Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if that one thing had never happened? If the miraculous and fateful chain of events in your life had not played out exactly as they did? Since I was little, I had my entire life planned out on a picture-perfect trajectory. My story seemed like a stereotype from a glossy Southern Living magazine: Blonde Barbie-doll sorority girl graduates college, marries long-time sweetheart, buys a home in a beautiful neighborhood, and goes to work as an elementary school teacher.
On October 17, 2014, all that changed forever.
It started out like any other day. I had my morning coffee, packed leftovers for lunch in a dingy Tupperware container, and shut the front door behind me as quietly as possible so as to not wake my sleeping husband, Eric. Around lunchtime, I got a text from another staff member: “Go down 2 the gym and meet the new PE teacher!!!” I casually headed downstairs, musing about this new teacher’s identity. Maybe she’s young and fun! I thought. Maybe we could go out for beers and be friends!
As I turned the corner into the gym office, my heart stopped. Sitting at the desk was a stunning freckle-faced young woman with curly red hair pulled up into a sporty bun. As her blue eyes shot up and found mine, I felt my breath catch in my throat and lightning ripped through my entire body. What the hell was going on with me? After a brief introduction, I turned on my heel, rushed up to my classroom, and frantically locked the door behind me. “Oh my God,” I said out loud to myself. “This is not good.” Heart pounding, I promised myself that I would stay away from her at all costs, although I was not entirely sure why. Did I have a crush on her? Why did I feel this way?
Now let me pause a moment to say that this was not my first girl crush. I’d had a few short-lived girl-girl flings in college, but chalked that up to experimentation. I had swiftly and firmly explained to myself that life with a woman as a partner was just not something “girls like me” should do. I mean, I’m a good Southern girl who wears make-up and high heels. I couldn’t be a LESBIAN, for goodness sake!
My oath to avoid the new teacher, Rebecca, lasted a whopping two days. I invited her out for drinks at a local bar, and she took me up on the offer. As we sat on the barstools talking, laughing, and finding reasons to touch each other, it became clear to me that the chemistry between the two of us was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The next day at school, I found excuses to swing by her office in the gym, and again the day after that. As the weeks passed and fall turned to winter, our friendship grew into something more. We both knew it, and we both felt it, but neither of us spoke about it. I was a straight, married woman, after all.
In late November, just after Thanksgiving, it finally happened. Rebecca was at my house after school, eating pizza and watching a movie on a night when Eric was out of town with friends for a football game. After hours of flirting, giggling, and getting closer on the couch, we kissed. As I felt her fingertips touch my neck and her lips meet mine, I had a confusing rush of emotions. I had both craved and dreaded this moment. I wanted it so badly, but knew that it signaled the beginning of something terrifying and unknown that I would ultimately have to face.
The winter turned to spring, and things between Rebecca and I only intensified. I spent every moment I could with her. I left her love notes in her office, stayed late at work to spend time with her, and snuck away from home on the weekends to meet for ice cream and walks in the park. However, even at this point I still did not fully accept that I was gay. I knew my feelings for her both physically and emotionally were much stronger and more real than anything I had ever experienced with any male partner, including my husband. I felt so alone, and so strange. I thought I was the only woman in the world who was married to a man but was starting to think she might be a lesbian.
Late one night after Eric had fallen asleep, I laid in the dark on my phone and Googled “lesbian married to a man”. I stayed awake all night reading other women’s accounts of self-discovery and heartbreak. In the following weeks, I read every single piece of literature written by other women in my situation. Turns out, there are hundreds of them online, each telling a unique story about how they had come out to themselves and to their loved ones. Some had told their husbands and were divorced or in the process, while others were still guarding their secret with hopes of one day coming out. The most heartbreaking were those who said they would never share their secret because of the distress and chaos that would result from breaking up a family with children. My stomach lurched at the idea of growing old in a marriage I knew was a lie, but I was equally sickened when I imagined telling Eric the truth. My confusion and anxiety mounted. What would I do without my husband? Would my friends be disgusted with me? What will my parents say? Would I lose my home? For months I poured over these articles, message boards, and Reddits until I felt like I had memorized them all. Because they shared their stories, I knew that other women had built up the courage to free themselves and that life existed on the other side, and for that I am eternally grateful.
I secretly sought counseling in order to express my thoughts to a non-biased person. I am so glad I did, because the counselor was able to help me question my own feelings and desires. She also assured me that I was going through something rather normal, and told me that it is not uncommon for women to have sudden revelations about their sexuality beyond adolescence. I started daring to imagine a life where I was free to be with a woman out in the open, unashamed.
Eventually, the dam finally broke. I was spending so much time with Rebecca that Eric became suspicious despite my lies and excuses. But I couldn’t stop. All I wanted to do was be with her. One night, I met her in an empty parking lot after dark, and we just laid on the concrete looking up at the stars in silence. In that moment I felt deep contentment mixed with utter despair. Hot tears poured down the sides of my face. I drove home and told Eric that I was gay.
I wish I could say that what followed was a quick and painless separation where we wished each other the best and moved on peacefully. Instead, he embarked on an endless campaign of begging, crying, threatening, and bargaining. He refused to move out of our home, claiming he did not have the money to get an apartment. I moved my things into a spare bedroom, and we lived as silent, hostile roommates for several months. I repeatedly came home to find my belongings destroyed until I finally installed a lock on my bedroom door. Then, totally out of the blue, I came home one day to a completely empty house – Eric had moved out. The date was July 4th – my own Independence Day.
Now, almost a year later, I still get overwhelmed with emotion thinking about the life I used to lead compared to the life I live now. I am grateful that I somehow found the courage to forge a second chance to be my authentic self and live and love in whatever way I deem appropriate. Ultimately, the romance between Rebecca and I died down, but we have become very close friends who support each other both professionally and personally. I know that she was brought into my life for a reason, and I will always honor her importance in my story.
Recently, a co-worker told me of a woman she knew who was struggling with her sexuality despite being in a heterosexual marriage and asked if I had any advice to pass along. Here is what I told her:
1. Take plenty of time to determine what your truth is.
As I began to question my sexuality, I took up running. It gave me an excuse to be alone for long periods of time to think about and analyze my feelings. I also spent a lot of time in coffee shops writing painfully honest and shocking things I was feeling in my journal. It took me months to be able to look at myself in the mirror and say “I am a gay woman. I am a lesbian.” It may take you more or less time, or you may end up deciding that you do not identify as a lesbian.
2. Life is short. You don’t owe anyone anything.
Your happiness is your responsibility. Your spouse will heal and move on. Your family will cope. Your children, if you have them, will adjust. You must stop protecting others from your truth. I spent months agonizing over coming out to my parents, only to have them completely accept me, no questions asked. I lost some people I considered friends, only to realize that they weren’t really friends.
3. It’s going to be hard at the beginning, but you will get through it.
Speaking the words out loud to your spouse is the first and hardest step. After that, just take it day by day. You will survive and make it through to the other side. And it’s good over here.
4. If you do choose to end your marriage, do not begin a relationship immediately.
My relationship with Rebecca fizzled after my divorce, which led to a period of loneliness that gave me anxiety. I was used to relying on a relationship to provide me with purpose. My counselor encouraged me to do new things and make more discoveries about myself. I took her advice and started hiking, studying art, and reading interesting books. Taking the time to adequately heal, regroup, and refocus on new goals is vital to leading a whole and healthy life after coming out.
Throughout this transition, I have endured my fair share of hate, intolerance, and ignorance from those lacking understanding and compassion. I have been accused of being a “fake lesbian” by both gay and straight people because I had primarily been in relationships with men up until coming out. I have been accused of being a “sinner” by former friends who offered to help me pray away the gay, and who later deleted me from social media so their children wouldn’t be subjected to the photos I post of myself with my girlfriend. I have been called a “cheating dyke” by neighbors who have ostracized me from neighborhood gatherings out of their own fear and hatred over what transpired within the walls of my home. But every morning that I wake up, surrounded by friends and family who love and support me – the real me – is a day that I have peace knowing I am free to live my truth.