A grassy field behind my freshman dorm at college changed — and maybe saved — my life. On the first Saturday of my first year away from home, the field was transformed into a student club fair. There were hundreds of tables set up where upperclassmen waved and handed out flyers. I saw the rainbow flag from a distance and pretended not to see it while I slowly passed every other table. Finally, after building some courage, I stepped up.
“Hey!” someone said. “We’re the LGBT student support group. We meet on Thursdays!” I took a flyer and left. A year later, I would be club president. That first meeting was filled with other kids like me, fresh from small towns, eager to start their lives. When we went around the room introducing ourselves, many people said things like, “I’m a lesbian” — then, after a pause, “That’s the first time I’ve said that out loud.”
There’s nothing more beautiful than saying what you are to a room full of strangers who clap for you, and that is something I wish for every queer person. I sat in those meetings every Thursday for almost five years, so I can assure you that everyone is scared at first — scared of our families finding out, scared of rejection, and scared of each other. This slideshow will break down the ways you can overcome those fears. Because the truth is, there’s nothing to fear at all. You’re here. You’re home.
There are many gay men who say “I’m not part of the scene” — men who hate gay bars and, presumably, crowds of queer people in general. Why? Well, there are a few reasons.
When you’re in the closet, you fear things associated with being queer — including, primarily, other queer people. The desire to distance yourself from them may not vanish after you come out. In fact, for some of us, it gets stronger. Internalized homophobia — self-shaming, self-hatred — leads many gay men, and many queer people in general, to recreate their closets long after they’re “out” by shunning others, particularly those they consider “flamboyant.”
Yes, there are some good reasons to reduce your participation in gay bars (time, money, health). But you must spend time with others, whether that means having a group of gay movie friends or queer gamers or playing on a gay sports team. You don’t need exclusively queer friends, but you do need a best friend who’s like you, someone you can talk to about sex, relationships, family, and so on.
Go to gay bars, even if they make you uncomfortable. Message others, and not just through hookup apps. Reach out through social media — or, better yet, in person — to the queer people you know, even if you don’t know them that well (or at all). Find gay friends.
You need to go to a drag show, stand in front of everyone, and give the queen a single. Watch films like To Wong Foo, Paris Is Burning, Brokeback Mountain, Mommie Dearest, Taxi zum Klo (pictured), and others. Marathon shows like Queer Eye, Glee, Queer As Folk, The L Word, and Will & Grace, even if you don’t think you’ll like them.
Learn the divas we love, from Whitney Houston to Cher. Learn about our great artistic insurgents like John Waters, Bruce LaBruce, Kenneth Anger, and so many others. Learn about activists like Harvey Milk, Larry Kramer, Harry Hay, and Sylvia Rivera. All this is much more than celebrity camp and dusty history — it’s a culture shared by your people. We’ve spent decades pushed to the margins of society, so we celebrate the “otherness” of being cast out of what is still widely seen as the picture of American success (husband, wife, kids, house).
You’ll find things you love and things you don’t love (I earnestly can’t get into Glee), but you need to know the media and music and icons that have impacted us.
This incomparable piece by lesbian writer Sarah Prager goes through the lineup of great gays who changed the world — from inventor Alan Turing to Tchaikovsky, the composer, to the Renaissance painter and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. It’s a must-read.
Pictured: Greta Garbo as Queen Christina kisses a Duchess in MGM's Queen Christina.
When I was in the closet, I kept several journals and hid them in my room. Today, they’re locked in a fireproof box. Writing will help you work through fears and expectations of what your life will be like — it helped me.
Spend a few minutes every day writing about attractive people you saw that day, things you felt, things you wanted. Write about experiences you wish you could have. Save every journal — hide them if you have to. When you look back on them in a few years, you’ll be amazed at how far you’ve come.
Queer history isn’t taught in schools — you have to do your own research. Regardless of how you identify, AIDS is a massive part of your history. AIDS devastated communities of gay men and transgender women, particularly gay men and trans women of color. From that plague sprung the greatest grassroots activism of this era. Let me be clear: If we had not fought for HIV treatment by literally protesting at scientists’ doorsteps, it may have taken much longer to develop the life-saving medications we have now — medications that I along with thousands of people across the globe depend on to survive. We saved the world.
Own that, and own the loss it took to get there. Read the numbers: In four years, more than 5,596 people in the United States had died of AIDS, many of them gay men and transgender women. Imagine losing all your best friends in one summer. On top of that, we faced discrimination and erasure from the highest offices of government. AIDS is the story of a persecuted people declaring war on society in order to save themselves, their lovers, and their friends. That fury and that activism is in your blood.
Have as much sex as you want. There may not be people in your life telling you that you’re allowed to do this, so let me be one who is.
You are completely free. No church, teaching, or god can control how much you enjoy yourself. Your body is the greatest instrument you will ever own, so enjoy it every way you can. No one can make you feel shame unless you let them.
We are surrounded by messages telling us that promiscuity is irresponsible and wrong. Reject all that. It’s OK to be slutty. It’s OK not to have sex if you don’t want sex right now. It’s OK to bang two people this year or twenty people this weekend — as long as they want to bang you, too.
How does sex help? You’re probably scared of sex, at least a little bit. I have been hypersexual for many years and I’m still scared of sex sometimes. There are days when I want to give up on the entire enterprise, not because I don’t want sex, but because I feel overwhelmed by the work and preparation and self-confidence-building that goes into it. When I feel that way, I tell myself to remember how I first learned to love sex — by taking leaps, being brave, and making mistakes. That is what you need to do. If you want sex but are afraid of it, you won’t get anywhere by sitting at home wishing you were out there having fun.
We don’t move forward when everything is fine. I learned to love my sexuality only after every adult in my life told me it was wrong. They said it would make me miserable and send me down a path of pain. It took years to heal from that, and in some ways, I am still healing. But if I hadn’t experienced all that adversity, I wouldn't be so furiously proud to be gay.
Many years ago, a mentor told me, “You need to get your heart broken a little bit.” I now understand what she meant. Hurt illuminates the things that matter.
Sometimes you need a nemesis. In the beginning, my nemesis was my father. Then it was HIV. Then it was a drug problem. On any given day, my nemesis can be my own self-doubt. Sometimes you need an enemy in order to see what you’re willing to fight for.
Telling you to hurt is like telling you to breathe. Everyone suffers, and if you’re queer, you’ll probably experience (or have experienced) some pain and isolation because of your sexuality. Most of us are raised by straight people in a straight world. When you face the next blow life delivers, see your sexuality as an anchor — something worth defending at all costs.
They don’t have to be people you see every day — in fact, it’s better if they’re not. You need one or two people in your life with some years on you, who are there for you to check in with every couple of months.
These are among the most important people in your life. For many queer people, “check-in” friends are closer to us than parents. Find a gay elder who’s been where you are and cares for your well-being, someone who understands you and never passes judgment, someone who lets you make the mistakes you need to make. Call them regularly. See them as a mentor, even if you never tell them you see them this way.
Finding these people takes time, but when you do, mark your calendar so that you contact them every few months. If life is getting heavy, stop everything and reach out to them.
Yes, you might be uncomfortable, but you must do this. The first Pride parade was both a protest and a celebration of our community’s newfound visibility. It was a warm June day in 1970 on Christopher Street in lower Manhattan. Today, we have social media, Hollywood, star power, and corporate bucks creating a more connected (and alarmingly corporatized) world for queers. Our visibility is so massive that it has shifted opinions across the United States — a major impetus behind the passage of marriage equality in 2015.
The fight is far from over, and our visibility matters now more than ever. Trump has repeatedly attacked transgender servicemembers, and gay men are still being hunted and murdered in Chechnya. There are many places across the globe where queer people cannot live openly. That’s why you need to go to a Pride event and experience its flashy spectacle — one giant display of queer visibility. It will be bright and loud and ridiculous and overwhelming, and that’s OK. That’s pride — the very opposite of apology.
You don’t have to go to a Pride event in your home city (or the city you’re closest to) if you’re not ready. You can travel, but you must go to one this summer.
You need to get into your own body a little bit. Self-pleasure is not a “lesser” form of sex — if anyone can make you feel good, it’s you. Buy a sex toy, pay for good porn, and focus on your pleasure a little every day. Buy good lube. Put down an old blanket or old towels and get really messy. Turn on sexy music. Focus on how your body feels and make it feel better. This is your ritual, something no one can take away from you, something no one can control. This is a few minutes (say, half an hour) every day to love the skin you’re in.
Don’t worry over which label works best for you. Are you gay or bisexual? Doesn’t matter. Are you straight and simply questioning? Doesn’t matter. Are you pansexual, asexual, or queer? Doesn’t matter. If you’re feeling something and you suspect what you’re feeling is different from what you’re “supposed” to feel, or different from what your parents or your religion tells you to feel, leave it at that. In time, you may try many identities, many labels, before finding one that fits.
So much of what we fear about ourselves is internalized from others. Eventually, we must confront those who have shamed us in our lifetime — or leave them behind. There would be no internalized self-hatred if no one had ever told you that being gay is wrong, or that gay sex is disgusting, or that gay men can’t feel real love, or that being transgender is fake, or that being nonbinary is a mental illness or a call for attention. These are the horrible messages our parents and friends tell us, and they leave deep cuts. At some point, when you feel safely distanced and independent from them, you have to address those people and risk losing them if they can’t support you going forward.
If you think a word like “gay” or “queer” works for you right now (again, it doesn’t have to work for you forever — labels do not come with lifetime contracts) and you’re not ready to tell everyone, simply say it out loud to yourself. Say it in your bathroom. Say it in the shower. Go on a nature hike and say it to the fresh air and blue sky.
Establish it as a truth, something that exists. Listen to how it sounds when you say it, and focus on how you feel when you say it. Experience that mighty spark. This is practice for when the day comes that you tell others, which is something you will need to do someday.
There is a caveat to this: You must feel safe. If you think coming out would risk your personal safety, wait (and do everything you can to get out of whatever family, town, or country you’re in). If you’re still financially dependent on your parents and think they might disown you (or worse) if you tell them, wait — and have a backup plan, a person of support who you can call, in case your parents find out.
Sorry, but if you’re an adult paying your own way, it’s time. In 2019, it’s hard to defend any argument for staying in the closet — and doing so hurts us. You need to come out and be a part of this incredible queer world we live in, even if you still have fears and some lingering shame. We’ll help you work past all that. We’ll welcome you to the tribe. When you say it, think of all the queers looking over your shoulder, queers throughout history, queers from every continent, clapping for you, cheering for you, and welcoming you with open arms.