Coming Out Twice: Young Queer People on Their Twofold Path to Self-Discovery

Why are we so often ashamed of our processes of becoming?

Coming out as a lesbian at age 20 was the most liberating thing I’ve ever done. Every complicated, repressed desire suddenly made sense. For the first time, I could envision a happy future for myself. I felt whole. But this joyful realization was tainted with guilt: For the past six years, I had been loudly, proudly, aggressively out as a bisexual, transmasculine non-binary person. For the past six years, at everyone chance I got, I reminded people that my identities were not a phase. Coming out as a lesbian felt like an embarrassing and cruel betrayal to the communities that had nurtured me through my adolescence. It really was a phase, after all.

While coming out again as something that contradicts a previously held identity is a fairly common experience within the LGBTQ community, it’s one we rarely acknowledge. In a complex, gendered world rife with the forces of compulsory heterosexuality and pressure to conform, it’s no wonder many of us stumble on the way to self-discovery. So why are we so often ashamed of our processes of becoming? Why do we want to bury them in our pasts? I spoke to people in my life across the gender and sexuality spectrum about their experiences of coming out twice, and the complicated feelings of liberation and loss that followed.

Charlie, a 21-year-old bisexual trans man, first came out as a lesbian when he was 15. There were many reasons Charlie felt drawn to this label to describe his experience. “I had known since I was 8 years old that I was attracted to girls,” he says. “[Being a lesbian] obviously explained the romantic and sexual feelings I had for women, and my struggles with performing femininity. It also implied a life disconnected from men, which appealed to me for trauma-related reasons.”

When his understanding of his identity began to shift around age 18, Charlie was hesitant to publicly embrace it. He didn’t want his family, who had struggled to accept him, to believe it had all just been a phase. “I also felt like I was betraying women, and all that I had been through, by coming out as a trans man.” Charlie also came out as bisexual, and felt guilty after opening his dating pool up to men. “I felt like I had lied about my sexuality,” he says. While Charlie has since realized that he isn’t interested in cisgender men, the shame and social pressure surrounding his new identities were overwhelming. “It was stressful,” he says. “The pressure from other people to be open to cis men was hard to deal with.”

For many people, social pressure surrounding their identities factors heavily into their fears about coming out again. Sam Manzella, NewNowNext’s editorial assistant and a 22-year-old bisexual woman who first came out as a lesbian at age 17, explained that the pressure to not be open to men weighed on her as she explored her identity. “In many ways, I’m a professional LGBTQ person. And admitting my attraction to men as well as women made me wonder if I were ‘gay enough’ to partake in a subset of media designated for the LGBTQ community.” She quickly added that she would never think the same of any other bisexual artist or writer, but the feeling stuck with her all the same. “Grappling privately with biphobic sentiments I didn’t even realize I’d internalized—all the while reporting on LGBTQ issues and being an active part of a niche media scene—was confusing, to say the least.”

Sam’s understanding of her identity began to shift during college, when her AFAB (assigned female at birth) non-binary partner transitioned midway through their three-year relationship. “Their gender transition was a sort of catalyst for introspection on my part,” she says. At the time, Sam identified as “gay” or “queer,” having eschewed the “lesbian” label after a handful of biphobic or transphobic lesbians she knew put a bad taste in her mouth for the word. “I realized that I was still very much attracted to someone who was not a woman, which got me thinking… I came to realize that I actually was attracted to men, women, and people whose gender identity doesn’t align with the gender binary.” Sam jests that she pulled “a reverse coming out,” which was much more public and abrupt than her private, staggered disclosures in high school. Coming out again as bisexual was “like ripping off a band-aid.”

But what happens when your identity isn’t so clearly defined, when you straddle the line between communities? Lane, a 26-year-old butch lesbian, spent a decade navigating the grey area in between the many labels she felt drawn to, searching for a word that fit. “I didn’t really have a solid understanding of my own orientation other than the knowledge that I liked girls and that I was tomboyish in ways I found difficult to hide,” Lane says. Midway through high school, Lane’s ambiguous “gay” identification began to morph into a “trans” one. “I think, unconsciously, I thought that I would eventually have to radically change myself in order to grow up, or that I would just stop existing,” she says. “I didn’t have more than a fuzzy idea that butch lesbians existed and could become adults. I certainly didn’t connect that that could happen for me.”

The “aha” moment happened at age 23, when Lane read Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues at the suggestion of a friend. “I started to realize that there is actually a long line of female people who are like me in some way… I have a lot of shared experiences and culture with both lesbians and transmasculine people, as someone who grew up as a girl and partners with women, and as someone who is masculine and dysphoric and had gendered medical intervention.”

While she found comfort in the knowledge that people like her have always existed, living in the grey area of the butch-trans cusp hasn’t been easy for Lane, socially and personally. Her coming out was received with mixed reactions by family and by friends who found ambiguous queerness easier to swallow than butch lesbianism. “It used to feel like a crisis to be able to straddle that line and move through more than one world, and I’d make efforts to not do so,” Lane says. “Now, however, it feels quite natural and makes sense to me. I know who I am and where I fit. It’s just that I fit in more than one place.”

When we come out again, it often feels like meeting ourselves for the first time: We unearth a warm, comfortable, glowing core of truth within ourselves, one that was waiting all along to be discovered. Liberating that truth plants the seed for our future happiness. Lane, who will marry her fiancée Ashlee later this month, reflects: “It felt almost like coming out as the same thing twice — like, at 14 I said it, and then forgot what that meant, and at 24 I remembered. Isn’t that strange?”

Nadine Santoro is a poet and essayist based in Brooklyn. She holds a BA in creative writing and theology from Fordham University.