Omar Bustamante/FUSION

So, I'm a 26-year-old woman, and I'm gay.

I'm also absolutely terrified of being gay. Logically, I know it's silly. I've been outspoken about and aggressively supportive of LGBTQAI rights since before I even really started considering my own sexual orientation. Anyone who knows me knows my stances on such issues and I have never flinched away or backed down from speaking up to the people in my life who would disparage an entire community.

For all of this, when it comes to being honest about myself I'm so paralyzed by fear that I can't open my mouth. It's taken me years and years to even acknowledge this about myself, and at the same time that it's been hugely freeing, it also makes me want to cry and curl up under the covers and never show my face again.

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I want to be honest. I want to be proud. I want to find a woman to share my life with and I want to scream with my whole body and soul that I'm in love, but I'm so afraid. My parents, and half of my extended family, are deeply conservative across the board. I know I have aunts, uncles and cousins who would support me if I decided to come out, but I'm terrified that I would lose my parents.

My mom asked me about it flat-out when I was 17. She tried to be supportive, but she still expressed the sentiment that she'd wonder what she did wrong. I wasn't even ready to face the fact myself at that age and I told her no. I've been lying to her for almost a decade and I feel trapped. I can't even say the words "I'm gay" out loud to myself in the mirror, let alone integrate myself into a local community where I might be able to make friends and find a support system.

I'm so afraid that my family will shun me, or hate me; will distance themselves and leave me alone, but the alternative is that I keep my mouth shut forever and I wind up alone anyway, without the possibility of a dedicated partner or a life. I'm also afraid that it's too late to come out now—that nobody will believe me or that I'll be stuck on the fringes of the lesbian community for not having a gold star.

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How do I get past this? What can I do?

Well, let me start by saying I’m emotional today because I’m about to leave a teaching job that I have deeply loved and been changed and inspired by, so all I want to do is give you a huge hug and say it’s going to be okay, sweetheart over and over until you believe me. I can tell from your email just how hard it was to say these words, even in writing, even to a stranger on the Internet, even without your name attached. It took an enormous effort to reach out like this and YOU ARE AWESOME for making that effort.

And it really is going to be okay. I’m not going to tell you that you should come out—you’re going to come out, because you are brave and strong and because the pressure of keeping this crucial aspect of your identity a secret is clearly making you miserable. You do not want to be miserable forever, and you’re not going to. You’re going to come out. You might start slowly, by finding an online community to discuss things with before you disclose to your friends and family, or you might just call your mom this afternoon and say “Hey, remember when you asked if I was gay? Turns out I am! How’s the kitchen remodel coming?”

You’re going to let go of the fantasy that there’s a perfect way you can come out, a magical combination of words that will make everyone react with kindness and compassion. Your only responsibility is to make the choices that will lead you to happiness and authenticity in the long term. How other people handle those choices is—really, really, I swear—entirely their business and not something you have to control. If you come out to someone and they’re a dick to you, the problem is that they’re a dick, not that you came out. Knowing this won’t necessarily make it easy to handle a “where did I go wrong?” meltdown, but hopefully it can at least remind you not to blame yourself.

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You’re going to get comfortable saying “I’m gay” to yourself in the mirror, and then to people in real life, and then to hot girls you want to date. That’s when the big payoff is going to come. Coming out a little late in life is no big deal, and it’s not going to cost you dates. (Coming out at 26 might actually work to your benefit in some places—if you live in a smallish town where all six of the queer ladies have been playing musical girlfriends since college, they’ll to be fighting each other to be the first in line for you.) You’re going to fall in love and it’s going to be magical, and then it’s going to be terrible, and then you’re going to be heartbroken, and then you’re going to repeat that process anywhere from one to infinity more times. The queer friends you make are going to help you through all of it. They’re going to keep you alive. They’re going to be the greatest thing you gain by coming out, actually, which you’ll realize in a few years after the “OMG, SEX WITH GIRLS!” endorphin high wears off.

Some of your relatives are probably going to handle you coming out way better than you expected, because they care about you enough to reconsider their prejudices. Some of them will almost definitely disappoint you. When that happens, you may spend a few weeks or months saying, “Why did Lindsay tell me this would be okay? This sucks!” But in the long term, I promise, you’re going to be happier unencumbered by relationships that rely on you being dishonest about who you are and what you want. The version of okay that you eventually reach may not be the same as what you picture right now, but it’s going to be good. There’s going to be so much joy and, I’ll be honest, a lot of heartache too, but you’ll be going through it as your authentic self—and, if you’re out, there’s always the chance that the next corner you turn will bring you face-to-face with a super hot girl who wants to bang you.

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And okay, look, I don’t want this whole column to just be constant pleas to buy my book, but I think Ask A Queer Chick: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life for Girls who Dig Girls might be a useful resource for this transition. It’s basically like having me sit on your bookshelf and yell opinions at you, except 86% less intrusive and unsettling! Also, if you’re the kind of person who likes to organize your bookshelves by color, it has a pleasant lime green spine that offers a nice transition between the green and the yellow sections. If you want a copy but can’t afford one, send me another email and I’ll hook you up.

You’re wonderful, and this is the start of an incredible adventure. I’m really excited for you.

I'm a bi woman who reads as kinda straight. When I'm partnered with straight men, I treat my queer life and my partnered life as fairly separate, and it generally works out pretty well. When I'm partnered with women, I'm an "honorary gay," so that's good too.

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My question is, what's the etiquette when two people who are both some form of queer or trans end up in a straight-reading relationship? I feel super weird taking a male-reading partner to a gay bar, but equally weird arranging some kind of joint custody agreement where we both frequent the local queer spots—but not together. Is there a happy medium? Do I bring my partner to things but avoid flaunting our…um…lifestyle? Try to look more aggressively queer (even if it makes me feel like I'm in drag)? Get comfortable passing as an ally?

This is extra complicated for me because I feel like my male-reading partners who are bi/pansexual and/or trans* often have less privileged identities than mine or read as more visibly queer. So I feel a certain pressure to be the "straight" partner who stays home, or to let them make the rules about how we navigate these issues.

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Help me stop overthinking this, please?

This is such a complicated and really good question! It encompasses a lot of tricky issues in the queer community, particularly bi erasure vs. passing privilege and gender policing vs. safe space. This is not a question that I can answer with a quick “Yep, sounds like you’re gay,” make a joke about lube, and move on with my day. And I love you for being willing to dive into something so nuanced and tangled and personal.

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Let’s start by talking about bi erasure and its possibly nonexistent cousin, “passing privilege.” Bi erasure is the thing you’re experiencing, where people assume that they can tell your orientation from the gender of your partner—if you’re a woman dating a man, you must be straight; if you’re a woman dating a woman, you must be gay. This can be weird and whiplash-inducing for bi folks, who often end up bouncing in and out of being visibly queer depending on whom they’re dating, but who are actually queer all the time. The opposite of bi erasure is bi visibility—affirming and holding space for people whose orientations are broader and/or more complicated than “girl plus girl equals gay.”

One small way bi folks like you and me can push for bi visibility is by insisting on the validity of our identities in any (or no) relationship. That means you’re not an “honorary gay” when you’re with a lady, any more than you’re “honorary straight” with a dude. “Actually, I’m bisexual” is a really awesome sentence that we should all practice saying in a variety of situations and several different languages. It would also be a great idea to get in the habit of not making assumptions about other people’s sexuality based on the genders of their partners; be a good example and karma will have your back.

But it’s also key, in the fight for visibility, that bi people show up in queer spaces. This is where we run into that tricky issue of “passing privilege”: Some folks believe that bi people in relationships whom people read as straight possess, at least temporarily, the privileges of straightness. While it’s true that bi people in different-sex relationships tend to face less overt discrimination than those of us whose partnerships are read as queer, that doesn’t mean they are functionally straight or that they don’t need the support of a queer community. Regardless of the genders of their partners, bisexual women are more likely than straight OR gay women to experience depression, substance abuse, and intimate partner violence. And although no one has concrete explanations for why bi people have more adverse outcomes than lesbian and gay people, there’s speculation that lack of access to queer community resources is one contributor to the problem.

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All of which is a long-winded way of saying: While “passing” for straight may have its benefits, it absolutely doesn’t negate the fact that bi people need to be represented in LGBTQ spaces. If you choose to continue frequenting your favorite queer spots when you’re in a queer-but-often-mistaken-for-straight relationship— and I hope you do— you’ll be doing a favor not just for yourself, but for the community as a whole.

There is, however, another aspect of this issue to consider: It’s fucked up to police other people’s gender expressions or sexual identities—it’s fucked up to ask for people’s queer cards at the door. That said, if you’re in a relationship that most people interpret as straight and you show up to a space that’s intended to be only for LGBTQ folks, you may encounter a little bit of side-eye unless you disclose that you and your partner are both queer-identified. You shouldn’t have to do this, but I don’t have a better solution. In a society where LGBTQ people are routinely marginalized and discriminated against by straight and cis folks (so, in any society that currently exists), it’s reasonable to designate certain community spaces as queer and trans-only. Unfortunately, that sometimes puts the onus on you to confirm that, yep, you’re part of the club.

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You don’t need to dress in Ultra Queer Drag or pretend you’ve never met your male-presenting partner when you go to the gay bar. You should absolutely be out and proud about your orientation no matter who you’re dating (at least, to whatever extent it feels comfortable for you to do so). But you should also be sensitive to the needs of your fellow community members, and if reading your relationships as straight is making them feel unsafe or intruded upon, be willing to clear up the misconception.

Thanks, everyone! Remember to send me your questions at askaqueerchick@gmail.com.

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Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme tattooed fat chick who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, an adorable baby girl, and two very spoiled cats. Her first book, Ask A Queer Chick, was published by Plume in February 2016.