After conversion therapy and a year of self-reflection, I came out and found love

I’ve cried in public more times than I care to admit, but the worst (so far) was when I had a breakdown, a real sob fest, while watching an episode of The Ellen Show at my dentist’s office. On that particular day, Ellen’s wife Portia was in the audience, and they were so doe-eyed, lucky-in-love that I just lost it. This was particularly unfortunate because I was laid out with my jaw forced open while a dental hygienist examined my gums. Thankfully, she was able to pull the tools from my mouth right before I really started sniffling. When I sat up, my sobs gave way to laughter, and I pointed out that the medieval torture devices in each hand were enough to make anyone react the way I did. I watched her confusion turn to compassion as I motioned to the TV and sighed, “I’m just not sure I’ll ever have that.”

At that point in my life, I’d willingly attended several years of conversion therapy — therapy that’s typically performed by a counselor and which attempts to remove feelings of attraction to people of your same sex or gender. It was originally a requirement for a couple religious groups I was involved in during college, but I continued the therapy on my own out of a sense of shame and self-loathing that had formed over the years. I’d fallen in love with both men and women and never felt entirely whole in either scenario; either I was with a man and felt like I was hiding a portion of my identity, or I felt like I was having a secret, hidden affair with a woman. I felt like a counterfeit person and that anyone who cared for me was being deceived.

But there were Ellen and Portia, displaying their bliss for all to see. While I was happy for them, I was also heartbroken. I drove home and thought about everything they’d endured to get to that place. I thought about the decisions they’d likely made — the ones I knew I couldn’t make without hurting people — and I wasn’t sure I could do it.

If I came out, it would eradicate the dreams my parents and grandparents had for me of marrying a suitable young man and starting a family. My coming out could also possibly out some of the people I’d tried to protect for years. My spirituality was (and still is) very important to me, and though I’d always leaned more liberally than many of my friends, my choosing to openly explore these feelings would cause a rift between me and much of my community. I worried about my friends turning me away, even though I realized that many of those people hardly knew me at all. I spent so many years trying to be someone they could love by hiding essential parts of myself.

After that day at the dentist, I could no longer watch Ellen — I could also no longer watch anything that had to do with falling or being in love. Even hearing about a friend’s new significant other made me queasy. I’d already felt this way before, but for some reason it was profoundly more difficult after that cleaning visit. It unsettled me, seeing what I could have if I simply gave up fighting and came out to my family and friends.

The year that followed that relationship was tough, and I went through a lot. I was in two relationships that didn’t work out, probably because I still hadn’t fully worked things out with myself yet. But ultimately, I decided I couldn’t reveal only part of who I was any longer, and I wasn’t going to let some weird freak out during a routine cleaning continue to hang over me. I stopped conversion therapy, spent a month at a mental health facility, and started seeing an actual licensed therapist. I decided that I would try to like who I was and who I was becoming. I swore off dating, moved to a new place, and got a dog. These attempts to learn to love myself started working, and I started looking in the mirror and seeing myself in a whole new light.

Then, a few months later, I fell in love with the woman who would one day become my wife.

There was no hiding my sexual orientation after that. More than that, there was no desire for me to hide anymore. I came out to who I wanted to come out to, and didn’t worry about the rest. She and I have been together for 5 years now, and I still feel every bit as giddy as Ellen and Portia looked that day. As in, people still stop us on the street and ask how long we’ve been together — our love is that evident. It wasn’t easy, learning to accept something about myself that I’d always been told — and believed — was a flaw and a sin. Some of those conversations I dreaded having were more difficult than I imagined they would be, and some were much easier. Other times, I just never bothered to have the conversation, even though I knew it would mean the end of those relationships.

It was also difficult letting my partner see the bits I’d hid for so long and revealing the scars that were created while I hid my true self. But through the revelation of those wounds and through each other’s shared resilience, we’ve conquered all the things I was afraid of and more: disapproval from loved ones and loss of treasured relationships, workplace discrimination, public harassment, and the sense of vulnerability and trust that comes with a truly loving relationship. We’ve felt hopeless together, and we’ve felt hopeful together.

Though it’s terrifying to be so vulnerable and feel so bare and it’s gut-wrenching when responded to with rejection, I am so grateful to finally be known for exactly who I am and to have received the kindness of acceptance from others, which is not-so-coincidentally something Ellen requests at the end of every episode. “Be kind to one another.” I learned the hard way that to accomplish this, we’ve also got to be willing to accept that kindness from others and from ourselves. I gladly extend to you that invitation and can only hope that it doesn’t take an embarrassing ugly cry in front of your dental hygienist and a year of reflection for you to believe that you are worthy of love and kindness, just the way you are. Alyshia Foster is a French pastry enthusiast and advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. She resides in Seattle with her wife and pup. You can make her day by introducing her to your large dog, responding with a pun, or helping her find her keys. Hosting a dinner party for the characters in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is the one dream she’s had that she most wishes would come true. If you’d like to find out more about her, rewatch “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

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