Emily loves her cats, photography, vintage clothing, people-watching, and indie sad girl music. She grew up in Texas, went to school in LA, and has lived in Nashville for the past seven years. This year, she’s excited to begin seriously pursuing a career in photography after years of considering it a hobby. She has a bad habit of falling asleep in rooms full of people. Emily enjoys connecting with others through stories, and is excited to share a snippet of hers with you. You can find her photography on Instagram at @emdashphotos.
“I’m worried I’m gay,” I wrote in my diary at 12 years old. “But I like boys. I always have.”
Those words represent a frame of mind that allowed me to ignore a significant part of myself until I had the courage, self-awareness, and self-love not to. While I’ve been out for about three years, embracing the queer identity and owning it as my own still feels new to me.
I often feel that I’m not “queer enough.” At the same time, everything about who I am, where I feel comfortable, and who I connect with, is steeped in queerness. I simultaneously share both feelings, which frame the queer identity that I claim today.
The story of my family and my upbringing played a huge role in forming my identity. I grew up in a very politically liberal but traditionally and religiously Jewish family in Fort Worth, Texas. My parents, who are from New York and Chicago, constantly reminded me and my siblings that we were not “actual” Texans, and the way we related (or didn’t relate) to our surroundings reinforced this. Few people really got us (but those who did realized what a force we were). My family is creative and their talents are impressive and we are so beautifully different. My dad is a college professor of film and television and used to write for soap operas. My brothers are thriving in New York City — my older brother works for the New York Times and my younger brother writes musicals. My mom is a Cantor (a spiritual leader in the Jewish clergy), and while she and my dad both grew up in culturally Jewish families, she became very interested in and dedicated to Judaism in adulthood and raised us at a level of observance that was unique to my immediate family. There wasn’t a huge Jewish community in Fort Worth at the time, and even the Jewish kids didn’t understand why my family was so religious. We practiced in a way it seemed only we understood.
Then there was the queerness. I’m the middle child of three, and both of my siblings identify as queer. We all lived our queerness uniquely, but queer culture always felt very strong in my family simply through the energy that forms when three kids are all trying to figure out who they are at different paces and through different stories.
I often feel that I’m not “queer enough.” At the same time, everything about who I am, where I feel comfortable, and who I connect with, is steeped in queerness.
I recognized my privilege at a young age by identifying with many of the characteristics that society expected of a little girl, while my siblings were frequently misunderstood and misgendered. My older brother was the only person who played Barbies and American Girl Dolls the “right” way (in my opinion), and was my favorite person to go shopping with. My most memorable Sunday afternoons (Sundays — not Saturdays — because Saturdays were the Jewish Sabbath which my family strictly observed) were spent at the mall, exploring Limited Too while my brother styled me, and perusing Bath and Body Works to choose which scented lotion we’d trade for our allowance. My younger sister never quite felt like my “sister” in a way I couldn’t articulate – which made a lot of sense when he came out as a trans man a couple of years ago. But growing up and being paired together by our assigned genders — sharing a bathroom, sharing clothes from time to time, sharing bedrooms on trips — gave us space to grow a bond all our own that grew far beyond that role of “sister.”
I noticed early on that I didn’t have to explain myself to others while my siblings frequently did. I didn’t have to defend my interests or correct people who called me by the wrong gender-based greeting. Things felt a little easier for me.
While my relationship with queerness has foundations in my family life, my experience of coming into my own sexuality felt very individual. My first inklings that I was attracted to girls surfaced in my early middle school years. Although my siblings clearly didn’t follow heteronormative expectations, my family was always openly accepting of the queer community, and I was in safe company (a privilege I will always appreciate), I felt nervous and uncomfortable with my thoughts and felt embarrassed sharing them with my family. I was diagnosed with OCD as a child and was well aware of my worries, so I talked about about my feelings in the context of OCD (“I’m worried that I like girls, but it’s just a worry, it’s just my OCD”). It felt easier to express myself that way, with that spirit of irrationality attached to my thoughts. I always came back to the fact that I liked boys, so my sense of queerness was just a worry, I didn’t actually have to deal with it. Mental illness was a familiar emotional battle at that point – but being queer? That felt like a little too much to handle. I took comfort in my huge boy crushes that often seemed straight out of a Lizzie McGuire episode. Even a therapist mused that because I liked boys, my queer worries were irrational. I don’t remember anyone telling me about the spectrum and fluidity of sexuality until I realized it myself. If there is anything I could shout to the young people of the world these days, it’s that every part of their sexualities and attractions are valid. They all deserve a seat at the table.
When I was in seventh grade, I shared a significant moment with a friend when we both came out to each other in our own ways — half-muttering that we kinda sorta maybe at one point thought about liking girls — and then never mentioned it again until we were in our mid-twenties, but had obviously carried that conversation with us. My senior year of high school I fell into an intense platonic relationship with a girl who I called my best friend but was wholeheartedly infatuated with. In college I stumbled into queer advocacy through my hunger to be successful in a leadership setting, and landed the role of “First Ally Director” of the University of Southern California’s Queer and Ally Student Assembly, with the intentions of embracing my connection to the community through my family while using my ally privilege to expand the assembly’s visibility. I always felt an underlying resentment of the ally label, though, and was unconsciously envious of those who fully embraced themselves. I wasn’t intentionally trying to bury my feelings — the queer identity just hadn’t clicked yet as mine to claim. At that point, too, I had a serious boyfriend, which in my mind meant that I had already made my heterosexual bed to lie in.
I don’t know if it was the self-awareness that comes with age, or the enlightenment that comes with embarking on a difficult breakup, but at 26 I came out as bi (though queer truly feels like a more fitting label now), and with it came liberation, joy, new friendships (several that arose out of failed dating attempts), a year-and-a-half long stint with green hair, a newfound appreciation for backwards baseball caps, and a joy for being myself that came with taking off the weight of a “worry” 14 years in the making. I finally allowed myself to be queer, not just by association with my siblings, but as myself.
If there is anything I could shout to the young people of the world these days, it’s that every part of their sexualities and attractions are valid.
Ten months into my newly single and extra-queer life (I couldn’t get enough of queer culture, and although I was very awkward at it, I loved the excitement and possibility of the dating process, something I didn’t experience by spending all of my early twenties in a serious relationship), I stumbled upon my now-boyfriend. After finally feeling the freedom and confidence to date women after years of not allowing myself to consider it, I was not looking or expecting to date a hetero cis male. I’d been there, done that, and was ready and excited to embrace my identity. I made it clear to him that I was in a big place of queerness, but I liked him and wanted to get to know him more. He didn’t mind. He wanted to know me, too. All of me. I loved that about him. And as I got to know him more, our connection felt too significant to dismiss. We entered into our relationship patiently, openly, and with a commitment to being ourselves.
I slowly realized that I could still be queer in a relationship that didn’t present itself outwardly as such. My queerness didn’t manifest in how I appeared to others, but in how I felt comfortable in my thoughts and free in my understanding of myself. Who I am is mine to claim. It’s different from the experience of my brothers and my friends. But it’s me, and figuring it all out is a loving process that I’m grateful I’ve given myself permission to do.
I love being bi, though often it’s a confusing identity to embrace. It can appear queer or heterosexual, depending on who you display affection toward. Sometimes I feel like my queerness doesn’t count because I live a seemingly heteronormative life. I have passing privilege, the same way I did when I was a child living life with my siblings. I don’t experience the struggles of the queer community in my day-to-day, which I feel is important to acknowledge. My experience is different. Things are easier for me in this relationship. But how I appear to a stranger in public doesn’t erase who I am. The sexuality of my partner doesn’t change my own. As my therapist once told me, “Your relationship is a queer relationship, because you’re in it.”
I’m a photographer, another title that I’m still getting used to, because it’s fairly new — it’s four years in the making, but a title I’ve recently started to take seriously. After casually shooting here and there on weekends and evenings, I’ve made the decision to put more time and energy into it. I’ll be transitioning to part time at my job next month to spend more time with photography, a scary decision that I’m embracing. Expanding queer visibility is one of the reasons I’m passionate about photography. I love photographing people who want to express who they are through art, who trust me to connect our shared visions and make something unique to both of us. I love creating that energy with another person. Being a photographer has given my queerness a whole new lens – literally and figuratively. It’s allowed me to connect with my community, it gives us space to create a safe environment in which to shoot together, to share ourselves and our ideas, to be creative and have fun and be free. It gives all of those feelings a tangible image that can be captured and shared and appreciated.
Who I am is mine to claim.
Today, I’m living a life that is authentic and free, and that is the gift I give to my younger self, that girl who only let half of her identity shine for so long. Today I am whole. I am growing and I am getting stronger, but I’m whole, and I’m proud.
ICYMI: More in our #lgbtSHEs series is here!