This pride month, I interviewed my 22-year-old nephew, Jalen. His journey of embracing his gay identity has captured the essence of a generation that’s breaking barriers. Studies are showing that one in five Gen-Z adults identify as LGBTQIA+. This is exciting news as we dream of a future where bigotry is dismantled and equality prevails.
Sexuality by definition is simply who you find physically, sexually, or emotionally attractive. Let’s hear from Jalen how he navigated his own sexuality.
Tell us about your personal LGBTQIA+ journey.
I first realized I was gay when I was five years old, in some small apartment in Queens, New York with my babysitter and her daughter. Right after I discovered my burning hatred for strawberry pop-tarts, we watched a sci-fi movie I can’t remember the name or plot of—just that the male protagonist at some point was fighting robots on top of moving subway carts. It was very cinematic and at the end, the female love interest rushes in as the train comes to a halt to see the protagonist in all their glory. It could be a reconstructed memory, but I swear the movie goes into slow motion to show how cool this guy is and the whole time I’m thinking “this dude is really hot.”
From there, it was just a normal thing for me. There was no real uncertainty in my mind whether I was gay or not. I knew that’s not how most boys felt, but my gayness didn’t actively bother me, it was more an issue with how it would affect other people treating me and how they would view me. In middle school, a lot of people asked me in this annoyed tone of voice if I was gay because I had a high-pitched voice (still do) and I have more feminine mannerisms. It’s like there was something they didn’t like about me, but they didn’t know how to put their finger on it.
Incidentally, I came out for the first time right after graduating from middle school. I went through elementary and middle school and so many of my friends already had crushes, and had been on dates, and gotten boyfriends/girlfriends (crazy, right?), and that hadn’t happened to me yet.
It wasn’t until the summer between middle and high school when I met a boy I really liked. Telling someone you like them is beyond nerve-wracking! Telling someone a personal secret is beyond nerve-wracking! And telling someone both - at the same time - I don’t know how I did it. I don’t even remember actually saying the word “gay,” but I do remember being clear enough that he got it. Queerness exists even when we don’t have the words to say it, or the confidence to proclaim it.
I then came out to my mom months later. In high school, I moved to a whole new state (Florida), with a brand new school, and all new people. I was really shy and didn’t have many friends, and one way to solve that is to go to after-school activities. In middle school I really liked cross country and a lot of my friends were a part of that club. My mom thought it would be good to do a similar thing at this new school so we signed me up for cross country for freshman year.
The kids weren’t exactly mean, but I realized I didn’t like cross country at all. The high school club focused on competing with other schools and how long they could go before collapsing. In middle school, it was just a game I played with friends—and that’s what I liked most about it. My friends.
This new team with new people came with all new types of vulnerability. Changing in the boys’ locker room, and seeing other boys without shirts and with all types of sweat, made me really uncomfortable. I think the other kids sensed that, so they assumed I must be gay and teased me for it. It was very humiliating for me, because they just stumbled into a truth they associated with so many negative things, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I was begging my mom to pull me out of it, but she didn’t see a reason to. And nobody else cared.
So, like any teenager would, I started regularly skipping my cross country meets. I would just sit in the courtyard of my school and journal instead of going over to the track. One day my mom picked me up from “practice” and she called me out on it. She had one eye on the road, one eye looking at me saying ‘You’re going to tell me what your issue is’ and I remember the word was so uncomfortable in my throat so I was just saying anything else.
It wasn’t until 20 minutes in that I had enough courage to just say that I’m gay. She’s so shocked we have to pull off the road into a Denny's. There’s this calculation going on in her head as we’re getting our dinner time breakfast and I’m so scared, but also trying to do all the things they teach you to do in those coming out videos: “Don’t forget to smile,” “Tell them how this doesn’t change who you are,” “Don’t push for an answer of how they feel yet.”
And thankfully I had a great parent, who at that moment got it.
It’s hard to explain because my mom wasn’t this conservative person. Maybe it’s because it takes a lot of courage for someone to tell her something, because she could definitely get crazy. But after I came out to her, and she reacted in such a calm and even-tempered way, a switch flipped in my brain and I felt like I could tell anyone.
I went on a coming out tour after that. Some didn’t react as well as others—my Dad cried and asked how this could be happening to him. Um, it’s not about you.
But with every conversation I just felt more confident that I could do it again. There is an amazing quality produced when you’re constantly vulnerable with people, when you’re going against the tide, when you exist outside the usual.
How has your identity (or coming out) impacted your mental health?
In some ways, I think queerness predisposes you to poor mental health. There are a lot of challenges that come with feeling different, being made to feel worse/less than because of your differences, and a feeling of nonacceptance that LGBTQ people deal with because of their identity. When you’re a teenager, you’re convinced you’re the only person who’s going through the things you are and that feeling is exacerbated because no one teaches you about sexuality! Before I even knew what gayness itself was, I knew it to be associated with so many negative things and there’s a lot of shame and guilt to be had once you discover you’re gay yourself.
Thankfully, my mom was very liberal when I was growing up, so I felt I had a safe environment to come out early in life, and that helped a lot. It was relieving to just throw it out there, and once you’ve come out to one person, it becomes so much easier to do it again and again. You gain a comfortability with yourself.
The first time I came out, it was a question. I didn’t say the word exactly and more so I implied it, but today it’s a statement of fact.
Sharing my identity with other people was a practice in building confidence. There was also a lot of opportunity for me to build connections with other LGBTQ+ people once I was out. It’s as if you’re a part of this after-school club now for a niche special interest, and a lot of those people became the friends that I still cherish today. There are still issues with coming out, of course, safety being at the top of the list, but overall my coming out was very positive for my mental health.
How does your identity affect your creativity, decision-making, and relationships with others?
Identity shapes so much about a person! I love superhero stories and I think a lot that is because of how relatable they feel. There's something about Peter Parker discovering one day that he's Spiderman and the angst he goes through with not telling Aunt May or Mary Jane because he fears how they'll react, or what types of dangers they'll now face, but he still dresses up in spandex every night to go tussle around with other men. The X-Men comics where wider society is convinced that there's something wrong with being a mutant but we get to see the family dynamics that play out when you find a community of people like you. Those types of stories are the ones I find myself coming back to again and again, the ones I want to tell again and again, and I don't know if that would be the case if I weren't gay.
Decision-making too. The first thing that being queer taught me was to question societal expectations. Why is it everyone's dream to settle down with a wife, have 2.5 kids and a dog in an unnamed suburb, in a house with a white picket fence outside? Who says that's what success is, and why do they say it? Questions like those were clear to me from a younger age, because I was already defying heteronormativity.
The things you like and the decisions you make are also vital to the relationships you make. For me, it's always been easier to make friendships with girls. There's a sort of guard that women have with the opposite gender, and whenever I'm open with my identity, I can see the guard drop in real time because suddenly they don't see me as a threat. They know that I'm not going to take their friendliness as some sort of flirtation, and it becomes so much easier for me to become friends with them from there.
I feel like it's the opposite when it comes to my friendships with other guys. It doesn't take a lot to become friends with another guy, but once they've learned enough about me, I can see this calculation go on in their head. I would never want to make someone uncomfortable so I just don't know how to continue and my male friendships definitely suffer because of it. I've never felt like I was outright discriminated against, but there's an understandable uneasiness. It would be really awkward to find out your friend was secretly attracted to you this whole time, and you'd never see them like that.
But making friends with other gay guys is a breeze!
What are your thoughts on LGBTQIA+ representation in media and society? Have you found role models who inspire you within the LGBTQIA+ community?
My generation was the first to have the powerful internet in the comfort of our back pocket. I wish I could tell you what the first piece of online LGBTQ content I interacted with was, but once I realized there was this larger community around the globe like me online, I jumped in headfirst.
Back in the early 2010s, all the content I saw from other LGBTQ people was pointing out the smallest things a character would do in their favorite television show, or movie, and how that meant they were surely part of the LGBTQ community. Or it was about coming out of the closet in real life and what happens after. Being gay was so new to me then, so I devoured content like that, looking for any and everything I could learn about this newly recognized part of myself.
There’s been an enormous leap when it comes to representation of LGBTQ+ people in media and society. A decade ago, queer-baiting—the marketing technique where creators intentionally hint at, but ultimately do not depict, LGBTQ+ people in their media in order to both appeal to an audience desperate for representation without committing to ally-ship was the only queer-esque content I could get my hands on. Now there are gay and bi and trans people everywhere. Every new Netflix show, every book I read, every new place I go. It’s amazing, but something I feel is still in its infancy.
Today I follow a bunch of content creators, some of whom are LGBTQ+, and they have all different perspectives on their queerness. I still follow people who are leveraging their queerness in every part of their content which for me is mostly discussion based, podcast stuff, but there are also LGBTQ+ creators I follow that are just casually so. Their queerness is not a plot or storyline in their content that must be addressed, but instead something that just is. To be gay for them is the same thing as to have glasses, casually life altering. That type of representation is something I’m leaning into more as I go off to explore other parts of myself: my interests, who I want to be in this world, etc.
In terms of role models, there are definitely traits that I hope I can take from the LGBTQ+ people I’ve watched: to be unmistakably compassionate, to be infuriatingly curious, and to be happily spontaneous.
Last but not least, how would you define pride?
Pride is so many things, but if I had to define it I would say Pride is: Safety, Happiness, Confidence, Colorful Celebration, Freedom. Pride is the process necessary to becoming yourself.
Thank you so much to my nephew for his time and thoughtful responses. Jalen’s story is a true testament to the power of authenticity. Living our truth and sharing our stories works to strengthen human connection and acceptance, silencing ignorance and bigotry.
If you have any questions or reactions, please comment below or message me on social media. Stay tuned for another post about my own personal LGBTQ journey. Happy Pride Month!
Social media: @alisonrosevintage