Co-published with GO! Athletes, the world's largest network of LGBT high school and college athletes.
I'm a Texas girl, born and bred. I lived and learned in Texas for over 21 years until August 2013 when I moved 1,500 miles to Pennsylvania to pursue graduate school. I truly am a Texan, but I won't go far as to say I am a typical one. There are a dozen things I could list that make me unique: the impressive amount of damage I've done to my left knee in my accident prone life, I own a 1968 Mustang I restored myself, I am ridiculously good at ski-ball, and I am gay.
That last fact is not as unique as some, but...I'm a Southern girl. And there have been a number of instances that have make it clear that last fact is the rarest and most dangerous I could list. To put it plainly: the conservative parts of Texas I come from are not the places you will see rampant lesbianism. It's not that they do not exist, but it's never discussed. You won't see someone with a rainbow pin or two people of the same gender holding hands in my hometown.
Arizona swimmer finds freedom after coming out
"I realize that now that I don’t have weight on my shoulders to keep my head down," Lauren Elizabeth Neidigh writes. After she comes out, she finds an inner peace that was lacking.
Texas is more than a place, it's a way of life. Texas parents raise children to know that God and family are first. To be caring, respectful, polite, and humble. You work hard, keep at it until the job is done, and you do things right the first time. You say "sir", "ma'am", "please" and "thank you". These are lessons I carry with me. However I was not raised with the idea that I would love people of my same gender; no one was. Heteronormativity is taught and enforced. I had to teach some things to myself.
I heard plenty about "gays" during my raising. Whispers in school, where awareness and fear of "otherness" begins. The kids were far surpassed by the adults in the community, who would whisper rumors of men being gay. My brother and his high school theater guys made sure all their stage make-up was off before they left school for safety reasons, not vanity. I heard "fag", "dyke", "fairy", and others thrown around accompanied by a laugh. I grew up around homosexuality being not only wrong and disgusting, but not accepted practice or a possibility.
It was not until I got to college that I saw people who were not straight my age, or met a woman that was gay. Eighteen years is a long time to go without meeting someone like you. My college was a bubble of diversity and a safe haven, so different from anywhere else. There I eventually became more accepting of myself and my sexuality. It was also the time I first experienced personal rejection. I will never forget the advice imparted by an administrator after I sported a busted lip: "Cait, be careful. You getting punched could just as easy be you getting stabbed."
In my senior year I sat in a restaurant bar, intending to watch a game on TV. It was one of those crazy, serendipitous moments in life. The bartender and I had been friends for years as children, but I had not seen her in almost a decade. The time slipped away as we fell into familiar camaraderie and got to know one another as adults as she continued to work.
Three guys at the end of the bar did not appreciate our banter, loudly jeering at us, which we ignored. In the parking lot as I was leaving, I heard curses and jeers behind me as the same men yelled and threw every gay slur their minds held at me. I picked up my pace, as I heard the crunch of gravel from many boot clad feet behind me. For the length of a breath I knew exactly what was about to happen.
A hand grabbed my jacket, and I spun. I am a good fighter, I can certainly hold my own, but not against three guys. A hit to my bad knee and I was on the ground, kicking in defense as I tried to get up. Boots struck my back and sides as I protected my head and neck. I fought fiercely, trying to get away. What gets me is I was not flirting for once, and there was no obvious sign of my orientation; I was a girl in a bar. I am reminded that it does not take certainty; perception is as good as confirmation to some. Maybe it was the sports, or the way she and I smiled, or it was the blazer and high tops. All I know is that the word "dyke" still tastes like blood in my mouth.
I am optimistic. I let insults and negativity roll off my back - but this one didn't. I remember looking at myself in the mirror for two days. My eyes, one of them blackened and swollen, were angry. They swept over the bruises, scuffs, and cuts not covered by clothing. I sighed heavily, and my hand went to my side as pain shot through my abdomen from injured ribs. I did not see that I had held my own, and should be much worse.
I looked instead at my angry, almost defeated eyes and thought, "Wow, it finally happened. Someone finally beat the gay out of Cait Graves."
I was done. If all being myself got me was this, then forget it. Internalized hate can do more damage to you inside than anyone can do to your exterior.
I suddenly hated myself in a way I had not before, even when I refused to believe that I could be gay. I thought I had accepted myself previously, but I obviously had not. That needed to change. There comes a point in your life where you acknowledge and accept who you are. It is a rough road, but I did find myself there with a semblance of peace. With this final acceptance I decided that I would not spend anymore of my life crashing around, hurting mostly myself.
During that time of struggle, I still looked around for some role model, someone who was like me. I still wanted that relatable figure to see I was not alone. I knew very few people who were gay and bi, but they were so full of pride that they did not understand reluctance. Even as proud as they were, they were all very careful when outside of the safety of school. Again I found no one that I thought I could talk to, no one like me.
A previous supervisor saw me a few days after the incident, still a mess, and turned my head to a lighter future. She was the person I trusted most, and I knew she wouldn't be pleased I had gotten myself into trouble, but her response was far from anger. I was met with a simple piece of advice and a dose of pity: Move north. Get out of Texas for a while. I had already applied to grad programs in the north, but the move took on a new meaning. In the end I accepted a graduate position at Kent State, and an assistantship at a school in Pennsylvania. I am a stranger in a strange land here, and I am reminded often how deeply rooted habits are engrained, the perfect example being my constant use of "ma'am" and "sir".
I live differently here, away from my sweet southern state. I live an out life and that is precious. A friend says well-muscled men are hot, and I sarcastically disagree. I joke so I remind myself what's changed, where I am, and more importantly who I am. The reminder is sweet, especially when I reflect back. I'm in a different place, but I have changed more than my surroundings.
Do not misunderstand when I describe the South. I'm proud of where I come from, and it is progressive in areas. You can't tell the difference between Houston and Dallas and any big northern city.
I grew up in conservative, faith-influenced areas, where my experience was mostly not hostility, but quiet discomfort and the idea that being gay is not tolerated or practiced. North or South, it is not where you live. The first step in acceptance is being at home in your own skin.
I had a long journey of acceptance, but I hold my head up now come acceptance or negativity. It's an idea I'm trying to shake, but I still see it as an act of defiance to be gay. I am going against the grain, values, unwritten laws, and convention, by being myself. I am going against the thoughts of so many who would look down on my parents for having a gay daughter. They know the person their daughter is, but I still pray the 1,500 miles is enough so it does not leak back. I don't want them to have the pain I did at one time.
It angers me when people say someone coming out publicly should not be news, that being gay is no big deal, that you should not be nervous when you come out. Non-heterosexuality is not widely accepted everywhere, I think that is clear. I am not a prominent figure in the world, a recognized actress, or in professional sports. I am just a Texas girl who likes other girls.
Still, that in itself is important. I know the importance of visibility. To show those who share my thoughts, experiences, or background, they are not alone. To show the teenager watching every LGBT movie and reading every article to get a taste of the community that seems out of their grasp that I was there too. At the end of this difficult journey I am a more solid vessel, and I am uniquely and resolutely myself. A Christian. A writer. An advocate for change. A Southerner. A Texas girl. A proud and out gay woman.
Graves played softball and track & field at her Texas high school and is a member of GO! Athletes. You can find her on Twitter @catycat11.