Coming out: Stories of taking off the 'straight face'
Note to readers: The LGBTQ community and its supporters in the River Region will celebrate this weekend as Montgomery Pride United hosts its annual Pride March & Rally on Saturday and Montgomery Pridefest on Sunday. To recognize that, the Montgomery Advertiser has collected these stories from local members of the LGBTQ community.
"For the longest time, I've felt like I had to get up and put on a straight face," said Britt Johnson.
The Prattville singer/songwriter wore that straightness like a mask for half her life, since about age 15. While those years were soul-crushing on the inside, on the outside she appeared happy. "What I thought was happy. I was happy enough," Johnson said.
Early on, Johnson said she was in a constant state of relationship with guys, back to back to back. "I never felt like I could be alone," she said. "I felt like maybe I was searching for not necessarily the guy for me, but the guy for my family."
Johnson, now a divorced mother, is gay.
Last year she finally admitted it to herself, and began the tedious process of telling her friends and family.
Johnson chose to first come out to her best friend, someone she'd known that whole 15 years. "It was easy to come out to her first, because she's also gay," Johnson said. It turns out, her friend knew the whole time. So did Johnson's dad's side of the family, who accepted her. The rest of Johnson's family was a more difficult situation, she said.
"My mother's side is typical Southern Baptist. Very reserved," she said. "I knew what the result would be if I were to come out to them. I knew exactly what was going to happen, and that's exactly what did happen now, all these years later."
Probably the most painful part about coming out to family was being cut off by her grandmother, who Johnson didn't personally tell. This was a woman who had raised Johnson for years after her parents divorced. "She told me, 'Brittany, if I could tie every last faggot and lesbian to the back of my bumper and drag them down the interstate, it would make me the happiest person on Earth."
One advantage Johnson had in coming out when she did is social media, which can basically rip the bandage off by allowing someone to announce it to the world all at once. "It takes a lot of the pain out of it, I guess," she said. "I can't imagine having to do it before social media."
For people who are secretly part of the LGBTQ community for fear of losing friends and family, Johnson said to do it in your own time. "Whether or not your family is like mine was and disowned me, you'll find that you get a whole new family," she said. "My support system now is pretty amazing. I may not have my whole family behind me, but I have a whole army."
A person who can imagine coming out before social media, someone who lived through it years ago, is Ambrosia Starling. She's a drag queen from Dothan, who gained national attention in a media battle against former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore over gay marriage.
"When I came out, it was a longer more grueling process than it is today. It took years to get up the courage and test each of the most important relationships in my life one by one, and to find out person by person who would love and respect me, who would 'tolerate' or pity me, who would walk away completely, and who would stand by my side no matter what. I envy the young today who can drop the bombshell on social media and instantly know, by the reactions of everyone on their feed, where they stand with almost every person in their life.
"I don't, however, envy their struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the masses who disapprove. That pain of disapproval, of rejection, was hard enough for me to deal with person by person. Luckily, for me, I was often just as surprised by the people whom I thought would be the most difficult, as I was hurt by those who I thought would be the most understanding."
Starling said she and her stepmom had a contentious relationship growing up.
"But when I came out to her and my dad at 28, they both surprised me by not only accepting me, but embracing my talents as a drag queen as well. They never missed a show, and drove me 40 miles each way from Eldorado to Wichita every week so that I could perform. The first time my father saw me perform, he stood up to tip me and grabbed me in a bear hug to whisper in my ear, 'I'm so proud of how brave you are.' He has been gone for 10 years now and I can still hear those words, and I still cry thinking about them. He and my stepmom were a bit confused by how they were treated at OurFantasy Complex.
"After asking me to drive home my third or fourth week there, he waited until my stepmom was asleep, reached over and locked the door she was leaning on, and said, 'I gotta ask you something, son.' I smiled and said, 'What would you like to know?' 'We've been coming with you for a few weeks now, and these people haven't let us buy one drink for ourselves. They treat us like movie stars or something and we don't know them from Adam. Why?' With tears in my eyes, I explained that many of those people lost their families and everyone they loved when they came out, or they lived in fear of losing them all if they did come out. 'So, when you show up supporting your drag queen son, you are giving them a little of what they wish they could have, or pray that they find, or maybe never get. That makes you a superstar in their eyes, and in mine.'"
Starling's mom's journey has been a long difficult journey from tolerance, to understanding, to acceptance that has taken 25 years to complete. She has still only seen Starling perform on video.
"I'll never forget hearing, 'I'm so sorry that is the life you chose for yourself.' It did force me to realize that I needed to live my life for myself, and not for other people's expectations," Starling said. "I learned that my own happiness should not be held back by someone else's limitations on love and narrow comprehension. I realized that other people's boundaries could not limit me — unless I let them. I am proud to say that she has come farther than I ever thought possible and, for a girl raised in a Kansas town of 900 people, she has come along way. It has been a struggle for me not to lash out and be impatient, but she has taken many shocks and surprises, asked questions and learned to accept who I am."
Looking back, the person who had the most difficulty with the coming out process was Starling. "As one of 45 grandkids on my dad's side, accepting that raising children would never happen was awful. Because, in those days, it meant having children taken from your arms by the courts if you got to have them at all," Starling said.
"Accepting that I would lose friends, and always be the whispered conversation cut short whenever I visited with family. Finding out that getting or keeping a job would be a lifelong struggle to this day. Accepting all of this as my burden has also brought me joy, strength, endurance and inner peace with who I am. I wouldn't go back or change one teardrop of pain, because I can love who I am without self-doubt or self-hate. The family I have built and chosen for myself inside my community is priceless to me. The family I was born with has learned to accept me on my own terms or stay out of my way. Speaking just for myself, I will tell you that the pain of coming out has eventually been replaced by strength and pride in who I am that no one can take away. That alone has made it all worthwhile."
"I’ve felt different my whole life," said Calloway, a former graphic artist and layout coordinator for the Montgomery Advertiser. These days, she's an artist and illustrator for the Alabama Department of Public Health.
"I was raised Southern Baptist and knew admitting certain feelings out loud would be frowned upon, to say the least. So I pushed them down. When I was about 16 or so, I started to accept that this was a thing and it wasn’t going away, but it took me meeting a certain person to push me to being fully out. I found my wife through mutual friends on MySpace in 2006. June 27 marks 13 years since we first met in person, and three years since we were married at the Montgomery County Courthouse on the same date. She was worth whatever came from telling the truth. We plan on going to the pride march downtown this Saturday to remind this area that we are here and we’re people that matter. Love is love."
"I am going to be 67 this year," said Ellis, who is director of Montgomery Pride United.
"I guess I've known I was different since I'd say preteens. I didn't have a clear sense of what that really meant, but I always had a sense of being different. Kind of an 'other' person. In childhood as well, I was always curious about the whisperings about people who were 'queer.'" Ellis said that she came out in stages.
"I mostly came out to people that I felt safe with. I actually never even came out to my family until I was in my 60s. I think they knew, but I never officially said, 'Hey, guess what?' I just moved far away. I've always been kind of a private person. My associations were a lot with other queer people." She encouraged people to make sure they have a good support system. "You can't always count on your family being part of that support."
"I had always been a friend to the community, an ally, and never shy about standing in solidarity with the LGBTQ community," Cheramie said.
"But I was shy about admitting who I was. I knew deep down that my attraction went past just one gender. But though I was surrounded by amazing and supportive people, I was scared to actually admit it. I spent my most of my childhood being made fun and denying this very thing. I really hated that the bullies were right. Then I met my partner. And that changed everything. I was at a point where I could no longer deny my sexuality. It was 2010, I had a radio show on the college station at the time. On my last show, in my last host segment, I came out over the radio. Admittedly that’s not as intimate as telling your family and friends, but it was a declaration I was much more comfortable with, honestly. And from then on, explaining to people that I was, in fact, pansexual, was not hard. Now I use the term 'queer' to describe my sexuality. Some take offense to that as it has been a slur in the past. But it best describes my attractions and how I feel. Growing up it was 'don’t call me that!' And now, as an adult it’s 'Yes, I am. And your point is?' I had and still do have such a wonderful support system. But that’s not the case with so many other people. I’m lucky and I am so grateful for that. And I try to be as loving and supportive to others who may not have that."
“We all need to share our rainbow in every way,” said Alee Michelle, the reigning Miss Montgomery Pride Newcomer 2019.
“I’m from the Montgomery area. … It was very difficult. I’m still trying to get through parts of it. It’s probably 2 1/2 years ago when it officially happened. My close friends, they were very accepting. For the most part, I had to hide it. But now, I’m starting to get close to my family members and everything about it. I’m getting there.”
Since the age of 5, Jackson has known that he is bisexual. "I've come out to several people, but I publicly came out this year online," said Jackson, a five-year Army veteran who has been in the Montgomery area since 2009.
"It's not a choice. It is who I am. It is who I identify myself as, and I'm proud of my accomplishments as a black bisexual war veteran. ... When I was overseas in Iraq, I realized that I fought for the rights of all Americans. That includes LGBTQ. I realize that since I fought for all those rights, why should certain people's rights be excluded, which I think is unconstitutional and I think it's unjust." He said when he came out to some people, they looked at him and said he was going through a phase. "There should be no shame in being yourself."
Audrey Anna Godiva
“I’m actually from the West Coast, and people tend to get that confused with just California. I came here (to Montgomery) about three years ago. … Oh, baby, when I came out of the closet it was my mother’s womb. I was on a unicorn, and there was glitter and Spice Girls serenading me. There was no coming out for me. Everyone knew.”
"I came out in 1990," said Myles, a New Jersey native who has lived in Montgomery for a little more than a year. "I think for me, it was just a realization of trying to try to please other people." Myles knew about himself since about age 7. He went into the Army right after high school in 1984, way before "don't ask, don't tell" was a policy.
"I'm pretty sure I was discovering then who I was and discovering my sexuality then." He was stationed with an all-male tanker battalion, which he said was a perfect environment to explore who he was as a person. "Many people got to know who I was, because I was very visible as a cook." He recalled one time a soldier came up and asked, "Myles, what are you?" The soldier said that sometimes he saw Myles with black friends, sometimes with white friends, and sometimes with gay friends.
"I said I'm just a people person." Sometime during his last relationship with a woman, Myles and his then-partner realized they weren't compatible. Sometimes they found themselves both looking at the same men. "Once that relationship ended, I finally decided to tell myself, 'Thane, just be true to yourself. You have to live for yourself, be true to yourself and be happy.'"
At age 25, he came out to his immediate family and friends, individually and in pairs, and received a lot of acceptance. "The surprise was, many of my first cousins said, 'We were just waiting for you.'... I got that same acceptance from my father, too, before he passed away."
Barbie Q Destiny
“I’m from Omaha, Nebraska. I came down here because I’m stationed in the military. I’ve been in the military four years…. I came out in the military, so it was super-duper stressful not knowing what people in the military would think about you. Not knowing what my family was going to think about me. Also, being like 900 miles from home coming out was scary.”
Since the interview, Barbie has said her goodbyes to Montgomery and started moving back to her hometown.
Ms Harvey McDaniel
"I was born in 1955," said McDaniel, who self-identifies as transfeminine. "When I was 3 years old, I had girl's toys. I had baby dolls, strollers. Later on, Easy Bake Ovens... When I was 4 years old, I made them paint my nails, fingers and toes. I made them. When I was 5 years old, I told them I wanted to be a little girl. When I was 6 years old, my father disappeared. He left, and my mom and I were homeless for two years after that." In that era, there was nowhere to go for help for gender issues. Repressed and redirected,
McDaniel's mom tried to steer him into a more masculine lifestyle for most of his life. "When I was 12 years old, I saw another little girl my age and realized that I would never have a woman's body, and I was devastated." McDaniel struggled with gender identity into adulthood. "A lot of people really never knew that I was transgender. I tried to blend in and play the gender games. There were very few times when I could really express my true self, but it was always there."
Health problems later made McDaniel stop and rethink life. "I wanted to end my life just being the little old lady that I really was." McDaniel found a new purpose and direction as a co-founder of a community center, and educational director of Montgomery Pride United. "Those things developed with the activism and the advocacy work that we do here."
“I knew I was transgender since I can remember. Back when I was 3 and 4 years old, I was wearing my sisters’ dresses and shoes better than they were. They already knew what was going on. I am about to be 30 years old. I am a proud transgender woman that has lived in Montgomery and Prattville for the past 29 years of my life. I have dealt with so much scrutiny from the community, being discriminated by white people and even minorities. I’m not going to sugar coat it. I’ve had to fight my whole life. It’s sad. It’s not something that I wanted to do, but it’s what had to be done. I had to earn my place in this world. I had to earn my respect for people not to mess with our kind. I took that from there, and started standing up for other people who were like me, and defending them. Basically bullying the bullies.”
Harlow “The Hit Man” Caldwell
“I’ve been out of the closet since 2007. That’s what, 12 years?” said Harlow, who is a Montgomery resident and went to Robert E. Lee High School. “The community as a whole has changed a lot since I came out of the closet. Back 12 years ago, it was nothing to see every LGBTQ member of the community, and just as many straight people, at the old Club 322. We kind of like hit a trend in the last few years. … To me, the community isn’t really as tight knit as it used to be. That’s something the LGBTQ community really needs to work on.”
“I’m originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Military is what brought me over here," said Tokyo, "Growing up, basically my family was heavily Christian. So when I came out to them as bisexual and said I like girls or anything of that kind, they were like ‘No, don’t do it!’ But it’s who you are. Coming out along those lines was kinda tough, but my mom was like, ‘I knew you were going to be special.’”
Victoria A. Jewelle
“When I first came out, it was a different time. It was actually the late ‘90s when I came out, and it was still kind of taboo about the whole nightlife gay lifestyle. When I came out, it was harder to come out than it is now. People are now more free to be who they are. When I came out, you came out but you still hid it. We learned to live two lives. We could live one life as a straight person, but at the night we would change up and be who we truly are.”
Schedule of events
Pride March & Rally: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. At 9 a.m., lineup begins at the Bayard Rustin Community Center. Will march to the State Capitol steps at 10 a.m. to hear from leaders of the community and rally at 11 a.m. This event will honor the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
Drag Brunch: Sunday at The Zip Line, 21 Coliseum Boulevard, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Along with brunch and bottomless drinks for $30, the Montgomery drag show entertainers Victoria Jewelle, Felicia Gallant, Chassity Ross Starr, Alee Michelle and Aurora Michaels will be performing. $10 cover for show only.
4th annual Montgomery Pridefest: Sunday, 1-6 p.m. at EAT South, 485 Molton St., Montgomery (behind the Montgomery Advertiser building). Featuring live entertainment, food for sale, vendors and more. This event is free to attend and open to all ages.