I parked my car on the tree-lined road behind my school. I had waited for months to do this: I reached into my glove compartment and pulled out the rainbow magnet that I had bought at Lambda Rising over the summer. I positioned the rainbow in its place of honor on my bumper and then stepped back to admire it. I didn’t dare get an actual bumper sticker: while my parents knew that I was gay, they were not yet in a place where they could conceive of me being out and proud. They would be pretty upset if I came driving into the neighborhood with a car that they bought for me sporting such a controversial symbol. The magnet would have to do.
It was Oct. 11, 1995. I was a 17-year-old senior at a large Northern Virginia high school and I was going to come out that day.
I started the process a year earlier. My family had just moved from ultra-conservative rural Oklahoma. I knew there was no life for me there. Growing up where the Bible Belt buckles, I had heard the most appalling things said about LGBT people by peers and even public school teachers. I recall with particular rage a bloated football coach who somehow passed for a social studies teacher spending an entire class period lecturing students on how he didn’t want his daughter to ever have to see two “faggots” holding hands walking down the street together. The one kid who came the closest to coming out was constantly humiliated by teachers and students alike: so much so that he attempted to kill himself and was sent away by his parents. So, when my father was offered a job in D.C., I enthusiastically gave my blessing and prepared for a new life.
When I got to D.C., I desperately sought a community I knew had to exist. In 1994, there were few positive images of LGBT life to be found in the mass media, but those that did exist, I voraciously consumed. Watching the lonely character of “Rickie” on “My So-Called Life” was the first time I had ever seen the struggles of a gay teen portrayed on television. Around the same time, the tragic story of Pedro Zamora on “The Real World: San Francisco” began to soften the hearts of the largely anti-gay American public, but we were far from the level of acceptance that we have achieved today. There were few Gay-Straight Alliances and certainly nothing of the sort existed in my new school.
But, there were resources. I found SMYAL, then called the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, and began to regularly attend its drop-in sessions each Saturday. I made friends and met my high school boyfriend there. My new friends and I would often go out after SMYAL meetings to Lambda Rising, an LGBT bookstore in the heart of what was then the “gayborhood.” Afterwards, we would go to a coffee shop and talk and hang out until the evening. My Saturdays were filled with joy and wonder, but every Monday, I would return to school. While I had several new friends at school, I felt completely alone.
My senior year came along. In many ways, I was excelling. I had good grades, I was president of my school’s Young Democrats, I was in the Honor Society, I was captain of the student congress team and was in the top symphonic band as a French horn player. But, I had a secret.
I wouldn’t dare tape pictures of my boyfriend in my locker, even though I was proud to be with him. I had a rainbow-colored “freedom rings” necklace (a ’90s fad that has thankfully long since been put to rest), but I wore it inside my shirt. Though the rings gave me strength, I would only take them out on Saturdays when no one from my school would see. But slowly, I was building the confidence that I would need to become the only openly gay student in a school of several thousand.
Finally, the day had come. I knew that Oct. 11 was National Coming Out Day and I had been mentally preparing all week. I stepped away from my car and walked toward my school. I clutched my freedom rings under my shirt and paused for a moment to catch my breath. As students began to stream into the building, I pulled out my rings and marched in. I spotted among the throng of students starting their day the biggest gossip I knew. I walked up to her and said, “Hi. It’s National Coming Out Day. I’m gay and coming out. Tell everyone.”
I didn’t stick around to see her reaction; instead I quickly went to my locker. I pulled three pictures of my beautiful boyfriend out of my backpack and prominently taped them to the inside of my locker door. It was then that I decided that I was going to ask him to be my date at the school’s upcoming Winterfest Dance and that we were going to dance as a couple, no matter what anyone else said or did.
I went through my day normally, though proudly displaying my freedom rings for anyone who knew what they were. As the day progressed, my peers began to stare at me and whisper to themselves as I walked down the hallway. Rather than feeling scared or ashamed, I felt emboldened and proud. It wasn’t to come to a head, though, until symphonic band practice.
Everyone in band reacted, mostly by giving me a wide berth or by flashing a knowing smile. I sat in my section and began to get out my instrument. I could feel the eyes of the tuba section behind me locked on the back of my neck. Before practice could start, the biggest bully of the bunch got my attention.
“Is it true what people are saying about you?” He asked with a “gotcha” smirk.
“What, that I’m gay?” I asked.
He nodded, ready to pounce.
“Yes. I’m gay. So?” I responded as nonchalantly as I could manage in such a nerve-wracking moment.
His face registered such a shock that I could never get it out of my mind. He, like the other bullies at school, derived his power from the fear in others. My refusal to deny and shrink back caught him completely unprepared.
“Uh,” he babbled, flabbergasted for a moment. “Just so long as you don’t hit on me.”
I looked up and down his flabby, pockmarked face and perhaps unkindly quipped, “You have absolutely nothing to worry about.”
I turned back around as the teacher began to start our warm-up.
And so the day passed largely without incident. All of my fears vanished and I was filled with so much peace and pride. By the next day, my coming out was old news and I began making new friends immediately. By the end of the semester, I had taken my boyfriend to the Winterfest Dance and had a magical night of slow dancing to Whitney Houston. By the end of the year, that removable rainbow magnet had been replaced with a permanent rainbow sticker that I proudly displayed as I drove into my neighborhood.