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By Mandy Shunnarah
When I was in high school in Alabama in the mid-to-late aughts, there was only one LGBTQ person at my school who was out. Let’s call him Evan. Most people ignored Evan completely and some were actively hostile to him, making crude jokes about dicks every time they passed him in the hall, but there were a few people who recognized his humanity and were kind to him. Evan was one of my best friends.
My mother loved him because he wasn’t threatening. I could spend every day after school with him and even sleep over at his house and she didn’t have to worry about me coming home pregnant, which was, to her, worse than me bringing home a girlfriend.
Evan was the first person who gave a name and a sense of vocabulary to what I felt.
“I think I like guys and girls,” I told him one day.
“So, you’re bisexual,” he replied casually, without a hint of judgment.
“Yeah, I am,” I answered after thinking about it for a moment.
At the time, Evan did a lot of LGBTQ 101 for his peers. While that wasn’t something he had to do by any means, he seemed to enjoy having conversations about queerness with people who were curious and asked nicely. He was a gay guide of sorts for me, too. He introduced me to Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang’s music, and the coming out memoir “How I Learned to Snap” by Kirk Read, as well as a slew of vocabulary that added legitimacy to what I felt and wanted, even if I didn’t feel safe letting more than a handful of people know.
In the mid-2000s, a common topic of debate was whether homosexuality was a choice. (We now know it’s not.) Though I believed homosexuality wasn’t a choice, especially since my attraction to girls went unabated despite my family and church’s disapproval, I felt like I was living a lie. I didn’t have a choice in being attracted to girls, but I did have a choice in whether I dated them.
I saw how people at school treated Evan and didn’t think I was as strong as he was. I was already bullied enough for being a weird artsy kid and was told I was going to hell for vowing to vote for Obama my senior year. I didn’t feel safe coming out, and as long as I dated boys, I could fly under the radar.
I dated girls secretly, but every so often, feeling beat down by both the Catholic and evangelical communities I was a part of, I would swear off girls and endeavor to only date boys. I tried to force myself to be straight and thought if I was dedicated to having a steady boyfriend then my attraction to girls would dry up like unwatered grass. But that’s not how sexual orientation works.
I continued dating girls in secret, then one day I dumped a girl I was seeing, and she outed me to everyone at school who’d listen. I was scared as the whispers made their way back to me, but as far as anyone but a handful of people at school knew, I was straight. I had a choice: I could either come out of the closet or say the accusations from my former girlfriend were a lie.
I’d always imagined I’d come out eventually, but I wanted to do it on my own terms, not when I still had years of high school left and therefore plenty of time to be bullied. I thought I’d come out in college when I had more agency and control over my life. My ex-girlfriend outing me, especially as a form of revenge, felt counter to everything I’d wanted for myself.
So, I lied. I said I had a crush on some boy and even dated him for a few months to quell any rumors about me being queer. (Back then people understood gay and straight but didn’t have a good grasp on more fluid sexualities, so it didn’t occur to anyone but Evan that I might be bi.) I’m not proud of this. I hated having to lie about who I am, but I felt I didn’t have a choice.
That experience made me feel like I wasn’t queer enough to call myself the B in LGBTQ. If I were “queer enough” I wouldn’t be able to hide, right? If I were “really” bi, wouldn’t the closet be too painful to stay in? With only having had one serious girlfriend, was I even gay enough to be bi?
I shared these concerns with Evan, who, through it all, assured me that while I am “queer enough,” I don’t have to be queer enough for anybody. Queerness isn’t a competition. Evan saw me in a way that I desperately needed to be seen at the time and it made me more confident in my bisexuality over the years. When I did come out a few years later in college, I did so on my terms.
Every LGBTQ person needs a friend like Evan and if you don’t have a friend like that, I hope you find one. In the meantime, let me say: You are queer enough for the LGBTQ+ label that feels like home to you. You are queer enough even if your community doesn’t understand you. You are queer enough even if you’re still in the closet. You are enough.
Mandy Shunnarah is an Alabama-born, Palestinian-American writer who now calls Columbus, Ohio, home. Her essays, poetry, and short stories have been published in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and others, as well as an essay forthcoming in the New York Times. Her first book, Midwest Shreds: Skaters and Skateparks in Middle America, will be out from Belt Publishing in fall 2022. Read more at mandyshunnarah.com.