Every year during the month of June, the world comes together to uplift LGBTQ+ communities across the globe – diverse, beautiful, and unique in our struggles and our identities. To celebrate Pride 2020, RV’s LGBTQ+ teammates are sharing their narratives through our new “Love Letters” series.
Each piece in the series will focus on the power of the letters across the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and how they shape our perception of ourselves and others.
June may be over, but we think every month is a great month to celebrate Pride. Let’s continue to love openly, learn proactively, and listen intentionally to our brave RV peers who are welcoming us into this important conversation with vulnerability and celebration.
Maisha Johnson (pronouns: she/her) is a newsletter editor at our Healthline office in San Francisco — in fact, she celebrated her one year work-iversary this May (congrats, Maisha!). Maisha identifies as queer, and has kindly shared her Pride journey with us.
Q: Tell us a bit about your coming out story.
A: There was a point in my life when I thought that I’d stay forever in the closet. My parents were religious, and when I was growing up, they saw homosexuality as a sin. It always felt wrong to me to condemn people for who they are or who they love, but once I realized that I could be one of those condemned people, I was terrified. I was sure my parents would never accept me as anything other than straight.
Plus, I was an introverted, nerdy weirdo who was often one of the only people of color in the room, so I was already struggling to figure out how to fit in. I felt like admitting my attraction to women would be just one more thing to ostracize me.
One thing I didn’t anticipate was having to come out over and over again. People tend to assume my sexual orientation based on who I’m with and what spaces I’m in. So throughout my life, I’ve continuously made choices about when and how to tell people who I really am.Maisha
As a teenager, I did tell a few close friends. But still, the idea of being fully “out” — as in, the whole world knowing the truth about who I am — seemed impossible. As I left home for college, I had a plan. Since I was attracted to men as well, I figured I would stick to dating men. I’d pretend to be straight unless I happened to fall deeply in love with a woman, and then I would reluctantly, fearfully share that part of my life with my family.
That plan only lasted until I came home for Thanksgiving during that first semester in college.
Oddly enough, after all of the religion-driven fear around being queer, it was church that helped me begin to embrace my queerness. One Sunday morning, I walked by a church near campus and saw a giant rainbow flag displayed out front. I wandered in to find a lesbian pastor and a loving community of LGBTQ and allied congregants.
It was the first time I had ever heard of a church community that didn’t condemn being queer.
That church became a big part of my life, and it was seeing people exist as their full selves — both queer and people of faith — that helped me realize what being queer meant to me. It wasn’t about who I was dating, or what parts of myself I could hide to fit in. It’s about who I am as my deepest, truest self.
Within a short amount of time, I went from thinking I could never come out to feeling like I couldn’t stay in the closet for another moment longer. I was living as a queer woman, and while I still had some fears about how others would receive me, I wasn’t ashamed.
So I told my parents that I’m bisexual, and with the scariest part finished, stayed out of the closet ever since.
One thing I didn’t anticipate was having to come out over and over again. People tend to assume my sexual orientation based on who I’m with and what spaces I’m in. So throughout my life, I’ve continuously made choices about when and how to tell people who I really am.
Q: How has your relationship with identity and labels changed over time? How did you discover what label currently fits you best, if there is one?
A: My relationship with identity labels has been, at times, complicated, but going through the process of figuring it all out has helped me discover who I really am.
There was a time when I didn’t know anything existed beyond gay or straight. So realizing that I wasn’t straight, but feeling not quite gay either, was pretty isolating. Eventually I learned about bisexuality, which felt like the closest thing to an accurate label for me.
I accepted how wrong those stereotypes were and developed my own sense of defining my identity for myself, rather than allowing others to define it for me.Maisha
But I had to unlearn some negative stereotypes about bisexuality before I could feel comfortable identifying as “not gay or straight.” I believed people — both gay and straight — who said that bisexuality was just a phase you go through before you “pick a side.” I thought it was just a word for people who are sexually promiscuous. I didn’t know of anyone who was Black and openly bisexual, and as silly as it seems, that made me feel like it just wasn’t an option for me.
My hesitations fell away as I became exposed to more representation, met more people from the spectrum of LGBTQ+ identities, and realized more and more that I couldn’t possibly “pick a side” even if I tried. I accepted how wrong those stereotypes were and developed my own sense of defining my identity for myself, rather than allowing others to define it for me.
Eventually, I learned more about other non-monosexual identities that go beyond gay or straight. In my mid-twenties, I began to identify primarily as queer, an identity which has shaped and been shaped by my understanding of myself, my communities, and my politics and values.
Q: If you could, what would you tell your younger self about your LGBTQIA+ identity?
A: I’d tell my younger self that her queer magic is nothing to be afraid of — in fact, it’s an invaluable force in this world. We’re the ones who welcome the weirdos who have no place else to go. We create space for ourselves where none existed before, and in the process, make it a little easier for others to break free of the boxes that hold them down as well.
I’d tell her that some day, that weight will come off her shoulders and she will stop trying to figure out how to be and will simply just be. Things will be rough for a while, but her mom will eventually get comfortable with talking openly about her sexuality — perhaps even a little too comfortable at times!
My younger self probably wouldn’t believe me, but I’d tell her that she’ll write essays and articles and poetry and speak out with pride about who she is. She’ll receive letters from strangers thanking her for helping them love themselves. She’ll work with LGBTQ+ survivors of violence and help them heal from their trauma.
I’d tell her, Someday, the person you need now will exist in the world. And that person will be you.
Q: What advice would you offer someone who is interested in asking questions and learning about different identities?
A: I’m not sure if everyone realizes how much you can learn simply by being the kind of person that others can feel comfortable around. Questions are a great way to get to exactly what you’re looking to find out, but have you ever heard the phrase “You don’t know what you don’t know”?
For example, sometimes people ask questions that feel invasive, objectifying, or othering, like I’m more of an alien spectacle than a human being. And sometimes I answer their questions anyway.
But I’m far more open when someone shows with their words and actions that it’s safe to be myself with them. Here are some ways you can do that:
- Avoid assuming that everyone is straight — help others avoid it too — by speaking up when you notice content or language that frames heterosexuality as the “normal” or only valid orientation.
- Recognize that some people live at the intersections of multiple identities. For example, people of color are not a monolith, and LGBTQ+ communities of color may have different experiences than more traditional or mainstream communities.
- Show genuine interest in other people’s full lives with empathy and active listening. Make getting your questions answered less about you and more about learning who people are and what they need to show up as their full selves in the world.
If you loved this Love Letter, be sure to check out the first four installments of our Love Letters series.