“I’m Gay”: 13 Women Share Their Coming Out Stories

Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
October 11 is National Coming Out Day, an event created by the Human Rights Campaign in 1988 to encourage LGBTQ people and their allies to come out in support of visibility and acceptance.
This year is particularly exciting, coming on the heels of a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that nearly doubled the number of states that allow same-sex marriage from 19 to more than 30. For the first time in history, the majority of Americans live in a state with marriage equality.
To celebrate, we photographed 13 amazing LGBTQ women and asked them to tell us their coming out stories. Their experiences range from heartwarming to sad to surprisingly hilarious — but each is inspiring in its own way.
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1 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
Elizabeth Koke, 29, literary publicist & event planner

"I did the cliché thing: I went to my first Ani DiFranco concert and had a religious experience, watching these two girls intensely embrace each other during a performance of 'Swan Dive.' I don't think I was thinking, I am gay, but it was definitely, I am this. I don’t know what this is, but I identify with it.

"Coming out was a political act for me in high school. I made posters with the gay-straight alliance like, 'Queer. Have No Fear!' or 'Gay? That's OK!' We would have layered posters, so when someone would rip one down, another poster would read, 'You just committed an act of hate.'"
2 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
"Right away, I identified as femme and as a dyke. I understood 'dyke' was a politicized word — something anti-patriarchal, a feminist thing. I've marched in New York's Dyke Marches for many years, and I’m committed to holding onto that word because transwomen have claimed it as well. I want to be a part of the movement to keep it an inclusive space.

"Even though I liked to wear lipstick, I wasn't a lipstick lesbian — that identifier had no political component. But, now, I just identify as queer. I've mostly dated people of varying gender identities in recent years, so 'lesbian' doesn't seem like the right identifier for me."
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3 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
Austin McAllister, 24, photographer & musician

"I knew I was gay when I was about 6-years-old — however old you are when you know you're attracted to a person in a non-familial way. But, my first 'I'm in love with a woman' moment came when I was 13 or 14 — it was my friend's mom. I recently found a journal where every page was about her. I definitely went over to my friend's house just to hang out with her mom.

"I live in a religious home, and my mom broke down crying after I told her. She's still never said the word 'gay' — to this day, she'll call it 'Your situation' or 'That thing we talked about that summer.' But, we’re still very close. I speak to her almost every day. I was lucky enough to have a mom who may not like this about me, but who loves me no matter what. I can't imagine what it's like when you don't have that support system."
4 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
"Honestly, I never feel a need to say, 'Hey guys! I'm gay!' if no one asks me. I went to a religious college, so I didn't tell anyone there. I go to a progressive church in New York, but I haven't told anyone in the Adventist community back home.

"No one says, 'Hey, I’m straight,' so I don't feel the need to tell the entire church I'm gay. If you are religious, which I still am, your relationship with God is your relationship with God. It's no one else's."
5 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
January Hunt, 26, artist

"I have two real coming out stories. Before the first, the woman I was dating and I went upstate to do a fire walk — to walk on hot coals to prepare to tell my mom. Telling my mom about the transition was always my biggest concern because she and I are really close, and we have no other family.

"A week later, we went to my mom's for Thanksgiving. We planned the whole thing out. I went to the bathroom and my partner said to my mom, 'Your child has something to say to you and doesn't want to initiate the conversation. I'm going to go to the car.' I came out of the bathroom and my mom knew I had to talk to her.

"I said, 'I am a woman of trans experience. This is what it means and this is what it doesn't mean, and you are not responsible.' There was a lot of crying and it was very intense.

"She had a hard time initially, and a lot of questions about if I'd be safe in the world. But, by my next birthday, she gave me a card that said, 'To my daughter' and a cake with my chosen name on it. It was a real unconditional love moment."
6 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
"My second coming out was on January 1, 2011. I went across every social media platform and announced I was changing my name and going by these pronouns in the future. Period. I was really strong about it. Two weeks later, on the anniversary of me starting to take hormones, I had a get-together with friends and family to celebrate.

"To young people I would say, look deeper into yourself and realize your identity is more malleable than you realize — don't decide on it yet. Approach it with an understanding that you don't have to follow a narrative that already exists. Find yourself, regardless of what anyone else says."
7 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
Lula Isfran, 31, works in IT

"I think I figured out I was gay at 22-ish. But, I didn't come out until I was 25. In Paraguay, where I'm from, it's not something you hear about. Coming here gave me the freedom to explore.

"I went back home a couple times with the intention of coming out. But, I called it off each time, out of fear. My family is very religious. Then, I was in New York and doing an empowerment course, and I felt ready to tell them. I called my mother and told her how much I love her, and that I was gay. She said if that's the reason I left, I shouldn't have."
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8 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
"I'm not a big fan of labels. I don't consider myself butch, but I'm not particularly feminine, either.

"If you can choose a place to come out, it should be New York. There is a great support system here. In South America, there is a strong concept of machismo, and it's very homophobic. It's definitely changed in the last five years since I moved, but it's still not great."
9 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
Yan Sze Li, 28, art director

"I grew up in Arizona, which is super-conservative. There were moments in high school when I definitely thought about girls in a more-than-just-friends way, but it was such a sheltered life... At the time, I was like, What the fuck am I thinking? This is crazy! As soon as I came to New York, I started to have crushes on my friends and realized I'm gay.

"When I was 19, I was chatting with my sister online and I was casually like, 'What if I told you I was gay?' She didn't reply for 20 minutes, so naturally I was freaking out. Then, she called and was like, 'What do you mean? Is this is a phase? Are you sure you're not just missing your sisters?'

"After my sister called me, she called my mom, who called my other sister. We didn't talk about it again for a year or two. One night, she came up to me and said, 'I know you're gay. I know you like women. I want you to now it's okay and we still love you.' It was hard, but I felt more free than ever after I told them."
10 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
"I definitely think lesbians are completely underrepresented. For example, I go to all these parties, and I love them, but they are always hosted by fabulous gay men or have gay DJs. I know plenty of lesbian DJs, but a lot of people don't book them. I don’t know what it is. Maybe people think lesbians are not as fun. There is a stereotype that lesbians get wifed up and stay in, while gay men love to rage — but it's not true.

"Last year I shaved my head. It's definitely a signifier. A quarter of it was that I had really long hair and it was getting on my nerves. But, also, I was like, I'm gay and no one knows I'm gay! After I did it, lesbians at parties definitely started talking to me more."
11 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
Mariah MacCarthy, 28, playwright

"At 16, I was very involved with my church's youth group. We would go on these emotional retreats and people would confess and cry. During one of those moments, a girl was holding me and rubbing my back and saying, 'It's okay. Jesus loves you,' and internally, I knew I was enjoying this for more than purely spiritual reasons.

"And, it turned out she was gay, too. I talked to her and she said, 'Well, I'm gay, so if you want to try kissing to see if you are or not, we could do that.' And, so, we arranged it — like a date to try kissing! But, then her mom came home early, and we never got to try. I didn't kiss a girl until college."
12 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
"I told my dad first, after my freshman year of college when I was 19. We'd been having this long, close conversation. [It] was sort of winding down and he says, 'So, is there there anything else you'd like to tell me?' and that was the moment. I took a very long time and said, 'I'm bi.' And, he said, 'Duh.' He had seen how I was around women.

"People who come out struggle with the idea that it will be perceived as just a phase. I don't want to fall into that, but I do want to encourage people to be open to the idea that sexuality evolves over time.

"If, right now, you think you are gay, and in 10 years you end up marrying a woman, or in five years you realize that you want to be in a polyamorous relationship with a man and someone who is sometimes male and sometime female — it doesn’t matter, there are so many options available to you."
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13 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
Odalis Gonzalez, 27, crisis services manager

"When I came out to my mom, we were at my girlfriend's school fashion show. My mom thought she was my best friend, but she was my first love. We were together from 13 to 19; we met at sleepaway camp. At the show, my mom was like, 'Is something up here?' At that point, no one knew, not even my friends — everyone thought I had a fake boyfriend named Chris. I ended up telling my mom that was my girlfriend, and she was pissed. She is religious and Spanish, and a little bit conservative.

"My grandmother, who is the queen bee of our family, found out and dismissed it. To this day, my grandma doesn't acknowledge it. But, the rest of my family jokes with me and builds relationships with my partners. They're great now."
14 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
"Coming out is something you do over and over again. I came out to my mom at 15, but I didn't come out to friends until prom, when I brought my girlfriend as my date. It can be a tough process, but it can also be a strengthening process.

"Every time you come out, you learn more about yourself and about other people. You find out who is in your circle and who shouldn’t be. And, you are being extremely brave. Sometimes it can be rough, but it might be beautiful, and something good always comes from it — whether it be a partner you love or just finding yourself."
15 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
M.J. Corey, 24, writer

"The first time I knew I was gay, I was in eighth grade. I had a crush on a classmate — nothing happened, I just adored her from a distance. There was this one moment in the bathroom when she complimented my White Stripes T-shirt and I freaked out.

"I had a lot of family chaos going on, so I didn't think about it. I remember having the thought in the hallway of school: This is going to be something I'm not going to deal with right now because I'm so overwhelmed with everything else. It was very deliberate.

"My freshman year of college, I just knew. I tried to kiss boys but I couldn't do it — I'm a gold-star lesbian. Then I met this girl when I was 18, and I knew it was time. I came out to my mom the next year, at 19, after I fell in love."
16 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
"I had been asking my mom for advice about this boy named Charlie. But one night, I called her crying, 'Mom, Charlie is Charlotte.' And, she freaked out. My mom is from a very wealthy family in Minnesota and all of us would get cut out if they found out. I don't think she cared that I was gay, but she was very scared of what it would do to her and her inheritance. It ended our relationship for a while, but I was so in love with this person that I didn't care about the consequences.

"One good thing about pushing through the drama is that it can strengthen relationships. My mom has adjusted, and we joke about it now. It's like that cliché — the harder it is, the more worthwhile it is. I believe in the power of pain, and this started everything for me. It turned me into a writer, and it turned me into a full person. I'm going to be a counselor now."
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Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
Yolanda Leaney, 26, DJ

"I'd always been sexually active with women from a very young age — 15. And, I thought they were just my friends, but I look back and realize I had two pretty serious relationships before I was 21 — but back then, we just thought we were best friends.

"I came out at 23, and a really good friend of mine at work was like, 'You know how you talk about Anna, and you know how you talk about Luke? It's different when you talk about Anna.' And, I was like, 'No, no, no' — and then she took me out to a gay bar, and the rest is history. She's fantastic, I owe her my life."
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18 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
"Once I figured it out, I thought, I have to tell everyone at once. So, I told my brother and my sister, and had them come out to a family dinner with me and did the dramatic, 'So, I have something to tell you…' And, then I dropped the bomb. My mom was like, 'Okay... Okay...' and then she went on the balcony with a gin and tonic and smoked a cigarette. I was like, 'Mom, you smoke?' And, she was like, 'I do now!'

"They got the weird out right away. She asked, 'You like to do those things with girls?' And, I was like, 'Uh, yes.' It was very hard for me, and I was very nervous, but in hindsight, I'm glad we talked about it all right away.

"And, my parents love me to death. My dad just called and invited my girlfriend to Christmas in Australia."
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Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
Aaron Madison, 22, student

"The first time I had a crush on a girl was in college. It was a really cool thing. I was like, Oh, my god! My actual coming out was calling my mom and being like, 'I'm going on vacation with my friend Julia.' And, Julia, who was sitting right there, was like, 'You have to call her back!' So, I did: 'Actually, Julia is my girlfriend.'

"My mom said, 'Oh,' and then a long pause. But, she was happy for me, secretly excited. She went out and bought a bunch of books on how to have a lesbian daughter. Things were pretty good, pretty fast. After that, I think I posted on Facebook that I was a relationship with a girl and it was just done. It was really cool."
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Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
"I wish I saw more gay women; I wish I could live in a world populated by all queer ladies. I remember when I cut my hair short for the first time — I had really long hair before college — and my mom was really mad. I talked to my girlfriend a lot about that, how young lesbians figure out they're gay and then turn really butch because that's what lesbians are 'supposed' to look like. It's cool to remember that there are different ways to do it.

"I like to remember that being gay doesn't have to be totally in the context of relationship. Like, I would still be gay if I didn't have a girlfriend. I think about what makes me gay all the time. It's that I'm a person in this world who revels in being outside of normal... It's about wanting something other than a nuclear family, not wanting to propagate the world with my youngins."
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Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
Cindy Ho, 27, designer

"I had a lot of crushes. When I was 4-years-old, there were these neighborhood girls, and I remember suggesting we all take a bath. In high school, it was always on the foreign exchange girls. I remember one Icelandic girl in particular…

"When I was 21, I moved to China with a woman. My parents thought I was just moving for the hell of it. I brought her to lunch with my parents, and I was passing her off as my friend. I remember my mom asked how old she was, and if she had a boyfriend. When I said no, my mom warned me to be careful — what if she tries to make you her boyfriend? We actually broke up two months after I got there, but I stayed in China for another year."
22 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
"I still haven't talked to my parents, but I think they suspect. Once, I was very depressed, when I was 18, and I was crying. My sister asked, 'Are you gay?' But, I wasn't ready to tell her, so I said no. I remember she was relieved.

"Coming out was never a conversation — more of a 'by the way' kind of thing. When I first started to explore physically, I'd tell friends, 'I hooked up with so-and-so' who is a girl. I still haven't had a formal coming out. It's a constant thing; it can depend on my haircut or who I'm with."
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23 of 26
Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
Kate Hotaling, 35, freelancer

"I like to joke that I'm ethnically gay — I come from the gays.

"My sister was a huge tomboy, and when she was going to college, she had told me she was a lesbian. I hid that from my family for about two years until she had a bit of a breakdown after a breakup. On my mom's birthday, my sister walked into the house and announced, 'Hey mom, happy birthday. I'm a lesbian. I tried to kill myself.'

"My mom freaked out. We come from an Irish Catholic background, so even though my mom had gay and lesbian friends, the fact that her daughter was a lesbian didn't sit right with her. My dad — to make my sister feel better about things — confided in her that he had boyfriends when he was younger. He didn't say he was gay then, but suddenly a lot of things started to make more sense.

"Because of all that, when I started to awaken sexually myself, I felt like I had to be the normal kid. My sister was a lesbian, my dad was gay and hiding it from my mom. As the normal kid, I felt like I had to have a boyfriend. I [had to] go to college. I had to be the normal kid."
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Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
"I don't really label myself as anything. I've dated girls. I have sex with girls. I'm in an open relationship with my boyfriend, but I've never been at a point where I wanted to be labeled as bisexual polyamorous, which I guess is what I am.

"Being the 'normal kid' isn't the safe way to go. Trying to be the normal kid definitely hurt me. At the age of 35, I am finally realizing that. If I could go back, [I would] tell 22-year-old me to just be myself."
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Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
Carrie Nelson, 28, producer

"In high school, I woke up one day and was like, Oh my god. I'm gay. It came about after my boyfriend and I had gone on a date to see Love Actually, and he was trying to fool around with me, and I was staring at Keira Knightley. It was a sign.

"I came out to my parents, and they were like, 'Okay, we kind of assumed this was coming — but don't ruin his Christmas.' So, I told my boyfriend on December 26. I later came out at an assembly in front of my entire high school — and then I took my girlfriend to prom that year. It was progressive, Massachusetts; it was fine.

"And, then, in college I met my husband. We became friends when we were 19, and I knew instantly that I was in love with him — but I was gay, so that was impossible. We started dating a month later. Within the next few months I started identifying as queer, then we got engaged. For friends who had only known me as gay, it was really hard. I lost some friends in the process."
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Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
"I think that female bisexuality is seen as something that women dabble in [when they're] in college, and then they settle down with a man. I think that's what people read me as doing, as opposed to seeing the fact that I was — and am — very involved in queer activism and queer politics. That's still a huge part of my identity. Instead, people assumed that getting married meant I had just been messing with these women who were actually gay.

"I've learned that my experience of coming out multiple times as multiple different identities is really not uncommon. A lot of people change the labels that they use over the course of a lifetime. But, I hope people become less afraid of the word 'bisexual.' I think it’s a great word, and I think it's stigmatized for a lot of really terrible reasons. If I could emphasize anything, it's the fact that people should not shy away from that word if it truly reflects their experience."
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