Valerie Weisler is the founder and CEO of The Validation Project. You can learn more about her here. This is her submission for Pride Month!
I can’t help but laugh at the irony in how I found home in a city I’ve never been to, where I knew virtually no one upon arriving there.
When I got to Portland, Maine, for a pre-law program at University of Maine four weeks ago, I was expecting to learn more about law. I hoped I’d leave with a better idea about if law school was for me, and ~most importantly~ fulfill my childhood dream of yelling “Order in the court!”
For the first few days, my queerness played the usual part it does in groups of people I don’t know; it silenced itself, burrowed down as deep as it could to make sure I was safe and protected. No matter how far away I move from the year I came out (2014), the fear of sixteen-year-old me always manages to come back. Be careful, it whispers. You don’t know what they’ll think.
At first, I listened. I let my queerness fade as I tried to make friends with the people in my program. And honestly? It was exhausting. Sure, I got the occasional laugh or conversation at dinner, but that was it. And finally, after what felt like forever, I came out. Relief swept over me like the first breath of fresh air after I’d see how long I could stay underwater when I was a kid.
And the friendships followed. Without my mask molded tightly onto me, my personality had room to exist. As the weeks went by, I fell more and more in love with Portland. I sat on the beach and read books that had waited on my bookshelf way too long, danced to early 2000s pop with new pals, and treated thrift stores like treasure chests, trying on embroidered tutus and corduroy overalls as if Tan France was standing next to me, persuading me to just try on one more thing. I rocked a floral blazer I had waited months for the perfect opportunity to wear. I formed inside jokes and had silly, giggly adventures with people I hadn’t known the month before.
But the sense of home didn’t hit me until I was completely alone. I got a Facebook notification that “Coming Out Night,” a TED talk style event, was happening at a local art gallery for Pride Month. I walked downtown after a day of law classes and walked in.
I didn’t know a single person in the room, but within minutes, you wouldn’t know that. Two elderly gay men greeted me like an old friend and I chatted with students at University of Maine about our experiences in college. I was welcomed without question.
A few weeks later, I woke up and got ready to march in the Portland Pride Parade. I had over-prepared like a parent taking their first child to Disneyland. I put on the rainbow temporary tattoos I had ordered on Amazon and my rainbow shirt I had insisted I simply just needed when I saw it at the mall the weekend before.
After slipping on my rainbow Vans that my mom, bless her heart, had express-mailed for the parade, I joined my friends and we headed over. I was nervous. This wasn’t my city, and the last time I was at a Pride parade, I was a newly-out high school sophomore with my oldest brother and my mom. But as soon as I saw the first rainbow, everything was okay.
My heart still skips a beat when I see someone with something rainbow. It’s a small action that quietly but strongly says, “I am here, and you can be, too.” Queer spaces — whether a bar, a cafe, a house, an event — are so freakin’ holy. I will never not be in awe of how at home I feel when surrounded by my community.
As I looked at the hundreds of people wearing rainbow, I knew it. I was home. I wasn’t home as in Portland, Maine. I was home because I was with my people.
Home is phone calls with my brother, Alex, who came out at 22 and gave me the courage to come out.
Home is spontaneous FaceTimes with my grandmother, Betty, who protested with her wife, Karen, for my generation to have the rights we do now.
Home is the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Center, where I interned this past year: the first physically queer space I’ve ever worked in.
Home is the Pride House, my college’s LGBTQ housing, where I drink my morning cup of coffee with a view of the rainbow flag...and the bisexual flag, the pansexual flag, and the transgender flag.
Home is the Point Foundation, where I now have a network of queer students across the nation to call family.
Home is the Human Rights Campaign and GLSEN, two incredible organizations that took me in at sixteen and taught me how to be a queer advocate.
Home is hard. Sometimes I don’t know how to get there or how long it’ll be before I do. Sometimes I get so used to home that when I am not there, I do not know how to cope. Home is a process. It’s taken a while for me to build my own instead of couch-surfing queer spaces, saving the memories like postcards until I have the next one.
Home is a privilege. It’s something an unfortunate number of queer folx do not have access to, and it’s something I will continue to fight for until every queer person has the magic moment of looking around and realizing, “Honey, I’m home.”