[Ed. note: Readers, please welcome Austinite Thea Kohout, a sophomore studying women's and gender studies and art history at Kenyon College. She likes the west, feminism, and peaches.]
People tend to make a lot of assumptions about me when they find out I’m from Texas (No, I’m not a Republican and no, I didn’t ride a horse to school). They also tend to make a lot of assumptions when they find out I’m queer (No, it’s not because I had bad experiences with men, and no, my favorite band is not Tegan and Sara). I’m proud that I’m from Texas, and I’m proud that I’m queer, but to a lot of people these two identities don’t seem like they could ever coexist peacefully in one person.
I was raised in a liberal home in Austin, arguably the most gay-friendly city in Texas, but I didn’t fully come out of the closet until last year, when I left home for school. (Ironically, I left one of the most conservative Christian states in the nation for another, Ohio, in the process of discovering my sexuality. I still don’t know how that happened.)
Growing up, I always wondered if the feelings I had towards other girls were “normal.” When I hit puberty at age nine, my mother gave me an ancient copy of Lynda Madaras’s What’s Happening to My Body?: Book for Girls. The year was 2001; this book was the “updated” edition from 1988 (the original dates from 1983). My mother had the best of intentions, but talking about something as intense as puberty was something neither she nor I was at all comfortable doing, so she just told me that the book would answer questions I might have. And, to be fair, it did: I finally learned about breasts and periods and pubic hair and growth spurts and (heterosexual) intercourse.
There was one chapter in particular, though, that I went back to over and over and over again, even up into around tenth grade: the chapter entitled “Romantic and Sexual Feelings.” For those of you who haven’t read this book, much of the format is made up of Madaras’s students’ anonymous questions about sex and their bodies. In the “feelings” chapter, there were a few questions covering homosexuality, and these were the questions I read and re-read, trying to figure out if I was gay. (Note: this did not work. What made me finally accept that I liked girls was going to college, joining a group called the Queer Women’s Collective, and having relationships with girls. No book will ever be able to tell you whether or not you’re gay.) I spent a lot of time confused and totally in denial about my sexuality.
Now that I know I’m queer, I can look back on my childhood and laugh at all the indicators there were. I went to an intensely outdoorsy Colorado summer camp for eight years in a row and always developed crushes on my counselors, which I dismissed as my gratitude for having positive female role models in my life. (Also, what camp counselor isn’t a lesbian?) I played four years of varsity softball in high school and a few years of field hockey. After I went to see The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants with a group of friends the summer after seventh grade, I emerged from the theater listening to them gush about how dreamy the soccer coach was and all I could think about how hot Blake Lively and America Ferrera were. My favorite movie for a while was Bend It Like Beckham. I constantly had powerful “friend-crushes” on girls in my grade, justifying them by saying “I just want to be really good friends with her!”
And probably most telling: whenever I tried to picture my future as an adult, I literally could not see myself married to a man. I would try and try, and it wouldn’t happen. I could picture myself with kids, but never married to a man. It just never felt right. Now, I picture my future as an adult, married to a woman, and it feels right. Maybe this means I’m a lesbian, maybe it doesn’t. I’m not in any hurry to label myself, though I understand the comfort and stability that definite labels can give other people.
This issue of labels, however, can be problematic. One of the hardest things about being gay anywhere (but especially in a place like Texas, where ignorance abounds) is the language barrier. So many people use words associated with the gay community as insults, and I really think most of them don’t realize how hurtful they’re being, which can be totally disheartening to LGBTQ youth who receive the brunt of this in middle and high school. My peers in middle and high school were, on the whole, children of wealthy, Texan, conservative Christians. The teenaged boys I was constantly surrounded by flung the words “gay” and “faggot” around as insults whenever someone did something they disagreed with. Several of my teachers in high school were openly gay, and while there was never any overt hostility or discrimination from students (and certainly not from the faculty, who were on the whole progressively liberal), I remember one incident when some students discovered that one of our history teachers was a lesbian. It was all anyone could talk about for weeks. She would walk by my table in the library and the people around me would say, “Have you heard? She’s a lesbian” like it was some dirty word.
More on this language barrier: When I came out to my mom, I told her that I didn’t identify as straight, but rather as “queer.” She was confused, since in her mind, the word “queer” was an offensive slur usually directed towards gay men. So then I had to explain that the gay community has reclaimed the word as a blanket term for anyone who doesn’t identify as heterosexual. Then I tried to explain why I rejected the label of bisexual, since it presupposes a gender binary that I don’t necessarily agree with. Needless to say, the whole exchange left me frustrated and annoyed that these terms that are used every day in the gay community are so foreign to straight people.
My parents are both incredibly intelligent and highly educated, both Democrats, both pro-all types of civil rights and pretty much pro-everything else good. More importantly, they both love me a lot. All these reasons convinced me that my coming-out to them would be ideal: I would tell them exactly how I felt, and they would instantly accept it and understand everything about the queer community. This was not the case, and I think a good explanation for this is that in Texas, the male gay community is much more visible than the female one, and therefore, for a lot of people, I think male homosexuality is much easier to understand and accept than female homosexuality. Of course, the lesbian population of Austin is certainly there and certainly thriving; you just need to know where to look for it.
Now that I am finally out (so to speak; I know I’m going to have to come out to my parents more than once to get them to understand that I’m not “going through a phase”), I feel ten thousand times lighter; I hadn’t even realized what a burden hiding my sexuality was until I didn’t have to anymore. I’ve told my parents, both my siblings, many of my friends at home in Austin, and all my friends at college. The fact that they know this basic fact about me and love me for it gives me hope, even when I find myself surrounded by ignorance and anti-gay sentiments, both in people’s personal beliefs and in state and federal legislature. If you’re a queer Texan like me, be proud of it, because it can take a lot of courage to reconcile these two loaded identities.