The Trials of Coming Out of the Closet in Spain

The Trials of Coming Out of the Closet in Spain

It wasn’t until I went to Spain in fall 2013 that I realized that I was really, truly, 100% gay. I’d danced around other labels in the past, of course—queer, bisexual, and my own invention, bilesbian. But there is something about being wrenched out of your comfort zone and thrust into a completely foreign environment in which you are nobody to nobody and have to start over with a scarily blank slate that makes you particularly vulnerable to piercing, often unwanted insights.

Like: Wow, I’m definitely a lesbian.

This realization hit me my first day in Madrid. Thankfully, I was in Spain, which is one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world. I couldn’t have chosen a better place for coming out and realizing my Sapphic leanings. But coming out of the closet, regardless of where you are, is a messy, painful, and lengthy process. It wasn’t necessarily about people accepting me; it was about accepting myself. As many LGBTQ folk will tell you, this is one of the hardest things to do—especially if, like me, you were raised in a conservative, religious household where being gay is considered a heinous sin.

I’d like to tell you about some of the steps I went through while coming out and living as an outed lesbian while abroad.

Figuring out how coming out works

Okay, so I was the L word. A lesbian. There. But how did I tell people this?

If you were to look at me and search for tell-tale lesbian stereotypes, you wouldn’t find any. I’m about as femme as you can get. I look and can pass as straight. This is both a blessing and a curse. When I was meeting people for the first time in Madrid, I didn’t know how to broach the subject. Did I even have to broach the subject?  Couldn’t I just keep it hidden? But if I did, I felt like I was being inauthentic. My gay self was screaming, yelling, just wanting to be let out.

The first few times I came out were comical, but dramatic. I got drunk on too many glasses of vino blanco or tinto verano—more than once. And it would eventually end up with me declaring, “I’m gay!” apropos of nothing while hugging someone.

Attempting to go to gay bars

My second week in Madrid, I decided to try to go to a few gay bars since, well, wasn’t that what I was supposed to do? Never mind that I had never and have never really enjoyed going to gay bars.

I met up with two Americans in Chueca, an LGBT neighborhood in Madrid, to check out the gay bar scene. The first bar was empty, but we got free shots. The second bar was practically dead. When I tried to introduce myself to the lone other group of people in the bar, the only person who spoke English and seemed interested in meeting new people was a snobby transgender prostitute who charged one hundred euros a night. When she saw I didn’t want to solicit her services, she proceeded to mock me for the rest of the evening.

I forced myself to go out a few more times, but it was always awkward and, to be frank, not very enjoyable. Maybe it was me; I’m usually too shy to approach strangers, and for my first six months in Spain, I could barely communicate with anyone. I never really dug the music, I found the drinks to be over-priced, and the only girls who ever expressed interest in me were ones I didn’t feel a thing for.

Loss of gaydar and crushes on bi-curious, mostly-straight girls

Madrid is full of gay people, but I had the hardest time figuring out who was gay. My gaydar back in the US was usually quite spot-on, but it went haywire the moment I landed in Spain. European men and women move and dress differently to Americans. LGBTQ people there do as well. I can’t count how many times I met people I could have sworn were gay, but were really straight—and the exact opposite.

Since I was beginning to introduce myself as a lesbian for the first time, I met many seemingly straight girls who thought they “might” like women or had had “lots of women sex” or were “somewhat bisexual.” This killed me, especially since these women were usually gorgeous but utterly unattainable, as I knew that if I made a move I’d fall fast, only to be rejected for someone with a penis.

Bad Tinder dates

Tinder, the dating/hook-up app, got really popular the year I was in Spain. Since lesbians didn’t have a lezzie-only dating app like Grindr at the time (this was pre-HER), I decided to try to use Tinder, since meeting people in the real world didn’t seem to be working very well.

Well, Spain definitely had lots of beautiful women who bat for the same team, but the one date I went on was awful. I arrived at one of those cheap chain bars that are all over Madrid to find my date…and two other people. She’d brought her friend and some random Greek guy. She didn’t speak English. I barely spoke Spanish.  We shared a pitcher of watery beer and I tried not to be annoyed when she kept taking out her giant Samsung phone and texting people and scrolling through Instagram photos. I never saw her again and stopped using Tinder that day.

Trying to explain to Spaniards why being gay is hard

When I was coming out to my Spanish colleagues and acquaintances I was gay, they didn’t bat an eyelash. They knew many people who were gay. Their best friends were gay. Sometimes they were even gay.  It wasn’t a big deal.  It wasn’t even a deal at all.

This should have been refreshing, but it was frustrating. I tried to convey how conservative the US still is—I mean, look at many people’s attitudes towards gay marriage, for instance—but they just didn’t seem to get it. “You don’t understand!” I wanted to say.  “It can be really hard to be a gay person in the US.”

Falling back on the familiar and dating men

I was really bad at being a lesbian. I was too chicken to do anything, really. I talked the talk but barely walked the walk. I was terrified. I had to work through over a decade’s worth of internalized homophobia and self-hatred. So when men started expressing interest in me, sometimes I just gave up and went on dates with them or made out with them in clubs. It was easy and comfortable, and a familiar routine. It was also boring. I knew I wasn’t into them at all, I was just using them. I told them I was gay. They smiled knowingly, said “Sí, sí, claro,” then tried to kiss me anyway. The one perk was the free drinks (vino blanco and tinto de verano, of course).


My year abroad ended, somewhat fittingly, with Pride Week (Orgullo) in Madrid. It was my first Pride in a big city, and I was excited. And also scared (are we noticing a pattern here?) But I was determined to be in the crowd! To experience it! To live it! Why the hell not? What did I have to lose?

I went to a few events in Chueca. The last day of Pride, a friend and I went to the parade and followed the floats all the way down the Paseo del Prado from where the procession started in Atocha. We bought two bottles of cheap tinto de verano and got drunk. We took pictures of scantily-clad, sparkly, muscular gay men in high heels. We waved rainbow flags. We continued to drink. We stayed there till the end, finished the night at a concert in Callao. I wore a bikini top and short blue shorts. I yelled proudly with the rest of the crowd. I was surrounded by my people.

I was free.

About Michelle Philippon

Michelle Philippon is a Sagittarius who doesn’t really care about those things and currently lives in Toledo, Ohio, home of the Mud Hens, Jeep, and a bunch of deer. She likes reading, hiking, Netflix binges (newest obsession: The Crown), hanging out with her cat, and obviously having a thriving social life because she enjoys reading, hiking, Netflix binges, and hanging out with her cat. She also enjoys traveling, has lived abroad twice (England and Spain), and loves going on random day trips to places like Windsor, Canada and Funk, Ohio. Michelle has worn a lot of career hats but currently works in business development and marketing for a business growth agency.

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