Written by Shae Carey.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
Every Friday, I make the long drive down IH-35 to my hometown to work at my beloved job at a luxury cat hotel. The drive is inconvenient, but I know it like the back of my hand, and I often zone out as I barrel down the far left lane. As I get closer to home, I feel myself retreating further into the closet even though I am publicly out and lucky enough to be accepted by my family. I’ll never forget the first time I was called the f-word. In high school, while I was doing work for student council in the front office, the supervising secretary stepped out to grab some paperwork. A senior and his mom entered while she was gone. The latter apparently felt the need to call me a derogatory name to lessen the boredom of waiting. Shock somehow propelled me to push past them and run to the bathroom. My breath came in shallow gasps as I stared at the sink, wondering what possessed her to call me that. When I looked into the mirror, I had my answer: my Gay-Straight Alliance t-shirt.
It had been nerve-wracking enough joining the club in the first place. I didn’t even begin to consider joining until after I began dating a boy, hoping that would somehow conceal the other half of my preference. Every Wednesday, I would pace in front of the door to the room where the club met, hoping I could muster the courage to walk in. My anxiety was not unreasonable: students often tore down the posters that the club hung in the hallways, and when the previous sponsor had passed away in a car crash the year before, I had the misfortune of hearing students gossiping about how she deserved it for sponsoring such a club. Some of my teachers were also unwelcoming. One day, a teacher decided to tell us why homophobia didn’t exist because its roots meant fear of the same. On the Day of Silence, a day-long vow of quietude meant to honor LGBTQA+ kids who had taken their own lives, the teacher called on me to answer a question. I was quite emotional because a gay friend who sat next to me was in the hospital. I refused to talk, and he told me I could “Martin Luther King it” and get in trouble, or simply answer the question. I let fear get the best of me and I answered. For a while, I regretted speaking because I was a good student, and I knew that the punishment wouldn’t be severe, but now I realize I was just thinking of my own safety. Similarly, I was elected Student Council President my senior year, and I considered coming out to give positive LGBTQA+ representation to the student body. Sometimes, I still feel like I failed them because I could have made a difference, and I didn’t.
My best friend, sensing my apprehension about attending the Gay-Straight Alliance, eventually decided to take things into her own hands and dragged me to a meeting with her. There, I met an array of people. Some members were out of the closet and some were not. Some had accepting parents, while others were subjected to conversion therapy. Despite our differences, each of us shared a goal of making the school a more accepting place.
Though I wanted to believe this goal was attainable, I could not help but be initially pessimistic. My sexuality was still one of my major insecurities, and I thought that if I ever came out, many of my close friends would not support me (thankfully when I did during my freshman year of college, they all did). More than half of the class still raised their hands when asked if marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman, and it felt like it would be decades before gay marriage would be legalized on a national level. Even then, I doubted that it would ever be accepted by society, that it would probably happen in my grandchildren’s lifetime. It was difficult to remain optimistic in the face of such opposition. It often felt like I was throwing myself against a wall, trying to get it to move, becoming bloody and broken in the process.
Imagine my level of disbelief when I moved to Austin and learned that the world I had dreamed was only a forty-five minute drive away. Gay couples kissed in the street, the transgender community was thriving, and most surprising of all, being gay was no longer a defining personality trait, but just a facet of a person that seemed similar to their declared major. You have never heard someone say “that gay kid” because half of the class is gay.
I’ll never forget the time I met one of my closest college friends at my first Pride. When I arrived, she approached me in a thong and pasties, covered in glitter, and gave me a hug. It felt wonderful to be immediately welcomed, but Pride was also incredibly overwhelming because it was so different from everything I had experienced thus far. Most people were dressed like her, and there were sex toys and other things that my friends were happy to explain to me that I would have never seen in Georgetown. It was like when I was in middle school and I got to hang out with the older girls who wore makeup and could drive—wonderful, exciting, yet utterly intimidating. It felt like I had gone from being too gay to not being gay enough.
After buying a Pride flag for what I now know was double the asking price online, we saw there was a group of people protesting outside of the festival. They had the usual signs, the “F**s burn in Hell” and the “Repent,” similar to discourse from when I lived in Georgetown. My friends were not intimidated, however. They dragged me across the street to take a picture in front of them. I went along with them because I wanted to be cool and pretend like the protestors didn’t bother me, but I was terrified. Everyone else viewed them as backdrops for a photo, while I, on the other hand, saw the looks of people from back home that were a real and dangerous threat to my safety. Nevertheless, we took the picture, and I still have it on my computer: all of us, standing awkwardly while the men with signs glare at the camera. Now that I look back at it, I realize that my friends must have felt scared too.
As my years in Austin went by I began to accept my queerness and feel comfortable with it. I no longer had to throw myself against a wall to make space for myself; it was already there, and I felt like I had earned the opportunity to just rest and enjoy being who I was. I began to forget what it was like to be scared to come out, scared someone would discover that I wasn’t “normal.”
This fall, a prominent Georgetown church began services in Austin. I had long been familiar with the reputation of this church. A protest from the Austin community emerged due to this church’s homophobic beliefs, and I was inclined to participate until I read the rhetoric of the protest: “Keep [this church] out of Austin… it is invading our city from the conservative town of Georgetown” (from the protest’s Facebook page). It felt like I had been slapped in the face. I felt like Austin had ignored the LGBTQA+ kids in Georgetown that needed help (the only organization that we ever worked with was PFLAG), but now they were pushing the homophobia right back to us. The church was doing real and tangible harm to LGBTQA+ students in Georgetown. We did not have the resources Austin had to protect ourselves when I lived there. This had been going on for years, and yet the outrage had only started when they came to Austin. More effort should have been given to offer resources to everyone affected by it instead of just trying to push it out of Austin. Moving homophobia from one place to another does not eradicate it.
I have come far in becoming comfortable with who I am, but every time a light gets turned on, a shadow is cast. Sometimes I wonder if I was over-exaggerating, if coming out would really have been that bad. While writing this article, an investigation was being conducted by the Austin Police Department to determine the identities of four men who assaulted and beat a gay couple on Sixth Street because of their sexuality. After I finished this article, their identities were revealed; it was like a punch to my gut. All four of them attended my high school. I had always imagined myself as safe in Austin, but now I’m reminded that I’m not. The bubble of supposed safety I had surrounded myself with has popped. I feel guilty that I allowed myself to get comfortable and forgot what it was like to live in Georgetown, and, more pervasively, I felt the tightness in my chest and the heaviness in my stomach that told me to go back into the closet as quickly as possible. I can’t help but think of the LGBTQA+ kids in Georgetown who are suffering through the same things I did. Most LGBTQA+ people don’t return to their communities after they find acceptance elsewhere. I was no different, and now I feel guilty that even though I felt abandoned in high school, I paused my activism in college when I could’ve been making a difference. Even though I go home every weekend, I still have Austin to go back to. Most kids don’t have that privilege.