Coming out is a nearly universal experience for those in the LGBTQ+ community. However, this does not mean that everyone has the same experience of coming out. Mainstream sources have many stories white LGBTQ+ members, yet Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and transgender people are woefully underrepresented. These individuals have often had to face greater adversity, not just from society, but from within, as they come to understand themselves. Religion may also be a source of anguish for individuals looking to be prideful in their identity due to its message being coopted into a message of hate for gender and sexual minorities.
Even within the armed forces, discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation wasn't legalized until 2011. This discrimination came in the form of a policy known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. This policy stated that service members did not have to disclose their sexuality, however, if it was found out, they were at risk of being discharged. This policy unfairly targeted LGBTQ+ service members as something as simple as their hairstyle or an argument gone wrong with another service member could lead to an investigation and their dishonorable discharge. A dishonorable discharge meant that these service members were not entitled to their veteran benefits and could face other ramifications such as loosing their ability to vote. They were also effectively blacklisted from the military, though with it being repealed, those who were not discharged and wished to go back may suffer a loss in the ranks that they worked so hard to achieve.
While the purpose of this exhibit is to highlight the coming out experiences of transgender and BIPOC individuals, it also contains coming out experiences from other individuals within the central Pennsylvania community.
Emily Newberry knew that she was not like other kids from a young age. At 6, she wanted to wear girl clothes and hang out with the girls. Despite this, she still participated in traditionally masculine activities such as football and the boy scouts to connect with her father. Emily was no stranger to shame. When her parents divorced, she moved to a conservative area where this divorce was kept secret. Here, Emily had to act like her stepmother was her birth mother. This shame trickled into other aspects of Emily’s life, leading her to suppress her unknown feelings for years to come.
Taking pride in her Cherokee heritage and the skills from her job in conflict resolution led to her discussing being transgender with her then wife, who responded apprehensively. By 2008, Emily knew she was transgender and began to meet with various therapists to aid in this process. It was not until Emily met with a primary healthcare provider who specialized in transgender patients that she felt comfortable enough to take hormones. As many before had either scared her or eluded to the fact that she was not ready.
After finally coming out as a woman, Emily faced barriers in both her job and social life. Suddenly, her job questioned her ability to preform her role and forced her out. After this event, she set out on a path to finding strong ties within her community through women’s groups and the Northwest Gender Alliance. In these groups, she was able to meet with other women and transgender people, both of which validated Emily at every turn. Today, Emily continues her activism on transgender issues by serving on panels in Portland and though her writing and poetry.
A photo of Emily taken just after she came out.
A professional photo of Emily used for her career
"Butterfly A Rose," published in 2010 is a book of poems written by Emily about her transition experience
"Turning Inside Out," published in 2022 is a book of poems written by Emily discussing self-acceptance
Listen to Emily discuss how her Cherokee heritage became a source of early pride for her
Listen to Emily discuss her experience coming out to her family
Listen to Emily discuss coming out to professionals and other people
At the age of 4, Joanne Carrol felt different as she liked feminine things and sought solace from the girls in her neighborhood. Her family were strong Baptists so there was no talk of gender or sex in their house, reducing Joanne’s ability to understand her identity. She lost touch with her faith around 13, which was the same time that she decided to become punk to limit the bullying she faced.
By 1980, Joanne had divorced her first wife and began to seek gender counseling. However, this was disrupted when Joanne met her second wife, believing that being with the right person might satiate these feelings. By 1992, Joanne had connected with the transgender community through online chatrooms and by 1997 she was again seeing gender counseling. It was also around this time that she came out to her wife, who was supportive, but still separated from her due to fear of being perceived as a lesbian. Joanne’s ex-wife remained an important figure in her life, it was because of her that Joanna got the courage to come out to her religious mother.
After coming out to her mother, Joanne’s faith was revitalized as she realized that she could be a transgender woman and a woman of faith. On February 15th, 2001, Joanne placed her old life in a box and became fully Joanne with her mother at her side. Joanne’s second name, Maureen, was chosen in homage to her parents, who choose this name for their first daughter. Recently, Joanne has continued for transgender people have served on the boards of many organizations and as the president of TransCentral PA. She also aims show people that faith and the love of God are for all, no matter how you identify.
Joanne Carrol (right) pictured at an information booth for TransCentralPA
Listen to Joanna discuss what being a transgender woman means to her
Joanne discusses coming out to her mother and the overwhelming support she received
Amanda Hecker (formerly Porter) describes her earliest experiences with her transgender identity as “cross-dressing” as the term transgender was not known to her. In third grade she began to wear her mother’s clothing and even had her mother dress her up as a girl for Halloween—many times. However, the more she did this the more hesitant her family became, to the point where her father would berate her for refusing to change after trick-or-treating. Realizing that her family did not support this, she continued in secret. It was something that she needed for herself, but she did not fully understand why.
While serving in the Air Force, Amanda thought that her desire to “cross-dress” had disappeared, however, upon returning home with her wife, was proven wrong. These urges returned and after discussing these feelings with her wife, she was allowed to wear panties to sleep. She would still dress as a woman but only in secret. This was not enough for Amanda, who began to start buying her own clothing and would even travel to her vacation home so that she could freely be Amanda. There, as Amanda, she attended the Renaissance Education Association, which helped her to understand her identity as a transgender woman.
Amanda voices that she is not looking to fully transition as she enjoys being able to explore the gender spectrum. Her experience as a transgender woman also motivated her to become a Democrat in order to combat discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. She is motivated to have transgender people be seen as fully themselves rather than transgender men or transgender women.
Brochures from a presentation on transgender identity given by Amanda Hecker
Amanda discusses how she came to understand her transgender identity
Listen to Amanda discuss one of the first times her identity was validated at the Renaissance Education Association
Mara Kiesling grew up in Harrisburg with her family and seven siblings. Her father was heavily involved in politics which in turn got Mara into politics at a young age. Her family was not raised to be religious, but her father was which may have influenced some of his political ideology. She knew she was a girl at age 3 as she would wear her sister’s brownie uniform in the hopes that it would show her family that she was a girl. However, her aunt told her father in reference to Mara, “no you’re a boy, you have to be a boy” which led Mara to not discuss her identity again until 1962. Due to the lack of computers available at this time, her parents could not look to the internet for help. This led Mara to feel that she was different and should feel shame.
During a college break, she worked for a pollster and eventually dropped out of college to work for the polling firm full time. Eventually, this work burnt her out and she started working at a survey research center and also started selling Buicks. Eventually, she wished to pursue higher education to become a college professor, so she and her partner at the time attended Harvard University. Mara was heavily influenced by the idea that gender was binary and that boys had to be boys and girls had to be girls. However, as she moved into adulthood, it became more difficult to outrun her identity. She eventually broke up with her partner in 1996 and went to a transgender conference in Massachusetts. This was a two-week conference in an LGBTQ+ friendly area which provided the safety to explore this identity, even when it was still dangerous in other parts of the country. Her relationships up to this point were never to try and trick herself or conform to an identity, they were valid, and feelings were present.
She started to develop friendships with the local transgender sex-workers, and this was the beginning of her experiences with the transgender community. She found the Tapestry Magazine, which was put out by the International Foundation for Gender Education, that discussed transgender experiences and listed support groups one could attend. She went to one of these support groups in 1989 and met with a transgender person, which was scary for her, but provided her with her first experience within the community. She also attended the Tiffany Club, another transgender support group that required a rigorous investigation to show that one was there to learn.
In 1989 the internet was starting to emerge which helped to build and connect people within the transgender community. There was an AOL chatroom known as the Gazebo where the transgender community could congregate and interact. She flip-flopped on whether or not she wanted to go through with her transition as many people in these online forms had told stories of how they lost everything when they transitioned, so this was one of Mara’s fears. However, after a radicalizing experience at the Southern Comfort conference, she knew that she needed to transition as well as become an activist within the transgender community. She started seeing a gender specialist and eventually came back to Harrisburg because of the support in the area to transition.
During this time, she began to meet a lot more people in the transgender community through the Renaissance Education Association, a support group that was hosted at the MCC church. Around this time Alberta Hamm had taken a case to court that would allow transgender individuals to choose their own name, and after some pushback, she won the case, and the transgender community gained this right. Mara moved on to lobby for Equality Pennsylvania and to help pass a State Hate Crime Bill in 2001 and 2002, which was supported by both Democrats and Republicans. She eventually started a lobbying group called Gendered Rights Pennsylvania which helped to raise her status as a lobbyist as she now held a title. This was important as prior to 2001, there was no attorney that dealt with transgender rights.
Prior to all of this, Mara was scared to come out to her family but knew it was necessary as she states that she was living two different lives and it was becoming harder to keep up with. Since there was not a lot of information available, she wrote a 30-page document detailing her experience to provide to her family. She started by telling her friend and then her family so that they could all discuss it together. This news was received with very positive support with her family wishing they knew sooner so they could help. Her parents even helped to choose the name Mara for her which was a defining moment in her life. Her siblings accepted her identity, but at the same time she lost some of her clients because of this.
Mara discusses the lack of information available on the transgender community and the importance of Tapestry Magazine (audio only)
Mara discusses the importance of AOL and the Gazebo chatroom fo the early transgender community (audio only)
Mara discusses coming out to her friends and family and how
supportive they were of her (audio only)
Maria Warren grew up in a very religious family that kept growing as her parents adopted three more children. She knew that she had different feelings, but she did not know how to articulate them. She immersed herself in religion to try and rid herself of these feelings and the church reinforced to her that these feelings were wrong. Her father also held anti-LGBTQ+ views, which furthered her drive to hide these feelings. By age 12, Maria knew that she was a lesbian, but with no one else around her displaying the same feelings as her, she continued to hide them. She describes herself as being in the “odd crew” in both middle school and high school. She was known to defend herself, so people refrained from making remarks to her. It was only when she started high school that she began to hear these derogatory remarks.
At 19, Maria decided that marriage might be the solution and make these feelings go away. She had never had a partner before, and her first experience with sexual relations nearly traumatized her. A few years into her marriage, they separated and during this separation Maria came out. They were separated for two years and eventually her family pushed her to try and save her marriage. So, she came out to her husband, and they started couples counseling. When this didn’t work, her husband outed her to her whole family, and they separated for good. Maria stopped attending church out of shame and to protect her mother.
When Maria moved to York, she got in contact with and joined PFLAG [Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays], a support group that became her rock in the community. They were there for her at her loneliest time. She is still an active member there, helping those who came after her so that they do not have to go through the same experience as her. Her children found out about her sexuality at different moments, but all of them offered nothing but support to their mother.
“—and I think that was one of my fears is that they wouldn’t be supportive, even though I did raise them to love people for who they are and not to discriminate in any way. So—but it was still that fear, that underlying fear was still there that they may not—may not accept me, but that didn’t happen, so it’s all okay.”
– Maria Warren on the fear of coming out to her children.
Maria discusses her children discovering her sexuality and their support
Maria discusses the partial freedom she felt after her initial separation
Maria discusses accepting herself and life after her full separation from her husband
Shaka Hudson attended Catholic middle school where he discovered his passion for artistry one day while drawing the birds he saw outside. Eventually, Shaka left Catholic school after being subjected to racism and instead went to a public school. This was a liberating experience as he was surrounded by more POC, and it was much less regimented than Catholic school. He remained faithful and wanted to join the choir but was denied because of his race, so instead he became an alter boy. While an alter boy, he taught the others Latin, which helped to build his confidence. He also began to fall in love with language after connecting more with his Native American roots in the Cherokee tribe.
Shaka began to notice his sexuality in grade school when he became infatuated with nuns and the outfits they wore. He dressed as a nun until his grandmother shamed this behavior out of him. After this, he began to feel an attraction to one of the priests at school which led him to question whether this same-sex attraction was normal or not. This attraction led him to develop a crush on another boy in his class and discovery his sexual attraction to men. In high school, Shaka had a girlfriend and they dated as normal, however, when they went to Woodstock both of them began to discuss their sexuality with each other and separated. Shaka used college as a time to experiment with his sexuality. At college, Shaka got involved with dance, something he used to do with his sisters as a child. He decided college was not for him, so he went and auditioned for the Repertory Dance Company and Theatre Company in Washington D.C. that was dedicated to Black artists. Here, Shaka started to solidify his sexuality.
At the dance company, Shaka met a man, and they began a relationship together. This moment in 1972 is when Shaka says that he came out. They moved to New York together and Shaka told his family the situation. He told his sisters that he was gay, and they were supportive, but felt like they already knew. His parents figured that he would, “do what he wanted to do” so they were not surprised and wished him well. His brothers also accepted him, though they did not talk much about it.
A few years after settling together, Shaka left his lover as he wanted to see what life was like with woman again to be sure that he was doing the right thing. He began to model for an art school as a way to both make money and improve his own artistic skills. There he met a woman, and it was love at first sight. He made it clear that he was gay, but they both thought these feelings would go away, like it was a phase. They were together for almost ten years and had a child, however, Shaka still loved men and he didn’t think this was fair to his wife, so they parted amicably.
Shaka then moved to Virginia and found another partner who he was with for two years. Tragically, his partner died of AIDS and passed it along to Shaka, but this gave him a new perspective on life. A lot of his friends have died from AIDS, yet Shaka is optimistic about the rest of his life. Today, Shaka is still working on his art, even looking to enroll in math classes in order to better his mathematics knowledge as well as his art. He still dances everyday because of how fundamental it is to him. He hopes to see larger pride events in Harrisburg and more inclusion of POC voices in these events.
Shaka discusses how he came to understand his sexuality in grade school
Shaka discusses how AIDS has impacted, but not defined, his life
Lindsay Snowden, whose pronouns are sirb or they/them, grew up in Philadelphia with their grandmother and later moved in with sirb’s mother and siblings. Sirb grew up in an open family and some of sirb’s cousins had already come out as gay. So, sirb were not a stranger to the LGBTQ+ community. Lindsay began to experiment with girls, however, sirb felt the expectation of society that sirb should be with a man, so by 11, sirb was interested in boys again. Sirb had a great work ethic as sirb started working when they were 10 and sirb’s mother taught them the value of a dollar. Even with sirb’s open family, there was always the expectation that sirb should be with a man. Sirb’s Baptist upbringing also reinforced this message, and while sirb did not necessarily believe this message, it was always lingering in the back of their mind.
Lindsay joined the military as a nurse at 17 and it was during this time in the military at age 20 that sirb began to discover their sexuality. Before this time, sirb saw their attraction to women as platonic and friendly. But one day at lunch sirb was with some friends when sirb remarked that they liked some girl’s boots, a compliment that would not make them be seen as gay. That woman later called the office that sirb was in and asked her out, while also saying that she knew other men who were looking to enlist. Sirb went to meet this girl to get these names. They ended up kissing and this was when sirb realized that they in fact, liked girls. Sirb broke off their engagement as sirb realized that they loved their partner as a person. It also made sirb realize they could not go without being with a women. Which would not bode well for their military career.
Lindsay came out to their friends and family, who were not surprised, and their mother told them it was a hard life to live. Sirb left the military in 2002 due to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy which put them at risk for a dishonorable discharge due to their sexuality. When sirb returned to Harrisburg, sirb noticed the lack of Black performers in the drag scene. After performing in a free pageant, sirb was able to break into the local drag scene. Sirb created the first all-Black drag trope, House of Gain, that gave sirb a platform to perform from as well as highlight Black performers. This was a family of people who had similar struggles and understood each other better than anyone.
Lindsay also started a magazine, Studs, with sirb’s wife where they celebrate women’s accomplishments and highlight masculine identifying women by showing that anyone can wear the clothing they want. Together, they also created a calendar to highlight various bodies and spread body positivity where every they could. Sirb’s sexuality has helped to normalize being gay to sirb’s family and it pushed them to be intersectional in their political ideology, ensuring that sirb’s identity as a Black, queer individual is protected by policymakers. Though, sirb says that at times they have to give up their Blackness to assimilate into queer culture, sirb would still rather be friends with queer individuals than anyone else due to the acceptance the community provides.