Post-Pride, three queer people discuss the difficulty of dating in secret, and how same-sex relationships are still not as accepted as we might think.
Imagine all the pain of a breakup; the tears, the anguish, the needing to talk about it over and over again until it sounds more like someone else’s story than your own. Now imagine being unable to tell the people closest to you about it: your parents, your friends at work, or even your bff.
That's exactly what happened to a woman named Isabella when she broke up with her girlfriend last year. A few years ago, Isabella, now 21, moved to London from Australia. She only knew one person in the city, the daughter of a friend of her mom’s. Isabella and the daughter, Hannah*, began a relationship (Isabella’s first) that would last two years. Isabella had known that she was gay since she was about 15, but didn't come out because she’d often heard her mom making homophobic comments. "I think it was just her age to be honest," Isabella says. "She grew up in a time when it wasn’t okay to be gay, so while she can handle other people being LGBTQ+, when it comes to her own children, it’s different."
Because Isabella kept the relationship from her mother, she was in a constant state of anxiety about the wrong thing being posted on social media. And when Hannah eventually cheated on her and they broke up, she not only had to hide it from her mom, but endure questions like: 'How’s Hannah doing? You two are still friends right?'
"People encouraged me to come out to my mom. They’d say, 'I’m sure she’ll be okay with it, she loves you.' I know it sounds bad, but it was annoying," Isabella says. "When you’re not ready, you’re not ready. And I did get very close to telling her, but then Hannah cheated on me."
Isabella’s story about dating "in the closet" isn't irregular. Many queer people go through similar situations, although the exact circumstances change depending on someone's identity.
For John*, a bisexual man, coming out is complicated because he's in a polyamorous marriage with a woman. His mom might be accepting of his relationships, he says, but some people at work definitely wouldn't accept him. In fact, as a straight-presenting queer man, he’s been privy to a lot of homophobic comments from his coworkers.
I’m in Scotland; in certain age groups the world can be very small, I always have to weigh up the risk of who is going to know certain people that I know, or see me out.
"One of my colleagues made a homophobic joke about one of my other colleagues who is out, expecting I would laugh at it," he says. "In my head, I was calculating what to do — it’s difficult to present yourself as a straight ally in that situation, because if I objected people would wonder why. I usually just change the subject."
While John's reluctance to tell his mom might have something to do with internalized homophobia, his reticence to come out at work is definitely due to the environment, he says. He can never date in the town where he works for fear of being spotted. "I’m in Scotland; in certain age groups the world can be very small, I always have to weigh the risk of who is going to know certain people that I know, or see me out," John says.
Michael, who identifies as gay or queer, feels that being in the closet set him back in terms of dating, because having a real relationship was just too hard. He didn’t personally feel comfortable dating other men until he moved to London last year. Before that, at Edinburgh University, he had only tried a few hookups over Grindr. In London, where he met like-minded people with whom he could be himself, he was able to have his first short relationship. "If I felt able to come out to my dad at 15, I would have started dating sooner," he says.
Despite knowing he was gay since he was seven or eight, Michael struggled to come to terms with his sexuality as a teenager. "The gay population in the town I grew up in was so small and the gay men I saw weren’t a reflection of what I felt like — they were very flamboyant and loud," he says (he is neither of those things). He didn't feel comfortable coming out because he didn't have anyone to identify with, he says.
Without anyone he felt he could talk to, Michael decided that forcing himself to marry a woman would be easier than ever living openly as a gay man. This perspective shifted slightly when his sister came out about her relationship with a woman — and his conservative dad took it surprisingly well. But the prospect didn’t make telling his dad any less daunting; if anything, he thought his dad might find it doubly hard learning that two of his kids were queer.
I think there’s this notion that it’s easy in this liberal modern age to be happy with who you are and come out and it not be a big deal.
"My sister makes people more confused about why I haven’t done it yet," Michael explains. "I guess I’m warming up to it. I think if he asked me, I’d be able to have a conversation about it. But I don’t think I’ll [come out] until I’m in a relationship with someone. All I have right now is seedy hookups, guys I’ve met once or twice, or people on Tinder. I guess I don’t have a reason to."
All three of these stories are a reminder that no coming out story is the same. "I think there’s this notion that it’s easy in this liberal modern age to be happy with who you are and come out and it not be a big deal," Michael says. But coming out is a personal experience, and it's still incredibly scary for a lot of people.
Six months after her breakup with Hannah, Isabella came out to her mom through a Facebook message. "I got sick of lying, but I couldn’t send it so I got my friend to press send," she says. In the seven hours it took her mom to reply, Isabella says she felt like she had multiple panic attacks. And she had a reason to be nervous. "[My mom] said she had a feeling. She said she still loved me. But I found out later that she had said some not very nice things to family members," Isabella says.
As Isabella’s mom hopefully comes to terms with her daughter’s sexuality, Isabella has found community support with other LGBTQ+ people on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr, and by going to marches for LGBTQ+ rights and to concerts of LGBTQ+ artists. She's met people who understand her experience, and that helps. But for those who have yet to come out to their parents, friends, or coworkers, she offers some advice: "Just do it when you’re ready and only if you’re safe. Try to surround yourself with people who will be there for you regardless and not rush you. You can choose your real family and friends."
*Name has been changed