“Do you remember sitting back and envisioning what your life was ‘supposed to look like’ when you were young? For me, there was never a clear picture, but the fuzziness hinted I was not perfectly suited or inclined to meet the expectations placed upon me by both my family and society.
As a child, I was often described as animated, bossy, independent, and creative, with an expansive sense of adventure and expensive taste. The word ‘princess’ was often thrown around me, a term I quickly grew to detest, though I had a deep admiration for Princess Diana. I believe I was one of the first to own the limited-edition purple Beanie Baby made in her honor. I grew up in a Black, Christian household, which, in retrospect, led me to suppress a lot of feelings regarding the fluidity of my sexuality and my existence as a sexual being altogether.
At the same time, I was also struggling to navigate being Black in a predominately white community. For as long as I can remember, there were so many boxes floating around me, and while I connected with many, I struggled with the idea of being completely defined by any of them. This is when I began to learn the destructive art of compartmentalization—my strongest defense mechanism for as long as I can remember and my greatest tactic to keep other people happy.
But that all changed 6 years ago when my mother, my life-line, passed away from cancer. Losing my mom taught me I didn’t need to be working to keep everyone else happy at my own expense. My life was turned upside down and in my grief, I embarked on a much-needed journey of self-discovery. I will never know when and how that journey would have come about if not for the fact I was thrown into the deepest depths of darkness beyond what I could imagine. But I do believe it would have eventually come one way or another. I hope we can all recognize the importance of allowing people to flourish and be true to themselves, knowing their truth may change and may not line up with our worldview or expectations.
While I knew homosexuality was not condoned in my household or religious community, it was only rarely discussed. The disapproval of same-sex relationships, in fact, always seemed to be discussed in reference to men, and I struggle to even remember the moment I realized gayness could pertain to women as well. I do, however, distinctly remember feeling seen when I watched the budding relationship between the characters Paige Michalchuck and Alex Nunez on Degrassi: The Next Generation. Paige, who was a popular cheerleader and student leader, received a lot of attention from the boys on the show and was in a relationship with a male-identifying character previously, unexpectedly fell for Alex. That was something I hadn’t really seen normalized before. Before that, I had only seen lesbians in the media either being fetishized or depicted as caricatures. Degrassi, which I eventually had to sneak to watch, truly and hilariously changed my life, and it’s one of the reasons I am so adamant about the need for representation and telling the stories of underrepresented communities, outside of the archetypes derived through a skinny, white, heteronormative lens.
I have come out many times, to different audiences, in different ways. A few friends knew prior to my relationship but most found out when I began dating my wife. As I posted photos of us together on social media more regularly, more questions and curious inquiries came my way, all of which I answered honestly. I never really felt at this point I had anything to hide. You just needed to ‘ask the right questions,’ as a friend once put it. Then, ten months into our relationship, on National Coming Out Day, I told my dad via text, which, although not face-to-face, was nonetheless a very daunting moment for me. I spent hours revising and rewriting that text.
I wrote, ‘Hi Dad, so there’s something I’ve wanted to talk to you about/make you aware of but haven’t known the right time or way to say it. I’m in a relationship, a pretty serious one, and my partner is a female. I don’t know how you’re going to react to this news but it feels weird to me that just about everyone else in my life knows this and has met this person that is very important to me except you and a few others. It’s been scary to think that because you may not agree with that lifestyle, you may reject me or her, but after talking to multiple people about it, I at least need to give you the opportunity to make that decision on your own. In a perfect world, you could be happy for me and hopefully can meet her at some point and be a part of our lives. I’m walking into work right now and will be here until later tonight, but if it’s something you would like to discuss further, we can find a time for that. I don’t think we need anything else to further divide us and hopefully sharing this with you can bring us a step closer to redeveloping our relationship. Talk to you later, love you.’
When I finally pressed send, I felt the world stop and felt like I had swallowed a whole watermelon, which was stuck and couldn’t make its way down to my stomach. I awaited a reply and for the longest few minutes feared, even more, I wouldn’t receive one at all. I told Emily. I told my sister. I told my best friends. I had done it, the scariest thing I could imagine, and felt relieved. I was freed by my honesty and transparency and knowledge I was loved and supported by my close friends, my sister, and my love, no matter what.
He finally responded, ‘Hi DeAnne. I was thinking about how I haven’t heard from you in a while. It would take a WHOLE LOT for me to ever reject you. You’ll ALWAYS be my daughter. Let’s talk when you’re ready.’
On our one-year anniversary, I made a formal announcement to the ‘world’ via the internet. I made the post because I wanted Emily to feel publicly acknowledged and validated. It was important for me to correct any misconception the woman who was constantly seen in my stories and travel pics was anything less than a romantic partner. I know there were whispers and questions being asked to people other than me and I just wanted it to be clear. But for me, someone who has also been very private when it comes to ‘real’ things, thanks again to my compartmentalization skills, the key was I was proclaiming I was in a relationship, not so much that my partner was a woman.
I was definitely a bit nervous about sharing this part of myself with some people, even very close friends. My greatest anxiety was fueled by the fact I didn’t feel connected to a lot of the stereotypes frequently portrayed of queer women, so I was concerned about how people would perceive me or what assumptions, judgments, and expectations they would maybe have. It’s hard to break that barrier. Information can’t be leaked or judged when no one knows it. There are many things in my life – events, thoughts, feelings – that only select people know pieces of and I’ve always wrestled with that. Before Emily, the darker voices in my head allowed fear and trust issues to secretly rule my relationships of all types. She is the first person I feel I’ve been able to give all of me: my best, the good, bad, and all the ugly.
Finding love so deeply has been the greatest joy of my life. I was finally beginning to see the blurry vision of my future take shape. One of the most exciting things about our developing relationship was the realization we could build and define our story. Being outside of the heteronormative standard meant we could do what was best and most meaningful for us, with our individual personalities and thoughts at the center of it all. We had decided we both wanted an engagement ring and a proposal of some sort, and we both wanted to give that to the other. I don’t think either one of us would’ve guessed we would actually both be working toward our own special plans to make that happen at the same time. In fact, even purchasing our rings just one day apart, and ultimately executing our proposals just about two weeks apart! It was really serendipitous and wild, to say the least.
Emily’s proposal, which was first, gave us intense trickery with a fake audition set up that turned into a private proposal. It was followed by an evening of more surprises with a family dinner at one of the best vegan places in Brooklyn and a surprise party with all of our closest friends. It was an NYC proposal dream and sharing that moment with the most special people was a night I could never forget.
Mine, on the other hand, was the climax of a surprise road trip down the northern California coast full of romance and adventure and popping the big question on day two, just before sunset on a secluded beach.
I ultimately had to uninvite my father from my wedding. I had been trying to give him the chance to decide on his own since his response to my proposal was he didn’t know how involved he could be because of his position as a spiritual leader. Hurt was an understatement. I honestly felt like I had lost both parents at that point. I struggle with the idea of him being villainized. There’s complexity for him and this challenges everything he’s ever believed and built his life around. But there came a point for me when I had to choose my own happiness. By the time we were preparing to send invitations, I checked in to learn, 2 and a half years after I sent that text, he was still in the same place. Even though he made it clear this was ‘likely the most difficult decision’ he’s ever faced, this was a moment I had to choose me. I told him I didn’t know if him being there would serve me. I said, ‘I just feel like there’s no point in coming to a celebration that you aren’t celebrating. And for my own sake, and sanity, I think that might be the best approach.’ That was the last we ever spoke about my marriage.
Our wedding, despite the many hurdles 2020 put in front of us, managed to be the most magical day. The days and months leading up were full of stress, frustration, and sadness, but that all seemed to melt away once the ceremony began. I couldn’t believe, despite everything, we were in a moment we had actually dreamed about for the last year and a half that was so different than what was originally intended, yet so perfect in the end. Remember when I mentioned pleasing other people at your own expense? Weddings can easily put you in that position. It was something I battled with throughout the process, but in the moments when some of the best bride tribe around reminded me to cut that out, I was most free and happy.
In less than two months, we created a new plan mostly from scratch with the help of a few of our vendors we were still able to use. Since we had pretty much ceased planning efforts in the spring and early summer while waiting it out to see the state of the world as we got closer, we hadn’t even found a seamstress to tailor our dresses. So once we decided to try and move forward with our new plan on the property of Emily’s parents’ country house in the Berkshires, the pressure was on! Not to mention there was a pandemic underway, so the majority of our planning efforts to start were focused on how to make this happen safely and avoid being the headline of a CNN article. I’m so glad we did it this way and of all the things I would change about 2020, September 12 is one of the few days I wouldn’t trade for the world.
Being able to share this joy and love out loud has been one of my greatest sources of pride. I’ve learned there is so much power in being intentional about affirming who you are, especially within this community. Over the last few years, I’ve received tons of messages from strangers and even friends about how I’ve given them hope, inspiration, and courage by sharing my stories and publicly taking pride in my journey. They keep me focused. I don’t think there can be anything more freeing than unlocking a piece of your being you’ve hidden away as a result of fear. I’ve learned the power of transparency, whether it be pertaining to mental health, physical image, sexuality, or speaking out about social justice. It genuinely helps people feel less alone, and I think that’s how I have gotten myself to break down that wall a bit and share more. I have felt so alone at points in my life and I never want that for anyone. I’m grateful for the folks that have inspired me to step out and own my truth and to be able to provide that same inspiration for others.
I’ve now largely done away with the negative and harmful impact of compartmentalization. Additionally, I will say, I don’t think compartmentalization is always such a bad thing. It has always gone hand in hand with my diverse array of interests and skills. I think if I lacked the ability to do it, I would have struggled to navigate being such a multi-hyphenate, exploring many areas of the arts, activism, and my love for planning and events. Sometimes you’ve got to take your habits and attributes people may view as negative and refocus how they fit into your life and can actually benefit you. I’m happy to now be intersecting my desires to help people, remove gaps of LGBTQ+ and Black femme representation, and plan impactful events in my professional life during this time while my career as an actor on Broadway has taken a pause. I am now offering services as a planner for safe and dynamic micro-weddings and events. I also work with the non-profit, Claim Our Space Now, as the Chair of Programming and a member of the Executive Committee.
I want to encourage anyone reading this to not let what others decide your truth should be, whether that’s based on what you look like, where you come from, how you act, dress, or anything else, and to not let anyone keep you from owning what’s in your heart and spirit. I think the pathway to true joy and happiness is found once you release yourself from the stronghold of other people’s expectations. The journey is not linear or easy, but keep your head high and stand in your truth. What you’ll find on the other side will be freedom and love in many forms, and it’s so worth it.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by DeAnne Stewart. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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