When I was a senior at BYU-Idaho I was my ward’s Relief Society president. I had also begun to dip my toe into the coming out pool. At that point it was kind of an open secret, as it were, within my ward. Not so much a secret, but rather I had told some people and didn’t particularly care if they talked about it. It wasn’t time to get up in front of the world and announce, “I LIKE WOMEN AND I LIKE MEN thank you for coming to my TED Talk,” but I was ready start being open about it. I wanted to make gay jokes that were good and talk about my crushes on girls and just be honest.
One day my neighbors down the hall made a comment about a woman being really hot on a tv show and they should go get me. All of the women in that apartment were my good friends, but one had somehow missed the queer memo. She looked up, dismayed, and asked what they meant. “Rebecca’s into women. Didn’t you know?”
She did not.
The next day she showed up at my door, looking worried. “Can I talk to you? Alone?” As the relief society president, this wasn’t particularly unusual and I didn’t think it would be anything more than the regular woes of a student at BYU-Idaho. We sat down and I asked what I could do for her. Her eyes had a hard time meeting mine but finally she told me that her roommates had told her about my sexuality.
“They said you like girls.”
I smiled. “Yeah. I do.”
“But you’re the Relief Society president?”
“That I am.”
“Does the bishopric know?”
“Yep. So does the Stake President.”
Her eyes looked at me with confusion and wonder. And then it came out.
“I… I’m like you. I like girls, too. I thought that I couldn’t tell anyone. That I was...bad.”
I was horrified and spent awhile assuring her that she was not bad, that she was loved, and nothing was wrong with her. Apparently the only other people who knew were her parents, who were not members but were deeply conservative evangelicals. To say that they did not approve was putting it mildly.
It was that day I realized that I needed to talk about being queer more. Not just so I could make more and better gay jokes, but for her. For people like her.
The world I exist in is… not the same as others. Sometimes I refer to it as, “The Rebecca Bubble.” A huge factor in this is the fact that I am a conventionally attractive cis white person. Yes, I’m a woman and queer, but it would be absurd to imply that I deal with the same levels of discrimination and oppression when my life is dripping in privilege. There’s another layer that I have never been able to explain of The Rebecca Bubble. People who shouldn’t still want to listen to me do, no one typically tries anything with me, and people (white men) who would say something objectionable become quiet when I am in the room. I tell you this not to brag, but to explain that one day I realized the world wasn’t fair and the bias was in my favor. I was in my late teens when I realized that people listened to me an a illogical amount. I remember thinking, “Well, better make whatever comes out of your mouth worth listening to.”
That day, the woman before me was baffled that I got to float through one of the most conservatively religious schools and have people know me, know all of me, and still see my humanity. She feared, and perhaps rightfully so, she wouldn’t get that same treatment. And I was again reminded that it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair at all.
But maybe if I was a little louder about my sexuality, the people around me could learn to see the respect that LGBT+ people deserve. Because if I was queer, maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe people would stop for a second, and rethink what they thought they knew.
A few months later, I went out to lunch with my uncle who had come out back in the 70’s. He was now the head of the University of Maryland’s LGBT+ Equity department. At this point I was ready to be all the way out and I wanted to talk to him first. Unsurprisingly he was supportive, but he gave me a warning. “This won’t be yours anymore, even though it’s about you. Everything is now going to be about other people’s feelings about you being queer, not you just being queer. You’ll have to be there for them during this trying time.” That last bit was said with his driest tone and a small smirk. He was right, but I felt ready for that.
It wasn’t just that now older white men who somehow respected me would perhaps consider the humanity of an entire group, it was that deeply closeted queer people would see me. See that not hating themselves was an option, that being happy was an option. Yes, I wanted to demand basic decency from straight people but I wanted to say what I said to that girl in my apartment to every queer person. You are loved. You matter. There is no better way to explain my motivations in coming out than the old saying, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
And so I’ve moved into a space of education and advocacy within whatever circle I can find. And when I run out of patience I try and find more by remembering how kindly I have been educated in my own life, about trans issues, racism, classism, and so many other things I don’t have to experience. I remember that those people were probably tired but they were kind to me, and hoped I would learn to be better. And some days I want to strangle people when they seem willfully ignorant about LGBT+ issues or want to pretend like sexism is totally overblown. But good faith was given to me, and so I try to pay it forward.
Michael Lewis once gave a speech at Princeton called, “Don’t Eat Fortune’s Cookie.” In it he discusses how so most people who have quite a lot of good fortune have it largely because of luck. One of my favorite quotes is, “You owe a debt to the unlucky.”
I am a very lucky queer. I am a very lucky woman. My life has not always been perfectly insulated from reality, but I educate because I am profoundly aware, I owe a debt to the unlucky.