Content Warning: this piece contains mention of an eating disorder and self-harm (non-descriptive)
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Being in the LGBT2SQ+ community, I get questioned about why I have to talk about it and who cares that I’m gay. I’ve also learnt that I’m not alone in receiving these types of questions.
Hostility from unwelcoming people and fear of rejection from family and friends are pretty strong motivators to keep people in the closet. So, why do people come out?
There is an instinctual desire to come out. Something deep inside that urges us to tell people and not live our lives hidden away.
LGBT2SQ+: An acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, and queer/questioning. It is often used as an umbrella term for the entire community.
Cisgender: A person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth. (Merriam-Webster)
Simply put, it’s a need. We need to be able to freely love whom we love and to love ourselves. In less progressive times and places, people were — and still are — quite literally “risking it all” to come out.
I’m concerned about the importance placed on coming out. It can put too much pressure on LGBT2SQ+ individuals. We need normalization. Being LGBT2SQ+ comes with an increased risk for mental health struggles — the stress of lying, the self-hate, and homophobia can be severely damaging.
Through my own story, and the stories of Ava, Chris, and Sadie-Phoenix, I hope to share some of the challenges LGBT2SQ+ people face with coming out, being out, and demanding respect for simply existing.
The second time I came out to my dad was when he really began to understand I wasn’t joking about “the gay thing.”
It was Halloween of 2017, and I was sitting on my friend’s couch in a black vampiress dress that was feeling tight from all the candy I’d eaten. The Grudge was terrorizing a family in the background as I read over the long blocks of text I had written out.
I didn’t know if my stomach was churning from all the sweet crap I had put in it or from the anxiety of sending this message.
I hit send, flipped my phone to silent mode, and threw it across the couch. After I recovered from screaming into a pillow, I took a sip of my wine and watched the detective enter the attic.
I was terrified to tell him, but it was also incredibly freeing. The need to come out had been nagging me in the back of my head for years. I had so much pent-up anger toward my dad because I assumed he wouldn’t accept me. Our relationship had become terrible and consisted of me yelling at him over everything because I knew he would eventually reject me.
Feeling stuck in the closet turned me into someone I hated. I didn’t hate myself for being gay or wish that I wasn’t gay, but my anger at my inability to control how other people felt about me manifested itself in horrible ways. I thought I would always be depressed.
After many talks with my therapist, I accepted that I needed to make a change and start talking about my sexuality, or else being in the closet would continue to torment me. Slowly opening up about who I was and how I wanted to live my life began to make me feel better. I stopped lying to everyone around me and that helped me change my mindset about my future.
After six years of being in the closet and three years of being out, I can finally say I’m happier. Now I’m continuing to learn that coming out brings a brand-new set of challenges.
Being straight-passing is something I didn’t have time to think about until after I came out and became more comfortable with my sexuality.
I was finally being open about my sexuality and ready to start meeting women, but how could I when nobody knew I was gay?
Straight-Passing: When an individual’s outward appearance, behaviour, and activities fall in line with their gender role.
Even within the LGBT2SQ+ community, I’ve had people question me on my sexuality.
My girlfriend, Kelsey, didn’t even believe I was gay when we first met. I had to compliment her on her GIRLS hoodie, invite her to Fame Nightclub, and go on the most awkward movie outing with her, her best friend, and my ex for Kelsey to finally get it. (Yes, lesbians hang out with their exes and yes, it’s a little weird.)
Still, she thought the rainbow flag emoji in my Instagram bio was because I was “a really supportive ally.” When I confront her about it now, she tells me it was to protect herself from “falling for another straight girl.”
Because I’m straight-passing, I try to be as open as I can and let everyone know I’m a lesbian, but sometimes that invites unwelcome interactions.
I do not smile when men yell “hot lesbians” from their trucks while I’m holding my girlfriend’s hand on the street.
I do not enjoy keeping my finger hovered over 9-1-1 because a man at a social is harassing me and my girlfriend for dancing, yelling at us in the parking lot to “stop that shit.”
I do not want to answer questions about “who’s the guy” or “what do lesbians do” to people who think the intimate details of my relationship are owed to them because they’ve watched too much lesbian porn and don’t know how to treat women like people.
The standard for coming out does not have to simply be acceptance. We should be able to exist without having to justify our relationships, deflect harassment, and suffer in silence.
Note: Sadie-Phoenix uses they/them pronouns.
I can feel the passion coming off Sadie-Phoenix, 26, as they tell me about how they stood up to a Sundance Chief last summer.
The Chief attempted to stop Sadie-Phoenix from participating in male activities, such as dancing, piercing, and flesh offerings, as it would break Protocols, but Sadie-Phoenix was determined.
Sundance: an annual cultural ceremony performed in honour of the sun, during which participants prove bravery by overcoming pain. (The Canadian Encyclopedia)
Two-Spirit: a person who identifies as having both a masculine and a feminine spirit. Used by some Indigenous people to describe their sexual, gender and/or spiritual identity. (Re:Searching)
“Hey man, I dreamt this. You can’t be getting in between me and my dreams,” they told the Chief.
Dreaming is significant for the Anishinaabe people as they believe this is how knowledge from the spirit world is passed to humans.
Since coming out as Two-Spirited, Sadie Phoenix has been set on breaking down boundaries for Two-Spirited people that were established through colonialism.
“My strength is being truthful and open and being real. I don’t think anyone can really diffuse that truth, it’s like an absolute truth.”
After four days of fasting, praying, and making offerings, Sadie-Phoenix remembers feeling they had a true understanding of what life really is.
Being able to dance in the ceremony “was like a euphoria“ and Sadie-Phoenix was glad other Two-Spirited people were able to witness it.
Sadie-Phoenix is a combined name of their birth name, Sadie, and their middle name, Phoenix.
“I’ve always loved my name Phoenix. It was this rebirth, this renewal. You get burnt down, but you still rise up.”
Taking on this name was important during their journey to identifying as Two-Spirited and gender-fluid.
Because their identity is so complex, Sadie-Phoenix had to come out two separate times, once for their sexuality and once for their gender.
Gender-Fluid: a person whose gender identity is not fixed. (Merriam-Webster)
Sadie-Phoenix grew up on Sagkeeng First Nation in a Roman Catholic household. Their grandmother, who was a residential school Survivor, often spoke about Hell and biblical teachings which led Sadie-Phoenix to feel ashamed of who they were.
“Realizing more of my Indigenous identity really affirmed that journey of putting that book [the Bible] away and picking up the drum or singing or going to ceremonies.”
They had suspected that they were interested in women around puberty. It wasn’t until they moved to Winnipeg and attended a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting at school, that they finally had the words to describe themself: bisexual, Two-Spirited.
Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA): a student-led or community-based organization that is intended to provide a safe and supportive environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) children, teenagers, and youth as well as their cisgender heterosexual allies. (Wikipedia)
“Something just lit up in me like, oh my god, I’m not just going through this phase. There’s something there that’s true and I have to honour that truth, my inner truth.”
Sadie-Phoenix hid their sexuality from their family until their mom confronted them at 18.
Sadie-Phoenix stood across the kitchen table from their mother, the two of them in the midst of an argument.
Feeling heated in the moment, their mother slammed her fist on the kitchen table.
“You know what, mama always knows. You can’t hide anything from mom. Don’t act like I don’t know that you like girls,” Mama said.
Sadie-Phoenix froze, according to them, their expression alone gave it away that their mother was right.
After their mother knew, Sadie-Phoenix had the confidence to start being open about their sexuality.
Coming out as gender-fluid was another challenge for Sadie-Phoenix because they were worried gender would be a harder concept for their family to grasp.
Sadie-Phoenix admits to secretly binding and trying on their brother’s clothing while doing the laundry. Eventually, Sadie-Phoenix started acting and dressing the way they wanted, and their family and friends began to take notice.
Binding: the act of flattening breasts by the use of constrictive materials. (Wikipedia)
During this time, 2014-2015, Sadie-Phoenix was very active on social media and wanted to document their journey to discovering themself.
“I wanted people to know that it doesn’t matter when [they come out]. Don’t feel like you have to have it all figured out immediately. You can take your time. You can change it up if something did fit, but now it doesn’t. You don’t have to stay put.“
Sadie-Phoenix could’ve gone through their journey alone, but they knew sharing it online would bring awareness to what being Two-Spirited and gender-fluid means and help other people who may be questioning their own gender or sexual orientation.
As Sadie-Phoenix explains “It’s hard being that trailblazer because you know it’s for the good and benefit of other people, even though you have to sacrifice your feelings and your emotions in that moment.” The only way to normalize coming out is for more people to do so, especially people in the public eye like Chris — but being a trailblazer means you have to put other’s feelings before your own and sometimes even fail.
Chris Voth, 29, taps his knuckles on the table in the office we are squished into. His 6’3 body is slouched into his chair so we can be at eye-level. Chris is now the coach of the men’s volleyball team at Red River College but used to be an international and Team Canada athlete.
Chris remembers being at home the night before the article was supposed to be published, anxiously waiting for the response. A message on his phone interrupted his thoughts.
“Hey, congratulations, man.”
The web article had been published early and Chris wasn’t quite ready for it.
His inboxes were instantly flooded with messages. Fans, athletes, and other sports staff were congratulating Chris, but the messages he remembers the most were from other gay youths.
LGBT2SQ+ students and athletes were thanking Chris for coming out and sharing their own coming-out stories with him, but other messages were hard to read.
“There were some people that would reach out and say that they were going to hurt themselves or do something like that because they didn’t have the strength.”
Chris became worried about the safety of these youths. He was not qualified to help them but knew he had to respond.
“It was such an emotional rollercoaster reading these messages. I couldn’t get off my phone or computer because it was just constant.”
As nervous as Chris was to be publicly coming out, he is glad he was able to help other people and be a role model that didn’t exist when he was young.
“I wouldn’t say that I was always gay, but I think that was also because I was in a bubble where it wasn’t even a thing.”
Growing up, LGBT2SQ+ youth often do not see themselves represented in media or real life. Chris and I both grew up in Roman Catholic communities where being homosexual was not talked about, not even to denounce it. Living as an openly queer person was never even presented as an option for existing.
“I grew up watching the fairy tales, it was just a prince and a princess and that was just how it is, that was my reality.”
For Chris, being out meant he no longer had to keep track of who knew and who didn’t. It was an instant weight off his shoulders.
“It was freeing to get out of my own mental prison.”
Although this experience left Chris feeling humbled, he did not realize how it would affect his career.
After several successful seasons playing in Europe, Chris was denied a position on a top-level team because of his sexuality.
“There’s a stigma with being a gay male as an athlete. They’re stereotyped as more feminine which is a less attractive thing for a sportsman.”
The pressure to be hypermasculine as a male athlete means that gay athletes can be seen as less valuable to a team.
Chris’ mental health, relationships, and self-image improved with coming out, but it made other aspects of his life more difficult.
“Because it hindered my career, I’m also nervous that it also could have scared people to not come out.”
We have no way of knowing if Chris and other gay athletes’ coming out will help reduce the homophobia in sports that 82 per cent of athletes have witnessed or experienced, but it is our best chance at helping to normalize homosexuality in sport.
As Chris says, not having to juggle lies and remember who knows what can take away so much stress from your life. Coming out can be the first step to healing from forcing yourself to stay hidden for so long. Once I had opened up about my sexuality, I felt like I was able to open up about other aspects of my life. Unfortunately, the only way out of the closet is through and that can be the hardest step to take.
Sitting in front of me, Ava Garfinkel, 23, sips her fifth cup of coffee. Her Star of David necklace is hanging just above the hollandaise sauce stain on her black shirt. She jokingly tells me she wants her casket to be filled with hollandaise sauce when she dies. She’s just as dramatic as you can imagine.
Having overcome an eating disorder, self-harm, and other mental health struggles, Ava seems so much happier and sure of herself now than the past version of herself.
Ava identifies as queer, which is an umbrella term that essentially means not straight.
“I wanted to identify as a lesbian, but with a little asterisk that would say ‘most of the time.’ There wasn’t a word for that, so I ended up settling into the word queer.” Ava says.
Growing up queer and Jewish in the middle of a predominantly Christian town — Grosse Isle, Manitoba — it took Ava a long time to figure out who she was.
“You always hear that ‘God hates gay people.’ I didn’t believe that. I was being told at synagogue that God doesn’t hate gay people. But there’s always this part in the back of my head that said ‘Where is this coming from? Why does everybody believe this?'”
These conflicting messages drove Ava away from her faith for a period of time, but she has since found her way back. Every time someone is anti-Semitic toward Ava now, she feels her faith grow stronger.
Ava has struggled more with anti-Semitism than homophobia, even within the LGBT2SQ+ community.
“There’s a lot of people that are fine with me being queer, but would rather me not talk about being Jewish, and I have a problem with that hypocrisy. I have a problem with people telling me not to be myself by people championing ‘be completely yourself.'”
In recent years, there has been a rise of censorship of Judaism in the LGBT2SQ+ community from anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli individuals. In 2017, three Jewish women were asked to leave Chicago’s Dyke March for carrying Jewish Pride flags, a variation of the rainbow flag that has a Star of David on it.
Ava is comfortable with her identity now, but it was a struggle to get to this point.
Driving down Provincial Trunk Highway 6, sitting in the passenger seat of her mom’s car, Ava remembers how warm the weather was for September. Her mom picked her up early from school and they headed into Winnipeg for a dental appointment.
Ava was 17 years old and had just gotten out of a relationship with a girl she was still hung up on.
All she could think was “I don’t want to keep this to myself anymore.”
Ava’s mom tried to make small talk during the ride and asked her daughter if she liked any boys.
“No, I like a girl,” Ava remembers saying.
Ava and her mother both cried the whole way into the city.
Coming out helped Ava change her perspective on life. A shared experience we talked about was the inability to picture a future for ourselves. Growing up, we both learnt there was a specific way our futures would look, including the sex of our spouse and our gender role.
Thanks to compulsory heterosexuality, dreaming and planning for life is even more difficult for LGBT2SQ+ people because they don’t feel like they have a say or part in their own future.
Compulsory Heterosexuality: the idea that heterosexuality is assumed and enforced by a patriarchal and heteronormative society. (Wikipedia)
“Being in the closet for so many years, and lying about who you are and keeping a part of you inside, is traumatizing in a way that you don’t realize until you’ve been doing it for a while, or until you let go of that.”
LGBT2SQ+ people have higher rates of depression and anxiety, are at double the risk for PTSD, and are 14 times more likely to be suicidal and have substance abuse issues than heterosexuals.
Ava has struggled with depression for most of her young adult life.
“A lot of it stems from trying to be someone I’m not and trying to cope with the concept that…there’s a way to be this [straight], person and there’s not. I’m just gay.”
Now, Ava is continuing to work through these feelings and can completely conceptualize her future as a queer woman. Coming out can be the first step to healing after forcing yourself to stay hidden for so long.
Once I opened up about my sexuality, I felt like I was able to open up about other aspects of my life. Being in the closet can be so emotionally stunting and draining, that coming out can feel like completely reinventing yourself. For Ava, she was finally able to have hope about the future and start building a life that she wanted to be a part of.
In each of their stories, Ava, Chris, and Sadie-Phoenix were determined to be their true selves, despite pushback.
By more people coming out, I hope we will get to a place where it is normalized.
There’s a reason LGBT2SQ+ people tend to stick together; we have shared trauma from having to go through this alone. It does not have to be this way. Being gay does not have to be synonymous with being stuck in a “mental prison” or needing to lie about your identity.
Why do we need to talk about being gay? Because staying in the closet only prolongs the pain LGBT2SQ+ people go through. I will continue to talk about being gay until no one questions why.
When I attended Pride in 2017, the opening speech talked about how life has gotten better for lesbians and gays, and not so much for everyone else. We cannot be complacent with our progress in the LGBT2SQ+ community. We cannot ignore how difficult it is to exist at the intersections of sexuality, gender, race, religion, etc. We cannot ignore that people are still suffering in the closet and after they come out.
Talk about it. Question your own privilege, whether you’re in the community or outside of it. Nobody wins if our success is based upon the oppression of someone else.
Allies, show up when the Pride parties are over — when people are still homophobic and transphobic in your family, your friend group, your city.
We must do everything we can, as the ones on the outside, to make sure one day, no one will have to feel the way that we did.