I stood in the swampy summer heat awaiting instruction, ready for the New Orleans Pride parade to begin. I was marching alongside fellow members of the queer community, wearing the elaborate double rainbow headpiece that I had spent hours making.
I was never sure how I fit in at past parades, despite my budding awareness of my queer identity at 13, the Pride parades I’d participated in for nearly two decades and a variety of queer relationships. I was constantly navigating the complexity of being invisible and hiding my identities.
This Pride was different.
I was a part of the revelry in a new way, having come out publicly weeks prior. I felt like I belonged, albeit standing on legs that felt as wobbly as a baby giraffe’s.
My first Pride was in Dallas in 2005, which I attended with some confidence because of my role as a board member at an LGBTQ+ nonprofit. I was at the parade in perceived allyship, rather than identity.
While I’d shared that I was “not straight” with our small volunteer team, we recognized that my presentation as a bubbly, femme heterosexual college student could be useful.
Internally, I struggled with whether Pride spaces were “for me,” craving connection while believing I hadn’t earned the right to claim these identities at my convenience.
I never misrepresented my identity, but over the years, in different contexts, I strategically used the privilege and power of my presentation to influence educators and elected officials in our conservative state.
No one ever asked me to stay in the closet. Instead, I enthusiastically volunteered.
I used my activism as a happy justification: Letting myself seem straight — and skipping any further reflection — was an advantage for our advocacy!
In grad school, my first serious queer relationship also helped me avoid claiming an identity.
I met Carrick at a speed dating fundraiser. Our conversation felt effortless, so I was delighted when I saw we matched a few days later.
On our first full-length date, we fell into an easy rapport and I sensed strong chemistry. As he hugged me goodbye in my kitchen, however, our dynamic felt stilted. He seemed awkward and flustered, and I couldn’t tell whether he was into me.
Over dinner on our second date, Carrick shared that he’s transgender. I was the first person he’d dated since he transitioned.
We both fell hard. Our communication was nuanced, vulnerable and emotionally aware. I found him so utterly intoxicating and our dynamic so immersive, it was an accomplishment I made it to class that semester.
Even as our relationship was fundamentally different from my past ones, we outwardly appeared like your average straight couple.
Being seen as straight didn’t leave me feeling like my identity was erased, in part because I didn’t have a clear sexual orientation to erase. Instead, being with Carrick affirmed my belief that specific labels were unimportant to me. My loved ones knew I wasn’t straight, that Carrick was trans, and there was a unique depth to our connection.
“A new friend and I were chatting about sexuality. He asked how old I was when I fully accepted my sexual orientation. I realized that I still hadn’t.”
For most of my adult life, I defined myself as “not straight” and then later as a “whatever” based on Maria Bello’s 2013 Modern Love essay. Her fluid sexual orientation aligned with my own, and the term “whatever” felt comfortable, like I wasn’t letting terminology define my sense of self.
Meanwhile, I married a cisgender man. We had a child together and bought a house that literally came with a white picket fence.
Recently, a new friend and I were chatting about sexuality. He asked how old I was when I fully accepted my sexual orientation. I realized that I still hadn’t. Avoiding labels had been a form of hiding for me. I felt I hadn’t earned it, like I didn’t “count” as queer since I presented as a straight, monogamous mom in the South.
In the last decade, there’s been another piece of my identity that was keeping me in the closet: I’m polyamorous. For me, being poly means that my husband and I share a lifelong commitment to one another and to our family. We also date other people and embrace the possibility of love outside of our marriage.
Polyamory provided an additional layer of invisibility. While I’ve dated more women in recent years, to the outside world, I still seemed very straight because I was keeping my poly life private.
Invisibility granted access to power and a perception of heterosexuality in mainstream culture and my Catholic extended family. It also came with both relief and discomfort. I was hiding — even from myself — in ways that I’m still processing.
Despite dating femmes and nonbinary folks, I still didn’t feel queer “enough.”
For people who awakened to their sexuality later in life or haven’t had the opportunity to explore, there’s a special cocktail of imposter syndrome, guilt and self-doubt. Are we deserving of the queer label if we don’t have much queer sexual and life experience? Should we claim these identities without having suffered for them? Are we weak or perpetuating biphobia because we’re not public with this identity?
Here’s what I know now: Staying in the closet by avoiding labels prevented me from experiencing more queer relationships, and not experiencing more queer relationships contributed to me staying in the closet.
Identity isn’t based on some secret point system that evaluates the type(s) of genitalia you’ve touched, the trauma you’ve experienced or whether you’ve come out on Instagram.
Identity is about sexual and romantic attraction. It’s deeply personal, and that exploration is yours to navigate.
We can ask which comes first, the identity or the actions. We can gate-keep and evaluate who’s deserving of a label, but why?
No one can tell you how to identify, it’s yours to claim—or not!
It’s never too late, and you don’t owe it to anyone or the movement to claim a label or come out. As one reader wrote to me, “Your life, your pace.”
For those who have been living openly for years, my sense is there’s a valid tension between welcoming newbies with open arms and a desire to be seen and respected for what they’ve survived, what they’ve endured to pave the way for people who may be ungrateful or unaware.
I think of people who navigated rampant homophobia and the HIV crisis, their lives permanently impacted by fear, grief, and loss — by horrific social stigma and our government’s willful disregard for their safety and well-being.
Today, the lives of BIPOC and nonbinary members of the LGBTQ+ community are threatened on a daily basis, both legislatively and physically. There’s understandable apprehension about people like me, straight-presenting white folks with tremendous privilege, taking up undue space in this movement. (It’s kind of our thing.)
For those of us who arrived more recently to these identities, we have a responsibility to understand the history and the current context, to recognize our privilege and become full-throated advocates for change.
As hateful anti-LGBTQ legislation becomes more rampant and violence continues against members of the trans community, I feel a responsibility to embrace and share my truth.
“The more that people are out and living as their authentic selves, including those of us who seem straight, the safer it is for everyone.”
This Pride Month, I finally felt ready. I attended this year’s events fully claiming all the complex, nuanced parts of myself. I marched in our New Orleans Pride parade in allyship with the people who’ve been out front for decades, in solidarity with those who’ve been the target of abhorrent legislation and hate crimes.
And I showed up in my own identity.
I spent hours making an elaborate costume from sequins, feathers and glittered cassette tapes. On the back of the headpiece, I wrote “QUEER” in rainbow letters with a bright yellow arrow pointing down.
Along the parade route, a mom stood next to her teenage daughter. The mom shouted and pointed toward her child, saying, “It’s her first Pride! She just came out!”
Tears in my eyes, I ran over and asked if the young person would like some Wonder Woman stickers and a hug. She did.
When her mom said cheerfully, “She’s 14!” I turned around, pointing to “QUEER” on my headdress, and told her, “I’m 37, and I just came out, too!”
Finally, I’m done hiding.