Art by Ianna Rallonza
The first time I “came out” to someone was a misunderstanding that happened at seven years old.
I was a textbook butch — I played a lot of video games and thought those smock dresses were tacky (age-inappropriate past Baptism unless you’re really going for that Lolita look). Everyone called me a tomboy for these sensibilities that were odd for a girl at the time, and one day, I repeated that fact to a friend.
The conversation went along the lines of, “Well, I’m a tomboy I think.” She told me, “You have to keep that a secret.” I was confused.
My friend continued to ask me, “So you’re half-boy, half-girl?” Oh man, this was a lot for seven-year-old me. At the time, I had no idea that “tomboy” was the Filipino colloquial term for lesbian. Granted, we were kids, but this little mishap painted a picture of what it was like to grow up queer in the early-to-mid-aughts. Somehow lesbian and woman were mutually exclusive. Mind you, this was before Glee. I could count the queer people I knew of with one hand: one of them was my gay tito, another one was Ellen DeGeneres, and the rest were characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I couldn’t have been one of them. Besides, kids weren’t allowed to be gay as far as I knew. I retracted my statement. I wasn’t a tomboy. God, no. I was just different from other girls for reasons that were not my sexuality.
The notion that “lesbo” — that word my peers used for anyone they found gross or annoying — could apply to me, was terrifying.
When I was 12 years old, I realized I was different from other girls for reasons that were my sexuality. The notion that “lesbo” — that word my peers used for anyone they found gross or annoying — could apply to me, was terrifying. Like all baby gays of my time, I found refuge in YouTube and Tumblr, where I learned everything I know now. I threw myself into media and internet culture because it was the only place I felt safe and seen.
It was a different reality however, IRL. Catholic school taught me that homosexual unions were unnatural. Family taught me it was shameful. Society taught me it was creepy. The most progressive stance I heard was that it was okay to have these “urges” for as long as I didn’t act on them. I wish I could say I had the iron skin that would not let these things get to me, but they managed to latch on like a curse. I felt myself absorb and internalize every terrible thing other people have said. Even tongue-in-cheek comments from people I loved cut a little deeper than they should have. Though I could say it was perfectly fine to be gay, there was a tiny voice inside of me that told me I wasn’t normal.
I finally told my mom that I like girls when I was 17. I started talking openly about my sexuality online shortly afterwards. This was it, this was how it felt like to be completely out as a queer woman. This was what people talked about in the It Gets Better videos. Now I’m 20, in a safe and loving relationship, going to art school, and sporting an “alternative lifestyle” haircut.
Something still gnaws at the back of my head, though. I feel it in little moments, like when people stare at my hair, or when I’m seen shopping at the men’s section of the store. It’s the Don’t-be-That-Kind-of Gay brand of internalized homophobia. The same one that actively tells me to feminize my voice. The same one that tells me to stop being a tacky cliché. The same one that says that I’d have a better image if I didn’t have to indulge so much in “living my truth”.
No one wrote in my LGBTQ Starter Pamphlet that internalized homophobia would be the gift that keeps on giving.
The feeling also creeps up when I’m most vulnerable. I could simply be sitting in silence with my girlfriend, and my heart would start palpitating. My stomach would drop out of nowhere. I feel a sudden pang of guilt. I remember everyone who told me that what I am doing is disgusting, and the possibility that these people could be right. It might be the baggage of my religious upbringing, or repercussions of my Zillennial obsession with how the world sees me, but sometimes I still think about the good straight girl with the perfect shoulder-length blunt cut and pearl earrings it may have been easier to be.
No one wrote in my LGBTQ Starter Pamphlet that internalized homophobia would be the gift that keeps on giving, but alas. I wish more people would discuss it openly, because in my years as a Practitioner of Gay, I only recognized it in myself fairly recently. Now that I’m able to recognize the problem, though, I can see that I have my work cut out for me.
That’s what they don’t tell you about self-care. It’s more than just face sheet masks or taking spontaneous trips to the beach. In my case, it’s also the continued practice of unlearning the toxic mentalities I carried throughout my childhood and adolescence. I’m still learning to fully love and understand my own queerness. It’ll take time, but I owe it to myself at the very least to try.