Growing up, Natalie Mink struggled with her multiple marginalized identities. Now, she’s sharing her story.
By Natalie Mink
If you are an LGBTQ person struggling to “come out,” this article is a safe space for you. You don’t have to hide here—not from me. I was once in your shoes—a queer teenage girl who hid in the closet by acting like I had feelings for boys, so that no one would suspect that I was in love with the girl down the street.
Let me begin by bringing you into my past. By sharing this glimpse of a closeted young adult’s life, I hope you’ll see that there is nothing wrong with your feelings or your LGBTQ identity.
When I was growing up in the suburbs of Houston, everything seemed fairly normal. My mother and father both worked, so I was left in the care of my protective but nurturing British grandmother. I am the youngest of three kids, and my siblings always knew what was best for me—even when I didn’t. I love them for that.
But there are two things that separate me from the rest of my family: I have cerebral palsy, and I’m a lesbian. Before anyone tells me that that’s pretty unremarkable, trust me, I already know. Lots of people have disabilities, and lots of people are gay. So the question I ask myself is, “What do I offer the world that no one else can?” This is a question I cannot yet answer, but I can start filling in some of the gaps.
It just hit me that if people talked about being disabled in the same way they talk about being gay, it would sound ridiculous. “When did you first know you had cerebral palsy?” “Are you sure you have CP?” “It could just be a phase.” “Something must have happened for you to have CP, right?”
Growing up with both identities was very hard. I hated being “abnormal,” and I hated having to go to physical therapy when my “normal” siblings could physically do anything they wanted. I always felt held back. Of course, now that I’m 26, I understand both sides of the coin a little better. My family has always been very supportive of everything I do. Everything they do, I do—even if my way of doing things has to be slightly adapted.
But nothing can prepare you for the sudden realization of your own homosexuality. There isn’t a way to soften the blow of realizing, at the ripe age of 10, that yeah, you might be in love with your best friend from down the street—and you have feelings for her in the way women are supposed to have feelings for men.
So I prepared myself for many years of being barricaded in my closet of self-loathing and confusion, until finally, at age 16, I told her what was on my mind. I remember it all like it happened just yesterday. My family had gone on a ski trip to Colorado—where my crush had moved—just as we did every year. But that year was different—I was finally going to tell her so I could stop carrying around the burden of loving someone who had no idea of my feelings. Of course, I wasn’t prepared for what actually happened.
My 16-year-old mind had come up with delusions of grandeur and “what-if” scenarios. “What if she loves me back?” “What will happen then?” Not once did I even consider that she might be straight.
We were sitting in her basement, and she was on the computer. I was sitting in a chair across from her, my body shaking. “I have to tell you something,” I said. I could feel the pricks of nervousness at my fingertips.
“What is it, Natalie?” I suddenly couldn’t speak. My mouth was as dry as the Sahara. “Well, spit it out, Nat.”
I looked at her like a doe caught in the headlights. “I love you,” I said. My voice was soft, but it felt like a scream.
“I love you, too,” she said—out of habit.
“No, you don’t understand,” I said. I took a breath as I prepared to tell her that this was more than friendship, and that she was the beginning and end of every thought in my head. “I love you,” I said again.
“I love you, too, Nat. You’re being weird.”
This time, I came over to her and put my hands on her shoulders. “I’m in love with you, though.” While I stood there in front of her, raw and unfiltered, I saw her eyes go from the warm and inviting orbs I’d known since I was 10 to the ice of fear and anger.
Finally, after what felt like a decade of silence, she spoke. “How long have you known this?” I could hear the sting of betrayal hitting her words with every syllable.
“Since we were 10.”
She put her hand up, as if silencing me would make it all a dream. “And you couldn’t tell me sooner?”
I looked at her with a glimmer of hope in my eyes. “I was afraid of how you would take it. But if . . .”
She silenced me with her eyes this time. “Nat, I don’t love you in that way, and I never will. I’m straight. I think you should leave.” She walked past me to yell for her dad. The ride back to my family’s hotel that night was silent, occasionally broken by her dad commenting that it was supposed to snow. I got out of the car and thanked her dad for the ride. My shoes crunched under the snow and ice.
I prayed no one would be in our hotel room. No such luck. My sister was at the table. She looked up at me, my eyes shining with unshed tears. “You told her, didn’t you?” Just like that, I shattered like glass. Sobs came out of me from a deep, broken place in my soul. I nodded, and my sister opened her arms to rock me for what felt like ages. Occasionally she shushed me, telling me that I would find someone eventually. But I didn’t want anyone else—I wanted her.
The reason I bring up my unrequited crush on a straight girl is not to make readers uncomfortable, but to prove a point that whether you’re straight or LGBT, a broken heart doesn’t depend on silly things like gender. I’ve had plenty of loves and plenty of heartache over the years, and it never gets any easier. Love is the only emotion with a dual function—it can either heal or destroy.
For me, coming out was a process—as it is for most people on the queer spectrum. Coming out to myself was the easiest part. Then came the hard part—telling everyone else.
About five years ago, a few days before Christmas, I was sitting on the couch watching my favorite show, Will and Grace. Will suddenly blurted out to Grace that he was gay. Suddenly, just like Will, I couldn’t hold it in any more and started sobbing. It’s funny how much you can relate to a fictional character.
My mom asked me what was wrong, and at first I thought of telling her a lie—like I’d done so many times before. Then I realized that lying again would mean more work for me in the long run. I took a deep breath and spoke the sentence that would kick down my closet door forever.
“Mom, I’m a lesbian.”
It was quiet for a long time. And then came the question I’d been expecting. “Are you sure?” I’m not sure how long the conversation lasted, but later on that night she told me that she wanted me to be sure, “because it’s hard enough being disabled . . . now you’re gay.”
I didn’t know how to respond to a statement like that. It wasn’t “now” that I decided to be gay. I didn’t have a gay alarm that went off when I turned 21. But I tried to see things from her point of view. What I’m sure my mom meant when she said, “Now you’re gay,” was that it’s a process to learn how to be a parent to a child who has just come out—as much as it was a process for me to tell her. She somehow knew I would have to fight harder than anyone else, because my mother has been fighting for me her whole life.
I had struggled with my sexuality as a teenager, but it was a private war within myself that I wasn’t winning. Before I ever seriously dated any girls, I dated guys. It was all a front, to prove to my family and myself that I was, in fact, the straightest girl they’d ever seen. I was also internally and externally homophobic before I came out—a perfect case of self-loathing. For me, that was the front I had to put up before I realized it was doing more harm than good.
Telling my sister the “big news” was a different story. Her boyfriend (and my future brother-in-law) told me he was preparing to propose to her, and he had sworn me to secrecy. I’m not that good at keeping secrets, especially one of that caliber. Out of fear of spilling the beans, I didn’t call my sister at all before his proposal.
One day, she noticed my absence and called me out of the blue. “Why haven’t you been calling me? Are you avoiding me or something?” she questioned.
I sat there for a while and steadied my breathing, determined not to ruin the proposal surprise. Instead, I came out to her. “Nicole, I’m gay,” I said, my voice cracking with emotion. Suddenly I was 16 again, waiting for yet another devastating response. I remained silent until she laughed.
“I know,” she said. “I was just waiting for you to catch up.”
Natalie Mink is a native Houstonian, an active member of the LGBT community, and an advocate for individuals with disabilities.