Content warning: The following story tells of a survivor's experience of what it was like to come out as queer, there is sexual content, suicidal ideation, and the word, "dorm," which might be triggering for some readers.
"The Liberation of Queerness," Kaitlin Winters
I was 17. I lived 17 years of my life internalizing a feeling of “I’m not normal” and asking myself the questions, “why do I have crushes on girls?” and “what does gay even mean?” It wasn’t until 17 that I decided to gradually come out and explore my sexuality.
Before we get started, a brief history of my life.
I had crushes on girls since I could remember, even in kindergarten. Throughout elementary, middle, and high school I just suppressed the feelings I had towards girls. I didn’t say anything to anyone and I covered it up by “going out” (I use this term lightly because it wasn’t something I was a fan of) with boys. I suffered from severe depression in high school following the flooding of my family’s house in Hurricane Ivan and my mom being hospitalized for a few years. My depression followed me as I transitioned to college. I was 17 when I entered my first semester (at a school in the middle of Mississippi) and was a student athlete and lived in an all-female dorm (bring on all the stereotypes).
When I got to college there was a girl on the soccer team I was super into and I disclosed that to one of her teammates. Before I knew it, I was intertwined into a circle of gossip. People kept coming up to me and asking, “are you gay?” I had built up the courage to tell someone and I ended up being lead on, manipulated, and used by many individuals I called my “friends.” On top of that, some family problems were occurring at the same time and my depression skyrocketed. I stopped caring about school, I quit the golf team, and I was unmotivated about everything.
The week of finals, I contemplated suicide and ended up harming myself for the first time. I was sent home and had to reschedule the rest of my exams. Home wasn’t much better. My mom was in the hospital and I was miserable. I couldn’t stop thinking about telling my parents about the semester, particularly coming out. However, I hated being home so I decided to leave a day early to go back to school. I didn’t want to go back, but I didn’t want to stay there either. The night I left I wrote a note to my parents saying I was gay and then ran out of the house in tears. My parents had no idea what was going on and I just told them to read the letter that was in my room. I got in my car and drove. After reading the note, they called and told me they loved me and that they didn’t care if I was gay, they just wanted me to be safe.
I went back to school, but was still unmotivated to do anything. After a couple of weeks, I stopped going to class. I would get ready in the morning, wait outside the classroom, but then I just wouldn’t go. I took naps a lot and my eating habits changed drastically. I told myself I needed to start going to class or go home. I knew things weren’t going to get any better if I stayed so I decided to go home. I did a medical withdrawal and took the semester off. It sucked, but it had to be done.
Before I left to go home I decided to come out to my friends via a Facebook note (such a millennial, I know). I had some supportive friends, and some, not so much. I had friends tell me they couldn’t be my friend anymore or that it’s a sin to be gay. I was being judged for something I couldn’t control.
After I got home I started reapplying to schools. It was a horrible time. I was doing nothing and I was still depressed. All of my true friends from high school were off at college, except for me. I was also still navigating feelings about my identity and was unsure about everything.
When I transferred to the University of West Florida, I decided I wasn’t going to come out to anyone. I didn’t want to face the judgement all over again. The first year I struggled with the idea of being accepted in my church as a gay individual. Before I came out, my faith was extremely important to me so I was in a stage of self-exploration. As I entered my sophomore year, I found a great group of humans who I still call my family. I knew they accepted me for me. The second semester of my sophomore year I ended up coming out to them and nothing changed. It wasn’t a big deal. They still loved and supported me just as much as they did before I came out.
The rest of my undergraduate experience was extremely amazing. I became a support person for so many of my peers who were LGBT and were still in the closet or in the process of coming out. I also continued to explore my gender identity and expression throughout the years. My senior year of college is when I started wearing suits and ties to events instead of dresses. It was the most liberating feeling because I finally felt like myself.
Today, I am proud to be a queer, masculine of center, tattooed person. My parents are super loving and supportive and over the years they have met most of my girlfriends. Coming out isn’t easy and timing does matter. But I am forever grateful for the people who stood by my side through my darkest days. I look back at the experiences I have had and realize they truly made me who I am today.
About the art:
So, I absolutely ADORE the hell out of Kaitlin Winters. I actually reached out to Kaitlin to share their story because I knew she would have a powerful and thoughtful story. And I wasn't wrong!
I loved reading through Kaitlin's story, and it inspired me to go a different route with her painting. I wanted to be a little more intentional with how I laid out the colors, and the words. And to be perfectly honest, I have been getting bored with my art, even though a lot of people have come to expect a specific style from me.
SO I TRIED SOMETHING NEW for one of my favorite people int he universe. And went with some watercolors to create a wispy rainbow effect across this canvas. I wanted the lines to mirror a combination of flames and waves. I really like that juxtaposition. I think it shows up here pretty well. I had a lot of fun doing this style.
I chose the quote after trying to seek out something that I felt truly encapsulated Kaitlin's story. This quote, "Far from who I once was, but not yet who I'm going to be" felt perfect because it mirrors Kaitlin's existence as a queer human. She has gone through many evolutions to finally find a version of herself that feels right, that feels comfortable. And I admire the hell out of that. Because that sort of self-discovery is hard to accomplish.
And I feel the second half of the quote really hits hard, too. Because there is always time for more growth, more evolving as a person. And Kaitlin is exactly the person to never stay content with one form of existence. I expect there is much more in store for her.
Thanks again, Kaitlin! I can't wait to cross paths again soon.