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Growing up, I realized I was gay when I was around 15 years old during my sophomore year of high school. Being as effeminate as I was, there wasn’t much hiding it from those I interacted with daily at school. In a way, though, I see that as a blessing, because it saved me a lot of trouble when I started to tell my closest friends. I was extremely fortunate in my coming out, because I didn’t face much adversity, which is very surprising in the small town of Weeki Wachee, Florida.

I came out to my parents on the Fourth of July, right before I left for college orientation at the University of Central Florida, and got lukewarm reactions—my mom cried, and my dad left the table—that grew into nothing but positive feelings, and for that I am so thankful. A lot of people in my place don’t have such positive outcomes to their coming out, so I did not take their unconditional love for granted.

Being gay, as I quickly realized, is more than just coming out to everyone. Though it is something you cannot help and are born as, there is a certain culture that comes with being a part of the LGBTQ community relating to things like pop culture, fashion, music, art, and an overall sense of community that is difficult to put into words other than satisfaction and safety and being able to be yourself when surrounded by a group of others like you.

These were things that I did not have access to as a young, gay teen, and I grew up with a very small amount of representation, like the characters on Glee, the contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and whomever I could talk to when I downloaded apps like Grindr in hopes of finding other gay men in my area to befriend and get me through that difficult time in my life.

There were no other gay people that I knew of in my town, so I grew up feeling alone, with no real role models to help shape my perspective of what it meant to be involved in the LGBTQ+ community. I had no real perception of others out there besides gay men, because I was never educated in public school about the community, nor was there anyone for me to reach out to who may have been involved in the community and wasn’t a gay man.

More personal reflections in Pride Review 2019

It wasn’t until I graduated high school and moved to Orlando to attend college at the University of Central Florida that I truly started to open my eyes to the full spectrum of what it meant to be queer and involved in the community. For one, I was able to meet and befriend so many different types of people that I never would have met in my small town, some in the LGBTQ community and some not. I was able to hook up with other gay men around my age and have my personal sexual awakening, and was also rudely awakened to the hookup culture that is so prevalent today. I was able to get one of my first jobs at a Hamburger Mary’s in downtown Orlando, which helped me become more immersed within the culture of the LGBTQ community just by being there.

While working at Hamburger Mary’s, I really learned how large our community is, and I made friends with many trans men and women while working there. It was there that I fell deeply in love with the art of drag, and with the help of my drag mother, the incomparable Nicky Monet, I was able to give it a try for myself and have never looked back.

By delving deeper into that world, though, I also became aware of the divisiveness that can happen within the community—arguments about whether trans women can do drag, arguments about whether women in general can do drag, what is considered drag and what isn’t, discrepancies in the skin color of performers, and lots of other disgusting and disheartening ideas that I thought I left far behind in backwoods Weeki Wachee.

These discussions, particularly the ones happening among those within the LGBTQ community, baffled me. I feel that we need to stand together against the larger issues at hand, such as those trying to take our rights away for no real reason whatsoever and those who still discriminate against us for something we cannot help.

It is disheartening to read bios on dating apps from gay men that detail racial preferences, often blatantly discarding people of color, or see posts on social media from other queer people that discredit the legitimacy of one’s gender for one arbitrary reason or another. People are people, and that should be the bottom line.

Related article: Queer Dating Networks Under Threat

It’s because of those arguments, and many other factors, that I believe Pride is so important. Today, I am happily in a long-term relationship with my wonderful partner, Ryan, and don’t think I could have gotten here without meeting so many diverse groups of people to help open my mind and pave the way for me.

I wouldn’t be able to be a drag queen if it wasn’t for those who came before me to open the door, or be openly gay in public. Pride is so important, because it allows people to feel okay being themselves and might inspire some other little kid to allow themselves to utter the phrase “I’m gay,” which will send them on their own life journey.