By Bethany Cook
The coming out process for me began my first semester of college in 1995. It was a slow, deliberate, painful, scary, liberating, hopeful, sad, and exciting experience all at the same time. It varied in the degree of those emotions from day-to-day, even minute-to-minute. In hindsight, it was like sand in an hourglass slowly and steadily shape shifting, continually moving until the last bit of sand dropped.
I grew up in a small homogeneous Midwestern community in the 1980s, hearing jokes and negative comments about gay people almost daily from the media, church, school, and home. So, when I felt my body respond sexually for the first time, at age 18, to a girl I met in college, I immediately felt shame, confusion, and excitement. I distinctly remember having this light bulb moment when I realized that I was feeling what the hetero couples were portraying in love scenes in movies and on TV.
I immediately remembered something my mother had said to me when I was 16. We were driving home from a church activity, and she casually said, “I’d rather have my daughter get pregnant out of wedlock than be a lesbian.” (She and I have processed this since, but that’s for another story).
That statement, combined with an upbringing in the Mormon church in Indiana, told me that what I was feeling was a huge, massive, and unforgivable sin, and something was deeply wrong with me.
During my first-semester break home from college, my mom and sister found an intimate letter I was writing to my girlfriend hidden underneath my bed. My mother freaked out and immediately said she would call the Bishop and my father (my parents were divorced). She told me she would put me into therapy, and I wouldn’t be going back to college.
Of course, as a naive 18-year-old, I was freaking out that I would never again see the girl who I had fallen madly in love with, and the thought of “therapy” scared the shit out of me. I still have no clue how I quickly came up with this lie on the spot, but I said, “That letter is a joke. I knew you both would find it. And I knew your worst nightmare was to have a daughter who was gay. So, I wrote it hoping it would “set you off” and then you’d stop talking to me so much. The divorce is hard, and you and dad are putting me in the middle, and I just wanted some space. I’m not really gay, and I’ve never kissed a girl.”
I don’t know whether my mom believed me or not, but she never called the Bishop or my dad, and I went back to school at the end of the week. I doubt my girlfriend at the time will ever know how amazingly incredible her arms wrapped around my body felt in the first embrace after Fall break.
Once I settled back into college life, I sought a therapist to help me “figure this shit out.” I spent the next ten years in and out of therapy with different therapists (I moved a lot in my 20’s), trying to come to terms with my sexuality while openly dating boys and clandestinely dating girls. I secretly paid for all the therapy sessions because I never told either of my parents or sister that I was going. I didn’t want to get sent away to a camp or, worse, be shunned. I know some people might say, “What? Family would never do that.” In all honesty, I hoped they wouldn’t, but I didn’t know. I prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.
One time I found a male Mormon therapist through the church. I used to attend sporadically during my discovery period hoping for some revelation or physical change from God. I think the advice this therapist gave me is total and complete shit. The silver lining was that it infuriated me so much it forced me to examine my relationship with the church, patriarchy, society, and what it meant for me to be a strong, independent woman in America during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
This is what went down. I was 20-years-old at this time, and I had been explaining to the therapist that none of the Mormon guys ever wanted to dance with me at the church dances and never asked me out on dates. He asked me if I knew why this was happening. Half-jokingly, I said, “Because I don’t laugh at their jokes when they aren’t funny, and the other girls do.”
I also felt that I had the wrong body shape (full-figured), wrong hair color (dark brown), wrong eye color (hazel), and wrong attitude (confident and competitive). The therapist looked me straight in the eyes and, with all sincerity and seriousness, said to me, “If you want to get married to a Mormon man, you will need to start laughing at the jokes. Why don’t you practice at this upcoming social and see if anyone asks you to dance.”
I never saw another Mormon therapist after that. A few other therapists offered me several powerful “ah-ha” moments that helped shape and shift me into who I am today.
Yet, the person who had the most significant impact on my confidence in myself is my best friend. We’ve been friends since we were 19, and from day one, she has always said to me, “God loves you if you’re a lesbian or straight.” Over and over, year after year, relationship after relationship (boys and girls), until one day, I believed her. I started opening myself up to the possibility of a “happily ever after” with a chick. So when I met that chick ten years after kissing a girl for the first time, I was mentally in a solid place to lay a strong foundation of trust, love, respect, understanding, and, most importantly, my own self-acceptance.
It wasn’t until I was 28-years-old and had met who would become my current wife (that chick) that I felt it necessary to openly talk to my mom about my sexuality and life choices. I had to do the awful, anxiety-provoking task of uttering the words out loud to my mother ten years after she had found that letter.
I chose to tell my mom at a restaurant. I thought that if she was really upset with my news, that I was committing myself to a woman, she wouldn’t cause a scene in public. And she didn’t.
After we finished talking, we drove home and sat on her bed. My mom cried while she asked about my testimony in the church, God, Jesus, our eternal family. At the time, I was still very much torn about my decision and religion and tearfully said, “I can’t explain how I feel. I just know I love her and am happier with her than I’ve ever been alone or with someone else. I also know God loves me, and when the time comes and I am standing in front of Him, I will not hide in shame for my decision. Until then, I will continue to follow the example of Christ and be kind, forgiving, help those in need, love my neighbors, and try to leave this world better than I found it.”
Fourteen years later, and we’re still together.
There was one more “coming out” moment. It was when I told my Bishop. I was 28-years-old. I had great respect for the institution that had shaped my mind and heart during my youth. Nevertheless, being in and out of therapy for ten years had also helped me develop respect for myself and my life choices. The Bishop asked me if I would participate in a formal “trial/ex-communication ceremony” due to the fact that I was going to marry a woman, or if I merely wanted my name stricken from church records. Was he kidding me? I had spent all those tortured years struggling to come to grips with who I am and what I wanted out of life, and he simply wanted to hit delete.
Oh, hell no. So, I told him to send me the letter. “I want the trial.”
The trial involved me, the Bishop, his two counselors, and the church secretary. All men. At the end of the trial, the Bishop uttered the words, “You’re now officially excommunicated.”
It was one of the most surreal moments of my life. It was as if invisible cinder blocks that had been sitting on my shoulders for years were suddenly gone. I floated down the stairs. My body felt so light, free, and happy. Tears of joy poured out of my eyes, and I had never felt closer to God in my life.
There have been so many important people and valuable moments that have influenced my life and life choices: some good, some bad, all necessary to get me where I am today. I don’t live my life with any regrets, only life lessons to learn from and stories to share. It took me ten long years of dipping my toe in and out of the closet, testing the ground for support. It took that time to build my mental muscles through therapy for the inevitable moment when I couldn’t hide anymore.
Some key factors that helped me to come out fully were years of my best friend providing unconditional, positive support, no matter the sex of the person I was dating or how I identified. It took years of undoing the negative messages and stereotypes that I had learned as a kid.
I got involved in counter-stereotypical activities, such as going out of my way to find and befriend people different from myself and upbringing. This was immensely helpful in shifting the internal narrative in my mind about the “us vs. them” mentality. Going to therapy off and on when I would hit a relationship wall also helped a great deal.
Life can be hard with the best circumstances. If you identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, it can be even harder. Owning my sexuality was a long process learning about myself and how to trust my gut before I became confident and comfortable within my skin when it came to intimate relationships and being open about who I loved.
I also felt braver each time a public figure came out as openly LGBTQ+. Since coming out, I’ve picked up significant speed getting settled into the modern LGBTQ+ lifestyle and being fully open with those around me. My name is Bethany Cook, and I am an openly bisexual woman who has been happily married to her lady love for 13 years.