I want to start off by saying that I love you. I find myself talking about you to my friends and loved ones and I see how so much of what you’ve worked for and who you are is a part of what keeps me going and who I am.
That is the beginning of the coming out letter I never sent my mother. I started writing it one day last fall, while I was at work. I chose to write a letter because my mother has lived in Maryland since I was in college and I thought a phone call might be too much for me. I thought a letter might be easier since it would rob her of the opportunity to yell at me, or pray over me. We ended up talking on the phone before I could get the letter in the mail. I was in the midst of planning a trip to Philadelphia then to Maryland to see her. Somehow the conversation turned to my relationship status.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” she asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Do you want a boyfriend?”
“Nope.” There was a long pause. I felt like blurting it out right then, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
“Do you want a girlfriend?” She sounded so curious and anxious. I was shocked by the question. My stomach dropped and I started sweating profusely.
“I don’t want to talk about this right now,” I answered slowly. My voice felt small and distant.
“I don’t want to talk about this right now,” I repeated myself firmly. I could hear our breathing, slow and in sync.
“Well. . . don’t date girls.”
“Why?” I snapped at her.
“Because it’s. . . bad,” she responded.
To me, it didn’t sound like she believed that. I was hearing her repeat a baseless opinion. She hadn’t had any reason to question it until that moment. She changed the subject. She asked me if I thought she should get her nose pierced [yes, she should], we said our “I love yous,” and we hung up the phone.
I told my friend Jessica about that conversation a week or so later on the upstairs balcony at MSR during Pride, when I lamented my “out to friends” status. “That’s one way of coming out!” she shouted over the loud music. I didn’t know how to explain that my mother is a religious Black woman from the South, and that that exchange probably wasn’t enough. That night, I decided to come out to her in person when I went to visit in November.
When I was little you taught me that a lie by omission is still a lie. It’s been difficult for me to keep this from you because I pride myself on my honesty in all other aspects of my life.
I arrived in Washington, DC, and I met my mom at the downtown library she works at. She still had a few loose ends to tie up and she wanted to show me off to her coworkers. We stopped at a fellow managers office so she could brag about me. “This is my daughter, Ifeanyi,” she beamed. The man took a big step back. “Ifeanyi?!” he echoed. He’d been working with my mother for a few years and he didn’t know that she was married to an Igbo man. He asked me if my father had taken me to Nigeria, and if I spoke Igbo, to which I answered no and no. I stood next to her and smiled while she told him what a smart, creative, musical, talented person I was. She was beaming. It felt great to be praised. It felt awful to know that if they knew who I was, my mother might feel differently and he would have no warmth for me as an Igbo girl.
I’ve known I was queer for a long time now, and I felt very guilty about it until a few years ago. My reasons for keeping it a secret were largely driven by fear of losing the people I care about most.
I came out to my mother outside the nail salon that she likes to go to near her apartment in Maryland. We were waiting for a Lyft to take us to the National Museum of Women in the Arts–I really wanted to go. The night before, she asked me if I'd seen any cute boys in Philadelphia over dinner and wine. I told her no. I didn’t tell her about the wonderful Tinder date I went on with a cute girl while I was there, even though I was still giddy. I didn’t tell her about the queer babes I hung out with in West Philly. The questions turned my food into wet cement in my stomach and throat.
I came out to my mother, and she told me that she already knew because of “all the feminism” and some photo she found of me kissing a girl when I was in high school. I started to argue for all the hetero feminists out there, but she put her hand up to stop me. I didn't know what photo she was talking about (still don’t), but I do enjoy the idea of a reality in which I had game as a teenager.
“I’m disappointed,” she told me with tears in her eyes, “disappointed.” That was a punch in the gut. Especially after all the admiration the day before for other aspects of my identity I have no control over.
We rode to the museum in silence. We went on a tour of the museum and had lunch in the café. She bought me the little keyboard magnet I have on my fridge from the museum gift shop. She took me to a vegan restaurant she knew I would like. She cooked me breakfast and dinner every day. We don’t get to see each other often enough, and we both knew this would be my only visit for a while. My mother pretended like I hadn’t said anything. I was in town for a few more days after I came out, and it didn’t come up again. I’d hoped to have an open and honest conversation with my mom about what I’ve been experiencing. I worked up the nerve to have that conversation, and I was ready. I hadn't considered that she might not be.
It’s a relief to know that this is just who I am; there’s nothing wrong with me. That revelation has changed my whole world. I’ve never been this happy before.
The morning that I left, she made a big breakfast and I got to work on packing. When the Supershuttle made it to her place, we hugged goodbye. “I’m sorry we didn’t do too much of anything while you were here, kiddo,” she looked down at the ground.
“That’s okay,” I told her. “I came out to you and we went to the museum. I did what I came here to do.”
“You spent all that money to come up here and tell me that?!” She feigned surprise and smiled a little.
“Yeah, it’s important to me,” I said nodding and crying. We hugged once more, tightly. We said “I love you” in each other’s ears.
I made my way back to Atlanta a little lighter.
Ify Akiti is an Atlanta raised, Nigerian-American creative. They are currently plotting world domination.