I first came out to a stranger in a strange place.
I was alone in La Mariscal, the club district of Quito, where I had been studying abroad. I had just shown my friend to her cab and was about to grab one myself. But when I saw Majo at the bar, I decided to grab another drink.
Majo was tall, which you could tell even while she was sitting down. Her thick black hair split down the middle and tied in a ponytail at the base of her neck. She wore no makeup, her high bronze cheekbones shining in the dimly lit bar. She wore a gray button-down shirt, loose jeans, and boots. She sat next to another woman, leaning in close and smiling wide, and occasionally stroking her companion’s back or knee.
Majo is short for Maria Jose, a name that Catholic parents crown their daughters with to acknowledge the Virgin Mary and her husband Joseph. I had met dozens of Majos during my time in Ecuador, but none are lodged into my memory like Majo who was out with her girlfriend in La Mariscal.
Seeing a visibly queer person in Ecuador felt like spotting a rainbow. Except in a climate that served up daily afternoons of downpours followed by brilliant sunshine, you were way more likely to spot a rainbow in Ecuador than you were to see a queer person in public. Seeing a butch woman flirting with the girl next to her at the bar felt like a blessing, a miracle. I sat down on the other side of her, slowly sipping my Pilsener grande.
It was exciting to meet other queer people in Quito in no small part because being out was dangerous. When Ricky Martin came out, many of our host moms shook their heads in shame. Que vergüenza. Not long after I arrived, articles surfaced in a major newspaper about local conversion therapy clinics that would electrocute gay people in an effort to turn them straight. This was in 2011.
A little over a year before that I had started coming into my queerness. I met someone I liked and she liked me too. There were some sparkly make outs and then an awkward goodbye. I had to take some time to sort out my own feelings before I felt comfortable putting a label on them. I told close friends that I had feelings for women but avoided the word bisexual. What if it was just a college thing? What if I am not queer enough?
The girl sitting next to Majo got up for a moment and my liquid courage inspired me to say hello. After our introduction, she gestured to the woman who had been sitting next to her: “Somos novias.”
My heart exploded with a million warm fuzzies. “Soy bisexual!” I responded — unable to contain my excitement, with an intensity that makes me feel a little embarrassed even as I remember it today. Majo just smiled widely.
Claiming my queer identity for the first time in Spanish is beautiful in a couple of ways when I think about it. There’s the practicality of it, that I didn’t quite have the vocabulary to say anything more complicated about being attracted to women but not sure if I ascribed to labels but perhaps would one day blah blah blah. Soy bisexual emerged from my lips before I could overthink it, and once the words left me they just sort of felt right. Majo’s megawatt smile made me feel like I was queer enough, like I was welcome into this new identity of mine. It’s probably one of two reactions to me coming out that I truly treasure, that made me feel fully seen and celebrated.
Then there’s the special kind of loveliness embedded in Spanish grammar. There are two ways to say to be in Spanish. There’s estar, the temporary state of being, and ser, which is permanent. You say estoy feliz because feelings are fleeting, and happiness can’t last forever. You say soy de Michigan because where you’re from is a part of who you are, part of what makes you you. While my sexuality has been and will remain fluid, there’s something extra affirming about the solidness of soy bisexual — claiming my queerness is a solid part of my identity, not a fleeting college thing.
This is the story of how I first came out. To a long-haired lesbian named for the Virgin Mary and her husband Joseph, made deeper through a language that was not my own.