Tomorrow is National Coming Out Day. It is a day that has never had meaning for me. I don't really understand having a single day with the mission of coming out, nor am I someone that revisits my own coming out story. However, in light of recent events, this year I feel a little different about it all. I walk a fine line with this blog in differentiating between professional and personal; I feel that it is important to be an advocate who leaves details of my own life out of the equation. After A LOT of thought, I have decided that this post is going to cross the line though. I'm going to share my personal coming out story in hopes of getting the message across to others, and to further propagate the amazing "It gets better" project started by Dan Savage and his husband Terry.
It gets better was started in response to the recent media coverage of a string of gay youth committing suicide across the country. In quoting Jay Michaelson, executive director of Nehirim, "I’m writing to you this month in the wake of six gay-related teen suicides reported in one week. At such times, all of us who are LGBT or allies ask ourselves what we can do... let’s remember that last week was not an epidemic of gay teen suicide. What was new was not the number of suicides, but the way they were reported in national media. Those of us who have been active in the LGBT struggle for equality knows that gay teens kill themselves every week, all over the country. Studies tell us that 42% of GLBT youth have suicidal thoughts, and that GLBT youth are nearly four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight ones." He's right, though some data states gay youth are actually up to 6 times more likely to attempt suicide.
Additionally, an article was printed in the New York Times this week regarding the disturbing realities of medical student/doctor suicides. The article, written by Pauline Chen M.D., stated that "...the culture of medical school makes these students also feel like they can't be vulnerable or less than perfect." These events and articles have acutely reminded me of my own past and have made me feel incredibly vulnerable. The more I think about it, I realize that I don't share my coming out story anymore because of the shame I carry with it, and because of fear of appearing "less than perfect." But by not sharing my story, a story that is way too common amongst the queer youth that I know (and don't know), I am further propagating the shame and guilt. My silence is not helping anyone; it is not raising awareness or helping queer youth feel less isolated; it is not acknowledging that medical professionals have past (and current) mental health struggles nor bring light to the copious resources to help one move forward; and it isn't honoring the experiences, good and bad, that have shaped me into who I currently am.
A week after my 16th birthday, just over 10 years ago, I attempted suicide. My attempt landed me in the ICU under a 72 hour hold, followed by 2 weeks in a psych hospital. This "event" (as my parents referred to it) was very much out of character for the 16 year old me. I was an honors student and athlete, I came from a close knit loving family, I was a "good girl" with a solid group of friends, I had just gotten my drivers license, etc... However, while I presented to the world as a put together young woman, I was completely shattered on the inside. At the time, I didn't have the words to explain why. I knew that the me I felt internally was not the same person as the world assumed me to be. My first attempts to rectify this discrepancy came in the form of experimentation with boys; numbing myself with the fantasies of teenage lust. These encounters only made things worse. They made me feel used and rotten, completely taken advantage of. One thing led to another and I found myself at the bottom of a dark well; there was no light to be seen and an urgent need to end the pain of brokenness. I was clearly an angsty and depressed teenager, but I had no understanding of what was causing these emotions and that it could get better. I felt that I had no where to turn and no other options to help me find myself. 10 years later I still thank G!d that my attempt failed, and that I was blessed with a second chance at life.
That summer, at a youth leadership camp for high school students, I met 3 young queer college students who were working as RAs. These women were the first queers I had (knowingly) ever met. Through getting to know them, asking questions about their lives, and shedding countless tears on their shoulders, it all began to make sense. I realized that a huge impetus for my angst was my sexual orientation, for not having an understanding of what it was or what it meant, and for having no clear vision of what it would mean for my future. I had no comprehension of a future life with a women and so feared that it would mean a life of pain and loneliness. Two pivotal things happened that summer though: I had my first girlfriend, and one of my RAs explicitly explained to me that "it will get better" in a tangible way that I could understand. She also exposed me to resources so that I could proactively make it better. Thank G!d for that summer. I came home and began to come out to close friends, followed by coming out to my therapist. Some were easier than others, but with each encounter I began to feel a little less shattered.
It wasn't always easy. I was outed to my parents by my therapist, without my consent. I was physically threatened by a group of boys in high school and harassed by others. I was told time and time again that coming out to my extended family wasn't an option. I feared holding hands with a lover publicly and had to seek out communities that were safe to be out in. I dealt with crushes on straight girls and learned to navigate finding other queer women to date. I shaved my head and wore combat boots in order to convince others that I was in fact queer, because it turned out simply dating women wasn't enough (and looked really stupid while doing it). I experimented with gender and challenged the notion of binary. Time and time again I ran up against my parents who's theory has always been to not show weakness, stand out, or make yourself vulnerable; and who were convinced that "it was just a phase". But, over time, it did get better in a lot of ways; which became especially true after my freshman year of college. By that time I had developed my own identity and a close group of friends to support me and as time went by, the wounds became less raw. For the first time in my life, at 24, living in a city that I love, surrounded by a family that I choose, personally accepting and encouraging my constantly evolving identity, and dating other good Jewish girls with strong queer identities: I felt like I was being true to myself, coming into my own, and paving my own path to change the world.
However, everything turned on its head with the start of med school last year. Moving south, putting myself into this ideal world of perfect superhero doctors, and living so far away from so many that I love reverted me to my 16 year old self. More often than not, I felt totally alone, raw, and vulnerable. Regardless of the soapbox I stood on, being somewhat fem and very Jewish, I was invisible queer. I lacked community and people to turn to. I had no shoulders to cry on, people to hug or cuddle with, friends within the same zip code to kick me in the butt. Once again though, it is slowly getting better. I am working on creating community here, getting better at asking friends (near and far) for the things I need, and working to make changes in myself and in the system that I can be proud of. While it is not yet totally better, I have faith that it will continue to get better as well as a shifting understanding of what better even means; and I continue to be grateful every day for the second chance I was given.
p.s. If you are an LGBTQ youth struggling about your identity, know that there are so many people out here who care about you. Also, know about The Trevor Project. Even if you don't believe me right now, your life is valuable enough to warrant reaching out to them, I promise.