the suppression game

reflections on the closet

Sometime last year, a YouTuber named Ingrid Nilsen posted a video called “Something I Want You To Know (Coming Out).” I’m not much of a YouTube person, so I didn’t know anything about Ingrid going in (besides the fact that a friend of mine is pretty into her makeup videos—she’s a beauty vlogger with a very large audience, doctor which is who she was coming out to). At this point, though, anything with queer women in it catches my eye, so I clicked on the link. It’s a very personal twenty minutes. And, startlingly, joyously, painfully, very familiar.

I don’t have a lot of queer friends, which means I don’t have a lot of people to discuss this part of my identity with. I’ve always been annoyed that large parts of the queer Internet so often imply that queer people always find each other. Popular posts are all things like, “Do I even know any straight people anymore?” and “We just, like, flock together,” and “In middle school your friend group is all straight, and then four years later it’s the same kids but all of them are super gay except for this one very straight girl named Susan.” Pretty much all of my friends are Susan. My social group has always been like fourteen Susans and me, and I spent all of high school pretending very hard that I was also Susan.

Those posts do make me think of this period around eighth or ninth grade, though. It was not long after I’d first realized I wasn’t straight, by which I mean I’d first started playing what I like to call the Suppression Game. Here are the rules: you look at a girl in one of your classes, think, “Hey, she’s really pretty,” immediately follow this thought with, “Oh, fuck,” and then come up with increasingly elaborate ways to tell yourself that this (and every crush you disallow yourself) is meaningless for four years. You get both better and worse at this game with practice: The more you build up your skill set, the more tired you get of using it. When I was about 17, I promised myself that if I still thought I wasn’t straight when I turned 22, I would admit it to myself. The number one skill in the toolbox is comfort with ridiculous levels of cognitive dissonance. Although all of this is now years in the past, I am still very good at lying to myself.

Anyway, a few months after that moment in eighth grade, a couple of my close friends from extracurriculars (not my circle of Susans) came out to me, and I heard through the grapevine that a few old best friends from elementary school were also out, and for that one very brief moment it seemed like everyone I knew was, in fact, gay. Which was totally fine with me, except that I was worried about what it said about me if all my past close friends were queer. Nonsensical? Extremely. But it threatened my ability to play the Suppression Game effectively. Some kids join their school GSA when they’re quietly freaking out, I guess, and others—like me—back away from the very concept.

In eighth grade, birthday party invitations were done over email, and they had to be colorful and nicely formatted and cute. That spring when I emailed out mine, it was done in this cheerful rainbow theme, and in the corner I wrote in very small text (and I went back in my email archives to find this): “yes I’m aware rainbow=gay. but before rainbow meant gay it just meant pretty combination of colors. okay? okay.” This is pretty high on the list of things from my past that I now find beyond mortifying—I actually cringed when I found the email—but it also makes me kind of sad.

Anyway, Ingrid talks about this in her video, and it’s one of the most familiar things—suppress, suppress, suppress, push it down, push it down. And so watching it, I was—sad. Like I was sad for thirteen-year-old me.

And then I did the thing you should never do, and I scrolled down and read the comments. And it wasn’t the splashes of homophobic vitriol that bothered me, because I was expecting that. It was the “Why should we care?” posts. “Okay. So she’s gay. Why is this supposed to be a big deal?” “Fuck labels. No one cares.” “So many people have made these videos that it seems fake and redundant when people make such a big deal out of it. This is 2015.”

I am glad that we live in a world where this is not a big deal.

I was afraid that coming out (which I did to myself and my best friend pretty much exactly four years ago during my senior year of high school, and to my family and friends a few at a time a little later on, and to the world at large when I started dating my now-ex that fall) would change everything, that it would shift how people saw me, that it would essentialize me in the eyes of others, that it would make my friends uncomfortable.  That it would change everything.

Spoiler alert: It did not. Everyone was great. Based on actual consequences, it should not have felt like a big deal at all. But it was maybe one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, and that’s why the “Who cares?” comments sting. She cares. Clearly.

It took me four years from the time I realized I was queer to admit it to myself and then to say it out loud. And even then it was this shaky, scared thing. An “I don’t want this, but I accept it.” It took time to drop that first clause. It took a lot of time. It is firmly, firmly dropped now, but damn if that isn’t a process.

And that’s a reason that the video makes me happy, too: Looking back from four years on, I am happy. I was a pretty content kid in high school, but there’s a different dimension now. That’s not to say that coming out makes everything smooth sailing forever. There are still many frustrations—the main one right now is dating. Because I know so few queer people it’s hard to, you know, find people to date. And then there’s the fact that I still have so few queer friends who I can relate to about these things.  It’s not something I prioritize highly, but that means I’m still in a social circle of (wonderful, kind, fun) Susans. And then probably homophobia to confront somewhere down the line, although I’m privileged enough to not deal with it daily. But. But—all that aside, there is something so wonderful about being out. To not have a part of yourself that you’re afraid of. To be able to feel like your friends know you.

Over winter break, I went to see the movie Carol. It’s gotten a lot of critical acclaim, and has been described as an absolutely beautiful film, and my favorite website Autostraddle adores it. It deserves the praise; it is beautiful. But from a queer standpoint, there were two ways it really got me.

One: It’s just so nice—so nice—to walk into a movie and see yourself on the screen. This is a movie where women loving women is true, and real, and respected, and honest. I am so tired of walking into bookstores and having to pull LGBT book lists up on my phone if I want to read a story with a character like me. I want to be able to pull a book off the shelf and find a love story I relate to. I want to walk into a movie theater and see my love story told not like a drama or a coming of age story or a tragedy or a political statement but like a love story.

And two: I am terrified that if I lived in Carol’s world—if I had been born six decades earlier—I would never have stopped playing the Suppression Game. I would not have been as brave as the film’s characters. I wouldn’t have known how. I would have gotten so good at lying to myself that I never would have stopped.

I am so glad I am where I am, and that I’m moving forward.

The first thing Ingrid says in her video after, “I’m gay,” is, “It feels so good to say that.” It’s sad, and it’s happy, and it’s scary and it’s the biggest relief in the world. She’s almost crying, and so am I.