Happy Pride!

Contributor

Rachel Rock’s submission, which won third place in the Synapse Storytelling contest personal essay category, adds levity to her sensitive crossing from secrecy to celebration. As she tells her tale, her voice is strong and clear, allowing us to embrace her as a news friend. Her honest depiction of an awkward, stilting journey towards self-actualization is both endearing and touching. And a large blacked-out section cleverly reminds us that we all have a right to tell their own story.

Happy Pride! I’m writing this with a literal rainbow on my tushie. On my underwear. Which are under my shorts. It’s exciting. It’s my first piece of clothing that I’ve worn intentionally (e.g. not like rainbow toe socks I randomly got in middle school because lol, toe socks).

They’re Victoria’s Secret underwear. And, no not the really lacy see-through sexy stuff; I just say that to provide evidence that they are nice. They are this smooth cotton and solid black except for the rainbows, which are all over, kinda like speckles. So, technically, there are at least 20 rainbows on my tush!

Well, anyway, yeah. I really went into this thinking I would be rocking pride. Like, rocking it. Okay, so I can’t tell you exactly what I thought I’d be doing. Because, okay fine, I was kind of scared of that. Maybe I am rocking it?

So, anyway, after I came out to my Mom (well, I can’t really say that as she kind of knew and I knew that she knew, but two months ago, when I told her I was coming out), she got me all this unicorn stuff. Because I like unicorns and she wanted to support me. So, I have a unicorn pin on each one of my hats (which I always wear). And a unicorn mask (which I have the courage to wear sometimes). I’m not brave enough to wear rainbows.

Except on my underwear. But, okay, that’s a start.

Okay, that last word is scary.

The rainbows that I just added on Instagram and Twitter and these underwear are safe. Sort of. So, I use Twitter for science and that one rainbow in my bio which just sprung up in the middle of Pride Month is pretty suspicious. And, so are all those posts about Pride that I retweeted. But it’s okay because I wanted them to be, because I’m out, which was hard enough for me.

Okay, let me explain: so, I grew up in New York, but not like, New York, New York. I’m talking Long Island, the mullet of New York. It’s technically a borough of Queens, but technically doesn’t get you too far in the >95% white town of Smithtown in the sprawling suburb of Long Island. Which happens to be very conservative and Catholic.

So, I hated myself, enough, with...with…

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Sorry. So, I wrote that down and it was clear I skipped the parts I’m most embarrassed about regarding me, but kept in the, like, stuff regarding other people. I’m not going to share that.

But, anyway, so there’s high school and I have the highest GPA which is great because the academic achievements helped me feel like I wasn’t a failure as a human being. And, more importantly, because I had this dream. This dream of doing amazing science research which started as a little girl and grew because I guess having a Dad who brought home all these amazing textbooks, raising butterflies with my Mom and having this crazy cool middle school science teacher who just let me hang out after class to stare at actual amoebas (!) was conducive to it.

Anyway, after high school, I was really sad because I applied to Harvard and got rejected (I had to go to MIT instead). I hated myself for that. Though thinking about it, MIT really was better for me in the end. After all, it is the top ranked school for research which is why I was so crazy about going to a good college anyway (though I really did want my parents to have Harvard bumper stickers).

Okay, so fast forward and I’m at UCSF for my biomedical sciences PhD, which is great for about a million reasons. So, it’s my second rotation. This is San Francisco, where I’m at, so people are super accepting, not like Smithtown. Well, so UCSF has these PRIDE values and learning more now, so San Francisco isn’t just a great place for the LGBTQ+ community but a really, really great place (like, I didn’t know then, still hardly know any gay history, but Harvey Milk & obs there’s the Castro + it’s California sorry for the stereotype).

Okay, well, anyway, my program hosts these events called “Pizza Talks” where first years, like me, get to hear from scientists in the program and learn about their research. During these talks Professors would typically spend the first 10 minutes on non-science stuff, like their life or SF or tips for a PhD. So, there was this one talk where the scientist just starts going on about the Castro and how wonderful it is, and it’s very clear to me that he’s openly out, and... it’s beautiful, just hearing this guy talk about gay culture in SF. Like, just beautiful.

Back to the topic of being in my second rotation, which just so happens to be in my dream lab. So, I had these experiences, and I think I let my guard down too much.

Well, so my Postdoctoral student rotation mentor, Maggie, and I are having this conversation where she talks about her husband and, what do you know, the topic of relationships during a PhD/science career comes up. So I end up mentioning this person, who is a she. I mean, obviously, I don’t say that, I mean, WTF I would be insane to have just said that. Well, not insane, but you know, like I would not say that. Anyway, I wasn’t going to call this person a him because... I had felt that would be wrong. Like, in the past I might have done it, but weird thing is I think I was at the point of acceptance where I felt it would be better for me to be honest about it, like since I started talking about this person, if asked something about her gender, I would have to cave and say this person wasn’t male.

Well, the tricky thing is, and I didn’t realize this, but it’s so hard not to reference gender, just, like pronouns, in a conversation. So, l was referring to her as “they.” And, thing is, even if you try really hard to vary your use of non-gender specific words, without the ability to use a name (hers is feminine) or a “she,” it starts to seem kind of... off.

Anyway, at one point in the conversation, I could sense this lightbulb go on in Maggie’s head, and she joined me in avoiding pronouns when referring to this person.

The experience was somehow simultaneously comforting and terrifying: some part of me felt good to finally be heard while another part of me weirdly dreaded that Maggie’s opinion of me would degrade knowing that I wasn’t straight.

But, it didn’t. What became clear to me was that we could still be friends, my scientific thinking could still be on-point, and... yeah, sounds kind of obvious, but I was expecting something catastrophic to happen if my sexuality ever became clear to anyone in my personal or, goodness no, my professional sphere.

Well, anyway, so that happened. And then, this rotation went really well and it became really clear that I could join the lab if I wanted to. My dream lab. And, within just a few days of that, I was awarded this over $100,000 fellowship.

So, the funny thing about this fellowship, the NSF, is that there’s a big pro-DEI component, but I didn’t even mention that I was LGBTQ+ in applying. I have never put it on any application, in fact, never said I was anything but straight, because I was scared. I’m going to change that.

Anyway, after all that, I felt okay to come out. Kind of.

So, you see, UCSF First Gen community (think first generation college, like over a third of UCSF students) is having this opportunity (bait: free T-shirt) where students can write profiles to be featured in the newsletter, like, to amplify their voices. So, I submitted a profile, which mentioned my sexuality at some point. This was the first time that, to some public channel, I challenged the assumption that I was straight.

With visibility, I am starting to feel comfortable. I don’t have any crazy visibility ambitions. Maybe, like, feeling okay with wearing rainbow sometimes during PRIDE or something. Stuff like that. The biggest thing is just being comfortable in my own skin.

Like, okay, I love flannel. However, I purposefully capped my flannel purchases and was sure to integrate a certain amount of dresses into my wardrobe.

I now dress how I want ― mostly. I’m more conservative at home as my Dad doesn’t know. Like, I think he’d be okay with it.

Mostly. Not entirely at first.

It’s not like I’m going to tell him.

But if it comes out, it comes out. Anyway, I am, pretty much, out after all... and thank goodness for that.

Rachel Rock is a second year student in the Biomedical Sciences program.