2003 was when the “gay devil” (as I referred to him at the time) made his first appearance inside my unprepared thirteen-year-old mind. On a trip to Mexico that year, he sat perched on my shoulder while my family and I were out to lunch at an outdoor taqueria. The girl at the table next to us had tan skin and brown-blond hair, and wore sunglasses and a spaghetti-strap black tank top.
My “gay devil” noticed her and made sure I did too. As the words “She’s hot” crash-landed from his taunting lips into my unsuspecting mind, I flinched—then turned around to make sure no one had heard.
Luckily no one had. My dad simply smiled kindly into my worried eyes before passing me the bowl of tortilla chips.
Over the next few years, the gay devil made frequent reappearances, continuing to deliver crushes to me that I wasn’t ready or willing to identify for what they were.
He was often pretty rude in his delivery. At a Stevie Brock concert, when I realized my feelings for one of his fan club members far surpassed anything the boy pop star had ever made me feel, the gay devil taunted me: You’re not really here for Stevie, huh?
At summer camp, after a girl I liked gave me a hug, he whispered: You liked that a little too much, didn’t you?
There were several reasons I didn’t feel safe coming out (not even to myself). One was that even though LGBT people had gained notable acceptance by the early 2000s, it still seemed like relatively few people were “out”—fewer still in high school.
Another was that despite my attending a fairly liberal high school, it still felt to me like a place where going against the grain—no matter if your difference came in the form of sexual orientation, temperament, or the way you looked and talked—was to open yourself to judgment and ostracizing.
Some rare people are completely comfortable in their skins from a young age, blessed with rock-solid peer support groups and unshakeable self-confidence. I wasn’t one of them.
So I hoped I could “wait the gayness out,” as if it were a passing affliction that might resolve with time.
This concept of homosexuality as a sickness traces back to centuries ago. At one point (before it even started to be pathologized), it was simply so taboo that it wasn’t even spoken about.
In Walt Whitman’s time, for instance, no discourse existed for understanding or discussing it—for which reason Whitman himself remained in denial, despite developing attractions to the wounded soldiers he treated during the Civil War. (Though Whitman had many relationships with younger men, his writing only implied this, rather than explicitly stating it.)
After Whitman’s time, a dialogue around homosexuality finally began to emerge, but it was always in the context of illness. Psychiatrists like Richard von Krafft-Ebing described it as a “degenerative sickness.”
The “homophile” movement emerged in the late 1950s to early 1970s to fight back against this, eventually promulgating a “Gay is Good” message (inspired by the Black Pride Movement) and seeking to build gay culture by way of theaters, music, and newspapers catering to the LGBT population.
The movement also promoted and encouraged gay affirmative therapies (whose goal was not to change but be happy with one’s orientation) over gay conversion therapies.
Still, homosexuality was listed as a psychiatric disorder in the DSM until 1973. In 2005, remnants of that disdain still seemed alive and well at my high school.
Because shame kept me from putting it into words, for years I danced around the gay/lesbian label, filling the pages of my diary with circumlocutory fawning over my crushes, all of it coded as admiration.
After finally taking the plunge—first to my diary at age fifteen, then to friends and family at eighteen—my self-acceptance slowly grew. Many firsts and milestones followed.
Years earlier I never could have imagined I’d be interviewing a married lesbian Australian pop duo while interning for Curve Magazine, or that I’d attend queer prom with and then date a girl I’d met through my college campus’s LGBT Center, or that such a varied community of beautiful LGBT individuals awaited me, particularly in college but also in the years after.
Little by little, as the years went on, pride replaced shame—and by now, all the shame is gone. But I still remember how it felt. I remember how it stifled me.
I remember the negative effect it had on my mental health, how it exacerbated my feelings of isolation. As Colin Poitras wrote in his 2019 article (for the Yale LGBT Mental Health Initiative) The Global Closet is Huge: “Concealment takes its toll through the stress of hiding.”
I also recognize that many queer people are still actively fighting to overcome their own shame. People like the many friends in the LGBT community I’ve known through the years—one whose mother, after he told them, cried inconsolably while his grandma accused him of being possessed by demons.
Another whose mom, while out to lunch with her, tried to set her up with their male waiter right after she’d come out to her for the third time. Still another whose parents simply refused to ever speak about it with him.
Referring to a new study by the Yale School of Public Health, Poitras writes that, “even with the rapidly increasing acceptance in some countries, the vast majority of the world’s sexual minority population—an estimated 83 percent of those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual—keep their orientation hidden from all or most of the people in their lives.
For these reasons, Pride and community spaces are still very much necessary.
If given the chance to speak to my teenage self, I’d say to her now: it gets better for you—and once it does, you’ll see that it doesn’t end with you. Celebrate the victories we’ve made—but don’t let them lull you into complacency.
Not when many young queers—both in rural towns and more urban areas—remain in the closet, compartmentalizing who they are out of fear of familial rejection. Not when in some countries, people can still be killed for living openly as gay.
And not when the rights of some members of our community (such as queer people of color and transgender people) remain under threat. A Black man who can marry his partner but still has to worry about violence at the hands of police isn’t experiencing equality in the full sense of the word.
Keep living with eyes, heart, ears, and hands open to the issues affecting members of both our queer community and the larger human family—because if there’s one thing being LGBT has taught me, it’s the importance of not leaving people to suffer in silence. And it’s the power that community, support, and the pride fostered within them can have over combating shame.
About Eleni Stephanides
A freelance writer and Spanish interpreter, Eleni was raised and currently resides in the California Bay Area. Her work has been published in Them, LGBTQ Nation Tiny Buddha, The Mighty, Elephant Journal, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and Introvert, Dear among others. She currently writes the monthly column “Queer Girl Q&A” for Out Front Magazine. You can follow her on IG @eleni_steph_writer and on Medium.