Beneath the willow tree, I sat. I sat with my knees up to my chest hugging myself tightly and breathing deeply. The tree’s vines encircled me creating a veil of protection. An old man in his car at the end of the parking lot was staring at me. Perhaps I looked out of place, an 18 year old at a park with no agenda. Most people around me were there with a clear purpose. Time to play with their children. Time to read. Time to jog. Time to stroll and hold hands. And me, staring back with stinging and puffy eyes at that single old man in his run down white car with a navy blue top and a bag of breadcrumbs in his hand. He did not smile. Neither did I.
When I was a child I’d often go to this park with my babysitter who lived just up the hill. Together, we would bring stale bread in plastic bags and while we sat under the willow tree we would crumble up the bread and throw it out to the ducks. They would flock to us from all edges of the pond. The details of the park had grown dull in my mind but I could remember feeling freedom to explore and ponder. I remembered feeling open to my own findings and those of others. I remembered feeling pride in myself through the simple act of giving. Those feelings guided me through the windy roads of my hometown that morning and led me to the willow tree’s safety. I could see the memories of who I had been tangled in the vines of the tree, lost under the wings of the ducks, and treading quietly below the surface of the pond. I had come here searching for something, some reminder of who I had been as I now sat on the precipice of who I was becoming.
At 18, I came out to my parents, or rather, they “figured it out”. “It” being a euphemism. “It” being a stand in term for something I could not yet comfortably name. “It” being denial and fear that sprouted first in myself and soon would spread seeds to others. Over the last decade (and then some) the “it” has taken on many names and forms. “It” continues to change in the wake of passing decades, expanding language, more nuanced manifestations of identity, and an ever changing me in the context of everything I have experienced. At 18 my parents figured something out and knew what I did not yet have the foresight to see. They knew that this would be my first coming out of many, that life, as it happens, would invite me to come out again, and again, and again, and again. Perhaps they knew that the coming out might look differently as the years went on. That it might sound differently. That it might feel differently, too.
Sometimes I wonder if we know ourselves best as young children and then society teaches us what we should be instead. We cover ourselves in self-made layers like we’re offering protection from the cold. A sweater made of parents’ expectations. Gloves made with a teacher’s doubts. A hat knitted with messages from the media. Wool socks with fibers of “what ifs” and “not ready’s”. And a heavy down jacket of fear. It’s stifling, but probably safe. Throughout our lives we learn to shed the layers one by one. Some come off with ease while others wear out slowly over years and years of use. With a lot of love and grace, we find warmth from within.
It is no surprise that the first time I came out I returned to the park where I had spent time as a child. The phrase “coming out” implies that there is something that is being held inside, that we must let it out to experience freedom. A coming out story is usually considered a one time event. But in reality, we are always coming out. I’ve come to think of coming out as a recognition of self, an embrace of self love. It is a lifelong process of navigating how to be authentic in different contexts. How can I be out when I start this new job? How can I be out when I walk down the street? In what confines can I be myself as I travel to this new country? New state? Through this new political climate? How does this new language change the way I have always thought about myself? Am I a lesbian? Am I gay? Or am I queer? Am I queer enough to call myself queer? And what does that mean? Our self awareness grows and we evolve. I recently got my first tattoo and my brother saw it and said, “I didn’t think you were the type of person who would ever get a tattoo.” And I thought, well, who are you to decide what kind of person I am? Maybe we are never one “type of person”. Maybe we are ever-evolving.
Shortly after my wife, Shani, and I started dating, we were spending time with her family and Shani clenched her fists in a sudden joyful fury and spoke high pitched as she proclaimed, “I’m so GLAD I’m a lesbian!” I giggled at her cuteness. Her parents smiled. But in my mind, what I heard Shani say in that moment was, “It feels so effing good to be me. Look at all the love I can find when I am my authentic self and I deem myself worthy of it.” Perhaps true love exists when we come out in self love and self recognition.
When Shani told me she wanted to do a pride themed photo shoot, it didn’t take me long to see that this was an opportunity to create something special while working with my incredible wife. Shani is a gifted photographer, not just because of her eye, but because of her innate ability to bring out people’s authentic selves in front of a somewhat exposing instrument. When we sat to plan ideas for the shoot we asked ourselves, how can we use the camera as a tool for people to show joy? Our answer: colors! We wanted to document the joy that comes from thriving in our own identities.
While responding to our questions, participants shared the beautiful ways in which their own coming out journeys have created space for others to live authentically. They shared stories of family acceptance, the pursuit of normalizing queer identities through the arts and fashion, and the impact of being a queer role model in religious communities. According to them, true joy comes from knowing that who you are is enough to powerfully impact the lives of others. For some participants, this project was their coming out! And the joy that exudes in their photos is enough to make you pause and consider the beauty of life’s journey. For others, this project brought reflection on the fears that they still hold, and the pain that comes from the layers of self judgment. However, through this fear shines a light of appreciation for unapologetic authenticity and hope that all our journeys will eventually bring us there. The way we express ourselves to the world has an impact on how we feel and thus, the way we express ourselves opens true expression for others. Wearing our pride and documenting it in a photo creates opportunities for others to claim pride in themselves.
We who identify in the LGBTQ+ community are always coming out. Coming out is a recognition of self, a proclamation of who we are and who we have always been. I’ve come to think that people never really change, but within ourselves, we learn to shrink or grow. Being joyously out and proud is evolution. Evolution of self and evolution of a community that has transgressed. A community that still has a fight to be fought, still has disappointments to fuel that fight, still has victories to celebrate. Pride in ourselves and pride in community is resistance. Self love is triumph. We are all always on the precipice of who we are becoming, for we are always becoming who we are meant to be.
The old man moved out of his car. He slowly made his way to a bench five steps away from the willow tree where I sat. He had the bag of breadcrumbs in his hand. I watched him carefully, studying his movements and breathing. He moved as if not to disturb the placement of the air. He reached into his bag and tossed out a fistful of bread crumbs to the ground. It took a moment, but the ducks did come. They flocked around his feet from every stretch of the pond. I came out from under the safety of the willow tree and moved to the bench beside him. He did not say a word to me. He just smiled and held out the bag. I grabbed a fistful and tossed the bread crumbs to the ground. The remnants stuck to my hands and I brushed them off with a quick swipe on my jeans. This old man, he was not a stranger. He was a reminder of the freedom that had once lived inside me. I felt the layers shedding and I suddenly felt like a child again. Joyous. Open. Proud.
Emily Elkind identifies as a queer cisgender woman. She is an educator and an author currently working on her first novel. She enjoys sipping coffee while writing in the early mornings. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her wife Shani and their dog Beans. Follow her on Instagram @emilyelk