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Column: Let’s get something straight – I’m not

Photo by Ian Cunningham

When comedian and former talk show host Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian in 1997, the cover of Time Magazine read, in bold red font: “Yep, I’m Gay.”

For a gay woman trying to make a name for herself in 1990s show business, DeGeneres’ unflinching proclamation of her sexuality had the potential to torpedo her career. Anyone who is loosely familiar with her career will know that, despite the potential for reputational ruin, she went on to host a daytime talk show, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” for 19 seasons.

In an unexpected and unconscious way, I reaped the benefits of DeGeneres’ success as a young child. That is, I had the privilege to grow up watching an openly gay woman do her thing on national television. She taught me that gay people can find success and earn others’ respect despite the hate and discrimination that is still perpetuated against sexuality and gender minorities.

In a weird way, DeGeneres, and other openly gay people in popular culture, gave me the courage to come out as gay to my parents in the winter of my eighth grade year.

Even in a progressive and loving household, I still felt a deep sense of shame and endless hesitation to tell my parents what I had come to understand about myself. It was hard – that can’t be overstated – but I knew that I could do it.

When I got the courage to come out to my parents, I was so relieved to have this secret off of my chest. They reassured me that they loved me all the same and that being gay was nothing to be ashamed of.

After coming out to my parents, I felt like I could breathe for the first time in months. Holding in this part of myself was draining!

Even still, I didn’t find it comfortable to announce my gayness to the world the same way DeGeneres did 27 years ago. Instead of living for myself and wearing my sexuality with pride, I felt the pressure to conform to the deeply heteronormative high school culture in which I found myself.

I had plenty of reasons to hesitate. The role models that I had unimpeded access to online were nowhere to be found in the halls of my high school. Some of my peers made shockingly homophobic comments in passing without consequence. Images of violence against the queer community dominated my news feed. I felt alone and unsafe in my own school.

I buckled down and made a reasonable effort to conceal my sexuality. I abided by a policy of concealing and deflecting; it was miserable.

Flash forward to the spring of my senior year: my college applications have been sent off and I am starting to feel the weight of the impending changes that are sure to consume the next year of my life. Between moving away from my support system of friends and family, transitioning to life as a college student and the challenge of making new friends, I was unsure of what lay ahead.

At some point that spring, I received an email from the yearbook club soliciting senior quotes with a survey attached. The survey read, in part, “… please add your senior quote which will be included in our Spring Supplement! Please make sure these are school appropriate.”

I closed the email and went about my day, thinking that I should really make it count. I didn’t want to deliver a punchline – like one of the silly to down-right scandalous senior quotes I had seen on Instagram – or take a stab at summarizing the events of the last four years. I thought that I would use the opportunity to add something new to my high school experience – end it with a metaphorical period.

In the following days, I reflected back on my high school experience and realized that I harbored some regrets; perhaps my quote could address one of those, and bring some closure to a missed opportunity.

As I was brainstorming – probably while driving or staring blankly at my phone screen – it hit me: this is the time to come out to my classmates. Make it definitive. Bring some closure to the question of my identity.

I wanted my senior quote to get my point across while lending homage to one of the gay role models who gave me the confidence to come out in the first place.

I settled on “Yep, I’m gay.”

The yearbook’s spring supplement was set to be published over the summer, so it felt like a perfect chance to tell my peers what I wanted them to know without the potential repercussions from some of my less intolerant classmates.

In walking across the graduation stage, I felt a sense of relief that most closely resembled what I felt when I came out to my parents a little over four years before. I was proud of the choice I made and couldn’t wait for my classmates to see for themselves.

When I opened the spring supplement a few months later, I flipped past baseball and spring theater recaps, straight to the senior quotes. I scanned the page and found my awkward yearbook photo with my quote printed below. “Yep,” it read. Fullstop.

My heart sank.

I still don’t know why my quote was changed the way it was, but I do know that it is reflective of a much larger issue.

By truncating my quote, they showed that while I might be accepted by my school community, my gayness is not.

I was left to wonder: Is my gayness disruptive? Is it inappropriate? Is it wrong?

Of course, a person’s identity does not make them disruptive, inappropriate or wrong. But, by altering my senior quote, those who did so revealed just how far they are willing to go to maintain the status quo.

We are living in a time with thousands of loud, proud queer icons, role models and people to look up to, but there is still a great number of people who don’t accept queer people.

Regardless of the palatability of our queer icons or acceptance by others, queer people have always been around, and we will continue to exist regardless of how much we are hated, belittled or cast out.

By being ourselves, without shame or hesitation, we have the power to push back against bigotry and be a role model for other queer people who are trying to navigate the already complex, scary world.

All I can say today is, “Yep, I’m gay.”

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