it took a lot of time for family and friends to take in this kind of news, so I wanted the clock to start ticking right away, I wanted whatever time in the future when they would fully accept this about me to come sooner rather than later.
At least one person said to me that it was like I was drawing a line in the sand, that people either had to accept it or not. I thought it was strange that someone would even bother pointing this out to me, as if I didn’t realize that were the case. Of course I was drawing a line in the sand. And of course people had to either accept it or not. I was 30 years old. I had already been through what I thought was a decent share of being chucked around by life. If people didn’t want to accept this part of me, it would be better to know now and move on than spend anymore time trying to be acceptable to them, trying to fit in where I couldn’t.
That’s so much of what the struggle was for me during those 30 years—trying to figure out how to be accepted or acceptable. A big part of that involved turning inward, not just about my preferences when it came to love, but the way I spoke, the way I acted around others, my body, the clothes I wore, whether or not I was smart enough or good enough or cool enough or whatever else it was that I thought was standing in the way of me being able to be loved by another person. I assumed from a very early age, wrongly I know now, that the success or failure of any interaction at all with another person was entirely on me — if it succeeded I did okay, if it failed, I needed to not only change what I was doing, but also to change something about myself. This had to do with more than just my sexuality, but certainly that was at least a few of the strings in the web of things holding me back.
So, by the time I did come out, to myself and others, I was just done. I’d had enough of living in my own head, of beating myself up and pressuring myself. I wanted to finally let go of the vice grip because after almost 30 years, I finally started to see that I could.
Those four months weren’t without moments of sheer terror—that I would be completely abandoned by the only people who were obligated to love me; that the loneliness I had felt before was nothing in comparison to the loneliness that I might feel after coming out. But I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t keep walling off all these parts of me that had suddenly made themselves known in unequivocal ways, that had suddenly had a chance to breath fresh air for the first time in years. So, I was going to risk it. And thankfully it proved worth the risk for me, as I know it has been for countless others, and as I want to believe it will be for most people. But that logic you develop inside of your head, and the even more twisted reasoning of the outside world, are not easy things to overcome.
I was lucky too that I knew I was living in a time and a place, and in a way, in which I had more freedom to be who I was than most people. Thousands upon thousands of people had spent decades doing the soldiering necessary to win basic human dignities and recognition for themselves and others—enduring beatings, torture, rape, arrests, separation from loved ones, being left to rot in hospitals and on the streets, with many dead or killed. And thousands upon thousands are carrying on those fights—fights that I hadn’t been any part of, but from which I could now reap the benefits.
Though I would love to claim that birthday party and those four months as a period of triumph and bravery, there’s much more to the story than that. I was definitely happy and excited that night in the bar, but I was also frustrated, and nervous, and anxious for the future to start, and uneasy about whether or not I had what I needed to move forward, and still susceptible to thoughts of the past, and still dealing with the fallout from my announcement, and thankful for my friendships in a way that I had never been before, and on and on. Because there are so many ways to tell a coming out story.
I’ve written in journals pretty much since the time I learned how to put pen to paper, though not religiously or even every day or every week. But writing has always been, for me, a coping mechanism, an exploration, a chance to reflect and confide, an escape, an avocation and a vocation. Thousands of times I sat down to scrawl out a lengthy treatise on whatever subject was on my mind at the moment, each one written with passion and conviction and focused attention. But the next day, or week, upon reading it back, I often found that I would feel completely different. So much so, sometimes, that the words on the page seemed ridiculous or even alien in the light of a different day. And the fact that they weren’t how I felt in that new moment made it feel like they weren’t true any more, like they had never been true.
I wanted to fix those feelings in time and space. I wanted to get them down in just the right way because a significant part of me wanted to believe that if I could figure it out, then I wouldn’t be troubled by it anymore. I thought that by writing it down I could get all the parts of me that were constantly swirling and careening around to stop, to calm down, to finally be at rest, so I could breath, or so that I could figure something else out.
How could I feel so strongly negative about something one day, have it all recorded in excruciating and colorful detail here on the page, but then, the very next day, feel something utterly different? Why couldn’t I resolve these things? It had to be possible to pin them down somehow—otherwise, nothing made any sense; otherwise it would be too chaotic and confusing and I would never be able to get anything done. Because there were times when I felt like I needed for those feelings to go away, because they were frightening and overwhelming. I couldn’t control them, and if I couldn’t control them, that meant they had control of me, and if that was true, then who was I? How was I going to function in the world? How was I ever going to connect to other people if I couldn’t stop all these thoughts from flying around in my head?
For a long time I felt that writing would help me gain control, or at least some understanding, which, to my young self, felt like the closest thing I could get to controlling anything. But the gradual process of letting go of that need to get it right, of the need to understand everything—of which my coming out was a big part—has helped me to finally open up to more nuanced and changing stories within my own life, and hopefully in the lives of others as well.
Next up on The Narrator: New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth