There's this photograph in my parents' house. I'm three years old, standing next to my older brothers and my dad. They're holding up a huge fish they caught, with big smiles on their faces. They're all very excited to be boys playing outside, covered in dirt and fish smells. But me? I'm over in the corner, wearing plaid shorts and a matching shirt, and I have a disgusted look on my face.
From as early as I can remember, I was different from them. I didn't want to play in the mud or catch fish.
A lot has happened with my family since then, so a lot goes through my head when I see that picture. If only I could go back in time and tell that little boy to keep pushing through -- that everything will be OK, and that life on the other side is full of creativity and opportunity, overflowing with new family that celebrates your queer energy and feeds more of it to you -- because the journey to embracing that truth was a painful one.
By the time that cute, meticulously coordinated three-year-old turned into an ambitious 17-year-old high school junior, I was working three jobs. I registered for dual enrollment college courses, every honor society, and every extracurricular school activity I could fit in my schedule.
I didn't do it all because I loved taking classes, or because I loved straining my own capacity. I did it because I hated coming home to a place where I couldn't be myself. My home life was tense, and I was often the target of that tension. My plaid shirt and shorts might have matched, but the boy who wore them clashed with my family. We had different beliefs about religion and politics and definitely about queerness and identity.
I've heard my family disparage queer folks for as long as I can remember. My mom and grandma would call people like me "funny" -- that was their word for it -- and would scrunch their faces the same way I do when I eat broccoli. My dad would scream "faggot!" at the TV. Their revulsion to queer folk was rooted in their Southern Baptist religiosity. Church was integral to my family's identity, and the painful, racist, and anti-LGBTQ+ hate that the pastor spewed was my family's gospel. So coming out on my own terms wasn't really an option.
After I quit playing piano at the church to escape the hate, my parents -- who had figured out by then I was gay by pouring through my phone -- sent me to conversion therapy. The hardest part wasn't the counselor's attempt to get me to do more masculine activities, nor was it the efforts to force a bond with my father, or overhearing my mom grouse about all she despised me for. No, the most toxic part about conversion therapy was that I so desperately wanted it to work, just so I could survive life at home.
One day, after hearing our church's pastor condone child abuse, I decided I'd finally had enough. I mustered the courage to tell my parents that I would go to any other church they approved of, but I couldn't go back to their church. They gave me a choice: Go to church with us or move out. The tension escalated quickly. My dad looked me right in the eyes and said that the Bible gave him the right to stone me to death right then and there for disobeying him. So that February night, I packed my bags and walked out the door.
As you can imagine, this moment changed my life forever. I was in high school. I had $25 in my bank account. I wasn't ready to live on my own, and I certainly couldn't afford my upcoming tuition bill for Georgetown -- especially since they wouldn't revise my financial status as a dependent.
Feeling directionless and totally miserable, I desperately needed someone to reach out and help. Thankfully, one of my teachers sensed something was wrong, and after we cried in each other's arms, she started a GoFundMe to raise the money I needed to go to college. After going viral, the GoFundMe raised more than $140,000.
When a campaign does that well, people notice. As the valedictorian of my high school and a queer young person facing homelessness, my story received a tidal wave of attention, which led Georgetown to rethink its decision about my finances. I also got to tell my story on national television: Ellen DeGeneres gifted me $25,000, and I got to announce to myself, to my parents, and to the entire world on live TV that I was out, proud, and ready to fight for a better, more just world.
With an outpouring of support from friends and strangers alike, I was lucky enough to start a foundation, called Unbroken Horizons, which aims to address systems of intersecting oppressions by funding tuition scholarships for queer and trans people of color. This would never have become a reality if I didn't decide that expression was more important than conformity, that my identity was valid and suppressing it was unhealthy, and that maybe taking a chance and being brave might inspire other queer kids to let their own light shine.
I am so glad I took that chance because I used to live in constant hurt and pain. I worked hard to keep it hidden because I thought there was nothing worse than being myself. I've learned that it's actually the opposite -- the worst feeling is hiding who you really are.
So I now work to tell myself in the mirror every day that I'm worthy of love and belonging. And also that I'm a fierce queen.
A queer author named Larry Mitchell wrote, "There is more to be learned from wearing a dress for a day, than there is from wearing a suit for a lifetime." Every time I put on my eyeshadow and blush, or walk down the street with my purse, or wear a skirt out to a gala, I wrestle with what it means to be visibly and proudly queer. Being queer means choosing my own happiness at the risk of my safety. It means reclaiming an authenticity that was forcibly withheld from me. It means reestablishing my identity on my own terms, and being visible for other queer kids working up the courage to come out, too.
Living my truth and expressing my authentic self is an act of liberation -- something that, on National Coming Out Day of all days, I am so relieved to be alive to celebrate. Because making it through this journey in one piece was never a guarantee. Being a loud and proud queer is also about vulnerability. It's about unpacking layers of deep shame, repression, and trauma. It's unlearning superficial gender roles, redefining what family means, and offloading the self-hate I was forced to carry.
I don't pretend that any of this is easy. These are massive tasks, especially for a teenager. But self-discovery and healing aren't meant to be handled alone. Wading through hate and oppression is a collective journey -- particularly for historically marginalized communities. A journey where community and chosen family must team up to protect and support each other.
That kind of support is so crucial to living freely and loving yourself. And the truth is, for so long, I couldn't wait to fall in love with myself. But I needed other people to help me do it. And now that I have all this love, I can't keep it all to myself. Because for how momentous an act it is to come out, there's an entire world waiting on the other side to enjoy. And for all of its hate and systematic oppression, its religiosity and violence, there's so much more love and beauty to counter it all, just waiting for you -- yes, you -- to live your truth and shine your light.
Seth Owen is an LGBTQ+ activist, motivational speaker, and the founder of Unbroken Horizons, a scholarship foundation which helps fund tuition for LGBTQ+ youth, and queer and trans people of color in particular, pursuing higher education.