I grew up in Orlando – Winter Park to be exact. I didn’t “come out” until I was hundreds of miles away in college at UNC my freshmen year. It’s not that I felt that Orlando was a particularly unsafe place to be LGBTQ. Quite the opposite really seeing as the neighbors across the street who let my family use their generator during the hurricanes in 2005 were two gay men. I knew LGBTQ identifying people. They were my neighbors, my coaches, my teachers, my peers, and my teammates.
I’ll never forget in middle school trying to help one of my dear friends figure out if he was gay or not with the help of another close friend. After a lot of emotional back and forth, we decided the best way to determine if he was in fact gay was for him to look at picture of women’s boobs on the internet (I kid you not) to see if he “felt anything”. I still regret this terrible thought process to this day. Sigh – middle school. Years later, all of us involved in this situation turned out to be LGBTQ.
In 2009, I played on a club soccer team that was a year older than me. I learned about everything from what a good ACT score was to how to impress college soccer coaches. On the team were two girls who, after a period of time, the team realized they were dating. Rather than just “coming out with it”, they hid their relationship for the entirety of our year together. That same year I kissed my best friend at the time on New Years no less. It wasn’t until years later when we all reunited that we spoke openly about our sexual identities.
In 2010, some friends decided to play hooky and go to the Pride parade. I was too much of a rule follower at the time to join them (and way too introverted). The following day, the pictures from the parade graced Facebook for our entire grade to see. That morning I walked into advisory (a 20 min period before school started) to hear one of my classmates absolutely ripping apart my friends who had gone calling them gay slurs left and right. I flipped and tried to bring our advisor into the conversation to intervene. Silence. I quickly realized I was fighting alone.
Rugby was the first community where I saw queer sexuality practiced openly. I say practiced openly because, while being LGBTQ isn’t a choice, it is a choice to reveal this about yourself. It’s a risk you have to take – not a right you have (yet). It was so incredibly empowering. Here I found what it was like to be in a safe LGBTQ environment that didn’t care where I fell on the spectrum. I even had a friend, also from Orlando, throw a “Coming Out” Party where she revealed her sexuality and we all proceeded to celebrate (aka party at the rugby house). This environment and safety net made it so easy for me to come out to my friends and my family. I found myself. I accepted myself. I gave others the chance to love me for who I was by letting them know exactly who I was.
My junior year of college, I met a girl – isn’t that’s how every great heartbreak goes (maybe I’ve been listening to too much country)? We fell in love and we fell apart. She wasn’t out for the majority of our relationship and watching her go through the process of coming out over the last 3 years made me painfully aware how hard it is even in today’s world to be who you are. It’s not something you can just snap your fingers and reveal. There’s never a good break in conversation or time to bring up your sexual identity:
Can you pass the salt? Oh, by the way, I’m a lesbian. Could you pass the green beans while you’re at it too?
I repeat – it is still a risk. The fact that wonderful human beings like my ex and so many others in my life have to go through this long and arduous process upsets me still.
On Tuesday, June 7th, I helped run a free event in DC for LGBTQ organizations that partners Automattic (my company) with Google. It was one of a series of events that I’ve helped co-run over the last year or so. I left that event on a high – it went so well. The audience was engaged, the speakers were on point, the technology didn’t have a mind of its own, the food was good, the energy was powerful. I’ve started ending each event thanking the members not just for coming but for their hard work. It’s their hard work that paved the way for ME to come out and to feel safe to do so. This is not lost on me and each time I begin to thank attendees I find myself choking back tears because I know nothing I could do could be enough. I’ve met people who helped as nurses during the AIDS crisis when others shied away. I’ve met people who went door to door having tough conversations just trying to put a human face to the LGBTQ movement. I’ve met people who are on fire for helping LGBTQ refugees find a home and resources in the United States. It’s humbling in the truest sense of the word. I left the event reflecting about how far we’ve come in terms of what it means to LGBTQ in our society today. Just the fact that we can meet publicly with the support of two companies is amazing.
Fast forward to this morning not even a week after this event and I wake up to hear the news of the shootings in Orlando. I frantically sent out text messages to everyone I could think of both asking “Are you okay?” and “Is everyone you know okay?”. I zigzagged across social groups trying to piece together if everyone I knew was okay. The texts came flooding back – How could this happen? Why would someone do this? Was it a hate crime? Was it an act of terror? Why Orlando?!
These situations are senseless and within them we look for someone or something to blame. Was it religion? Was it mental illness? The questions add up but the answer doesn’t so we keep seeking for more. I just finished reading a book called “The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters“. In it is discussed the idea of dyadic completion which basically means that when we see a wrong committed we need to see both a victim and a perpetrator. When this dyad is left incomplete, “we tend to slot in a victim”(more here). The victims and the perpetrator in the case of the Orlando shooting are clear. My heart breaks for them. For some reason, it especially hurts knowing that these are people from my hometown who have likely (not assuming everyone was LGBTQ in that club at the time) taken the risk to be themselves wholly and truly. It is a risk – not a right. In honor of those who lost their lives in Orlando, I will continue to take the risk for you all.
I will leave you with a longer quote from a great piece in the NYT titled “What Suffering Does“. Since I first read this article, it’s remained as an open tab in Safari on my phone:
Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.
The suffering involved in their tasks becomes a fearful gift and very different than that equal and other gift, happiness, conventionally defined.
Home is a place you earn – Orlando is that home I’ve earned.