I know Sofie from our high school, where we were both members of GSA. She filled out the survey and indicated that she wanted to be interviewed, so we met over zoom.
Sofie first came out to her mother as a freshman, who then told her father (with Sofie’s permission). She knew they would be accepting because they have had several gay family friends while she was growing up. Soon after, she told a few friends at school. Some of her friends were not surprised, and one even came out to Sofie at the same time. However, others did not react as nicely. Many of her teammates on the swim team were obviously uncomfortable being in the locker room with her.
“I first came out to my parents when I was a freshman. I did that because I knew that they would probably be the most supportive group just because like growing up like they have like several gay friends and stuff. And like they were always very open like ‘oh like this is this person and yeah like they’re gay.’ And like it was never a big deal.”
When Sofie was a sophomore, she started publicly dating a girl who was already out. It is fairly easy to tell when two people are dating, so this is how most of their school found out that she was not straight. Overall, most of the reactions Sofie received to coming out were confusion. We discussed how many people don’t under when someone is not straight, but not gay. Sophie and I both identify as queer, so I understood where she was coming from.
Sofie lives in a small town in Kentucky, so there are many people who were not accepting at all. She faced homophobic comments, slurs, and discrimination from both students and faculty. These things were hurtful, but they didn’t weigh on her too much due to her safe space at home and the fact that she was transferring schools soon. At this new school, the environment is very accepting and diverse. She also mentioned how having accepting parents did not make it easier to come out to others, but it did prepare her for the questions she would be asked.
Shaylyn and I met for the first time when we had our zoom meeting. She had filled out the coming out experience survey and indicated that she would like to be interviewed. I had sent it out to my high school’s GSA, of which she is a member.
“I’m really close with my siblings; I have four siblings. I have an older sister, and then a younger brother, and then two younger sisters. And they- they just, you know, they knew that I was something with Summer because like I was always with Summer, and I was always happy whenever I was around Summer, and I would always talk about Summer.”
She started out by telling me some context of her story. She was on freshman cheer, and she started dating a girl she met at a football scrimmage. Shaylyn got very close to this girl, Summer, and her cousin that she lived with. They kept their relationship hidden because they were in a small town in Kentucky where most people are conservative. Summer’s best friend Haley was suspicious of their relationship from the beginning. One day at school, Shaylyn found out that Summer was cheating on her with another girl, Julianne. Right after that, Summer’s cousin told Shaylyn that she saw Summer holding hands with a completely different girl. And then another girl, Emma, said that she was dating Summer too. Later that same day, they found out that Summer had also been dating her best friend Haley for a year and a half. So, Summer was dating five girls at the same time, and none of them knew about each other.
“You know, my mom is really open about everything, like my mom’s bisexual, too. So, she really didn’t care. She knew before I even told her.”
The rest of the school found out soon after this unfolded when Haley outed all of them as revenge. Shaylyn’s mom is bisexual, and she knew about her sexuality from the beginning. Her dad found out when her younger brother told him that Shaylyn had dated a girl named Summer. He was initially upset but got over it just a week later. Her siblings also knew from the beginning, as they are all very close. Summer had a bad homelife, so she stayed as closeted as she could.
“But yeah, my mom, like, she was just- she’s really accepting and so that helped me personally because I didn’t ever have to worry about, you know, hey- is this, you know- Am I not going to be supported at home? Is this person not going to support- is this person going to go tell my parents?”
The upside of this dramatic, upsetting experience is that Shaylyn has learned a lot from it and also turned it into a fun story to tell to her friends. She advises people who are thinking about coming out to be very wary of their situation at home. If your family is conservative, you may want to wait until you aren’t too dependent on them to come out, just in case. She considers herself lucky to have such accepting parents and sibling.
After conducting interviews with Shaylyn and Sofie, I realized how many similarities there are in their stories. This is not to say that they similar came out in the same way. There are, however, a few factors that are very influential in both of their experiences.
Shaylyn’s mother is bisexual, so she experienced an even deeper level of understanding at home. Shaylyn told me her mother had casually talked about ex-girlfriends while she was growing up. She said, “You know, my mom is really open about everything, like my mom’s bisexual, too. So, she really didn’t care. She knew before I even told her.” As for her siblings, they have always been really close. Shaylyn said they had just naturally picked up on her sexuality when she was dating Summer. Her brother was initially upset, but now he is completely supportive. When we talked about how having overall positive reactions to coming out at home affected her, Shaylyn said, “But yeah, my mom, like, she was just- she’s really accepting and so that helped me personally because I didn’t ever have to worry about, you know, hey- is this, you know- Am I not going to be supported at home? Is this person not going to support- is this person going to go tell my parents?” Sofie, on the other hand, had a different type of support at home. She grew up with several gay family friends, which her family was very open about. This made her sure that her parents would be okay with her sexuality, so she came out to them first. After coming out at school, she had several negative experiences. “… it didn’t get to me that much… because I had like such a like safe place at home to go to. Like it never really weighed on me that much.” This shows how influential one’s home environment is on coming out. Sofie was able to find comfort in her family. She also said that because coming out to her parents was a positive experience, she was prepared for different reactions others had to her coming out. Yet, it did not make coming out any easier or less nerve-wracking.
A 1982 article called “Developmental Stages of the Coming Out Process” discusses one academic model of coming out. It acknowledges that every individual does not go through these stages in order or even at all. The conflict that many individuals face with their family is explained as follows: “… most of today’s children learn that homosexuality is wrong and that everyone must marry. A major crisis is created for the individual, the family, and ultimately for society when a child appears about to break with these expectations” While this article has many outdated ideas, I believe this holds true today and explains many negative coming out experiences involving family. It also stresses the importance of positive reaction when someone come out: “If positive, the reaction can start to counteract some of the old perceived negative feelings, permitting individuals to accept their sexual [identity] and increase their self-esteem.”
Small Town Homophobia
Both Shaylyn’s and Sofie’s coming out experiences were affected by homophobia in their small, Kentucky towns. I understand their situations particularly well, as we all went to the same high school and are from similar areas. Earlier, I mentioned Sofie having negative experiences once she was out at school. To get more specific, people had called her slurs and said other derogatory things to her. She recounts, “I noticed that, like, people would kind of be like- not have really any hesitation in like saying stuff like that in front of like teachers and stuff.” Also, she would get reprimanded for PDA with her girlfriend for simply holding hands while straight couples would make out in the hallways. In Shaylyn’s case, she had a specific experience involving her mother, who taught at her school, and the principle. Shaylyn describes it as follows: “And it’s easy to be homophobic in a small town because everyone thinks the same exact way, and we were like the only people in the town who thought differently. And, um- Like at one point- At one point the principal went up to my mom and was like, “If Shaylyn has a girlfriend, you are not allowed to let them eat lunch in your classroom. Otherwise there will be a lawsuit saying you’re like recruiting gay people to eat lunch in your classroom.” This reflects the extent to which homophobia is woven through most school systems in small Kentucky towns.
I found a particularly enlightening paper called “Rural Homophobia: Not Really Gay.” It draws from a study on what lesbians and gay men face in rural areas. The following conclusion is reached: “The questionnaire and interview data confirmed previous literature which suggests that hypermasculinity, conservatism and some institutional religions in rural and regional areas can create a climate for lesbians and gay men in particular that, at best is unwelcoming and, at worst, dangerous.” I believe that this can explain the situation that both Sofie and Shaylyn found themselves in.
Shaylyn’s and Sofie’s coming out experiences were prompted by a relationship but in highly different ways. This was the first same-sex relationship for both of them. For Shaylyn, this is how she came to realize her sexuality, but Sofie had already known she was queer. Sofie told me how she came out at school through this relationship: “And so, she was like- everyone in the school knew that she was gay. And so, like I was like okay- like I guess like everybody will know now, and it’ll be fine and stuff. And so, then I like kind of like came out by like being like ‘Oh, I’m her girlfriend now.’ And so, like, that was kind of how that started and then there’s like everybody kind of knew then, because like they would see us walking together and stuff.” Shaylyn, however, did not willingly come out at school. One of the girls she was cheated on with outed her out of spite. Initially, she was very angry, but she eventually came to see the whole thing as a funny story. She told me that she didn’t have too many worries after being outed at school because her homelife was supportive. In both Shaylyn’s and Sofie’s stories, their relationships caused word of their sexualities to spread fast through the school.
Looking further at “Developmental Stages of the Coming Out Process” provides some insight into first same-sex relationships. It acknowledges how these typically relate to coming out: “Relationships often begin before basic tasks of coming out and explorations are completed… if one is in a couple, it is more difficult to conceal one’s homosexual identity from friends, family, and society.” The strain that can occur in these relationships is also mentioned. This may be because the people are at different stages of coming out or a lack of role models.