On Coming Out: Accepting and Owning the Lesbian Identity

The Magazine: On Coming Out: Accepting and Owning the Lesbian Identity
I’m a lesbian. It took me a long time to say that out loud.

High school was such a heteronormative place, so I don’t even think I had come close to coming to terms with my sexuality at that point. I went to high school in Marin County, which is known as one of the most liberal places, and we have "awareness" and all of that, but it's a challenging environment to come out in— there’s so much unlearning that needs to be done. Because even if you have teachers and parents saying, “There's nothing wrong with being gay,” you’re still not seeing anyone like you who’s gay, and who’s also adored or revered or celebrated or anything like that. It’s still very “othered.”

I think I was aware of my sexuality on a more subconscious level, but I was so confused because I couldn’t find a way to fit into the mold. I tried so hard to like the boys who I thought I was supposed to like. I tried dating a guy, and I had close guy friends. Everyone around me was so boy crazy or excited about dating and sex, which is a really fundamental part of adolescence, but I was just confused. I kind of I felt like I was broken and that I would never fall in love for real.

In college at USC, I became best friends with a girl named Wolfy who was in the same music program as me. As the years went on, we became really close, and then there was this weird denial period where I think we both knew that our friendship was way more significant than anything else. Mentally I think we were compartmentalizing and ignoring what it meant—we were both closeted and confronting our sexualities in these massive ways. And even though I was in that love bubble that everyone experiences when they first fall in love, I was at the same time more repressed and stressed than I had ever been in my life.

I had so many physical symptoms from stress—canker sores in my mouth and ulcer symptoms in my stomach—just everything manifesting physically because I was so stressed at all times that someone was going to find out.

I kept thinking, How am I going to tell my friends...are they going to be mad at me? Were they going to think differently of me? Were they going to be worried about being friends with me now that that they knew that I was gay? Would they think that I had a crush on them? There are so many layers of homophobia. It’s a major unlearning process, and it took a really long time from there because I hadn’t confronted it at all.

We wanted to be together so badly, so we had to shut down our inner voices—the voice that had been trained by our culture and our society to think that two girls in love was wrong. The deeper internal voice and instinct in me was falling in love, and my brain and my body took over. One night, we finally kissed, and neither one of us acknowledged it or talked about it the next day. Pretty immediately, I said, “I love you.” I just knew. We both were all in—we built up this friendship for so long and the love was the very last element.

Even then, it took about a year to come out to everyone. First I told my family and a few college friends. My sister knew—she could tell that Wolfy and I were together—and she talked to me about it, and I got upset because I didn’t feel ready. I was going through a massive identity shift. She was trying to be a good sister; she wanted to show that she was supportive of our relationship. But I hadn’t fully admitted it to myself yet, and I was still dealing with the fact that I was different from my siblings and parents and everyone around me. I had to adjust; I had to learn how to describe myself in a new way.

The summer after senior year of college, my high school best friend, Kelly, and I were carpooling to meet a larger group of our friends, and I came out to her in the car. When I asked her how I should tell everyone else, she told me to take my time. I told some people in person and others over text message or email. Some people I didn’t tell, and I let them assume and figure it out. Everyone responded differently, but I still had so many more people to tell. After about six months, my sister suggested that we make a list of who would be the hardest to tell and who would be the easiest, just to get me more comfortable.

Here’s the thing: living a lie has this trickle effect on your health.

Two years ago, I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease called Lichen Sclerosus, and basically my body attacks certain mucus membrane cells, and for me specifically, the condition manifested itself vaginally. It’s mainly diagnosed from heterosexual sex becoming really painful, because it causes scar tissue that eventually causes the vagina to get smaller. So for a decade of my life, I’ve dealt with this really intense pain and discomfort and no doctors diagnosed it. Any time I went to the gynecologist they thought I had an STD yet all the tests were negative.

I still had this subconscious belief that something was wrong with me, and I didn’t want doctors to discover that I was gay, and I thought, Maybe sex is just painful because I’m not attracted to men. It took me so much longer than it should have to diagnose a pretty serious disease, and by the time they diagnosed it, it was so severe that I had to have a major surgery.

In September of 2018, I had to go to a specialist at Stanford University to remove a bunch of scar tissue, and I was bedridden for two weeks, with my legs propped open so I could heal. I Iearned so much about the connection between body and mind, and the importance of mental health, because essentially, I just had to. I buried my physical discomfort for so long and I didn’t understand my body enough to know that something was wrong. I’m finally healing and starting to feel like myself—my true self.

One of the most interesting things about being gay is that you’re almost constantly coming out. The other night my girlfriend and I were at a restaurant and the waitress asked us if we were “best friends.” And I said, “Sort of.” When we’re at home living our lives we’re totally “out,” but I’m currently on tour with KT Tunstall and we’re in different parts of the country, and your feelers go out sometimes. Even my girlfriend, who is usually super open about our relationship, suggested that we show less PDA in certain places where we don’t know what to expect. We recognize that we live in a liberal California bubble, and there are still terrible things that gay, lesbian and trans people go through.

The first and second and third time that you tell someone, “I'm a lesbian” or, “I’m dating a woman,” it’s the most stressful thing ever. But it becomes exponentially easier, and now I feel so empowered about who I am, because I did all of that really hard work in figuring out the way that I wanted to present myself. It was a lot of digging that I was kind of forced to do, which was difficult at the time, but it's also kind of a blessing. Obviously I’m still learning and growing and changing all the time, but I've got this core group of people that matter to me and a cause I care about, because I really did a lot of searching and figured out what was the most important.

Whenever I hang out with other queer people, gay people, trans people, it's this funny thing that we have in common that you inevitably start talking about, because it's this massive life experience that we've all been through. It’s this separate community of people who have all gone through it and we all find each other and empower each other, which is really beautiful.

Once you go through that massive mental experience of coming out, rearranging everything and exerting so much emotional labor, you come out with those muscles flexed and you’re really ready to declare who you are and talk to people about it and help others recognize that struggle. And I know that for me, seeing cool girls or being friends with cool girls who also date women made me feel like I have a place.

It makes so much sense for me to be vocal about being a lesbian because it’s who I am. This is my life, this is my girlfriend, I love her. It was hard when we first came out but now it’s a lot better. One of my main goals is to help eliminate that struggle, and I’m doing that by sharing my story and my love in my music as a singer and songwriter.

The first couple years out of college were really difficult. I wasn’t making music, I was unsure of what kind of job I wanted to go after, and then I wrote this one song—it was about enjoying sex and being attracted to someone—and I felt like it was a switch flipped. And I was like, Woah, I can write about this and I can express this part of myself and people like it. From there I ended up writing an EP (and this was years after Wolfy and I started dating), but I started writing about falling in love from a very cute, happy perspective because I realized that I hadn’t done that yet. I started writing about our relationship more and more and it helped me believe that my life was exactly where it should be. I shared the song on Soundcloud and all of these queer people messaged me saying, “This is so cute” and that made me so happy.

And I have had dozens of people from my high school message me, girls and guys, telling me that they were gay in high school, that they dealt with this, too. I had a really sweet girl who was a few years younger than me ask about advice for coming out to her family and how to reconcile the college dating life versus the home life. Because when you first come out, you just go somewhere far away and you establish a new identity, separate from your old identity. The real challenge is just bridging the two and putting both parts of your life into one big circle that contains all of it.

I think it’s a universal thing: we all want to leave the world better than before we were in it.

We may have different perspectives of what would make the world better, but we’re all trying to push the world forward. So it feels really amazing when other queer people reach out and tell me that I’m a role model or that they want to find a relationship like mine. To put time into creating art—in many ways it’s a vapid pursuit—but when I realize that there are people listening to it who are where I was five years ago, I realize, Wow, this is so much bigger than me.

Maddie Ross is a singer, songwriter, lesbian, podcaster, dog mom and girlfriend based in Los Angeles.

Editor's note: interview conducted on May 12, 2019 and edited for length and clarity.

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