2003 was when the “gay devil” (as I referred to him at the time) made his first appearance inside my unprepared thirteen-year-old mind. In Mexico, while eating at an outdoor taco stand with my family that year he perched on my shoulders. The girl sitting at the table beside us was tanned with brown-blond locks and sunglasses, wearing a black spaghetti-strap tank top.
My “gay devil” noticed her and made sure I did too. As the words “She’s Hot” crash-landed from his taunting lips into my unsuspecting mind, I flinched—then turned around to make sure no one had heard.
Luckily, no one else had. My dad just smiled into my worried, apprehensive eyes and handed me the bowl.
Over the next few years, the gay devil made frequent reappearances, continuing to deliver crushes to me that I wasn’t ready or willing to identify for what they were.
He was rude in many of his remarks. When I realized how much more I loved one of Stevie Brock’s fan club members than the boy pop singer, the gay devil taunted: You’re not really here for Stevie, huh?
He whispered to me: You liked that a little too much, didn’t you?
There were several reasons I didn’t feel safe coming out (not even to myself). Even though LGBT people have been accepted by many people since the early 2000s there still seems to be a relatively small number of people who are openly LGBT. “out”—fewer still in high school.
Another was that despite my attending a fairly liberal high school, it still felt to me like a place where going against the grain—no matter if your difference came in the form of sexual orientation, temperament, or the way you looked and talked—was to open yourself to judgment and ostracizing.
Some people, though rare, are born with a rock-solid support group of peers and an unshakeable sense of self-confidence. I wasn’t one of them.
So I hoped I could “wait the gayness out,” as if it were a passing affliction that might resolve with time.
The idea of homosexuality being a disease dates back centuries. At one point (before it even started to be pathologized), it was simply so taboo that it wasn’t even spoken about.
In Walt Whitman’s time, for instance, no discourse existed for understanding or discussing it—Whitman himself was in denial for this reason, even though he developed feelings of attraction towards the wounded soldiers that he treated during Civil War. Whitman’s writings only imply that Whitman was in many relationships with young men.
After Whitman’s time, a dialogue around homosexuality finally began to emerge, but it was always in the context of illness. Psychiatrists like Richard von Krafft-Ebing described it as a “degenerative sickness.”
The “homophile” movement emerged in the late 1950s to early 1970s to fight back against this, eventually promulgating a “Gay is Good” message (inspired by the Black Pride Movement) and seeking to build gay culture by way of theaters, music, and newspapers catering to the LGBT population.
The movement also promoted and encouraged gay affirmative therapies (whose goal was not to change but be happy with one’s orientation) over gay conversion therapies.
Even so, homosexuality was still listed in the DSM as a mental disorder until 1973. My high school was still awash with this disdain in 2005.
Since shame prevented me from expressing it, I danced around my gay/lesbian label for years. I filled the pages of my journal with circumlocutory fawning, all coded as affection.
After finally taking the plunge—first to my diary at age fifteen, then to friends and family at eighteen—my self-acceptance slowly grew. Then came many milestones and firsts.
YThe e-mail address you entered is not valid.ars earlier I never could have imagined I’d be interviewing a married lesbian Australian pop duo while interning for Curve Magazine, or that I’d attend queer prom with and then date a girl I’d met through my college campus’s LGBT Center, or that such a varied community of beautiful LGBT individuals awaited me, particularly in college but also in the years after.
Little by little, as the years went on, pride replaced shame—and by now, all the shame is gone. It’s still a memory. I still remember how it made me feel.
I can remember how it affected my mental health negatively and exacerbated feelings of isolation. Colin Poitras’ article from 2019 (for the Yale LGBT Mental Health Initiative). Global Closet is huge: “Concealment takes its toll through the stress of hiding.”
I also realize that many gay people still fight to overcome the shame they feel. People like the many friends in the LGBT community I’ve known through the years—one whose mother, after he told them, cried inconsolably while his grandma accused him of being possessed by demons.
Another whose mom, while out to lunch with her, tried to set her up with their male waiter right after she’d come out to her for the third time. Another whose parents refused to talk about it ever again.
Referring to a new study by the Yale School of Public Health, Poitras writes that, “even with the rapidly increasing acceptance in some countries, the vast majority of the world’s sexual minority population—an estimated 83 percent of those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual—keep their orientation hidden from all or most of the people in their lives.
Pride and community spaces remain essential for these reasons.
If given the chance to speak to my teenage self, I’d say to her now: it gets better for you—and once it does, you’ll see that it doesn’t Endless possibilities I am with you. Celebrate the victories we’ve made—but don’t let them lull you into complacency.
Not when many young queers—both in rural towns and more urban areas—remain in the closet, compartmentalizing who they are out of fear of familial rejection. It’s not when people are still killed in some countries for being openly gay.
Not when the rights and freedoms of certain members of our community, such as transgender people and queer people of colour, are still under threat. A Black man who can marry his partner but still has to worry about violence at the hands of police isn’t experiencing equality in the full sense of the word.
Keep living with eyes, heart, ears, and hands open to the issues affecting members of both our queer community and the larger human family—because if there’s one thing being LGBT has taught me, it’s the importance of not leaving people to suffer in silence. And it’s the power that community, support, and the pride fostered within them can have over combating shame.
Eleni, a freelance Spanish interpreter and writer, was born in California and now lives there. Her work has appeared in Them and LGBTQ Nation Tiny Buddha. It was also published by The Mighty Elephant Journal and The Gay and Lesbian Review. She currently writes the monthly column “Queer Girl Q&A” for Out Front Magazine. Follow her on IG at @eleni_steph_writer as well as Medium.
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