The way Jennifer emphasized the word boyfriend caught me off guard. As someone who was not the best at social interactions, I was focused on trying to ask interactive questions, not on the supposed subtext of said questions. It had never occurred to me that my information gathering came off any differently than anyone else’s, yet Jennifer acted as if it had. She was a member of the marketing team for my job and she had needed a hand out to her car with some work supplies. I was the strongest person on shift to lend a hand, and I never thought twice about volunteering.
There was nothing special about that day. We had been walking through the back hallway of the building to the underground parking when I tried my hand at being more conversational. Not because I actually cared about Jennifer and her personal life, but because I was trying to master something I had always been terrible at: small talk. My friends could make acquaintances so easily because they cared about the person on the other end of their interaction. I was not that kind of person.
As we walked through the concrete corridor that led to the parking lot I asked Jennifer if she had any pets.
“Yeah, I just got a new puppy. It’s a chocolate Lab. He splits time between my place and my boyfriend’s place.”
And there it was, the emphasis on her relationship status. It was a tone I had heard before. It spoke clear and concise volumes. A statement that said she was taken, she was straight and more importantly, my gayness was unwelcome. Here I was at thirty-four losing my safe space all over again.
At seventeen years old, I realized I was attracted to females. Sitting in anatomy class, hoping that today was the day we got to dissect something. I looked across the classroom to Krista sitting at her desk, head bent down in concentration. She’s beautiful I thought. The rush of panic hit me in a hot wave of disbelief. Was I actually calling a girl beautiful? Had I been gay this whole time? I took another glance over to her and the feeling remained.
My “coming out” was a three-day terror-filled revelation that saw me going to my friend Jolene first. We had a gay friend in common— Justin— a Junior who was openly gay and proud. He was the Ricky Vasquez to my Angela Chase in High School. (Go watch My So-Called Life). Jolene had no problem with my newfound sexuality and told me I could talk to her whenever I needed an ear. The next day was a harder test: Hayley, my best friend since I was six. We grew up across the street from one another and for eleven years we had gone to the same schools, had the same friends and attended almost every social event together. Even after all that time, neither of us had any gay friends to show for it. I had promised to tell her what was going on. She could tell something was off, but I wouldn’t confide in her.
“It’s nothing big. I just like someone,” I told her.
“I’ll tell you. I just can’t say in person.”
I wrote Krista’s name on a piece of paper and asked her to open it once we got home from school. On our morning walk we could talk about the note. I never wanted the morning to come. I didn’t want to be cast aside for liking who I liked, and I wasn’t. Hayley, like Jolene, was okay with me being gay. The third day was the tallest mountain I had ever faced: telling my sister. Since I was born it had always been me and my big sister G against the world. She had asked for me and she protected me from all things horrible in the world. If she didn’t love me, then what?
“I have to tell you something,” I started.
My sister waited patiently while I struggled to form a proper coming out sentence. In the end she got to the conclusion before the words left my mouth. After that it was easy to go about life as if I had always been queer.
In the suburbs of Rancho Cucamonga in 2002, there was little homophobia that I saw. A lot of the people I grew up with in my small town ended up at Oasis —the closest gay bar a city over— when we turned eighteen. It was very affirming, knowing a lot of my friends since fourth grade were gay too. It made being myself that much easier. Nothing about me had changed except who I enjoyed being with, and if I am being honest, boys had never made feel comfortable to begin with. Girls on the other hand… that was something I was enjoying getting used to. By graduation I had my close circle of friends, first girlfriend, first kiss, and first safe space. A year into being queer was looking pretty awesome.
There have always been horror stories associated with coming out and more importantly being out. The AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s, the Stonewall Riots, Matthew Shepherd’s murder, Prop 8 passing in 2008, the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016, and the uptick in Trans women of color being killed all over the US the past few years. But in mid-2002 I had experienced none of this backlash to my budding sexuality. I was still enjoying my small-town lifestyle, going out on Thursdays to 18+ nights at Oasis, making out with the girl I was dating and being surrounded by my fellow queers and allies. I knew nothing of the world outside of my small suburban door.
Now in 2019, as I walk through the quiet underground garage I feel stripped bare of my seventeen years of naive safety. Thinking back, this isn’t the first time that I felt unsafe and ill at ease in a city that promoted tolerance and love for the LGBTQ community; the 2016 Presidential election saw to that. Even the Mayor of Long Beach was openly gay, yet somehow here I was next to someone being openly intolerant of my very lived in lifestyle and I was offended to my very core. How dare she help to open a franchise in a gay friendly city being antigay herself. How dare she profit off of our hard-earned money with a smile on her face then wipe her hands clean of the “gay filth” she thought we were behind our backs. Where had my safe space gone? How had I gotten hired to work with people who hated me so much? Had eight years living in the safety of Long Beach all been a dream?
There were a lot of questions that needed answers, but my soul wanted affirmation. It wanted to know that the world hadn’t receded as far back as everyone said it had. Three years after the US election and the intolerance of the far-right seemed to be seeping into my very left-leaning city.
As I grew up and moved out, I left toxic people behind. Unfortunately that meant leaving a lot of my gay friends behind. At twenty a lot of the friends that I did have left were very straight with very straight hangouts and very straight rituals. Rarely was I around people one hundred percent like me. It never registered until the rare moments I went out with my gay friends to Pride, a drag show or brunch in WeHo. I could feel my soul overflowing with happiness and contentment. I needed more queers in my life, but there wasn’t much I could do, I had become less confident in my older years. I had almost no gaydar and the girls I did talk to seemed confused as to what to do with me. I was too femmy to match my butch appearance, and too masculine to be on the dance floor having a good time. (Apparently if you present as a more masculine lesbian you’re supposed to be standing in wait on the wall for someone to approach you.) I was on that middle line where I didn’t fit anywhere anymore. Most of my friends had picked a side and went full tilt. I remained my confident, nerdy, queer self to my detriment it seemed. Somehow without me noticing, the gay community had built boxes for itself and I didn’t fit neatly into any of them. When had I missed the changing of the guard?
The next fourteen years saw me in search of my new happy place. I found the next one by surrounding myself with flamboyant queer men. It was the only demographic that gave me a sense that my safe space had in fact not abandoned me. I could be over the top, I could dance the night away, I could get fall down drunk, I could laugh loudly and love my body in all of its out of shape forms and I was accepted. Yes, I managed to talk to women and date a bit, but it was never for long. There was always a feeling that I wasn’t who they wanted. I wasn’t their butch queen or their femme dream, I was just me. After every awkward rejection, I returned to my boys for drinks, dancing, and fun. But I guess nothing lasts forever. Soon even my boys became toxic. The LGBTQ community is not without its fair share of abusive relationships and overt drug use; and while I loved my new queer male safe space, it too had become riddled with toxicity that caused me to pull away for my own protection.
Now with Jennifer in the parking garage, I held my tongue. I’m in my mid-thirties and I know myself and I love who I am. Her insinuation was in her mind and it reflected her insecurities, not mine. I was offended, but not surprised. The world had been changing the past three years. Things that only felt safe in the shadows now felt safe in the light, and to a degree they were. Hatred was making a comeback and with it, my rainbow havens were drying up.
The hard, long, bloody road that LGBTQ rights have been making their way along seemed to have forked with no clear path as to which direction we should go in. Perhaps it is our fault; one thing I have learned over the years was that internalized homophobia was rampant. How can we expect anyone to accept us when we can’t accept each other? How can we move forward in one strong stride if we still live by arbitrary rules like “no fats, no Asians” on our hookup profiles? I could understand where Jennifer’s need to clarify herself came from, but it still stung to hear it directed towards me.
For seventeen years I had tried to find a home for myself. I’m not sure if I have or ever will. I suppose home is where I feel the safest, but I don’t feel safe in many places and looking back at my moment with Jennifer, I could see that safe spaces were becoming few and far between. It isn’t easy to find a place to be oneself, and when you finally do, there is no guarantee that it will be what you need specifically. There is only trial and error. So I keep looking, hoping that one day I can finally rest nestled into the warm embrace of permanent love and acceptance.
Tiffany Niles has recently obtained her AA in Creative Writing from Long Beach City College. She will be continuing her studies at the University of British Columbia for her BFA in 2020/2021. Tiffany has grown to love all aspects of the writing/publishing community and hopes to help other marginalized writers find their voices and tell their stories. Her story “Secret Admirer” was published in the Charmed Writers Flash Fiction Anthology in 2018; “Father and Son” was published through Perennial Press’ Super/Natural anthology (2019), and her first CNF piece “All My Safe Spaces Are Dead” is published here at The Nasiona. She is excited to be working as a partner for Perennial Press where she volunteers her time as a developmental editor, designer, correspondent, and social media liaison.