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I stood in the swampy summer heat awaiting instructions, ready for the start of the New Orleans Pride Parade. I walked alongside other members of the queer community, wearing the elaborate double-rainbow helmet that I had spent hours making.

I was never sure of my place in parades past, despite my burgeoning awareness of my queer identity at age 13, the pride parades I had participated in for nearly two decades, and a variety of same-sex relationships. I was constantly navigating the complexity of being invisible and hiding my identity.

This pride was different.

I was part of the celebrations in a new way, having come out publicly weeks before. I felt like I belonged, even though I was standing on legs as wobbly as a baby giraffe’s.

My first Pride was in Dallas in 2005, which I attended with some confidence due to my role as a board member of an LGBTQ+ nonprofit organization. I was at the parade as a perceived ally, rather than an identity.

While I had shared that I was “not straight” with our small team of volunteers, we recognized that my introduction as a bubbly straight student could be helpful.

Internally, I struggled with whether Pride spaces were “for me,” seeking connection while thinking I hadn’t earned the right to claim those identities for my convenience.

I have never misrepresented my identity, but over the years, in different settings, I have strategically used the privilege and power of my presentation to influence educators and elected officials in our conservative state.

No one ever asked me to stay in the closet. Instead, I volunteered with enthusiasm.

I used my activism as a happy justification: letting me look straight – and skipping all other thinking – was an advantage for our advocacy!

In graduate school, my first serious homosexual relationship also helped me to avoid claiming an identity.

I met Carrick at a speed dating fundraiser. Our conversation felt effortless, so I was thrilled when I saw that we got paired up a few days later.

On our first full date, we fell into an easy relationship and I felt strong chemistry. However, as he said goodbye to me in my kitchen, our dynamic felt stuffy. He seemed clumsy and restless, and I couldn’t tell if he was into me.

Over dinner on our second date, Carrick shared that he was transgender. I was the first person he had dated since his transition.

We both fell hard. Our communication was nuanced, vulnerable and emotionally aware. I found it so utterly intoxicating and our dynamic so immersive, it was a feat I did in class that semester.

Even though our relationship was fundamentally different from my past relationships, outwardly we looked like your regular straight couple.

Being perceived as straight didn’t make me feel like my identity was erased, in part because I didn’t have a clear sexual orientation to erase. Instead, being with Carrick confirmed my belief that specific labels weren’t important to me. My loved ones knew I wasn’t straight, that Carrick was trans, and there was a unique depth to our connection.

“A new friend and I were talking about sex. He asked me how old I was when I fully accepted my sexual orientation. I realized that I still hadn’t done it.

For most of my adult life, I defined myself as “not straight” and later as “whatever” according to Maria Bello’s 2013 Modern Love essay. Her fluid sexual orientation aligned on mine, and the term “whatever” felt comfortable, as if I didn’t let the terminology define my sense of myself.

In the meantime, I married a cisgender man. We had a child together and bought a house that literally came with a white picket fence.

Recently a new friend and I were talking about sex. He asked me how old I was when I fully accepted my sexual orientation. I realized that I still hadn’t done it. Avoiding labels had been a form of hiding for me. I felt like I didn’t deserve it, like I didn’t “count” as queer since I presented myself as a straight, monogamous mother in the South.

Over the past decade, there’s been another element of my identity that has kept me in the closet: I’m polyamorous. For me, being poly means that my husband and I share a lifelong commitment to each other and to our family. We also date other people and embrace the possibility of love outside of our marriage.

Polyamory provided an extra layer of invisibility. Although I’ve dated more women in recent years, to the outside world I still seemed very straight because I kept my poly life private.

Invisibility allowed access to power and a perception of heterosexuality in mainstream culture and my extended Catholic family. It also came with both relief and discomfort. I was hiding – even from myself – in a way that I am still processing.

Even though I was dating women and non-binary people, I still didn’t feel queer enough.

For people who woke up to their sexuality later in life or who haven’t had the opportunity to explore, there is a special cocktail of impostor syndrome, guilt and self-doubt. Do we deserve the queer label if we don’t have a lot of sexual experience and queer life? Should we claim these identities without having suffered for them? Are we weak or do we perpetuate biphobia because we are not public with this identity?

Here’s what I know now: Staying in the closet by avoiding labels kept me from having more gay relationships, and not having more gay relationships contributed to me staying in the closet.

Identity isn’t based on a secret point system that rates the type(s) of genitals you’ve touched, the trauma you’ve experienced, or whether you’ve dated on Instagram.

Identity is about sexual and romantic attraction. It is deeply personal, and this exploration belongs to you.

One may wonder which comes first, identity or actions. We can monitor and assess who deserves a label, but why?

Nobody can tell you how to identify yourself, it’s up to you to claim it or not!

It’s never too late, and you don’t owe it to anyone or the movement to claim a label or come out. As one reader wrote to me, “Your life, your pace.”

For those who have lived openly for years, I feel there is a valid tension between welcoming newbies with open arms and wanting to be seen and respected for what they have survived, what they endured to pave the way for people who may be ungrateful or oblivious.

I think of the people who have sailed against rampant homophobia and the HIV crisis, their lives permanently affected by fear, grief and loss – by horrific social stigma and our government’s willful disregard for their safety and welfare.

Today, the lives of BIPOCs and non-binary members of the LGBTQ+ community are under daily threat, both legislatively and physically. There is an understandable apprehension about people like me, who portray straight white people with enormous privilege, occupying an undue place in this movement. (It’s kind of our thing.)

For those of us who have more recently come to these identities, we have a responsibility to understand the history and current context, recognize our privilege, and become strong advocates for change.

As hateful anti-LGBTQ legislation becomes more widespread and violence continues against members of the trans community, I feel a responsibility to embrace and share my truth.

“The more people go out and live like themselves, including those of us who look straight, the safer it is for everyone.”

This Pride month, I finally felt ready. I have attended the events of this year fully claiming all the complex and nuanced parts of myself. I marched in our New Orleans Pride Parade in alliance with the people who have been at the front for decades, in solidarity with those who have been the targets of heinous laws and hate crimes.

And I introduced myself under my own identity.

I spent hours crafting an elaborate costume from sequins, feathers and glittery tapes. On the back of the helmet, I wrote “QUEER” in rainbow letters with a bright yellow arrow pointing down.

Along the parade route, a mother stood next to her teenage daughter. The mother shouted and pointed at her child, saying, “It’s her first Pride! She just went out !”

With tears in my eyes, I ran over and asked if the young person wanted Wonder Woman stickers and a hug. She did it.

When her mother said happily, “She’s 14!” I turned around, pointing ‘QUEER’ on my headdress and said, ‘I’m 37, and I just came out too!

Finally, I’m done hiding.

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