Even if quarantine is lifted in Hungary, travel is still restricted. For example, we cannot fly overseas. Therefore, this month we brought you Alyssa, who will take us on a tour of the United States, more specifically of the Midwest.
Hey, Alyssa. Can you introduce yourself please?
My name is Alyssa Billington. I was born and raised in rural Illinois, USA. I’m currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign getting a degree in Human Development and Family Studies. I do research in the area of sexual identity development with an intersectional lens. I like playing and writing music. I can play five instruments and I love to sing. I also enjoy craft beer, strategic board games, and camping out in beautiful places. I have known I was attracted to women from a very young age, and have used both “lesbian” and “queer” as terms to describe myself. I became involved in LGBTQ+ activism in college and have made a point to stay involved in my local LGBTQ+ communities and center LGBTQ+ experiences in my research.
The US is a huge country; you live in the Midwest region. How is it to be an LGBTQ+ person in that area?
To answer this question, let me share my personal story first. I grew up in a small rural town in Illinois. I knew I was different from a very young age, although I didn’t truly understand how different I was until much later. I did know that it was something I was supposed to be ashamed of. As is true in many small rural towns in the United States, religion played a large role in everyday life. Throughout my childhood and into my adolescence, I prayed that God would make me “normal.” Of course, that never happened, and I’m happy about that; but I never imagined then that I would be as comfortable in myself and my sexual identity as I am now. I never knew other queer people existed, let alone that there was a community out there for me to find.
I went to college in another rural town, but in Missouri this time. I thought I would immediately embrace my lesbian identity in a new place with pride, however I was surprised to find myself feeling overwhelming shame. I was confident in so many ways, but the thought of saying the words “I’m gay” out loud to anyone made me shake uncontrollably with panic. I met other people in the LGBTQ+ community for the first time at this liberal arts university that became an island of safety. Although I’ve never had the opportunity to become a part of a lesbian community, I did find a home within the broader LGBTQ+ community. I never knew true acceptance until connecting with other queer individuals. From there I found the confidence to be a leader in LGBTQ+ activism and the courage to be my authentic self to everyone in my life.
What you have just described might surprise many of our readers. Generally people think of the US as a safe place for the LGBTQ+.
As a citizen of the United States, I did witness several strides toward equality for the LGBTQ+ community: the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell military policy, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the recently voted upon federal protection from workplace discrimination are a few examples that come to mind. However, what was true in my youth is still the experience of many LGBTQ+ individuals in the United States today. In short: being queer in the US is hard.
We have made substantial gains, but the conservatives in this country are constantly trying to take them away from us. Just recently, the Trump administration has changed healthcare policy so that healthcare professionals are permitted to deny care to transgender individuals. Efforts are being made to ensure that LGBTQ+ people can no longer adopt. Queer people of color face heightened hate crimes and are persecuted by the police. Of course we can find community and acceptance (particularly in urban areas) but many of us are afraid to be ourselves in at least one domain of life. Even today, as a proud lesbian in a committed relationship who studies LGBTQ identity, I wore a Gay Pride shirt at a popular park in rural Indiana and the whole time I wanted to take it off for fear of derogatory comments. All this to say that there are a lot of good things about being LGBTQ+ in this country, but there is also a long way to go to achieve true equality,
Finally, can you share a memorable coming out story of yours?
As I was thinking about how to respond to this question, many stories came to my head. But I would have to say that my coming out to my parents was the most memorable for me.
I was 18 years old and I was at home on winter break from college. I really felt at the time that I could not fully experience an authentic life without my parents knowing who I was. Once I told them, I could finally be an openly gay person. But it was no easy task. Both of my parents grew up in the same conservative small town that had stifled my own existence. For most of my life they were not my family who I trusted and felt safe with, but rather more like enemy spies who would turn on me if they knew the truth. When I went to college it became clear to me that I needed to see a therapist about my struggles with my sexuality. She helped me prepare a letter of what I would want to say to my parents. My 2012 New Years resolution was to read that letter to my parents.
On January 2nd of that year I sat them down and started reading. I’m not sure I can offer much detail about what happened next because the panic had hijacked my mental faculties, but my mom cried and my dad debated as if his logic could poke enough holes in this new reality to make it go away. The next thing I truly remember is driving to my brother’s house thinking, “I am free” and a phone call the next day from my mom asking, “are you sure?”
It wasn’t until a few years later that my mom would come around. One day her sister (my aunt) had come up to her to ask, “Is Alyssa gay?” My mom reluctantly confirmed that I was. My aunt then went on to tell her that she found out about me from two people gossiping about me in line in front of her at the local grocery store. I believe this was a turning point for my mother. That day she learned that there would be enough people against me in this world that didn’t even take the time to know me; she shouldn’t be one of them.
My dad, on the other hand, struggles a bit more with my sexual identity. He’s a man with rigid ideas and values. Many of them are good, but he is one of the many that believes his privilege is well-earned. We have never talked about my coming out to him that night. He has never acknowledged any of my girlfriends. He has done and said many things to ensure that I feel shame for my sexual identity and my “lifestyle.” Now I am in a long-term committed relationship with another woman (she is amazing) and he finally has to face that this is a reality he cannot shatter. Hopefully he comes around!