REMARKS: How and Why I Built My Feminist Career

ms. magazine flyerThese remarks were delivered at Merrimack University on January 28, 2019. Women’s Studies and Communications students were there seeking an answer to a big question: What do I do next to land my dream job?

Hello! I’m Carmen Rios, and this is the story of my life. Just kidding, that’s the first draft. This is the story of how I built my feminist career and landed every single one of my feminist dream jobs.

And, like most of the stories I tell about myself, it starts with Hillary Clinton and my mom.

I was 17 when Hillary Clinton lost her first presidential race, conceding to Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. the summer before I went to college. I watched it on television. I was crying. And when I walked out of my bedroom and into the living room, my mother opened her door and met me in the middle. We collapsed into one another, and she whispered something I’ve never forgotten: “I don’t think we’ll see a female president in my lifetime.”

That was the year that my entire life changed. It was the year I applied early decision to American University, one of the dumbest and bravest decisions I had ever made. It was the year my single mom, who had no college degree, who raised two kids on credit cards, celebrated with me when I found out I’d been selected as a Bill Gates Millennium Scholar — and that the tuition I’d obligated myself to pay at a small liberal arts school would be covered, in full, in an effort to give me what the program’s officers referred to as an opportunity for working-class kids like me to finally live like everyone else. It was the year I harangued honors professors into letting me enroll in their advanced-level courses, wrote no less than one dozen papers on women in politics — even for classes in which that wasn’t on the syllabus — and dropped my business major for women’s studies.

It was the beginning of everything.

I chose American because I had that magic moment when I visited, that fuzzy feeling — and I found a table for a group on campus called Women’s Initiative. I decided I wanted to run it, and in my senior year, I did. At the first WI meeting I ever went to, I learned about a non-profit named the Feminist Majority Foundation, and the next semester I applied to intern there. I got selected for the program, assigned to work with the Feminist Campus organizers and alongside the web team. Five years later, I got my first big-girl 9 to 5 job there as a digital organizer for that campus program. Ten years later, I was invited to speak on this campus as the digital editor of Ms., the oldest feminist publication in the U.S. still printing, the magazine that gave voice to the movement beginning in 1972 when it was co-founded by Gloria Steinem, a magazine published by the FMF.

In the intervening years, I did more than I can remember. I interned with about a dozen non-profits and consulted on global feminist campaigns. I was the media organizer for DC’s inaugural SlutWalk. I became a contributor, then a contributing editor, then the feminism editor, then the community director at Autostraddle, the world’s most popular digital magazine for LGBTQ women, and a semi-freelance writer published in the likes of Bitch, Everyday Feminism, MEL, and Feministing.

And then, I quit that job. For no reason!  I walked away from FMF, but stayed on good terms with the feminists who had raised me. I used the money I had saved compulsively for three years, learned how to drive — at 25! — and bought a car in one month, and packed it up and moved across the country to Los Angeles, chasing that warm and fuzzy feeling again. And when I got there, I got a phone call: There was this job at Ms. Did I want it?

Now, most mornings, I wake up at 5 am. I make coffee, read magazines, pack a gym bag, and then I cross town. By nine, I’m at my desk, eating my usual breakfast, drinking more coffee. And by the time six o’clock rolls around, I’ve usually set free about five articles about feminism into cyberspace, scheduled a batch of posts to social media, created fundraising campaigns and social media actions, juggled about a million other tasks in the process, and ideally still arrived at inbox zero.

Here is where I acknowledge two parallel realities: One is that all of this is glorious, magnificent, wonderful. The other is that I never thought any of it was possible.

Here are the things that my resume doesn’t tell you: I’m a first-generation college student. I never left my time zone until I was 19. I didn’t learn how to drive until I was 25. I’ve lived on back porches and converted patios. There were time I slept on couches and stole string cheese from the grocery store and ate other people’s leftovers. There were summers I slept in rooms with no air conditioning, winters I walked the city in boots with torn soles.

When I took the internship at FMF, I had never ridden the Metro by myself. The next year, I stayed in DC for an internship that paid only 100 dollars a week, making ends meet by living on a ten-dollar a week budget using the last of my scholarship money for the semester, which I had saved up by cutting corners elsewhere. I resold textbooks to pay bills. When I came out in 2010, and posted emotionally about it from an airport on the Internet, and Riese from Autostraddle found me, even though I didn’t have a penny to spare, even though it meant coming home from a full-time job at a children’s center where I made twelve bucks an hour and doing more work, I wrote for her every single day, for free, just to save my life.

The day I graduated from AU, I didn’t let my mother take photos. I wept wildly. I was unemployed, and would not find a job in my field for a full year. I would watch kids, sell jewelry, and sleep in my friend’s living room instead. I was broke as a joke. But I refused to move home and give up. Instead, I watched those kids and counted change on the kitchen table, bought a bag of rice and ate only that for two weeks at a time, stole snacks from the cabinets at work when I got hungry, called home crying, fell asleep writing cover letters.

Did I want it? My career is defined by an otherworldly certainty I’ve never felt about any other aspect of my life. Yes. I want this. I want all of this. I want the struggle and the salvation. I want the fulfillment and the frustration. And that meant striving until I could thrive. It meant juggling a lot of work, whether it was paid or unpaid, with responsibilities that, despite the urgency of the movement to end gender inequality, required my obligation. It meant juggling feminism with full-time work that was not only unfulfilling, but treacherous and exhausting.

In my second year at AU, I met someone named Charlotte. I kept thinking about her on the way over here, this girl from Topanga Canyon who literally twirled into my life when I was a sophomore. Charlotte makes so much sense to me now that I live in Southern California where she grew up, in a town that honestly still sounds like folklore, where people live in treehouses and she learned to walk barefoot around the city. Charlotte was always talking about the universe, how badly she wanted to trust it and how much she did. I was a lapsed Catholic from New Jersey, so I didn’t believe in any of it. I believed in bootstraps and hard work and good grades.

Ten years later, in a rented car, on my drive from Smith to Merrimack, I realized that in reality I found myself by taking the road somewhere in the middle, somewhere more ambiguous. When I was thinking about what to say to all of you today, I looked back and realized that when it comes to what I’ve done and where I ended up, everything makes sense and nothing makes sense.

In retrospect, I realize I was aware of where I wanted to be, but it didn’t feel that way. (On a side note, I’m now almost thirty, the age where I imagined human beings wake up completely certain of something, and I’m still not always completely sure of anything.) In my twenties, what I did was Marie Kondo the hell out of my life, even though I rolled my eyes at the idea that people should chase joy and not common sense. I followed the universe by accident, and Charlotte was right — it listened to me. I also pulled up my bootstraps so hard I needed to get them resewn.

Throughout my decade in digital feminist media and movement-building, I pursued things that mattered to me. Not because I had a five-year plan, but because I thought the work was important. Not because they were going to help me make ends meet, but because they were going to change the world. I arrived on campus concerned about the sexism in politics that twice now has defeated Hillary Clinton. I arrived on campus concerned about women’s control of their bodies. I arrived on campus angry about rape culture and how small it made us feel. I arrived on campus absolutely enraged about the ways in which women’s stories and voices have been, and still are, erased and destroyed.

So whenever I had the chance to turn my inner monologue about inequality into a scream, I shouted. Whenever I was given a microphone with which to declare war on patriarchy, I said what had to be said and then dropped it. Feminism didn’t give me a voice — I’m a loudmouth, and I always have been — but it gave me good reason to use it. It reminded me that my voice mattered. It made space for people to hear it.

I am a mixed-race queer woman raised by a working-class single mom. I did not choose activism. I did not discover inequality. It just simply doesn’t feel possible to wake up without worrying about the ways in which our society is lopsided, without raising my voice for women around the world who face oppression and violence. In a world where discrimination against women and girls is so rampant that it’s seen as natural, normal, common, typical, absolutely completely expectable, and, cherry on top, unabashed, explicit, and done to great fanfare and reward, it didn’t feel fair to be asked to spend my waking hours working toward anything else but building a different reality.

I also knew that just as much as I needed this movement, it needed me, too. I knew that my perspective as someone who knew economic hardship, who had a complicated relationship with her heritage, who stumbled into her identity as a queer person, was important. I knew that I needed to take the chance to sound off on the issues that mattered to women like me because of all of the women like me who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, or who needed a little extra amplification.

And so, during the day, I did what I had to do to do what I wanted to do. I designed marketing materials for my campus career center. I worked with children. I sold jewelry online — I am serious.

And at night, I leaned in to what I loved.

It began earnestly: I asked everyone I met, everyone who gave me five minutes of their time, if they needed my help, and when they said yes, I said yes back, no pause, no thinking about it, no worries that it only paid in solidarity. I took volunteer non-profit internships every single semester, instead of paid part-time jobs, just to immerse myself in the movement. There were times where I balanced an internship with a full rack of classes with a side job and writing for multiple websites — but I never saw what I did — living double lives, juggling jobs, writing for twelve websites at once, crying while I shuffled my tax forms around — as a sacrifice. I just saw it as a circumstance. I saw it as the beginning of something bigger, that thing I wanted, this manifest destiny like a gold rush. I saw it as the price I paid for being who I was in this world full of unfair realities and lopsided possibilities.

And I was never afraid to throw things at the wall to see what stuck, not even my own future. I took jobs that weren’t quite in line with what I thought, at the time, I’d want ten years later, but I figured I’d gain insight and connections and grow from being in community regardless. And I also took jobs I called dream jobs — including the first two positions I had at FMF — and then one day, in both of those lives, woke up and realized I was wrong. But that was okay.

When I moved across the country, I had a mantra I would murmur to myself: you can always turn around. You can always go home. I never saw an end to the road, just a detour. I never saw failure, only experimentation. I just figured it was all a pit stop on the way to figuring everything out.

I did what I had to do to be who I wanted to be. I snatched up every messy, wonderful, trying, challenging and invigorating thing that fell into my lap, and I asked for things without worrying that the answer might be no. I rerouted and started over. I reinvented myself and, at times, I mourned myself.

Throughout this experience, many people told me that I was pigeonholing myself, that I’d never get a real job. My secret weapon was that I was young and I didn’t have the capacity to really recognize what they were telling me. My secret weapon was that I was working-class, and I didn’t realize there were people who didn’t live on ramen or sleep on friend’s couches while they were chasing their North Star. I never stopped to ask if there was an alternative, and I knew I didn’t want the life they were worried I wouldn’t have. I didn’t want to sit in a cubicle and crunch numbers, or make ads that made women feel bad about themselves with my creative brain, or write for a newspaper where I had to pretend there was a “debate” about whether or not equality was common sense, or women were people.

When I called my mother from AU to tell her I was dropping my business major and becoming a women’s studies major, she asked me if I was worried I would never get a job. I told her I was worried about being a capitalist cog in a machine that would eat me alive. When people ask me why I don’t work at a glossy magazine or marvel to me about the ways in which even now, even in what feels like a prime, there is hardship built into the career I deigned to dream of, I say the truth: I don’t know another way. I would rather struggle than stop struggling to make something happen. I would rather work and work and work and work some more than rest knowing I could’ve made the world better.

I was raised a feminist, and I only know how to live as one. I only know how to labor and work and organize as one.

Working in feminism does mean a recalibration, a sort of second assessment of our priorities. It means taking an unusual and less-traveled path, or forging one on your own altogether. But I didn’t see that as a choice. I saw that as the only path that empowered me, as the only way through this fresh hell. I woke up every morning determined to prove my mother wrong — to build a world where women were equal, were thriving, were leaders, could win.

Last year, I was on a call with a woman named Val, who has launched a program centered on Latina self-love, and she said something that stuck with me: That we are our mothers’ greatest fantasies. That we live out their dreams. Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms., once famously remarked that feminism empowered women to be the men they wanted to marry. I’d rather live in a world where women can build the lives we’ve been told we’re not allowed to imagine.

Ambition has also been a powerful force in my life. I’ve always been a dreamer, someone with big aspirations and an ego that matches. I’ve had moments of doubt, of fear, I’ve felt like an imposter, but I’ve never stopped wishing I could get the stuff I wanted. And I’ve also always known that I wanted to have an impact, to be public-facing, to be a part of something bigger than myself. (This is code for saying: I always knew I wanted to be famous.) But I never sat down and made a game plan and plotted my points to my dream job, not consciously. And today, I’m astounded by how well younger Carmen can make space for the Carmen that’s still growing.

So many times in the last ten years, I have been given the chance to be in community, and in this movement. Saying yes wasn’t always the obvious or easy choice. Often, it meant writing for free, organizing late at night, waking up early to make calls and send emails, flying on red-eyes, and — yep — eating ramen. A lot of ramen. It meant striving instead of thriving. It meant choosing the struggle instead of choosing the straightforward path toward someone else’s idea of success. But every single time I chose the work, I was forging a path toward a career that allowed me to be loud, to be fulfilled, to be myself. To bring my entire self to my desk. To spend my mornings rifling through feminist words and spend my afternoons interviewing feminist luminaries. To be surrounded with accomplices, allies and sisters.

To be right here.

To have the ultimate luxury — of being able to do what I love and love what I do.

The perks of working in feminist media aren’t the kinds of perks you see in Mad Men — there isn’t a lot of glitz and glam, there are no bonuses or expense accounts. But there is free coffee in the copy room and an office full of women who stand alongside each other and stand for something together. There are friends and mentors, accomplices and allies. There are days where I go to a protest and that’s my job. There are days where I go to conferences and that’s my job. I get to throw things at the wall, experiment, build community, be in community, and that’s my job. I get to sit in the same room as the women who made it possible for me to pull up chairs in other rooms. And I get to be here.

People will tell you that to work in this space is to be forever underpaid and overworked, that to pursue what you care about is foolish or reckless. They will trick you into thinking that the life you want isn’t possible. What they mean, by extension, is that the world people like us deign to build will never be constructed. What they’re trying to say is that being hopelessly fucking devoted to the things we believe in is not valuable, manageable, or worthwhile unless it is profitable. What they’re telling you is that things that are messy are not meant to be chased.

Every day, I revel in proving those people wrong.

My advice? You can, too. And I think you should.

Watch the remarks in full with the Q&A via my Facebook.


My Remarks from #QIS2

I call myself a “writer and a revolutionary.” I have struggled for years with that ampersand. There is not a single word for those two things.

Perhaps they are the same thing in the digital age.

I consider myself an activist. Traditional sense, too. I’ve marched. I’ve made signs. I’ve organized rallies. I’ve sent postcards. I’ve phone banked. But I also grew up online, and it feels as much a home as the quote-unquote real world. I’ve been building, sustaining, and expanding online communities for women online for nearly a decade now. Some of this work is explicitly queer, and some of it is more broad.

But my undertaking of this mission – to unite, create platforms for, and mobilize my communities online where we have equitable access to space, to information, to space – grew out of the fire that fuels my more traditional activism.

My work has always sought to harness digital energy for social change and purposefully shape online communities to become centers of empowerment. Whereas community organizers go door-to-door, I go Facebook-to-Facebook. Some movements are articulated by speakers and led by community organizers. Some are articulated by writers and led by digital natives.

When I was sixteen, I had a white iMac in my room. My mother was wary of my use of social media. I had a MySpace with no profile picture and a Facebook that was securely protected from being searchable or visible to people I didn’t know IRL. And when I was seventeen, and Hillary Clinton ran for president, I sought desperately to find people in my comminity IRL who felt the way I did. Impassioned. Excited. I had already become aware of my own feminism, and I was literally dying watching a woman run for president. I didn’t quite find what I needed in my high school. Instead, I found it on Facebook, in a group for HRC supporters where there were about five to ten “regulars.” That was my safe space. It was my war room. Of these regulars, I was the only woman. I was the youngest, and would be too young to vote for Hillary in my primary. I was more emotional than I was rational, often overwhelmed with seeing hostile sexism for the first time. These people – complete strangers – took me in. They explained things to me when I was confused, leveled with me when I was wrong. They protected me when trolls took to the wings. They checked in on me when Hillary conceded. They went from being my biggest secret to people I referred to as easily as I did the kids who sat with me on the bus. They became a part of my world, “realness” of the space be damned.

That experience was powerful. I felt so much less alone. And that feeling less alone fueled my pendulum swing toward activism. Those regulars gave me the support to engage in hard conversations – the fuel to convince my friends to support Hillary, the self-assurance to articulate my policy ideas and political beliefs.

I know now that in 2008 I had experienced my “problem with no name.” And I had found, online, a wealth of links to share and read that affirmed what I was feeling and seeing – and other people there to cheer me on, see me, hear me, respect me. Once someone else told me: “you are valid and I respect you,” “you are right and I support you,” everything changed. Once I realized I was not the only person yelling at sexist news coverage on the television screen, once I found out there was a tangible number of people who agreed with me, by and large, on abortion and LGBT rights and racial justice, once I no longer walked through the world wondering if anyone was as invested as I was, as excited as I was – that was a click moment. That would never have happened to me in suburban New Jersey. That could only happen online.

Years later, I came out. I had cut my teeth by then in the feminist movement, established myself as a leader on my campus in that movement, taken internships and worked on campaigns for women’s rights. But suddenly I was once again lost – me, a baby gay going through her rainbow phase, who had quite literally cornered herself into a very heterosexual feminist discourse. It was around this time that I fell into my work at Autostraddle and began writing. And writing. And writing. Every post affirmed my sexuality, affirmed my identity, made me feel less self-conscious about being a “late bloomer.” Every post gave me the opportunity to rewrite the movement I believed in then, and would and will believe in forever, to fit my new person.

While I was there, I also discovered what a purposeful online community looked like – and recognized its inherent revolutionary praxis. I watched a community engaged in politics support itself, challenge itself, reckon with itself. I watched as we lifted our readers up, celebrated their victories and mourned their losses, and in return they pulled change out of their pockets to keep us standing.But moreso, I saw how deliberate it was – how much care went into fostering this digital family and how much thought went into how to expand and grow it – to bring it into the physicsl world, to keep it oriented toward revolutionary aims.

That opportunity turned my “real” world upside down. I began organizing in a more explicitly queer and inclusive way. I learned about new feminisms and new figureheads. I read Eileen Myles. I began to find the other queer women at AU, and slowly but surely they overtook my group of friends. We joked that we entered into college a few straight girls and some gay dudes and graduated a ragtag group of lesbians. It wasn’t really a joke, though.

Community online fuels a desire for the same offline. Our movements online reflect and shape our movements offline.

This is the now the approach – the instinct, really – that I bring to my work, both as a writer and a revolutionary. As a capital-A activist. As a capital-W writer. It is true that for me this may come more easily, that my preference for explicitly politically oriented content and communities shapes my understanding of this part of the queer universe. It’s true. I’m guilty. It’s as easy for me to take to the streets as it is for me to draft up tweets. It’s as natural for me to show up as it is to share links. That’s why this past election cycle was marked, for me, by the creation of my hashtag “underground hillary club” – a secret space intended for me and my politically-minded friends that grew to be a group of over 5,000 people supporting each other as they publicly admonished sexism on the right and left, who collectively raised thousands of dollars and made hundreds of calls, who finally felt less alone and more emboldened. That’s why at Autostraddle, I was the Community Director and the Feminism Editor – a natural marriage for me in which I tended to readers and carved out space for them, built a relationship with them, purposefully and carefully served them, and then simultaneously did all I could to get them to rabble-rouse with me, to sign petitions, to learn the names of our foremothers. At Ms., I am the Digital Editor – but immediately, from day one, sat down with an agenda for turning our digital spaces into inherently community-oriented spaces – a move which will serve any movement not just in terms of their bottom line but in terms of their mission.

For queer people, for women, for people of color, for differently-abled folks and so on and so forth, community-building is movement-building. Always has been. I am certain movement and community are not separate.

There is no ampersand.

It isn’t just that they can’t exist without one another – it’s that they are one another. In the age of Trump, especially, but at any time. To gather as a marginalized group, as others, is revolution. To claim space, to listen to one another, to support and educate each other. This is how consciousness-raising birthed the women’s movement.

It takes conversations to turn someone into an activist, not a George Soros-funded protest pack. It takes feeling seen, heard, reflected to convince people that they have someone to stand up for – and deserve to be stood up for. It takes knowing you are not alone. It takes knowing someone will stand with you the whole way. It takes feeling like a part of something.

The personal is political. The movement is the community.

When we come together, we win. Surely the opposite is true, as we saw this November. When we allow them to divide us and demoralize us they destroy us, When we stand shoulder-to-shoulder, when we listen and share, when we support each other as friends and comrades – that is when we will win.

We must build the queer internet we want to see in the world. A place where you can read the comments. A home online where you don’t want to hide, where instead you feel more motivated than ever to be seen. A space where you can trust in a stranger’s good faith, let them take you in or feel up to calling them in.

Our existence as queer people has long been seen as a revolution. Indeed, it is. Our pride is a political statement. Our gender identities are galvanizing forces. Our love is a rallying cry. Our communities are our movement. Our work as queer people online is not simply to find one another. It is to embolden, empower, and immortalize one another.

That’s not, to me, just the future of “digital feminism” or “the queer internet.”

That’s the future of our entire fight.


BUZZFEED: Complicating the Coming-Out Narrative.

Click here to read and share the original at BuzzFeed: I Didn’t Always Know I Was Gay

Rachel Levit for BuzzFeed News

The year I turned 20 was the year I became the sum of a thousand small brown boxes and sleek gray envelopes. Neat, tiny packages of boyshorts in every color with athletic waistbands arrived at my door. A vintage brown leather jacket made its way to me from the 1980s, so authentic I had to cut the shoulder pads out. The used brown leather lace-up boots I would wear for the next three years before they fell apart again and again and again arrived last, in a small box at the end of winter. They were a perfect fit.

The shopping was a ritual. Each time, it went the same way: I ripped open boxes and plastic shipping envelopes and peeled back stickers and seals and marveled at things that felt like the limbs I didn’t realize I’d lost in the war. I tried them on alone and then put them away, pristine and almost untouched, tiny reminders of who I might be — if I could ever decide who that was.

I was the girl who wore a string of oversize pearls with patterned rompers, camisoles and tunics, big floral purses, sundresses, and sweaters. But that year, I put on men’s V-necks and boyshorts and leather jackets and walked over to the bathroom mirror to see if I looked or felt different. I did.

These were the things all the gay girls I was friends with were wearing, as casually and quietly as their own skins. These were the things that separated me from them. These were the things that felt like a secret handshake they used to communicate with one another, or like badges they put on to proclaim who they were to the world. I wanted to feel at home in these things just as easily as I felt at home inside the person I’d been for two decades without ever really thinking about it.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t be gay or queer or confused in my dresses and my pearls, and it wasn’t that I’d never wear them again — because I would. Right then, I needed to be reborn someone else. I needed to be more different than I was alike to that person I’d been for two decades without ever really thinking about it.

So I bought clothes. I tried on being gay, or what felt, at the time, like one of the most surefire ways to look like who I might be. It was dizzying. It was electrifying. Each time I stared at one of the little gifts I’d sent myself, I felt like I was getting closer to finally figuring me out — until a little while later a shadow of doubt would pass over the entire room, and I would feel sick, and pack up my new person, and lie on my bed with my eyes closed questioning everything, especially myself.

Why didn’t I know? How did I wander through deserts of emotion for two decades without ever considering this was my truth? How did I never harbor a secret? How did I never feel a nagging difference within myself?

That year I wished more than anything for a secret. I wished more than anything for a hidden truth inside of me. I wished more than anything that I had always known.

Instead, I had a budding addiction to eBay auctions and a receipt for one set of seven pairs of bright Fruit of the Loom boyshorts, each one rolled up in my underwear cubby just like they were when they arrived.

“I know gay people. I’ve watched shows about gay people. Gay people know.

I was in my mother’s car when she said it, and we were driving very quickly, and I regretted ever bringing it up. I was still so confused and so scared of myself that I didn’t even use labels or categories when trying to explain it. I just told her all I knew when I woke up that morning: I finally liked someone the way people always told me one day I’d like someone.

“You’re not gay. I’m your mother, and I know you’re not gay.”

I stared out the dashboard window while she wound through suburban streets and wondered — panicked — that she was right.

I had no proof. I was not a card-carrying lesbian. I was just 20 and in love with a woman.

So many of my friends in high school and college were gay. They were people who had fought hard for their identities, who claimed them in the midst of familial rejection, social isolation, the risk of becoming invisible. My friends had harbored same-sex attractions in their hearts for years, struggling with the self-consciousness of recognizing their queerness. Coming out was a mountain to climb for each and every one of them.

I have heard countless coming out stories. Every single time they begin the same way: I’ve always known.

One of my friends fell for the only other gay boy at his high school and tried not to tell another soul. One first kissed another girl before kindergarten in the corner of a classroom. One came to college young, at 16, and wrote his parents a coming-out letter in the middle of the night while we all sat around him. One avoided dating girls, despite being the most popular boy in my high school, and opted instead to date my gay best friend.

That’s how this thing works, I realized over the years. You spend a lifetime tossing and turning and waking up in a cold sweat because of who you are. You are gay because it’s all you’ve ever known you could be. You are gay before you have words for it. You are gay the way you are blonde, or tall, or emotional, or smart. You are gay because you’ve always known.You are gay because it’s all you’ve ever known you could be. You are gay before you have words for it. You are gay the way you are blonde, or tall, or emotional, or smart. You are gay because you’ve always known.

“How do you know?” my friend Amanda asked me. We were at her apartment in Cleveland Park. I’d just told her I was gay, or more likely that I thought I was gay. I was unable to decide. I was unable to decide for months, but put the words in my mouth and suggested them to people to see if anyone believed me.

“I used to think I had liked all these boys,” I told her. I thought back on them in that moment, on the boys I’d made out with at parties or brought home to group houses. I’d avoided dating altogether in high school and college, which my family and friends rationalized away as my being too finicky, too independent, too smart. But sometimes I ran off and made out with boys in the dark shadows at parties and followed them home, and the next day I’d have a lingering feeling of anxiety that I assumed was excitement in disguise.

A lot of cultural conversations around men and women dating had assured me that tolerating a man was akin to being madly in love with him. So that was what I did — I tolerated them. I tolerated their record collections and their hoodies and their facial hair. I tolerated their boring bedroom walls and their shitty themed parties. I tolerated the sinking feeling in my stomach whenever we were alone. I tolerated the way my entire body tensed up when they came close to touching me or kissing me.

It wasn’t that it felt wrong to be with men: to flirt with them, make out with them, text them the next day. It was just that all that stuff had happened in black and white, or on mute.

After I finally let myself fall for a woman, everything around me was loud. In technicolor.

Liking her was like all those cheesy love songs on the radio playing on repeat. I was finally selfless and open wide and full of energy and light. I was blissed out and lit up. I knew instantly that how it felt to like her was right, was important, was how I could feel forever and ever — if I just redesigned who I was.

“Now I know I never liked anyone,” I said with authority. “Not like this.”

I exhaled and made a mental note of how correct those sentences felt once they were done gnashing against my teeth.

I was 18 the first time we crashed into each other; it would be another two years until the second. Before she kissed me, she asked me if I was going to be OK the next day. I didn’t know what she meant, so I nodded my head. In the morning, I jumped out of bed and frantically put my clothes on, cried a little on the metro, and opened my journal to write over and over again what became my catchphrase in the ensuing few weeks and months:

“I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what it means.”

My best friend Josh sat me down a day later to ask me if I was gay. I opted to say no, insistently. After all, I reasoned with myself, I would know if I were gay. Instead, I packed up my stuff and went home for the summer and forced myself to stop thinking and talking about it. I put what happened between us behind me, as if it was the kind of thing that can fit in the past. As if it wasn’t anything.

I came back to campus in the fall determined to remember who I was. I had strayed, after all, from my vision. I had surrendered control over all the ways I was trying to shape my life, away from all the plans I’d made for myself, and more importantly, away from the plans my family and friends had made with me.

This was not who I was. I heard myself repeat it in my head over and over and over again. It feels stupid in hindsight to admit you thought you knew yourself at 18, but I did. I liked to make lists of different words I would use to describe myself, write passages in my journal devoted to recording the honest definition of my name to an unknown audience.

I was so many things, so many tiny identities and memories collapsed into a skeleton. But I wasn’t gay. That thought had never before crossed my mind. To stumble upon gayness instead of wrestle with it felt inauthentic, impossible. In a world where queer identities aren’t always recognized and validated, it didn’t seem like an option to fall flat on my face into one.I wasn’t gay. That thought had never before crossed my mind. To stumble upon gayness instead of wrestle with it felt inauthentic, impossible. In a world where queer identities aren’t always recognized and validated, it didn’t seem like an option to fall flat on my face into one.

In the year after I began chasing boys, this time more earnestly and more devotedly. And eventually, I forgot. The girl who’d asked me if I’d be OK the next morning came out, and I didn’t, and we got over it, water under the bridge, no big deal. My mind erased all the memories from that night, all the times I’d put my head in my hands and felt terrified by my own heart.

Two years later I was 20 and she was my best friend. When she put her hand on my back in a car in the heat of summer, it was like an open wound that just started hurting all over again.

It was so much more a discovery than a declaration.

I wrote poems until I felt like I was ready to form sentences. I closed my eyes and finally dreamt wildly like I’ve always imagined people do when they’re truly alive. I put on the jacket and the boots and the boyshorts and left the house brand new.

I was 20 and I was in love with a woman. This time, I couldn’t push past it or put it behind me. This time it was all-consuming and urgent. This time it was huge, and I would stare in the mirror in the bathroom every morning and look for someone I recognized — but I was gone. I had ceased to exist. I was a blank slate. I was empty and vast and stupid and overwhelmed.

Sometimes, I crumbled under that canvas. Other times, I filled it with light and let myself believe I’d eventually get to know myself all over again.

It was easy to put words to the feelings alone. I am in love with a woman. Over and over again. That was the easy part. That was the part nobody could take away from me.

What came next was deciding what that meant. It was the truth that would come to define the rest of my life, but I was bewildered by it. What if I was wrong? I knew it was a ridiculous question, that the only person who knew me best should be me, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere in my confusion, in having opened my eyes for what felt like the first time, I was going to make a mistake.

I kept a journal that year in a small red paperback Moleskine. On the front, I wrote “Everything will change.” Inside, I wrote a line from a song: “Live through this and you won’t look back.”

What if it isn’t always about “coming out?” What if I was never hiding? What if being gay isn’t about the pain of keeping that secret? What if it’s about the way my girlfriend smiles while she drives me down the highway, or how smooth the movements of the Earth underneath me felt when I finally wore those boots outside?

What if being gay is about recognizing that you, against all odds, aren’t broken, that where you thought there was nothing there’s a well of love, that inside of you is an awesome power to become something you never imagined for yourself?

Maybe it’s possible to wake up someone else.

Maybe it’s possible to wander through the world for two decades without ever being able to recognize yourself in your reflection.

Maybe it’s possible to be 20 and fall in love with a woman and never look back.

One of the first books I bought when I was packing virtual shopping carts full of my feelings was The New Fuck You, a poetry anthology edited by Eileen Myles.

One of my favorite lines was from a piece by Holly Hughes: I spent my entire childhood in a coma. Then I turned twenty and I kissed a woman.

I underlined it and earmarked the page and put the book on my bedside table, just to remind myself I had a story that had been written before.