What It's Really Like To Be A Queer Teen In The Suburbs

For me, growing up queer and coming out in the suburbs of Montclair, NJ, was not easy. Around seventh grade, I made the bold step to tell my best friends that I liked both boys and girls, and while they were nothing but supportive, it took me years to tell anyone else. Even though my town is relatively progressive, it didn’t seem like people at my middle school embraced differences, so I wasn’t sure how they would react.

Luckily, by the time I got to high school, more of my friends came out and found acceptance, and I noticed that my peers seemed more open to the concepts of sexual and gender fluidity. Still, becoming comfortable with my bisexuality hasn’t been an easy process, despite the fact that Montclair is one of the more LGBTQ-friendly suburbs in the country. While comparing struggles isn’t simple (nor is it necessarily productive), I know that my experience has probably been easier than many queer teens’ in other suburbs.

The most helpful thing for me was realizing that I’m not alone. Considering that a recent study found that more than half of people between the ages of 13 and 20 identify as non-heterosexual (and more than a third as specifically bisexual), it seems safe to say that queer teens aren’t only living in progressive large cities; plenty of them are living in the more traditionally-minded suburbs, too. And that can be particularly hard, especially when queer teens are so underrepresented in mainstream media.

What’s important to remember is that the LGBTQ community is not only large but incredibly diverse, and there’s a huge difference between queer teens in the city and queer teens in the suburbs — and presenting a singular narrative on what “queer” looks like can be alienating for both groups.

Growing up queer in the suburbs can make teens feel isolated; there are fewer resources, and fewer openly queer people to go to for support. But thanks to the internet, many teens are finding their place in the world, whether it's through the Gay Straight Alliance at their high school or a community on Tumblr. Not to mention, Generation Z generally seems to be more progressive when it comes to sexual and gender identity — that same study found that 81% of Gen Z respondents didn’t think that gender defines a person as much as it used to, compared to 23% of people above the age of 28.

To help diversify people’s preconceived notions about what it’s like to be queer in the suburbs, I spoke to eight of my queer friends and classmates and allowed them to share their personal experiences and opinions regarding their sexual and gender identities. Ahead, eight narratives that showcase the diversity and beauty within one suburban LGBTQ community.

The gap between what we learned in sex ed and what we're learning through sexual experience is big — way too big. So we're helping to connect those dots by talking about the realities of sex, from how it's done to how to make sure it's consensual, safe, healthy, and pleasurable all at once. Check out more here.

Photographed by Remi Riordan.
Heaven, Pansexual Non-Binary Person, 17
“Coming out to my mom, because I haven’t come out to my stepdad, sucked. Mostly because I had to come out twice. The first time, I wasn’t even able to tell her when I wanted, because she went through my text messages and found out. I was then forced to tell the truth, which led to her telling me that I was confused, and that it was almost impossible for me to be bisexual. Then I realized, a few months later, that I was actually pansexual and decided right away I should tell her to get it over with. I most recently came to terms with the fact that I am gender non-binary, which I haven’t told her. I’m actually kind of afraid to, and I don’t know if I’ll ever have the courage to tell her the truth.”
Photographed by Remi Riordan.
Jay, Trans Boy, 17
"Being in the closet was a confusing experience. On the one hand, it’s safer, and in some ways easier than being out. You don’t have to expose yourself to the outside world. On the other hand, I wasn’t being myself, and that started to take a toll on me. Coming out was a super-scary experience, and it’s still scary for me, every time I do it. But the life I’m living now, exposed as I am, is infinitely preferable. I can be proud of who I am, and the more open I am with my identity, the more restricting life in the closet seems, retrospectively.”
Photographed by Remi Riordan.
Brezaja, Non-Binary Person, 18
“Pronouns are important to me because they are what to use to identify myself. If someone intends to address me by 'she' or 'her,' then they are not respecting my identity. I feel as though by assuming that I identify as a female because I dress in a femme way is overlooking all of the feelings about my gender. I want people to recognize that I have a masculine side. I also want them to realize that I have a neutral side, as well as a feminine side. I want people to realize that I am in between, none, or all at once. For me, gender isn't something that's permanent, so by assuming I'm a female is disregarding my ability to be the boy, girl, or neither that I feel in my mind that I am.”
Photographed by Remi Riordan.
Ella, Bisexual Girl, 17
“I think being in the suburbs means that it's harder to find communities of people like you. As a young queer person in the suburbs, I found that bisexuality wasn't discussed very often and, until high school, I wasn't really aware of anyone else in my community who was identified that way. However, I am extremely privileged to live in a very open-minded and liberal town. Here, I feel comfortable and safe expressing my sexuality."
Photographed by Remi Riordan.
Jacob, Bisexual Boy, 17
"I've personally had experiences ranging from bullying to fearing physical assault to everyday micro-aggressions in school. I think by far the most obnoxious and most common discrimination I face is from people, especially straight liberal 'allies,' who have expectations for how I should act, how I should speak, what I should enjoy, and try to pigeonhole me into those stereotypes.”
Photographed by Remi Riordan.
Izzy, Bisexual Girl, 16
“I would say the only way I've struggled with being bisexual is realizing that I was. It took me a while to figure out myself, but once I did, I didn't struggle nearly as much as others have. It's not something everyone knows about me, but when I do share it, I always feel comfortable. I guess it's a bit strange meeting people and having them assume I'm straight, since it's obviously not true, but 'going both ways' makes it all the more complicated. It's just less clear when I first meet someone. But beyond that, it's been a good time.”
Photographed by Remi Riordan.
Julia, Bisexual Girl, 18
“[I realized I wasn't straight] when I realized I always felt scared and vulnerable around men, but felt so warm, close, comfortable, and genuine with anybody who was not a cis man.”
Photographed by Remi Riordan.
Steven, Gay Boy, 17
"My first crush was with this boy in 7th grade named Joshua. What made me develop a crush on him was his tendency to display acts of affection to me most of the school day, and it was these things he'd do that actually made me come to terms with my sexual orientation. The sad part was that he apparently wasn't gay in the slightest, although he'd convinced everyone otherwise, including me. This led to me going to pathetic lengths to making him admit his sexuality to me.”
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