The first time the words came out of my mouth, I was sitting in a parked car in downtown Portland with my best friend. Rain beat against the car, streaming against the windows and I sat there, paralyzed, staring straight ahead as tears fought their way down my cheeks.
“I think,” I said suddenly, and then, before I could stop myself, I finished, “Cassie, I think I’m gay.” The words felt strange and hung like a thick fog in the air in front of me. I wanted to immediately follow it up with, “But I’m not sure!” as I wished so badly I wasn’t.
“Oh Kim!” she said, with a compassion and kindness that surprised me, not because it was uncharacteristic but because I didn’t feel worthy of it. She threw her arms around me, recognizing how upset and vulnerable I looked but not yet realizing the depth of my shame. Saying those words was an acknowledgment of a part of me I couldn’t accept. The invisible word cloud I created so quickly stormed above me for the next ten years, frequently raining sheets of confusion, self-hatred, and hopelessness.
Secretly dating in high school was one-part exhilarating, ten-parts guilt-ridden. I was a devout Mormon, a consistent rule-follower, and a people pleaser. There was no question in my mind what the “right” things were (going to church, reading scriptures, paying tithing) and what the “wrong” things were (kissing girls). Suffering from same-gender attraction, as Mormons like to frame it, was a burden I had to bear and a test I had to overcome. I had to be stronger than the temptation, had to stay pure, had to keep myself clean.
But then there was Chelsey.
Chelsey had short brown hair, wore Converse shoes, and frequently wore a tucked-in button-up. She loved John Mayer, played guitar, and her lip moved down and to the side ever so slightly when she talked. We took a lot of the same classes – English, photography, French, statistics – and she loved discussing literature as much as I did. But, maybe most importantly, she knew how to make pizza. From scratch.
I discovered her pizza-making abilities when she invited me over to her house one evening for my birthday. The plan was to eat dinner and watch Ellen Degeneres stand-up (I had what I thought was a very healthy, very mild interest in Ellen). Up until that point, Chelsey and I had only hung out at school – during class, during lunch, studying. You know, public places. Places where I could never be gay.
We sat on the floor of her room, backs leaning up against her bed, plates of pizza balanced on our knees as we laughed at Ellen’s commentary on people who pretend they don’t trip when they’re walking. I was simultaneously very comfortable and also very aware of Chelsey sitting next to me. It was one of those classic scenes where we slowly moved closer and closer to each other until we were side-by-side, her arm touching mine. And as she put her arm around me, my insides flared with an excitement and a fear I’d never felt. I think these are butterflies, I thought, drawing only on the knowledge I’d gained from books or TV shows. It felt amazing and overwhelming but with an edge of guilt I couldn’t shake. I turned to look at her and she said quietly but confidently, “Will you just kiss me already?” I smiled as my heart raced and I leaned in, pressing my lips against hers.
Everything about Chelsey had to be a secret. Public displays of affection were obviously out of the question and I didn’t tell anybody except Cassie we were dating. But let’s be real, some things can’t be hidden. Our success at secrecy is probably best summed up by the time we were standing in the hallway and The Book Lady (a name we lovingly and so creatively bestowed upon the librarian who checked out our textbooks each term) stopped to say, “You two are such a cute couple.” What I’m sure was intended as nothing more than a mild compliment shook my core. How did she know?
My parents started putting restrictions on the time I could spend with Chelsey. They never directly said they knew we were dating but the rule was I couldn’t ever be alone with her. If Chelsey came over to our house, a parent had to be home and the door had to be open. If we hung out somewhere else, there had to be another person with us. Given the logistical hurdles, Chelsey and I started hanging out less and less; I think she saw the writing on the wall much sooner than I did.
I remained in the peak of denial for months and rode the pendulum of teenage angst from, “I love her and I don’t want to live without her,” to “This is the worst thing I’ve ever done and I have to stop now.” It was in the midst of this self-absorption that I got a call from a guy in my class. He was one of the few Mormon kids my age and he was asking me out on a date.
“Yes!” I said, almost immediately. This was perfect. Going on a date with a guy would totally divert people’s attention away from the idea of me being gay. And he was Mormon, which, as a practicing member was basically a make-or-break situation in the dating world. Saying no never even crossed my mind.
Maybe the worst part is, it didn’t sink in how messed up and twisted, self-centered and wrong my thinking was until I called Chelsey and heard her reaction.
“You said yes?!” she said, throwing me back to the reality where I had put my internal agenda ahead of literally everyone else. Where I had simultaneously hurt her and thoughtlessly played with the emotions of a guy who was vulnerable and put himself out there. I later called him back, apologized, and muttered through not being able to go after all. I felt bad for rejecting him and worse for accepting the invitation in the first place.
I was becoming someone I didn’t recognize.
I sat in my high school English class as we discussed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We’d reached the moral climax of the book where Huck is trying to reconcile his friendship with Jim and the rampant prejudice entrenched in society. Mrs. Dignan broke down the moment until we could feel the weight of the agonizing decision this teenager was making – a choice he couldn’t take back, that was seemingly determining his fate for eternity. Huck recognizes the moment and ultimately, courageously, claims his side: “All right then, I’ll go to hell.”
It struck a little too close to home.
But unlike Huck, I couldn’t say it. At least not yet. I did what my parents had hoped all along. I broke up with Chelsey. I said I had made terrible choices, but I knew what I was supposed to do now. I was going to Brigham Young University, a church-sponsored school. I was going to marry a man. I wasn’t going to hell.
The dating scene at BYU is a culture in and of itself. Church leadership counsels young single adults to get married and start a family as soon as possible. It’s the focus of all church meetings, discussions, and activities. But there’s this interesting cycle if you aren’t married right away. By age 21, people silently question your worthiness but still exude an earnest positivity on your behalf. By 22 and 23, you begin to field questions laced with feigned encouragement like, “How come you’re still single?” Until finally, this strange thing happens around 24. People just kind of stop. They stop asking you questions about dating and instead revert to “safe” questions like, “So, how’s school going?” Counsel from church leaders still desperately emphasizes marriage, with a promise that your eternal companion is out there if you continue to abide by the teachings of the church. Except, they also start to use phrases like, “If not in this life, then the next.”
I did my best to date men in college and pushed my introverted nature to the limits by participating in all church activities, hosting game nights, making baked goods to take to guys’ apartments, and even asked men out myself. I sent texts and casually Facebook-stalked people like a pro. I made Pinterest boards of wedding ideas, wrote lists of all the qualities I was looking for in a husband, and read everything I could find that was written by the church on marriage. I. Would. Be. Ready.
But, plot twist, I never had a boyfriend. My diligence yielded a handful of awkward dates in the seven years I went to BYU and my lack of traction in the dating world made it harder and harder to convince myself I wasn’t somehow different. It wasn’t until my graduate program at BYU when the feelings I’d worked so hard to bury inevitably resurfaced and the worst possible thing happened. I fell in love with a girl in my apartment complex.
I fought furiously to rationalize the feelings away. I just really like spending time with her. I thought. We’re best friends. It’s totally normal to feel this way. But as the intensity of my feelings grew, I stopped being able to justify why I was so hurt whenever she wanted to spend time with someone else or why I was jealous whenever she went out on a date with a guy.
I started saying the words again. First to my roommate, sobbing on the floor. Then to one of my progressively-minded professors from whom I would frequently seek advice. It was just as tentative, if not more so – “I think, I’m maybe, a little bit, gay” – but the words were there. And I started to realize this is just part of me. Even still, I made a last-ditch effort in what I thought was bargaining for my salvation. I fasted, prayed, and flat-out begged that church policy on same-sex relationships would miraculously change.
At the same time, I started to see the cracks in my logic, and my feelings of self-loathing began to dissipate. I’d fallen in love with a woman and that love didn’t feel wrong. In fact, it felt more natural and right than anything. And I realized if I can have compassion, love, and acceptance of someone who's gay, why couldn't an all-loving God? Why would God make me this way, say life is for relationships and families, and then say, “Oh, but not for you, Kim.” I started to find the flaw in the words “if not in this life, then in the next.” For me to be married to a man in the next life, I would have to be straight. And I really didn’t want to be. The words in my mind gradually started to shift. Tentative, as always, I started to think, maybe, I might, kind of, like being gay.
It was still a while before I could strip the sentence of all the qualifiers but I got there. I slowly rewrote my internal narrative to one that is far healthier, happier, and affirming. Eventually, the storm cleared and the clouds parted, giving way to the sunlight hidden for far too long. And y’all know what happens after it rains.