Coming from a conservative hometown in Southern California, the city of Merced proved to be the escape I needed in order to grow in my identity as a member of the LGBT+ community.
After seven burdensome years of keeping my sexuality a secret, and hoping I was correctly deleting my Internet’s browsing history, I came out of the closet in the summer of 2012 – right before my senior year of high school. Although majority of my family and friends accepted me, despite their religious backgrounds, it was obvious my sexuality was the elephant in the room that no one dared brought up. However grateful that I did not encounter any serious forms of hate or backlash, this silent ‘acceptance’ of my homosexual identity did not satisfy my craving to embrace this side of me that I had been hiding for so long. I wanted to talk about it with my family, attend pride carnivals with friends, and fangirl over Zac Efron’s butt with, well, everyone. I figured that my traditional-valued hometown and strict Catholic high school did not allow me the space and freedom to explore my newly self-accepted ‘gayness’ and, as a result, I would have to wait until college to bust out the glitter and rainbows.
When I began attending the University of California, Merced I instantly felt that the little, quiet town was the perfect getaway to experience some self-growth and learn more about myself in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. From the friendly passerbys waving ‘hi’ on my morning jogs, despite my ‘flaming’ neon yellow, running attire, to the understanding facial expressions from sales associates when I asked to try on girl clothing at clothing retails, I felt accepted and unashamed. It was those small gestures of me being able to wear ‘gay’ looking apparel, that completely gave away my sexual orientation, without garnishing a condescending look from people that reassured me that I could be myself here – a feeling I could never experience back home.
Probably the most influential aspect in my journey as a LGBT+ member of Merced County were the relationships I built in college. I remember the first person I met during my freshman orientation; she was this short, little brunette who spiked up a conversation with me after we awkwardly, and silently, followed a campus tour guide. She had asked me if I knew where the tour guide was taking us and I replied no; however, it was what she asked secondly that nearly had my eyes pop out their sockets: “Are you gay?” What? Here it was my first day at college and this girl, whom I had barely met let alone began talking to, prompted me on my sexual orientation as the second thing to come out of her mouth? Baffled, I looked around to see if anyone had heard, but everyone seemed uninterested so I whispered “yes” back only to see her warmly smile – she was my first best friend I made during college and was the push of confidence I needed to remind me that these other college students were not going to judge me for who I am because everyone is simply trying to find themselves as well; we were all on this journey of self exploration and identification, and it was comforting to share that amongst the student body.
With this newfound confidence in my identity, I began becoming involved in the LGBT+ club, Lambda Alliance, at the university – firstly as a club/committee member throughout my freshman year and then as a club officer my sophomore year. Coming from a hometown where it felt as though there were no other gay people, because they were all closeted due to the dominant conservative ideology, it was comforting to be surrounded by individuals experiencing similar situations and supporters. The discussions, social activities, and friendships that I experienced in the club aided in my self-discovery as not only a LGBT+ member but also as an individual. Visits to the newly founded LGBT+ Community Center in Merced aided in my connection to not only the LGBT+ community, but also the Merced community and a feeling of meaningfulness with my self. As club publicist, I met numerous individuals with heart warming and shattering stories of acceptance and rejection that strengthened me as a person and gave me insight to the realities of life for LGBT+ individuals. Overall, I gained a number of friends that understood the challenges we all face and lent a hand in support for everyone.
Additionally, my confidence and newfound happiness with my sexual orientation, a result of my interaction with Merced’s LGBT+ Community Center and the university’s Lambda Alliance club, aided in mending my relationship with my family. My mother and sister have always been staunch supporters of how I identified as homosexual, but my father was another story. He was deeply uncomfortable with the notion of gay people and, as a result, I was not able to bond with him because he did would not accept that part of me. However, he experienced a sort of change in opinion in my sophomore year of college that I assume was a result of the pictures he had come across on my Facebook of events I attended espousing LGBT+ support and community work I was engaged with that made him realize maybe gay people weren’t the ‘sex-crazed, pedophilic demons’ society has us out to be. He realized I was the same person as before and the only thing that changed was the internal acceptance I had regarding my own sexuality.
I became accustomed to this freedom of identity that Merced safely housed. So it came as a surprise that when I would visit home I gathered judgmental glances from my townspeople for actions that would not have been overlooked in Merced. I remember this specific experience when I was shopping at my local Target with a friend, and I overheard a nearby family snickering, ‘look at that boy wearing leggings; isn’t he weird?’ I turned around to see a father and mother laughing with their daughter who found the joke humorous. It was such a little and meaningless comment, but it destroyed me on the inside; I hadn’t even realized I wore leggings that day, that is, I didn’t think twice about wearing them in public because I would never receive looks or comments in Merced that would make me think its ‘unnatural’ or ‘weird’; however, I was back home now, and I instantly felt self-conscious about my apparel, the way I was acting and talking – if I looked or acted ‘too gay’? As time went on I learned to ignore the looks and whispers I got from my townspeople because I was comfortable with who I was, and my opinion was the only one that mattered.
I have come a way from where I was ‘in the closet’ to where I am now, but I would not change a thing about my journey because every step has made me the person I am today. It was thanks to the struggles that I faced in the past that allowed me to build determination and character to surmount these obstacles I face today even when some days felt hopeless and unbearable. Each stage in my life provided a life lesson that allowed to me grow in identity and endurance. Every individual deserves happiness, love, and a willingness to live, and no one deserves to have those rights taken from them. The world has come a long way in terms of LGBT+ rights and, admittedly, has a ways to go as well, so I ask you, my friends, to stand strong in the face of prejudice and discrimination so that you may find yourself in love and happiness throughout this rocky road called life. Most importantly, remember you are ALWAYS loved and wanted by so many – even in those times you feel most alone. I wish you the best of luck on your journey of self-exploration!