"Representation is everything."
Updated: Aug 19
If I could describe my experience of growing up queer in the ballet world in one word, it would be confusion. Part of me hates using this word because it is sometimes used to belittle the experience of queer individuals. We’re told that “This is just a phase. You’ll grow out of it, or you’re just confused” in an effort to diminish our identities. However, confusion, or rather my disbelief of how I felt in regard to my sexuality is what most accurately describes my experience growing up, and it stemmed from the heteronormativity and gender roles that permeate our society and are especially present in the ballet world. When I was constantly told over the course of many years that I should feel one way and that was not how I felt, I learned to doubt the feelings that were deepest and truest to myself.
As girls, our society tells us from the youngest of ages that we should like feminine things and that we should like boys. I was only good at one of those things. During performances, I loved wearing the stunning tutus and headpieces and would take more pictures of my costumes than I could count, so I could savor their beauty even after the shows were over. I truly loved how feminine it all was, and this was a massive source of confusion for me. I thought that being feminine and being gay were mutually exclusive. I was led to believe that it was not possible to be both. As a child and even as a young adult, I had only seen one form of representation of lesbians, and it was not something that I related to. How could I be gay if I was so into ballet and loved all of these stereotypically feminine things?
In addition to the stereotypical femininity that is so deeply intertwined with ballet, the lack of queer female representation in the ballet world was another phenomenon that added to my confusion. I absolutely idolized professional ballet dancers, and I wanted to be exactly like them. But where were the gay female ballet dancers? There weren’t any. Or at least that’s what I thought when I was growing up because there was no representation (that I was aware of at least). I’d look to professional ballet companies and see a number of openly gay men, but I never, not even once, was aware of a single gay woman. I thought that I couldn’t be gay because there were no gay women in ballet. The logic was as simple to me as: I don’t know of any queer dancers in the ballet community, and I am part of the ballet community, so I must not be queer.
Because the thought that I might be gay was so terrifying to me, I repressed it to the best of my ability. I used my femininity and my involvement in ballet to justify to myself that there was no way I could be gay. These false perceptions that I held as truths for so many years clashed with my genuine feelings towards women that wouldn’t go away as much as I desperately wished that they would. I spent so much of my time on a subconscious level living in fear that someone would find out. Even when I went away to summer intensives each year, my least favorite part of the day was falling asleep at night because I occasionally talk in my sleep, and I was always worried that I would accidentally out myself, and my roommate wouldn’t want to live in the same room as me anymore.
In the past year or so, I have come an extremely long way from those days of feeling ashamed to be gay. The hardest part for me was coming to terms with my identity myself. I’m in my early twenties now and this is something that I’ve wrestled with on a subconscious level for about a decade and on a conscious level for several years. I’m still in the process of coming out, as I have only come out to a few people so far, but as I become more and more aware of other women who I identify with and relate to who are also gay, I grow more comfortable with who I am. Representation is everything.
Although I have grown a lot in regard to accepting myself, I still have a long way to go. I still fear that I will not be accepted by individuals that I have yet to come out to. I fear that I will face discrimination in my future career as I want to go into medicine, and I have no control over my patients’ and my superiors’ individual beliefs, however misguided they might be. I fear a lot of things that stem from my sexuality, but as I go forward and work towards my goals, I want to strive to be true to myself. When we devote so much energy to hiding our authentic selves and try to become people that we’re not, we do a disservice to ourselves and to everyone around us.
I look forward to becoming more connected to the LGBTQ+ community and learning from the strength and resilience of my fellow queer people!