Before it became a chaotic and uncontrollable CW mainstay, Pretty Little Liars was a young adult series that took up an entire shelf at the nearest Barnes & Noble. When I was in sixth grade, I would go to the bookstore with my mom, and while she hunted down bestsellers for her book club, I’d hide out in the “Teen Series” section. Every trip, I’d reach for that same bright yellow book and flip to Emily and Maya’s almost-kiss near a waterfall.
This, of course, was not a universal experience. Not every queer person obsessively reread Chapter 10 of Pretty Little Liars at age 11 or reblogged infinite Orange is the New Black GIFs on Tumblr circa 2014 before one day calling their parents — drunk, heartbroken, and seated on the grimy floor outside a college dorm party — because they maybe, sort of, had very overwhelming and confusing feelings for a girl on the other side of the cinderblock wall.
In the way of details, very little unifies our collective coming out stories. But what does connect us is the fact that we all had such awkward, joyful, lonely, and poetic experiences figuring out who we are.
Here, ten people of all ages from around the world tell Refinery29 their own queer origin stories, which include everything from social media platforms to crushes and kisses to the musical Fun Home.
Grace, 23, she/they
“I started questioning my sexuality when I was 13. I had a friend who came out as bisexual, and I was like, ‘Okay, that’s a thing,’ and then I started panicking, because I thought about all of the relationships that I had with my friends and other girls and I thought they could be crushes. I had a whole crisis and I didn’t sleep for a couple of weeks and I went to my mom about it and said I might be gay, and she said, ‘That’s fine, you’re not dying.’ I kind of forgot about it after that for awhile. I think once I had that acceptance from my mom, I was like, okay, this isn’t a big deal, and I don’t have to figure it out now.
I’ve come out at least four times. I came out as a lesbian because I had a lot of internalized biphobia. A year later, I came out as bi again, and that’s how it’s been ever since. I accepted the fact that I was attracted to men and that doesn’t make me any less queer, it’s not an either-or situation. And I just had a sense of peace about it, I think because maybe I had more confidence and I was getting older and I wasn’t trying to prove myself to anyone anymore.”
Danielle, 50, she/her
“I have always been transgender for as long as anyone has known me, but I think the difference is it took me a long time to find the language and understand what it means to be trans. I knew I was different as a child and in adolescence — there were a lot of things that didn’t add up for me about gender, but I simply had no words for it. It just felt like wanting to be a girl, and I think because I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, it felt wrong. So I did a really good job of repressing it. It was my darkest secret. Nobody ever knew.
Then, in 2009, I finally decided to do a little research. That’s when I finally found language and started to give myself space to explore and when I did, it all came into focus very, very quickly. I started really thinking, specifically, about gender and myself.
Austin, TX, where I live now, has been a really affirming place for me, and the trans community is strong and resilient and welcoming. I went to a group called Transgender and Queer Social. It was really profound to walk into a place and be in a room of dozens of other people who were transgender. Honestly, until the year before, I thought we were all complete unicorns. I’d never met another trans person — well, of course I have, we’re everywhere, but I didn’t think I had. We were conditioned for so long to be invisible. So TGQ is where I really found my family.”
Newt, 20, they/them
“I grew up in the South and I went to a Catholic school, so it wasn’t that I was taught that being gay is bad, it was that I didn’t even know it was an option. The first time I met a gay person was when my grandmother sold our family home, and the couple who bought her house were two gay men who were absolutely delighted with the garden. I remember my mom had to actually sit us down, because we were like, ‘Do they have wives? Are they brothers? Are they best friends?’ And a couple of years later, she told us, ‘Well, no, sweetie, they’re husbands. They’re gay.’"
What really did it for me was the musical Fun Home. During the 2015 Tonys, when they performed ‘Ring of Keys,’ I watched that broadcast, and when they did the song, that was actually my Ring of Keys moment — I actually have a tattoo that’s a ring of keys on me. I saw this story about a real person and just realized, ‘Oh, there we go. That’s it. That’s me. There is a name for this thing.’ It wasn’t just realizing, ‘Oh, okay, I think I might be a lesbian.’ It’s ‘Oh, I’m a butch lesbian, and that’s awesome.’”
“I grew up in a very religious household in a very Southern Baptist, small, conversative area, where I spent the majority of my time in church. At a very young age, the church drilled into my head that sexuality of any kind is a choice, and I fully believed it. I believed who I was attracted to was a choice. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school when I downloaded TikTok — and started making my own TikToks — that I began to explore my queerness via political content.
“I made friends with other creators, and we would FaceTime on the weekends. They would talk about their dating lives or their sexuality, and they always joked that I was the token straight friend. Over time, these conversations led me to question my own sexuality and made me realize that when I really thought about it, a lot of the behavior and thoughts I had just weren’t straight thoughts.
“It wasn’t until the middle of my senior year of high school that I actually came out to my family. I was very nonchalant about it. I was on the way to Whataburger with my dad to get dinner, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I like girls.’ He was like, ‘You’ve never told me that,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, well, I’m telling you now.’ And that was it. After I told my dad, I started posting about it more openly on TikTok. I never really came out online. I just started kind of existing.”
Taharra, 36, she/her, and Danielle, 36, she/her
T: “I met [Danielle] back when I was 20. We started off as friends. We actually felt something for each other then, but we didn’t confess that until years later.”
D: “We’ve been friends for a very long time. We’ve known each other for almost 15 years, and through all of my ups and downs and relationships and crushes and flings, she’s been in my corner. And I always felt a little flutter, a little flicker, a little something, but I never knew where to place it because we were both always with somebody else. So I just put it away in my head in a polite little storage container.”
T: “When COVID happened, we both realized that life is short and we wanted to be with the person that we loved and the person that made us happy. And don’t get me wrong, before we got to that point, there were some pit stops. It took 15 years to get there, but we got there.”
D: “The best part about my coming out story was my dad. Taharra and I went to Mexico for her birthday and took a bunch of photos. I was showing my dad photos from the trip and there was this one photo of us kissing, and he was like, ‘Whoa, what’s that?’ I just started cheesing really hard and before I could even fix my face, my mouth was moving: ‘Oh, that’s Taharra, I really love her, she’s really important to me.’ My mouth started talking before my brain could catch up, and I felt all the blushing in my face, but he actually didn’t trip. He said stuff about God, the Bible, and then he said that he loves me, and he said he wished I hadn’t waited so long to tell him.”
T: “I was in the closet, and even when we started dating, I was still in the closet. When I finally started to come out, it was freeing. When it comes to her, I feel like this: Danielle isn’t somebody I want to hide.”
“I was in a relationship with a guy for nine years. I dated him in high school and then we went through college and all these other things together. Looking back, we had issues that make sense now, but I kind of just thought that was how relationships were supposed to be when you’ve been together for a long time. I was just going through the motions and I thought that was normal, and then during the pandemic, I got on Clubhouse, and I found a friend group that I clicked with. I started talking to a girl and we became friends and everything was totally normal, but we were talking all the time and then a month into it, I realized I had feelings for her.
“I spent the next two months reflecting on myself, reading Reddit forums, and going to therapy. I came out to [my partner] and then I also had to come out to my parents because I feel like everyone around me wanted to know why we broke up. I felt like I was kind of forced to come out to everyone way before I was ready, because of my specific situation.
The hardest part was trying to figure this out while also mourning a relationship. It was really, really difficult, especially because we’d been together for so long. I’m in a way better place now. I’m dating that same girl and my dad loves her. It was really good to see that my dad was so supportive — he really validated my feelings. He told me, ‘I’ve never seen you happier to be around anyone else.’”
“I started questioning my identity when I was around six years old. One of the earliest memories is that I used to love putting a jumper on my head and pretend it was long hair. To me, it wasn’t an act of rebellion or any act at all — it was just me wanting to be really femme. Every time I had a long-sleeved top on, I would take it off and put it on my head and pretend that it was my hair. I did it at my fourth or fifth birthday party and my mom, without any maliciousness, took it off and said, ‘Right, okay, you need to get dressed now.’ And that was what started to put that question mark into my head in terms of my identity.
“When I was 19, I came out to my mom about my plans to transition. At the time, I was living in a town in the U.K. called Blackburn, but I wanted to move to Manchester — a bigger city that was more cosmopolitan and more accepting. My mom supported the idea. She said to me, ‘I don’t think you should stay in Blackburn anymore. I think you should leave.’ At first, I was like, ‘Oh god, my mom’s kicking me out, my mom doesn’t want me anymore.’ And my mom said, I don’t want you to leave, but if you stay here, you will not be able to flourish in the way that I know you can.’ It was painful to leave because I didn’t want to leave my mom, but she was right. If I had stayed in my hometown, I probably wouldn’t be the person I am today.
“It took quite a long time to find my community. I didn’t look outward for how to act or think or anything like that, I just looked inward, which was a very solitary way of living but, looking back, I’m really glad that I did. I didn’t have anyone’s influence to tell me, ‘This is how you should be, this is what trans should look like, you should wear miniskirts, you should wear blue eyeshadow, etc.’ I could just be myself, and that’s it. It really helped me build my identity — not just as a trans woman, but as Yvy.”
“When I was 12, I had what I now know was a crush on this big artist in Trinidad. At the end of her videos, she would do this little laugh — I would watch those videos over and over again. But I never understood what it meant. Then, one day, my best friend at the time told me that somebody had asked her if I was bisexual. I didn’t know how to answer because I had no idea what bisexual meant, so I looked up the word, I was like, ‘Ah, that’s what that is!’ I was able to put a label onto what I was already feeling. It felt good, even a little euphoric. I remember just identifying as bisexual immediately.
“Coming out is a continuous process. I came out to friends first, and then people at school started talking. But I came out in a major way when I became an advocate for the queer community. And then, when I was 22, it was a big splash in the newspaper — it was wild. I’m from Barbados, so it’s a small country, and to just be public like that in a small country, it’s a big deal. People would stop me on the streets and talk to me about coming out, especially young queer people. It was really special to be that person for them.”
Maya, 48, she/her
“I have a story that I tell people: I was in a car with friends when we were around 15, 16. A guy came walking by wearing jean shorts and nothing else, and all the girls were like, ‘Oh, look at his washboard abs!’ At the same time, a Jaguar was driving by and I was like, ‘Look at that car!’ All the heads snapped back to look at me like, ‘Uh, do you see the guy?’ and I was like, ‘Uh, do you see the car?’
“For me, there’s a lot that plays into my identity. There was so much that kept me from knowing myself, plus, I have childhood trauma. I was a good Christian girl, was known as a feminist way early on, and went to Bible school because I was going to break the glass ceiling from the inside. I went to four years of Bible school and met my husband at the second college I went to, and because I liked him better than other people — and he really was my person, in a lot of ways. It was a hard, rocky marriage. At 45 years old, I looked at myself and my marriage and realized I was trying to fit myself into a space that I didn’t even know why it was uncomfortable, I just knew that it was.
“We were about to move when I met up with a friend and she said, ‘Before you leave, I just need you to know that I’ve been interested in you.’ Then, plans changed and we didn’t move, and my friend asked, ‘Do you think your husband would let you have a girlfriend?’ I approached him with this question, but he wasn’t sure. I ended up going away for the weekend with my friend, and part of my joke was, ‘Why even do a weekend when we could just kiss and you could realize how broken I am? I’m not even a good kisser.’
“Long story short, even two, one seconds before we kissed, if someone had say, ‘Maya, you’re going to be gay,’ I would have said, ‘No, it’s going to be a joke.’ And then we kissed, and everything showed up. Everything. My body finally responded in ways I never knew that it was possible to respond.”