“The easiest thing to be in the world is you. The most difficult thing to be is what other people want you to be. Don’t let them put you in that position.”
― Leo Buscaglia
When I was 24 years old, I fell in love with my best friend. Neither of us had ever been in a relationship with a woman before, and we muddled through, alone together, as best we could. We fumbled through the roller coaster of emotions and identity confusion without guidance or interference from any outside forces for quite a while. Though we did not explicitly come out to anyone, some of those closest to us began to understand bits and pieces, but no one talked about it (at least not within earshot of either of us!) With the benefit of hindsight, I am sad for those 20somethings navigating a significant and exciting life change that effectively existed only between two people who wouldn’t let it be celebrated more broadly. Despite our feelings, there was a sad but explicit understanding that we couldn’t plan a life together since she was confident she could never come out to her family. A career change put 3000 miles between us and led us to navigate the next steps of our journeys a bit more independently.
Three years later, after a summer of testing the waters with a few friends who were out, and a couple weekends in Provincetown that opened my eyes and my sense of what was possible, I started dating the woman who would become my wife. Nursing a running injury that fall, I hobbled on crutches for two miles of New York City blocks alongside my college roommate, searching for the courage to tell her that I’d started dating a girl. Tired and sore, we were almost back to her apartment before I stopped and clumsily blurted it out. I cried, and she hugged my insecurities away before we found our way to Starbucks to digest the revelations I’d been carrying around. With my best guy friend, I tried a slightly different approach—he visited, I took him out for dinner with my “friend,” and the next day over beers and college football, I told him that he’d met my girlfriend. Two important players down, and no bad reactions—I was on a roll, and I was grateful.
The following spring, I made a special trip home to Ohio to come out to my family. I knew by then that I needed my family to know this person, and the significance of the relationship made it impossible to keep a secret any longer. My mom couldn’t help but hear the news and consider what it might look and feel like to be a gay woman in tiny-town southwest Ohio at that time, but I reassured her that I didn’t anticipate the discrimination that she feared (and that I was not telling her I’d decided not to have children). My dad and brother acted as though my proclamation was a non-issue and, frankly, not worth interrupting The Master’s golf tournament to discuss (in the nicest possible way). I boarded my return flight feeling proud and relieved and secure in the knowledge that my family loved me and wanted me to be happy. My family has been nothing but supportive from day one, and I don’t take that for granted. Before my conservative, religious grandparents passed away, they had a picture of us on their refrigerator that meant they were willing to define our relationship to any visitor that asked. I know that is not everybody’s story, and I feel incredibly lucky.
Maybe it’s entering my 40s, maybe it’s becoming a wife and mother (see photo of my twin girls at the Pride rally), or maybe it’s the current political climate, but at this point I feel like my identity as a gay woman and my ongoing coming out journey are both more and less important than ever. I am years past the point of making thoughtful declarations to the most important people in my life, it’s now just part of who I am from the start of knowing me. I feel incredibly lucky that coming out can keep happening this routinely and safely in my day to day life. If someone assumes I have a husband, I can correct to wife without fear of judgment most of the time. If a school or medical form asks for “Mother” and “Father,” I cross out the latter and write “Mother” again in its place before I point out the inherent problems in such forms to those who can change them. LOTS of families that look very different than mine also need more flexibility in defining the caretakers’ roles, and it feels important to remind the decision-makers (and form-writers) of that. I recently reconnected with a colleague from 15 years ago in a business meeting. We were surprised to see each other in a completely different location and context, and he said, “Lots has changed—I have a wife and two kids now!” I quickly responded, “No way?! Me too!” and we had a great laugh. Coming out is still important.
I can’t complain AND I want more for my young daughters and for the adolescents and young adults that we treat. I want them to have mentors and role models and to see people with whom they can relate and families that look like theirs. I want them to know that there will be curve balls and surprises and challenges AND that doesn’t mean the risks aren’t worth taking and that things won’t get better. We know that it only takes one supportive connection to change the life of someone struggling to come out and to live authentically, and I hope we can help expand that network of support and connection. I was fortunate to have a few of these unknowing mentors sprinkled through my life from high school onward, and their impact was meaningful long before I finally acknowledged that I was gay. I hope that those who are lucky enough to find positive connections will look back and reach out a hand to the next person who needs it.
For LGBTQ-identified individuals who are also struggling with eating disorders, I want all those same things for your recovery—connections, mentors, confidence in taking risks, the courage to weather the storms, and optimism to believe things will get better. I want your eating disorder struggle to become your recovery journey, and I want it to just be one of your parts and not something that defines you, separates you, or causes shame. In the same way that I’ve never heard an LGBTQ-identified person say they wish they’d stayed in the closet, I’ve also never heard someone in recovery from an eating disorder say they wish they’d stayed in the throes of their illness. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it does suggest it’s worth it.
Emily Slager, M.Ed., MA, LMHC, is director of Walden’s Hickory Drive Clinic. She is responsible for providing clinical, administrative and fiscal oversight as well as development for the clinic. Previously, she was director of residential, partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs for adolescents and adults at Walden’s Waltham location. In that role, she oversaw all aspects of these programs including administrative, fiscal and clinical management. Formerly, she was a clinician on Walden’s inpatient eating disorder and psychiatric units. Ms. Slager earned her master’s degree in counseling psychology from Boston College. Her professional interests include the development of eating disorders in athletes and in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.