LGBTQ Atlantans tell their National Coming Out Day stories

To celebrate Atlanta Pride weekend, 11 locals sat for portraits interviews with famed Q contributor Jon Dean in a Coming Out Day photo essay we call Faces of Pride.

From coming out young with little to no trouble, to coming out twice in their 20s, to coming out to their own kids while 30something, and so many more, the stories are as varied as the faces themselves. 

Keep scrolling to enjoy the diversity of opinions, thoughts, perspectives and ways to come out.

Find more by Jon Dean at jondeanphoto.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evah Destruction

He/ Him 

Instagram @evahdestruction

Came out at: 14

On Coming Out:

Ever since I was little, I had always been more in touch with my feminine side. I had a higher voice than the other boys. I liked girly things, I loved to play dress up, lip sync to the Spice Girls in my bathroom mirror, always play the female characters in any video game that I played. 

This led to a lot of teasing growing up. I remember the first time I was ever asked if I was gay. I was in the 4th grade. I didn’t exactly know what it meant, but the way I was asked I knew they were being mean. So from then on, I expressed to people I was more sensitive than the other boys in my class, and growing up later on I preferred having “girlfriends” to almost fit in with the social norm so I wouldn’t be questioned all the time. 

But then the older I got the more I started thinking about whether or not I was gay. I had a couple of very conservative friends that I was fearful of losing at the time. Not to mention my parents knew before I came to terms with it myself. It almost felt like a growing identity crisis. I remember it was the end of 8th grade year, before I moved to Georgia from Texas, sitting in my parents’ car, and I remember it being dead silent, you know that silence where it’s like your thoughts are screaming at you? Yeah well, in that weird moment I said to myself, “What if what everyone is saying is true?” It became clear that I needed to just embrace who I was, and stop being afraid. I called a couple of my closest friends first, to ease into the process, and then I walked into my parents’ bedroom that night and just told them. I remember my mouth getting so dry, and how hard my heart was beating. My family accepted it just fine though, and didn’t treat me any differently afterwards. I am so very grateful for that to this day.

Advice to his "closeted" self:

Start playing with makeup now. Take those dance lessons. Don’t be afraid of how people are going to treat you or think of you. It won’t be as bad as you think. Educate yourself, watch these movies, watch these shows, learned about these icons. Also, please for the love of god, style yourself better! 

What is your experience being "out" in Atlanta:

I will say I do recognize the privilege that I have, and can say that it’s not as hard for me as it is for others out there. Which is still very unfortunate, because everyone should have the right to be who they are without scrutiny. EVERYONE. However I do like that we still have the spaces that we have to be able to come together to hang out, eat, chat, dance, celebrate, sing, etc! I love being queer, and glad I get to surround myself with the loving people I choose to surround myself with in Atlanta. I’ve enjoyed living here. 

 

Jesse Pratt López

She/Her

Instagram: @jprattlopez.photos 

Came out at: 16 and 20

On Coming Out:

As a trans girl, I had to come out twice. First, when I was 16 and I thought I was gay. Then, again, when I was 20, I realized I was actually trans and straight.

Luckily, I was fortunate enough to have an artist and a journalist for parents, so they are both very progressive and accepting. When I was around 16, I started meeting my first queer people, and I started to accept that being anything other than what society expects of you is OK. I remember I skipped school to kiss my first boy. We went to the park and made out on the grass, and for the first time being with someone else felt right and not forced. I didn’t really have to come out to my parents. My dad pulled over one day when he was teaching me how to drive, and he told me that he and my mom were OK with me being gay. I knew then that everything was going to be OK. Coming out to the world wasn’t much worse, but I did lose a few people in the process. One of my best friends (whom I later realized happened to also be my first boy crush) ended up blocking me on Instagram. I moved to Georgia 3 months later. I never talked to him again. 

While coming out as gay was more like ripping off a bandaid, coming to terms with the fact that I did not only fit into the role expected of my sexual orientation, but of my gender, was even harder. It was a longer, more experimental, and awkward process. But it was also very beautiful. There were almost no trans role models. I don’t think I met my first trans person until I was 18. I don’t know how people who live in rural areas even do it. 

It took me so long, a girl who grew up in cities, because even though there were trans people in real life, we were not— and are still not—represented in the media. Trans people have existed from the moment humans existed. The only real thing that has changed is the language we use to describe them. I have always been feminine, but, of course, feminine does not inherently equal female. 

I first came out as genderqueer, because I thought it was an identity that allowed me to express my gender and personality in all of its multitudes. I soon felt even more invisible. I actually didn’t fully realize that I identified as a woman until I was once again forced to choose between two binary genders one time at a new job. The uniforms were gendered, and I found myself in an awkward situation. I showed up to the interview in some tight slacks and a neutral blazer with my short, bobbish hair pushed back behind my ears and my favorite shade of tinted-lip gloss. I did not really reveal anything about my gender, but when I was forced to choose between the “male” and “female” uniforms, I instantly knew that I wanted the cocktail dress. When I showed up on the first day, everyone unequivocally referred to me as “she” and “her,” and every time they said it, I knew I had made the right choice. 

Advice to her "closeted" self:

Follow your intuition! If you feel like you’re gay, you probably gay! If you feel like you might me trans, you probably trans! But also don’t rush into it. Gender and sexuality are some of the most nuanced, expansive and ever-changing parts of the human experience. Your gender/sexual orientation is yours and yours only. Don’t waste time conforming to others ideals. Read as much as you can, and when you reach that point where you feel safe in your own skin and in your community, live your best damn life!

What is your experience being "out" in Atlanta:

Being out in Atlanta is cute as hell. It is definitely a queer oasis in the South. There are so many queer people of color, and events oriented towards queer people of color. I work with an arts and advocacy organization called Southern Fried Queer Pride that throws events doing just that. Although there is no such thing as a safe space for everybody, I do feel pretty safe to unabashedly be myself both within my community and in the city of Atlanta. 

 

Sean Saifa Wall

He/Him

Instagram @saifaemerges, @unbornson

Came out as gay at 14, but didn’t really identify as a lesbian.

On Coming Out

As a queer intersex person of trans experience, I have several coming out stories which were prompted by my female gender assignment at birth. When I came out as gay, I waited until my mom was drunk and I told her. It was perhaps one of the worst decisions of my young adult life. Although we had a great relationship in my adulthood, she was extremely homophobic toward me as a young person. 

In college, I discovered that I had an intersex trait known as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, one of at least 30 intersex traits, which brought me relief but made me feel like some kind of freak. I felt hurt and betrayed by the doctors who I thought were taking care of me, but later learned when I requested my medical records that through castration and synthetic female hormones tried to make me into a woman.

At no point in my life did anyone ask me what I wanted to do with my body.

I changed my name in late 2003 and started hormones in 2004. For me, as a transmasculine person who is also intersex, I was able to reclaim the sovereign right to my body by taking testosterone and having top surgery as an elective procedure.    

Advice to his "closeted" self:

Be fearless because problems and people always seem bigger and more threatening in your mind. Trust your gut. Live out loud and be bold as fuck. Don’t try to be someone else or contort yourself to get the love that you want. You are beautiful just the way you are.

What is your experience being "out" in Atlanta: Atlanta is a very queer city! I moved to Atlanta from Oakland, CA and I thought that the Bay was gay, but Atlanta has the Bay beat! I rarely “come out” because people automatically identify me as some kind of queer person. Since there are so many studs who are a part of the cultural fabric of Atlanta I often get mistaken for a butch woman. When I first started my transition, getting misgendered would be devastating. Living in Atlanta has taught me that people’s perception of who I am is based on their own concepts of gender and not mine. So whenever misgender me nowadays, I correct them if I do at all and keep it pushing.

 

Barry Lee

He/Him

Instagram @barryleeart 

Came out at: 22

On Coming Out:

I knew I was bi since I was probably 6, but I didn't know it was such a thing until I moved away from my small hometown in North Carolina to Atlanta when I was 17. I remember calling myself bisexual when I was 17 and 18, but then denying it, mainly due to believing others that bisexuality was a phase. I had originally told my parents at 18, to which my Mother kind of kept hinting it as a "phase."

My friend jokes now that I walked into his dorm room one day at 18 like Kramer, and proclaimed, "I think I'm bi now!" with no further explanation. At that time though, I was feeling ashamed about it, so I really brushed it off and recanted that statement for a few years until I hit a depression when I was 22. Events in my life really made me say, "No I am Bisexual. This is valid. This is me." 

Mainly I had to come out to myself and ignore the harmful rhetoric that bisexuality is an invalid phase or an experiment. I remember the first person I came out to was after a party where just some weird drama happened and it was just me and my friend Erin. I was drunk and just frustrated, I blurted out "I'm bisexual, I know it." I soon came out to my other close friends. I came out to my Mom and Dad, who while they're supportive they kind of just don't talk about it. More importantly though, I came out to myself. 

Advice to his "closeted" self:

I would say, “Trust yourself, you are valid.” The hardest thing for me when I was closeted was not seeing representation of a bisexual man, but that love is out there for you. You will find many loves and many flings that you think are love but aren't, which is OK too. 

What is your experience being "out" in Atlanta:

I make a conscious effort to be open about my bisexuality because I don't want to be a part of my own sexuality's erasure. I have found that through being out I have met more bisexuals than I expected. My experience being out in Atlanta has been mixed. Being Bi doesn't widen the pool of dating for me but rather makes it more concentrated, more meaningful, more deep because to be comfortable with dating someone regardless of the their sexual preference is what should be the case but isn't always the case. It doesn't take someone special to love someone who is Bisexual, it just takes someone who knows how to love and knows that love is unconditional & expansive. 

 

Jaybella Banks 

She/Her/Queen

Instagram @J_bellabankz

Came out at 17

On Coming Out:

I’ve always knew this woman was deep down inside me. It was my senior year of high school when I fully let my hair down and let my light shine bright, and she hasn’t stop shining since!

There comes a time in your life when you stop living for others and start living for yourself. I told my folks and that’s all she wrote. As of 2009, a star was born. She her me loves the skin I’m in.

Advice to her "closeted" self:

Please stop being so scared to let your light shine through. You are a beautiful star. There are people out here who will love you regardless. Spread more love than hate. Trust me, you can build a family anywhere you go!

What is your experience being "out" in Atlanta?

It’s been great. I started drag in 2013, and I admit I’m addicted. I’ve built a name for myself here in Atlanta, and I love being out in one of the best cities there is. 

 

Dago Blanco 

He/Him

Instagram @dagoblanco

Came out at 16

On Coming Out:

I knew I had an interest in men since I was a child but never really had the words to define how I felt until high school. The first time I experimented with the same sex was during sophomore year. I had just gotten out of a 2-year relationship with a girl. There was a boy from a neighboring school that had taken an interest in me, and I took advantage of it under discreet intentions. It was a brief encounter, a juvenile one at that, considering that I lost my virginity to this person, but I decided not to pursue it any further. This upset him, giving him the agency to out me to his entire school. 

I underestimated the power of high school gossip, as word traveled from his school to mine almost overnight. I was mortified and confused. I felt stripped of any power. Before I could figure anything out for myself, the decision had already been made for me. It was a while before I decided to take back my power and own my sexuality. 

In the interim of that debacle, I continued to fool around with guys, but I was very messy about it. So much so that my way of coming out to my mom was her catching me in the driveway hooking up with a guy in his car. Family is very much like high school in the respect of the gossip train, especially in a Hispanic household like mine. Eventually word got to my dad, and yet again I found myself powerless. My family wasn’t thrilled exactly, but it wasn’t long before they came around. 

I’ll never forget my dad looking me in the eyes and saying “Dago, if you’re going to be gay, please be the gayest you can be.” For the first time in a long time, I felt powerful.  

Advice to his "closeted" self:

 If I had advice for my “closeted” self, I would say to not be afraid of the confusion, but rather let it fuel you. The greatest discoveries have come from curiosity. I would tell myself to give in to your urges and seek your own definitions before you let others define you. I would empower myself before I let others take it from me.

What is your experience being "out" in Atlanta?

I’ve experienced more growth this last year living in Atlanta than I have in my other 24 years of life. The community that I have found in Atlanta has taught me more about myself as a human and has allowed me the space to explore what being queer truly meant. I have experienced more freedom being queer than I ever had when I identified as a gay male. Atlanta has provided me safe spaces like Mary’s and Heretics, like push my own boundaries emotionally and physically. I consider myself a more well-rounded person because of the bravery I’ve encountered from other out people here in Atlanta. I am constantly inspired by the comradery and love being shown in this community.  

 

Franco Bejarano

Him/Them

Instagram @Boy_with_phone

Came out at 22

On Coming Out

During grad school, I took a counseling internship at an HIV clinic, and week after week I would see men in their 50s and 60s talk about their lifelong depression. What they all had in common was that they had lived their whole lives in the closet. I had been out to friends for years, but never to my family. I realized that if I wanted to live a wholesome life, I couldn’t compartmentalize who I was. 

At the same time, I was going through a devastating break-up. I was in an extremely sad place and wanted to seek comfort with my mother, and I told her. She could care less about my sexuality and only cared about my happiness. It felt like a decade-long weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

The funny thing is that she has a pretty bad memory, so she actually forgot I had come out. So two years later during a family dinner I casually started talking about a guy a was seeing. She looked speechless yet exited, and then said “Well. I had always known,” so I actually came out twice.

Advice to his "closeted" self:

There will be a multitude of people that will adore you, and you will find a kind and amazing community of individuals that will support you. Take your time accepting yourself. Just know life will get so much better afterwards.

What is your experience being "out" in Atlanta:

I actually have never encountered any homophobia in the city. I find that people here are very respectful of the spectrum. You can identify as anything within the LGBTQ+ alphabet and live your live accordingly and still find kind and loving community. I’m sure the prejudice is out there. I can’t deny it. And maybe I’m letting my privilege show through. But my experience has been delightful, both at the personal and professional level.

 

Theresa Davis 

Her/Poet/Pirate/Mermaid

Instagram @shepiratepoet

Came out at 31 

On Coming Out:

I peeked out [of the closet] for two years in college. I fell in love with a girl, but I thought I was just a Lisabian, not a Lesbian. I was only attracted to her at the time.

A week before my father passed away, he had a conversation with myself and each of my siblings. My conversation spoke specifically to my unhappy marriage, my attempting to become invisible by not actively participating in my art. He raised his voice, something rarely done, and said, “Love who you want to love! Live your goddamn life, and stop trying to disappear. I can see you.”

After we memorialized my father, I came out to my husband, asked for a divorce. Coming out when I was married to a man was awkward, but my children and family supported me and that meant everything.

I believe my father knew I was queer, even if we never had the conversation directly. It was something that was gnawing at me for years. I began to write and perform, striving to be one of the most visible queer poets in Atlanta.

Advice to her "closeted" self:

Don’t teach your children that complacency is the equivalent of, or as good as, happiness. Don’t be complacent and those who love you will support you, because that is what love means.

What is your experience being "out" in Atlanta:

I have run into some interesting situations with people who have known me. Early on, many thought it was a phase, nope. I have a very religious cousin who tried to sin blast me, I reminded her about what her religion says about her life past and present. She shut it down pretty quickly.

As an artist I have always been out, so it only becomes problematic for others when they try to separate my black, from my woman, from my gay. Then I explain to them that every poem that comes out of my mouth no matter the protest or the event, is woman, black and gay, and it will not be compartmentalized for anyone, anything or any protest.

Because I am very supported by my immediate community, it surprises me when I am confronted and my values questioned because of my sexuality. Nothing that colorful tongue lashing won’t fix.

 

Leo Hollen, Jr.

He/Him

Instagram @leothemanlion 

Came out at 15 ... basically

On Coming Out:

I had gone to my very first Pride celebration the June before my sophomore year of high school with my friend Sarah, the first person I had come out to. Her mother drove us, and I finally had my own rainbow beads and rainbow shirt, met my first drag queen. Being newly out, I was proud to walk around looking tacky as fuck in nothing but rainbows, tank tops and pride buttons. 

I went home, and my mother basically grilled me on what I was doing and what these rainbows meant. This is also after she found an Advocate and XY Magazine I had secretly bought from Borders. I just told her, straight up, I was gay. Not the best idea. She gave me the silent treatment for about 2 years after that. It really fucked up my confidence for years. 

I grew up in a very religious household, but my dad wasn't as stressed. To make an even longer story short, it probably had something to do with just wanting to see a son succeed where his other sons hadn't.  He never treated me differently, never stopped smiling at me ‘til the day he died. 

My mother and I are so good now though. She came to the premiere of Queer Moxie, she knows about guys I'm dating and even wears Queer Moxieshirts. 

In high school, I lived my life open as a proud homo...I had asked a guy out at one point, he'd told people...people must know I'm into dudes I figured. But no...fast forward two years later, my senior year and I read a piece I'd written discussing a relationship with a guy for an English assignment...and OH the whispers! It was funny. I had people coming up to me telling me they never knew, and giving me hugs and shit while me and my people are looking at each other like "But...didn't we...I thought...he came out...is this...?" It was odd. But people are odd sometimes. Even still, it was really, really rough for a while until my mom and I hashed it out and became close again. It's getting easier, but those residual memories can get to you sometimes.

Advice to his "closeted" self:

Do what you need to do, and stop being so scared to do it. Sure, you're gonna come out and your folks may not be cool with it immediately, but don't let it bring your confidence down because you're gonna need that more than you know. Being confident is so important. Keep your head up, 

What is your experience being "out" in Atlanta?

I was already out when I moved to Atlanta. I went to high school and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. So living as an out gay adult in Atlanta...it's a good place to be queer. But the south is still an interesting place. I don't wanna talk down on the region, because I have roots in the south, my mom and dad are from Alabama and Mississippi, and there is a charm here that cannot be denied. But I know it's a harder fight down here. So I have much respect and love for those people in-between the major cities and landmarks all over the country who are still struggling to come out or who just can't come out. Not everyone has the privilege to live in a gay mecca like Atlanta. 

 

Travis Denison AKA Peaches

He/Him

Came out to himself at 24, to family at 36

On coming out:

I grew up in Jesup, Ga., and that's just one letter away from Jesus, so you know I was raised Southern Baptist and was scared to ever come out. I hid it my whole life by being involved in everything else possible.  In high school, I lettered in three sports and was student body president and prom king.  At Reinhardt College, I became student body president and homecoming king then transferred to UGA and was selected a Mic Man for the football games and named won title of Big Man on Campus.  

I was really good at hiding who I was but dying inside.  After college, I moved to LA. was a contestant on MTV's The Wade Robson Project, and I moved to LA and became a professional dancer and was represented by DDO Artists Agency.  My first weeks in LA, I saw boys holding hands in public, and I could not believe my eyes. What was this magical place that I had always dreamed of? It took a year of still getting the nerve to be gay in public, but Baaaaaaaby when I did, I did it!  

I kept having nightmares that I would come out to my mom and she would kill herself, so every time I went home and wanted to come out, I didn't because of those dreams. Years passed by, and I was living it up in LA but still hiding every time I came home to family. I moved back to Atlanta and met an amazing group of friends that pushed me to be proud of who I was and told me that I would feel so much better after doing so. Through all of this, Peaches kept popping up throughout the years, and she gave me the confidence I needed to come out.

I finally came out to my Mom on September 13, 2015, and it was a day I will never forget.  We cried, and she told me that she felt like someone told her that I was dead.  It hurt so bad, but I finally did it.  It hasn't been easy not hearing your Mother say I love you when she is hanging up the phone, but once again my amazing group of friends told me to give her time.  Time has passed, and today we say I love you again and hug each other when I am at home. The best part of all of this is that my little sister gained the strength to come out, and she is now happily married with her partner and they have two beautiful children.

Advice to his "closeted" self:

Stop trying to impress everyone else, and start living for yourself.  Things are not always going to be easy, but with a little patience, a big blonde wig and a pair of sparkly stilettos, you are going to be just fine honey!

What is your experience being "out" in Atlanta?

Being out in Atlanta to me is finding what I call my "chosen family."  My group of friends that I surrounded myself with and listened to their stories gave me the strength to finally come out to my family and I am forever indebted to them. Also being able to dress up as Peaches and go out and put a smile on someone's face that may have needed it, is when I know that I am making a difference in our community!!!

 

Adah-Duval Pittman-Delancey

She/Her

Instagram @adahduval

Came out at 18

On Coming Out:

I was in the first semester of my freshman year at Florida State University, and it was time for winter break. Instead of going home to Miami with my family, I went to visit my girlfriend in Baltimore. My intention was to make it home for Christmas, but I was having so much fun being out and moving freely through the streets of Baltimore. I was literally having a gay immersive experience, going to Clubs and meeting more lesbian and gay people then I had ever met in my entire life. So I decided I wanted to stay. I called my mom and told her, and she reluctantly agreed.

I made it back to Miami on Dec. 29. I was unpacking when my mother approached me and asked how my trip went. I told her it was fun and that I had a lot of fun with my friends. She asked about the woman I was visiting, “Does she like women?” I said yes, without making eye contact. She took a deep breath and asked, “Do you like women?” I turned and looked at her and said, “Yes.”

What advice would you give to your "closeted" self:

I’d tell myself to share my feelings with my sister. She started asking me if I liked girls when I was 10. I had my first girlfriend at 13 and navigated my faith, middle school and high school with other young lesbians. I’d have probably avoided a lot of risky behavior and feelings of being “hated” by God.

What is your experience being "out" in Atlanta:

It’s amazing. I’ve presented an event for LGBTQ women called LovHer since 2011. In addition, I’ve helped brands create culturally component campaigns for LGBTQ people, and I attribute all of it to being out in Atlanta. The entrepreneurial culture of the city and the overall public sentiment about being “out” is pretty widely accepted here, specifically from my lived experience as a lesbian. I have a personal commitment to encouraging LGBTQ people of color to move to Atlanta because there’s no other place like it in the South. You’re surrounded by a diverse range of people from varying educational, cultural, political and religious backgrounds. There’s a community for however you live in your queer identity.

In short, if you’re reading this and thinking about a new city — COME TO ATLANTA!

This feature originally ran as the Atlanta Pride Week cover story in Q magazine. Read the full issue below, and pick up a new edition each week: