out loud proud

It’s a not-so-proud moment with a happy ending.

It was 1999, and I was living in Milwaukee, working at my first job after college. I’d only recently come out and hadn’t really told anyone beyond my longtime friends, who, by the way, did not even have the decency to pretend to be surprised I was gay. The most frequent reaction was something along the lines of, “Duh.”

I was visiting Chicago for a conference of black LGBTs, and I was having a blast. I was with one of my best friends, and finding this group of welcoming, hilarious and creative gay folks of color was heaven. I could finally be myself — my whole self — and I relaxed in a way I hadn’t in a long time. The conference was tucked away in a tiny of corner of the massive McCormick Place convention center, and I practically skipped through the halls.

Until the local black journalism group showed up. A group I was sure a family member belonged to. A group I wasn’t at all prepared to see me traipsing around with my newfound gay family.

I stood looking at the sign outside of their meeting room for about two seconds before sprinting into an empty ballroom like my ass was on fire. McCormick Place is ENORMOUS — how did both groups end up in the same place at the same time? What were the chances? Had anyone seen me? What would I say if they did?

Panicked, shaking and nearly hyperventilating as I hid at the back of that empty room is one of my least proud moments.

I’d hazard a guess that every LGBT person has been there, or in the vicinity of there, paralyzed by fear that someone will find out who you really are and overcome by shame for being something so hated and so misunderstood that you didn’t ask to be.

My friend eventually found me, baffled by how freaked out I was. She’d known me a long time by then, and the look on her face — part confusion, part disappointment — helped make my fear evaporate. This was not who I wanted to be, and this was not the kind of life I wanted for myself as a lesbian.

I made a choice in that empty ballroom: I would never hide again.

I didn’t see anyone from the journalism group that day, but my new course was set. When I left my job in Milwaukee to work for Windy City Times, I was almost giddy to announce that I was going to work “for a gay newspaper.” I marched in the Pride Parade that year, just across town but a million miles away from that ballroom.

Today I’m borderline obnoxious about coming out to people. I walked around my high school reunion reintroducing myself with, “You’re married? That’s cool. I’m gay!”

To me, it’s important as a woman of color to be out, loud and proud. I’m not ashamed of who I am, and I don’t want to signal to other people that being gay is something to hide. My not-so-proud moment ultimately helped me embrace what it really means to be proud.

Karen Hawkins is the Founder and Rebelle in Chief of Rebellious Magazine. She is a recovering mainstream media reporter and editor who wants to thank her former boss for naming the online magazine she's...