I Left My Conservative Hometown To Come Out. Now, I’m Back (With My Girlfriend)

By moving to a new, progressive city where no one assumed I was straight, I skipped right over an uncomfortable coming out process.

In one of my most vivid middle school memories, I’m sitting in the grass during a break at field hockey practice. One of older girls on the team grabs the hand of a quiet sixth-grader as she reaches for a water bottle, pulls it close to her own face, and announces, “If you have hair on your fingers above the first knuckle, it means you’re a lesbian.”

My heart pounds in my stomach as she starts reaching for the hands of the other girls closest to her, examining their fingers for any sign of difference. I tuck my hands into my lap, palms up, afraid of what I’ll see, and I’m beyond relieved when our coach blows the whistle to signal that our break is over.

It wasn’t the first time I questioned whether I might not be straight, but it was the first time I felt the fear of what might happen if the people around me had the same question.

For the next 12 years, that fear was enough to keep me from giving the idea too much thought. It kept me from understanding that my feelings toward certain teachers were crushes and from seeing a close college “friendship” for what it really was. And after settling into a job just 45 minutes away from my small, conservative Pennsylvania hometown, it kept me from considering why I couldn’t stop thinking about what it might be like to date a woman.

Then, in a cliche so tired that I am embarrassed to type it, I moved to Brooklyn with my cat and started dating women. I switched my dating app preferences on the same day I landed a job at a young startup, where no one batted an eye when I nervously mentioned an upcoming first date. When I recounted that date to my new roommates, and later, introduced them to my now-girlfriend, they were entirely unfazed.

By moving to a new, progressive city where no one assumed I was straight, I skipped right over an uncomfortable coming out process I’d always assumed was an unavoidable rite of passage for members of the LGBTQ community.

When I realised this, I felt like what I’d done was cowardly, and like I hadn’t earned the right to live the out, gay life I’d built for myself in New York. This feeling deepened when I later told my mom that I was in a relationship with a woman and she was not only immediately supportive, but offered to tell the rest of my family so I wouldn’t have to. I took her up on the offer (and provided a written FAQ doc for assistance), but again felt like I’d somehow cheated by evading any potentially difficult conversations.

That was over a year ago now and aside from a week over the holidays, I hadn’t come back to my hometown for more than a weekend. But after two weeks of isolating in a tiny apartment due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my girlfriend and I decided to take my brother up on his offer to pick us up and bring us to my family’s home.

I knew that living here for a bit would be a big change for both of us and I knew that we would both miss being in New York. What I didn’t know was that being here would give me a chance to understand the disconnect between the first 25 years of my life in Pennsylvania, and the life I’ve built for myself since I left.

By waiting to come out until I moved to a new city, I was able to start from scratch. I never had to face the fear I’d felt here, because I left it behind instead—a decision that made me feel like I didn’t deserve the happiness or the relationship that I’d gained after leaving. But being back is giving me time to understand that fear.

We’ve only been leaving the house once every week for groceries, so I still haven’t had the chance to be really, publicly “out.” I haven’t seen any of my high school classmates, I haven’t had to explain myself to anyone, and I haven’t faced any sort of homophobia.

Still, I notice myself looking around every time we go to the grocery store, wondering if this will be the time I run into one of my high school friends’ parents. I notice the countless Trump signs in front yards (and suspended from the beds of pickup trucks) we pass while running errands. I notice that I haven’t seen a single other queer couple in weeks.

I know that, not far from here, people protesting the stay-at-home order showed up to the state’s capital waving homophobic signs. I know that our state’s secretary of health has had to defend herself after being misgendered multiple times on air. I know that every time I log in to Facebook, I’m reminded that many of the people I grew up with don’t see the issue with either of these things.

I also know that I needed to leave here before I could come out, and that this doesn’t make me weak.

But what I feel here now isn’t fear. Moving to New York gave me a chance to figure out my sexuality in a place where no one knew me, and no one batted an eye at the idea of me being queer. It gave me a chance to get comfortable with who I am, and the confidence to be that person even in a place where it might raise some eyebrows.

Being here is giving me the chance to reconcile who I am with the place where I grew up. It’s giving me a chance to read queer memoirs in my childhood bedroom, to see how much my family loves spending time with my girlfriend, and to feel proud every time we do something as simple as hold hands in the local grocery store.

Now, our first anniversary has come and gone in Pennsylvania. And as disappointed as I was that we weren’t able to spend it in New York, the city where we met and a place we both love, it felt like a step in repairing the disconnect. In a town where I was once too scared to know myself, I was able to celebrate with a person I love, unafraid.

This article first appeared on HuffPost Personal

Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on ukpersonal@huffpost.com