It was a chilly November day in rural Indiana. I walked down the street with my sister, my heartbeat ringing in my ears. I had something I needed to tell her, but I wasn’t quite sure how. My sister, three and a half years my junior was so different from me, and this would only add another layer to that, and perhaps more distance, or so I feared. My sister was the girly girl of the family. My parents always commented on how beautiful she was, with her silky brown hair and racially ambiguous features. My mother always talked about how my sister was the social butterfly of the three of her children, whereas I was the nerdy athlete. I enjoyed school, and playing basketball, and though I had friends, no one would describe me as popular in middle or high school.
Though we were different, we shared almost everything growing up, down to the bedroom we both occupied from the moment she was born. We were also nearly the exact same size as infants: 7 lbs, 12 oz. I, however, was an inch longer at 21 inches, a height differential I still have on her to this day. We shared a love of pop music that drove our brother and father crazy, and read all of the same teen girl young adult novels. Though we shared so much, I still did not know if I could tell her the secret I held.
“You’re acting weird,” she said to me as we walked back from CVS, a trek we often made to get snacks on the weekend.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She rolled her eyes. “Then why are you fidgeting with the bag?”
I took a deep breath. I knew I should tell her, and I wanted to, but the words hung on the tip of my tongue, thick with meaning and fear. She looked at me expectantly.
“I’m dating Sky,” I mumbled quickly.
She stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. “The girl you talk to on the phone?”
“Uh, yes,” I responded. “I know it’s weird.”
“Uh huh,” she said, quietly pondering the information I shared.
“So do you have any questions?”
“Ok, well if you could just not tell Mom and Dad, that would be awesome.”
“No way am I telling them! They’d totally freak out!”
I raised my eyebrows. “Because I’m dating a girl?”
She looked at me like I was an idiot. “Because you met her on the internet.”
For the next two months, my sister kept my secret. She never batted an eye, and over the years she came to love my, then, girlfriend.
When I first came out, my sexual orientation wasn’t really a big thing for me. I had spent much of my life growing up as a brown body in a White place, providing some of the only color in my Pleasantville-esque town. I reacted to my phenotypical difference by trying to shield anything else that could make me stand out. I stopped wearing masculine clothing, and remained relatively quiet about my attraction to women, even after I initially came out. Once I went to college, however, much of that changed.
I left for school in September of 2009 when my sister was 15, and my brother 13. Over the next four years, I grew into an activist with a love of all things political and social justice. My sister and brother grew as well, but in a different world. I missed speech meets, basketball games, football games, birthday parties, haircuts, and inside jokes. We lived separate lives, and in many ways, I had my queer life at school and my slightly less queer life at home. My family never forced me to hide any portion of my identity, but as I wrestled with the intersections of my gender, sexuality, and race, they processed what the changes in my life meant for them.
My sister does this thing where she tilts her head and mulls things over before passing final judgment. I remember this look the summer after my junior year. We ventured to JC Penney for some midsummer shopping. I pushed for the trip because I desperately wanted to try on a pair of men’s jeans. As they settled low on my hips, I breathed out a sigh of relief. They felt like home. Jeans became chinos and button downs, and then I added cologne and ties. Each time I expanded my wardrobe to include more masculine items, I became more settled in my self-expression. A simple piece of clothing morphed into an identity, one that became more important to me over time.
Before that summer, I was hardly ever read as queer. With each new article of clothing, I purchased, however, my queerness became more and more visible. For my sister that meant that other people physically saw my queerness, and it wasn’t something that she could just divulge on her own terms anymore. I feared what that would mean for our relationship, especially after she found the men’s underwear I bought.
“Are those men’s underwear?” She asked after finding the package of my newly purchased briefs, the judgment evident in her voice.
I froze. I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t know what would be implied if I answered truthfully. “Yes,” I said hesitantly.
“Why in the world would you buy that?”
I shrugged. “Because I wanted to.”
She eyed me slowly, and I could see the wheels turning in her head, needing a second to figure out how things fit in her mind and her life. “Ok,” she responded, and that was that.
My sister showed her love in boisterous ways, always greeting me at the door by jumping into my arms, but she often did smaller things to show that she loved my queerness too. Two of my most precious items came from my sister: a mug and a shot glass. She gave me the mug as a present around Christmas time with a smile on her face. It was rainbow, slanted to the right, and said, “I’m so gay, I can’t even drink straight” in big, bold letters. A rainbow cape adorned the “super gay” shot glass she found for me, an extra special treat because we regularly pick up shot glasses for one another. She has also made a habit of requesting rainbow gear every June, proudly wearing the ribbon I brought back from Twin Cities Pride on her keychain.
More so than her subtle visible support of my community, my popular, normative sister surprised me one evening with a truly meaningful gesture.
“So I was talking with my roommates about what I wanted for my wedding,” she said after dinner.
Though neither of us are engaged yet, we talk about this sort of thing often. I was adamant about drag queens at my reception, which earned a chuckle from my mother. “Yeah?”
“Well we were talking about what you would wear as a bridesmaid…”
“Well I said that I would wear a dress,” I answered. And that was true. My sister and I chatted a couple of times previously about what it might look like to have me in the wedding party with my gender expression, and both of those times I expressed deep discomfort with the idea of a dress, but said I would do it if it meant that much to her.
“I know, but I think if the suit matches the dresses than that would be fine. I really am just concerned about color.”
“I think that will work,” I responded with a giant grin on my face.
With one sentence, I knew my sister saw me wholly. Without a doubt, she will always be by my side and strive to understand the person I am, queerness and all. From the moment I told her the truth about Sky to now, she has never wavered in her love and commitment to our sisterhood, even if she has been challenged. Just as she provided me with small affirmations, I say thank you with hugs. Each time I wrap my arms around her, it is a whispered thank you for her patience, kindness, and willingness to learn. I’m looking forward to the day I stand next to her at her wedding, sporting a gray suit and lavender tie, my smile saying silently what I’ve felt since I first held her in my arms:
I love you.
Katie Barnes is a writer, thinker, and activist. They have been active in LGBTQ+ organizing since college, and continue that work through serving as the Network Director for GO! Athletes, the President of the Campus Pride Advisory Board, and working with the LGBT Sports Coalition. Katie is currently finishing their M.S. in Student Affairs in Higher Education at Miami University (OH). Read more of Katie’s thoughts on their blog: www.katiebarnes3.wordpress.com. You can follow Katie on Twitter at @katie_barnes3, or email: [email protected]