Growing up in Los Angeles, Zoe Kim says she didn’t feel all that different from her male classmates. They played sports together, sat with each other, and hung out in big groups. But then Kim’s family moved to Texas. On the first day of seventh grade, Kim instantly noticed the divide — for the first time in her life.
The boys were seated on one side of the room, and the girls were on the other side. Kim showed up late, and there were no seats left with the girls. So she sat with the boys, donning her first-day outfit of khaki shirts and a graphic tee. She jokes the faux pas set the tone for her experience in the Lone Star State.
“I was wearing these khaki shorts that go down to your knee — not very typical of the southern girls who were all wearing Lily Pulitzer or Vineyard Vines or something,” she says. “They were all wearing their respective First Day of School outfits with Kendra Scott jewelry. My friends always used to joke with me about it, and say, ‘Oh yeah, we should’ve known you were a lesbian back then when you sat with all of the boys.’”
Kim started coming out to close friends and family during her junior year of high school, when she also happened to be excelling on the school softball team. Slowly, word about Kim’s sexuality inched around the locker room, and some of her teammates would make crass jokes about undressing in front of her. To avoid the taunts, Kim started changing her clothes in a nearby restroom stall. The bullying soured her on softball, but she decided to keep playing. She wasn’t going to allow small-minded people to dissuade her from doing what she wanted to do.
As a junior, Kim was named team captain, and as she explains it, learned to just say, “fuck it.” While her experience as captain was challenging — Kim says her team “lacked the dedication, hard work and skills to compete” — she tried her best to lead in the locker room. Over time, she found herself surrounded by peers who were also questioning their sexualities, and wanted to solicit some advice. At the time, Kim tried to help them, and brushed off their homophobic histories. She didn’t know any other way.
Her perspective changed when she started her freshman year at Sarah Lawrence, the renowned small liberal arts school in metro New York. The school boasts a vibrant LGBTQ population, and is known for its resources to LGBTQ students. This year, Kim spoke at Sarah Lawrence’s Pride on the Court, and really began to think critically about her high school experience. It may have been typical, but that doesn’t mean it should be accepted.
“Honestly, it wasn’t until later, and really during that panel, that I was reflecting on my experiences in high school, and realized that a lot of the things that happened were really fucked up,” she says. “I think that talking publicly about it for the first time helped me realize that. I never actually realized how homophobic or cruel or mean those jokes were, until I started to talk about them.”
Kim enjoyed a great freshman year on the softball diamond, hitting .320 and starting in center field. She quit the team this year before the coronavirus pandemic, and joined basketball. Assistant coach Jason Jaramillo, who came out in Outsports earlier this year, gave her the LGBTQ sports role model she was craving.
At Sarah Lawrence, Kim says she feels free to express herself, and that means ditching the khaki shorts for sun dresses. As a gay high school student in Texas, Kim felt pressured to fit the lesbian stereotype, so she complied. She went her entire four years of high school without wearing makeup.
“I felt that I had to adopt this stereotypical butch lesbian persona that loves sports in order for people to believe that I liked girls. In a lot of ways, that was really painful for me,” Kim says. “I think the joke that really stuck with me was, ‘You’re too gay for that,’ or, ‘You’re such a lesbian,’ whenever I would wear a flannel. If I tried to wear a dress, they would tell me I looked weird, because I’m not supposed to be wearing dresses. I’m supposed to be the stereotypical butch lesbian, which is completely not who I am. It was taken me a very long time to even reach this point, but I think that that kind of stuff really shattered my perception of my own femininity.”
But Kim is getting there. At the urging of a friend, she tried eyeliner for the first time this year, and absolutely loved it. Blue is her favorite — black for yours truly — and she feels fierce when she puts some on. It’s been a liberating wardrobe change.
“At first, I was really nervous. I was scared people were going to say things, or I was going to be a different person,” Kim says. “But after I put it on, my friends at Sarah Lawrence said, ‘Wow, you look so pretty. It looks so good on you.’ I felt this instant rush of confidence, and I felt like, ‘Wow, I love this so much.’ Now, I love doing my eyeliner. I do it all of the time. I don’t think that friend will ever realize what a life-changing moment that was for me, but that was a moment where I realized I can be both. I can be a lesbian and feminine.”
Back home in Texas, Kim is anxious to study abroad and return to campus, coronavirus permitting. Like many college students, Kim feels like campus is the place where she can truly be herself. When she runs into acquittances in Texas, she feels the need to edit her experiences. That’s not the case in New York.
“I want to see my friends, and be in a place where I feel like I can be accepted for who I am,” Kim says. “Just being in a place where I feel proud of the person I am.”
Zoe Kim is a rising junior at Sarah Lawrence College. You can follow her on Instagram or email her, firstname.lastname@example.org.