B E E N T H E R E: A C O M I N G O U T S T O R Y
"We love you and accept you!"
Discovering your sexual orientation, can be a very lonely and scary process. Especially if you are wondering whether you are homosexual or bisexual. At the relatively young age of 11, Gina DeVries started realizing that maybe her attractions to women and girls meant something more. After a year of internal struggle, Gina came out as a lesbian. Now, at 14, Gina has become a spokesperson for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights.
The InSite: Can you tell me how you came to the realization that you are a lesbian?
Gina: People aren't as simple as the labels that tend to fit us. I've been attracted to women all of my life. It probably started around the age of seven, when I first started noticing it. It seemed like every couple of years it would hit me, and then I would push it away.
TI: Most 7 year olds aren't tuned in to their sexuality, so exactly what do you mean by "attractions?"
Gina: Not like a real attraction, but I noticed affection for female schoolmates. I fell in love with my best friend. Just really early little stuff that when I look back on it, it was like "Yeah, this is going to come up in my later life."
TI: And how much later was it, when it really came up for you in a way that you could no longer ignore it?
When I was 11. That's when I came out.
Gina: When I was 11. That's when I came out. I had been developing crushes on people from before puberty and when I was 11 I had a crush on one of my teachers and also one on an older girl I knew. It got to this point where I knew the crushes weren't just friendship crushes. There were sexual components to them, but I really wasn't paying attention. I had to make myself pay attention to them because it was something I had been hiding from myself. I realized I couldn't not think about it anymore, and it was something I had to think about and discuss with myself and figure out. As I've grown, and since I've come out almost 4 years ago now, I feel like I've changed a lot. Not so much in terms of sexuality but more in terms of how open I am and how I identify myself. Labeling yourself as one thing or the other can get very confining. Lesbian fits me the best and is the most convenient for me. I have no problem with the word. Labels can be really helpful and constructive in terms of claiming identities, but they can also be somewhat destructive because it sort of says "I am this and you are not." Do you understand what I'm saying?
TI: Absolutely! Choosing a label for yourself is defining, and that may be good, it can also build walls between people.
Gina: I really feel that having the definition and using those words [lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer] is very empowering. I say I am a lesbian, because that's what I am. But I don't know what's going to happen in a couple of years. While I very much doubt the fact I might find myself attracted to a guy, it could happen. And I feel like I have to be open to that possibility. So how I label myself is something I struggle with.
TI: [laughing] For the purpose of this interview, you don't need to label yourself, Gina, if you don't want to!
...using those words [lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer] is very empowering.
TI: You were talking about being 11 and coming out. How did that happen?
Gina: It built up. There was a lot of questioning and a lot of tension going on inside me that I couldn't talk about. I don't know why I was ready to confront it when I was 11. It just happened to be something that was important to me at that point in my life and it was something I needed to deal with. Also I had been dealing with it for a long time, subconsciously. I knew I was attracted to women but I didn't really know why, and I felt like I had to have a reason why. Secondly, every time I'd get those feelings I would immediately say to myself, "It's not what you think it is." And I would push those feelings back. Which caused me to repress a large amount of my emotions. It got to this point where I couldn't really hide them from myself anymore, because I was hiding too much.
TI: You must have been very unhappy during that time.
Gina: Yes, I was really depressed and miserable for a long time. I don't want to paint this picture of myself as a despondent, mopey little kid, but there was a point where I was really unhappy because I felt I was different and there wasn't really anybody I could talk to about it.
TI: How were your parents responding to this conflict within you? Did they notice?
Gina: They definitely noticed that something was up. For a long time I felt depressed and didn't really know why. I was very vocal about the fact that I was depressed and didn't know why. And then I knew why [laughing] and I wasn't vocal about the fact that I was depressed! I was just acting like everything was okay when everything wasn't. Because I was hiding this big thing from them and from many people in my life. So they weren't really sure what to do because I wasn't telling them what was bothering me.
...I was hiding this big thing ...
TI: So what happened? Did you wake up one morning and say, "This is it! I'm going to tell someone."
Gina: No, it wasn't completely like that. There was sort of this entire day that I figured it out. I wrote a letter to a former teacher of mine. She had taught me in the 4th grade and at the point I wrote the letter I was in the 6th grade. I told her that I thought I might be gay and then later in the letter I said, "No, I don't think I am, I actually am gay." [laughing]
TI: Did she write back?
Gina: Yes, but she was on vacation and her response was slow. In the meantime I was terrified and didn't have anyone to talk to. That was during Xmas break and when I got back in January I went to my 6th grade teacher, who I trusted. I told her I had an older female friend who went to a different school who thought she might be gay. (There was no friend, it was me!) I asked her if she knew of any gay youth hot lines that my "friend" could call. [laughing] She wasn't getting the information for me as fast as I wanted it, even though she really cared. I went up to her after school one day and asked her if we could talk and we went into the classroom and I said, "I just wanted to tell you that the person I was talking about is me." And she asked me how I knew and what was happening in my life and if I was okay. I cried and she gave me a hug. She was very supportive. Then we went into the faculty room and she called information got the number of the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center [Lyric] here in San Francisco [1-800-246-774], which is a queer youth hang out space. It's a really neat organization, and they've got this really wonderful talk line. So I called.
I told her I had an older female friend...who thought she might be gay...
TI: And what was that conversation like?
Gina: It was really wonderful! I talked with a gay man in his early twenties. He was really sweet to me and really surprised that I was as young as I was. I kept calling the talk line. Sometimes I'd get the same people and that was really good because I developed friendship with people there over the phone. I didn't know any other gay youth, and it was still really good for me to talk to people who knew what I had gone through and were able to share my experience. The talk line is a really good place. It's something that's needed for a lot of queer youth. Specifically if you're in a really isolated situation. I live in San Francisco so if I absolutely have to I can get on a bus and go to a queer youth group. They are relatively accessible here. But if you are [somewhere outside of a major city] they are not always easy to find. Even having the connection over the phone or through email is important. It builds a sense of community of being with other people like you.
TI: This connection with Lyric probably helped you start feeling more confident about disclosing your queerness to other people in your life face to face.
Gina: Yes! Before I came out to my parents, I came out to a girl who is my best friend now. I didn't even know how she felt about queer people but I got this very warm, friendly feeling from her.
TI: So how did she respond?
Gina: She was great. We were talking [on the phone] about Valentine's Day and I wanted to ease into the fact of dating somebody. So I asked her if she thought we'd have a dance at the school and she said, "No. Why?" And I said, "No reason, I just thought there might be somebody around I might want to go with." Then she proceeded to ask if it was someone in my class (I was in 6th grade and she was in 7th). I said that it was someone in the 7th grade. (It was actually her I had a crush on.) Then she started guessing boys and I said, "Not exactly."
TI: What were you feeling at this point?!
Gina: I was feeling really nervous! Kinda wondering why I had brought it up in the first place. I started thinking "Oh, you've gone too far, Gina! You should just cut the conversation now!" [laughing] But I didn't really want to end the conversation and cut her off. Then she said, "Well, you must want to bring somebody!" Then I said, "I trust you and I think that I should let you know that I don't really like guys." She didn't interpret it in the right way and said, "Yeah, I know. They're all jerks." I didn't know if I should burst out laughing or correct her! At that point I said, "I like girls." There was this silence at the end of the phone and then she said, "Gina, that's okay." It was so perfect.
At that point I said, "I like girls." There was this silence at the end of the phone and then she said, "Gina, that's okay."
TI: That's great!
Gina: She was very nonchalant about it and later on she definitely had her questions. And she was a little bit nervous, but she never abandoned me with this feeling of "I hate you because you're a dyke." It was more like "This is new to me and I need some time to get used to it, but you're still my friend."
TI: She sounds terrific.
Gina: Yeah, she was. And she still is.
TI: Wow! That must have made you feel very relaxed and safe.
Gina: It completely did.
TI: So how much longer did you wait to tell your parents?
Gina: I think it was three days. You know when you have boiling water and it's almost going to boil over the top but not quite, that's sort of what I was feeling at that point. I could have kept it in longer, but if I had, it just would have caused me a lot more pain. It kept me lying to them and I didn't want to do that.
TI: Had you been lying to your parents?
Gina: No, I just hadn't been telling them the complete truth. I had been hiding this big chunk of my life. We were eating tacos for dinner, and I got out of my chair and sat down on the dining room floor in front of the heating vent. I had my head in my hands and I was thinking. And my parents were both looking at each other and looking at me and said, "Gina, is everything okay?" And I said, "Something's been bothering me." They, of course, wanted to know what it was. Then I tried to jump out of it. I was so incredibly nervous and nerve wracked! Then I went downstairs to my room and got the number for PFLAG [Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays]. I came upstairs and I handed the piece of paper to my dad and he looked at it and said said, "Oh, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays." And he handed the paper to my mom. And they looked at me, and I burst out crying. I had been really scared to tell them. I don't know why because they had never seemed anything but really wonderful, accepting individuals. But I had this intrinsic feeling that once that type of thing came close to home, and if it wasn't just their friends at work but it was their daughter, they might not accept it.
I had this intrinsic feeling that... if...it was their daughter, they might not accept it.
TI: It must have been very scary for you.
Gina: Oh, it was incredibly frightening. But I felt a lot of the worry I put myself through before I came out to them was somewhat silly and unneeded.
TI: That's from your perspective right now and you're 3 years older. When you're in the middle of something like that you can't be rational. It's a totally emotional reaction. Also you had pent it up for so long that you were really stressed to the max. The crying was probably a release.
Gina: Oh yeah!
TI: So how did your parents react to the news?
Gina: They had very sad looks on their faces, but they weren't sad because I was queer it was more that they were sad because I was sad. I told them that I had been so scared to tell them and they both said, "You don't need to cry. Why are you crying?" And that, of course, made me cry more. They both held me for a long time and tried to dry my tears but the tears were not stopping. I cried the entire night and they just kept saying to me, "It's all right, Gina. We love you and we accept you." They wanted to know who I had told and how it had happened. I remember them saying that there were certain people I might not want to tell because they might not accept it. They were giving me advice and letting me know it was okay. It was really a life affirming experience. It made me trust them a lot more and made me feel really safe with them again.
"We love you and we accept you."
TI: Many people [teens and adults] stay "in the closet" because they are unwilling to deal with negative reactions from people. Were there people whose reactions surprised you in a hurtful way?
Gina: There was a friend who rejected me because I was gay, and that was the only reason. That hurt me because she was someone I cared about.
TI: Did you confront her? Is there a way to reason with someone whose reaction is totally based on fear and ignorance? How did you respond to her reaction?
Gina: This girl was someone I liked a lot. Someone I trusted. Someone I felt would understand. I felt that way also because her parents were very liberal and very open minded but she wasn't. I told her I was gay and she freaked out! And she was very mean spirited and very bitter to me. She was even trying to keep her little sister in kindergarten away from me. I think she believed I would "influence" her sister. Her little sister would come up to me and ask me why I wasn't friends with her sister any more. That was really hard for me. It's difficult to explain to a little kid, "Your sister doesn't like me because of who I am." I didn't want to ruin their relationship but it was incredibly hurtful, not only to have someone I thought was a friend totally reject me, but also have her sister ask why.
TI: And what did you say to the little girl?
Gina: I said, "Your sister and I are still friends. We don't hang out any more because sometimes people grow apart." But she always said to me, "But I like you, Gina. And I'm your friend." Which I thought was so sweet. Nobody is taught to hate. Little kids are so wonderful because they aren't prejudiced yet. In 6th grade I was getting harassed and people suspected that I was gay. Between 6th and 7th grade I went to Summer Bridge [a program for gifted students], and I started attending the Lyric Youth Program. Both of those things completely boosted my confidence which helped me come out in the 7th grade. In 7th grade, when I did come out, there were two kids who were nice to me (because they had older friends of the family who were gay) and the rest of the class wasn't nice to me. But the teachers were very supportive of me. But in eighth grade that support disappeared. I don't really know why, but it was a really terrible year for me.
TI: So now you're in 9th grade and in a different school?
Gina: Yeah. Fortunately [laughing happily].
TI: A whole different scene?
Gina: Completely. I'm at the Urban School and I absolutely love it there. It's really open and accepting. The kids that are there with me are very proud of me and of the work I've done and the work I'm doing. I'm the leader of the Gay/Bisexual/Straight Alliance at the school.
TI: It's a wonderful idea to create an alliance across differences, like that. That's what it's all about. Is there anything that anyone could have said to you when you were struggling with coming to terms with your feelings? Something someone could have said that would have drawn you out of your isolation sooner, so you wouldn't have had to suffer so much? Something that you could offer to a young person out there who might be reading this interview?
Gina: I don't really know why I was scared when I came out because I knew that gay people existed and I knew that they were not bad. I had that much, and a lot of kids don't have that. For some kids, living in really isolated areas, the best thing that I can say is, "We're out here! We exist. And there are people in the community who are so willing to support you and love you and back you up."
We're out here!...And there are people in the community who are so willing to support you and love you and back you up.
Gina: The Internet is a great resource. Check out Planet Out: www.planetout.com And books! There's a book called "Young Gay and Proud" published by the Alyson Publications that's a good resource book. "Bi Any Other Name" by Lani Kaahumanu & Loraine Hutchins (a huge anthology about bisexuality and bisexual identity). "Annie on My Mind" by Nancy Garden. "The Cat Came Back" By Hilary Mullins (it's very true to what a lot of young lesbians go through in terms of isolation, and finally finding love, acceptance and support). "Gender Shock" by Phyllis Burke (a book that talks about the treatment of gender non-conforming youth). And "The Last Time I Wore a Dress" by Daphne Scholinski (this is a personal experience of an artist, who, as a youth, was suspected of being queer and locked up in a mental institution... amazing story!).
TI: Let's not forget PFLAG [Parents Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. The phone number of the San Francisco chapter is (415) 921-8850. But go to their web site at www.pflag.org for information on a chapter in your state or country.] Also check out Youth Resource, support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth at www.youthresource.com.
Gina: PFLAG is really a great organization. I think there are chapters in every state now. There are Queer Youth Hot Lines. I was scared before I came out even though I live in San Francisco, which may have its problems with homophobia, but compared to the rest of the world it is pretty advanced [in its attitudes towards gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals]. So if [you're in a situation that you suspect might be unfriendly] you can "test the waters" and see which people are going to be okay [with your sexual orientation or gender identity] and which people aren't going to be okay. If you can find the supportive people, that's really important. And that can mean heterosexual allies as well. Keep your hope up! You're not alone.
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last updated November 19, 2005
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