I am a black woman, raised by a religious single mother who never pushed me to pursue anything other than God, a husband and children.
Nicole Gilley

I never wanted to be gay. I was raised by a single mother who taught me that homosexuality was the one abomination that God could never overlook. For the first three decades of my life, I did everything I could to make my gay go away. I’d spend countless nights crying on my hands and knees, begging God to take it from me, unsure why he’d burden me with it if it was truly a sin. The nights I didn’t spend praying were spent underneath countless men whose names I never even bothered to learn. I truly believed that if I slept with enough men, I could jump-start my heterosexuality. Of course, it didn’t work.

When I was 23 and living in Los Angeles, I began working at a call center taking calls for a dental referral service. It was there that I developed my first serious crush, on a woman I worked with. When she realized my feelings toward her through my lack of subtlety, she outed me to the entire call center.

The humiliation forced me to leave the company and begin a career in sales, where I continued to avoid my sexuality and sleep with men. By the time I was 31, I enrolled in a local community college and continued to do anything to avoid my sexuality ― work, study, drink and go out. But when, at 32, I was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with gastritis and two stomach ulcers, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to pray the gay away. I finally accepted that I was a lesbian. I decided there in the hospital bed to do the next best thing to staying and avoiding my sexuality: I’d run away.

“I’d spend countless nights crying on my hands and knees, begging God to take it from me, unsure why he’d burden me with being gay if it was truly a sin.”

I began applying to four-year universities to transfer to, and very shortly after turning 33, I quit my job in California and moved to New York City, where I lived in Harlem and attended NYU. I had one goal in mind: to be true to myself and embrace my sexuality. New York seemed like the best place to do this. After moving, I realized that it wasn’t my mother’s shame that was holding me back; it was my own. While in New York, I spoke with my mom frequently and honestly believed that I could embrace being a lesbian and maintain a relationship with her. I never gave any thought to the effects my secrecy would have on me, my dating life or my relationship with my mother.

Even thousands of miles from my family, being openly gay wasn’t something that I could just switch on. Two months after I moved to New York, I finally built up the courage to go to my first lesbian bar. In the cold, I took the D train and headed downtown, and as I was approaching the bar, I saw a few women ― presumably lesbians ― outside smoking cigarettes, smiling and laughing. Controlled by fear and shame, I walked right past the bar, and instead, I went to a nearby wine bar and drank my shame away. I wondered how they could love themselves as they were. How could I get there? On my way home, I made the decision to never try that again; it was too anxiety provoking.

I could afford to live in New York and attend NYU for only one year before I gave up. I couldn’t go home, so I decided that I’d move to Las Vegas in January 2012 to attend the University of Nevada there. The same rules applied: I’d be gay in another state and get my college degree. I realized that going to a bar meant too much pressure to connect with other lesbians, so in 2015, I gave online dating a shot and met a woman. Being with her was the beginning of my being able to understand myself. It was clear that I was in love, and I wanted the whole world to know; however, she was closeted. This was a crushing blow because on top of my own shame issues, I was now dealing with hers. Eventually I was unable to take it, and we went our separate ways. I wanted nothing more than to be able to call a familial lifeline and lay it all out, but I couldn’t.

At the end of 2015, I was 38 years old, and I had graduated from college and was more than ready to return home to Los Angeles, but I still had no intention of coming out to my family. It took me six months before I decided I needed the help of a therapist, and before I knew it, I found myself sitting across from a white woman in her early 30s, crying my heart out and telling her how I didn’t want to be gay. I wondered if she could truly understand what it was like to be a black lesbian. Did she know that the black community is notoriously homophobic? I am a black woman, raised by a religious single mother who never pushed me to pursue anything other than God, a husband and children. Growing up with the conflict of who I was and who she wanted me to be brought me a great deal of pain, confusion and depression.

“I am a black woman, raised by a religious single mother who never pushed me to pursue anything other than God, a husband and children.”

I wondered if my therapist could help me come to grips with the fact that my coming out could mean losing my mother’s love and acceptance. Could she help me build up enough strength to do what I had set out to do? Once a week for 90 minutes, I sat in a subtly decorated beige office learning how to say, “I’m a lesbian.” I worked with my therapist for about five months before I began to tell people.

Shortly before turning 40, I decided to tell a cousin first, and she was the epitome of support. Other friends were supportive too, but I feared telling my best friend. She hadn’t been outwardly accepting of homosexuality. In fact, gays were often the butt of her jokes. Four months after telling my cousin, I approached her, and to my surprise, she was extremely supportive. My fear was for nothing. For the past 20 years, she has worked tirelessly at playing matchmaker in my life; I suppose that role didn’t change for her, and now she introduces me to women instead of men.

It was a relief to have my close friends know the real me, but I was still anxious about how my religious relatives would react. Would they shun me? After slowly telling other cousins and family members, I realized these people all truly cared for me and didn’t care who I dated. They just wanted me to be happy. But I still had to speak to my mother.

It was a Saturday night, and my mother and I were sitting in a Roscoe’s Chicken. I initially tried to tell her that I was bisexual, hoping I could ease her into it. Of course, that didn’t work, and it just gave her false hope that I would still date a man. She adamantly said she would never accept my being a lesbian but stopped short of calling it and me disgusting.

Since then, it has been an ongoing conversation with her. When Chechnya had its gay purge, she was quick to say it’s better that the government get them before Jesus does.

“To say I wouldn’t want my mother’s acceptance and approval at 40 years old is a lie.”

My mother has also let me know that should I ever marry, she will not be in attendance. While that hurts the most, I’ve had to learn that this is her issue, not mine. I deserve to be happy in life, and there should be no shame in being who I am. My mother and I still speak; however, now our relationship lacks intimacy. She knows nothing of what is going in my life or the women I date, and she doesn’t care to ask. Our relationship is strictly small talk about politics or the things going on in her life. Her stance on my sexuality has not changed, and since she’s 75 years old, I don’t ever expect it to.

To say I wouldn’t want my mother’s acceptance and approval at 40 years old is a lie. I’d love it, but I realize I don’t need it for my happiness. Some days are better than others, but most days I find myself walking with a new sense of self and a new confidence from being an openly gay woman.

Coming out at 40 has been the most freeing thing I could do for myself, and my only regret is not having done it sooner. My nights are no longer spent crying, and with the encouragement of my therapist, my friends and my mentors, I find myself looking forward to exploring my new life as a lesbian and purging any lingering shame.

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