Why Can't We Be Friends
Coming Out and Letting Go of Relationships
The very first photos on my phone are of me and J from 2007, around the time we met and dated very briefly, like a few weeks-- we never had your typical "break up" or any animosity. We just naturally transitioned to being pals who liked being each other's plus-one to events and doing adventure bike rides together. That picture of us was one of my first phone selfies- our faces glowing in the sunset after a long bike ride overlooking the Pacific while on road trip around the California coast. After looking at those early pics, I flipped through my phone's photo app and started looking at the most recent ones of us at our mutual friend's barbecue while I was back in Boston last August-- we were all drinking wine, laughing and singing silly songs in the kitchen. I looked over our last text message thread from December, wishing each other a happy holiday and new year. It feels like looking at evidence of someone who suddenly vanished without a trace and there's no clues to help find them. I felt helpless, sad and angry. All these digital mementos of J are now just memories of someone that I used to know.
This year started out positive and strong when I busted out of the closet and revealed myself publicly in January, but now I'm starting to experience some pushback and rejection which shouldn't be all that surprising. When I spoke to my therapist last year, I listed all my fears of coming out and tried to imagine the worst: the negative comments from anonymous internet trolls, ghosting of distant family members and gossip from former high school classmates who follow my public Facebook page and rejection from potential wedding photography clients (who haven't contacted me in years anyway so why would it matter now?) It was all people whom I don't really know so it didn't feel so scary. I feel fortunate to have a few close friends I've known for many years and they all know to some degree about my history of sex work, the work I do as a somatic sex educator and my activism.
I visited my dad last month for the first time since the pandemic which seemed to be going well until the towards the end of the weeklong visit. We bicker a lot so there some was tension between us (this has always been the nature of our relationship, not unusual), so my dad suggested we take a walk down the beach to talk. It was there he exploded in a rage for what I mostly interpreted as, "How dare you be naked on the internet and make me look bad!"-- and that was just from his discovery of my Twitter account and reading some of my confessional, selfie illustrated posts on Substack-- which made me giggle a bit. How tame and cute my photos are compared to what I view daily in my digital underground of sex worker Twitter and Instagram. I wanted to reply, Dad, do you know there's this thing called 'Porn' and it's ALL over the internet? After he got out his yelling tirade, I went numb with sadness, feeling like my shame had been personified to pull me back down for after all the progress I made in therapy. We later sat down together and had some deep discussions about sex work, capitalism, self-expression, power and the dismantling the patriarchy. How funny it is to discuss dismantling an institution, and that institution is sitting next to me eating his morning bowl of cereal, reading the local paper and mansplaining to me through a mouthful of bran flakes that feminism is really about hating all men and why so many women left their husbands in the early 1970's (my mother being one of them) when the women's liberation movement was heating up. Saying all these things all while not letting me finish a sentence, which is always gets me laughing and wanting to scream out mid-argument that he's proven me right. But eventually my dad got vulnerable and honest with me about what was under his anger, explaining that he has fear for my safety, dealing with his own shame and how others will perceive him. I told him I understood his feelings and how hard it must be for him. When I got home from my trip I received a sweet apology text that gave me hope that old relationships can evolve and expand. Even though we've battled since I was a kid, I am so grateful I can talk to my dad about anything and know he will still be there for me, no matter what.
I knew the risks of coming out might ruffle feathers or be a shock to some acquaintances or distant relatives. I'm not particularly close with relatives on my mother's side of the family or anyone I knew in high school, but many of them follow my photography public business page on Facebook. After I came out on my Twitter and Substack under my real name, I made an announcement in January on my Facebook account that I did major update on my website (which now links to this Substack and Twitter.) I didn't have the courage to just tell my story of living two lives on my public Facebook page, but I left a trail of breadcrumbs to my truth. Linking my civilian work to my sex worker community, revealing the part of me I've kept secret for years-- coming out on there felt like throwing a grenade and running away as fast as I could. Just as I finished typing the announcement about my website update, I started to see notifications in my Facebook Messenger tab pop up. I didn't open the messages, even if I was missing out on fans supporting me as it I knew it was too much for me to read and digest anything negative. So, I quickly logged out of that account and haven't logged back in since I made the announcement. I don't know if I want to hear from people whose opinions don't really matter as they aren't part of my inner circle of friendship and trust.
Having a small close circle of friends (six people to be exact, including my partner) that I haven't had to censor myself around, I never worried any of them would have a reaction about me coming out publicly as they've known all along who I am and the secrets I had to juggle for nearly 10 years. Being able to write my truth, un-censor my thoughts and images and be just be one Melissa-- it has felt like exhaling after years holding my breath out of fear of being caught. Then I got an odd email out of the blue last month from J, one my close friends whom I've known for 15 years. I skimmed through his first paragraph, "I just want you know I support sex worker rights and your activism..". I knew there was a "But here's the truth of what I'm really trying to say" that made me feel like I was sucker punched in the next paragraph. He said to untag him from all photos on social media and never mention his name in my writing. Without going into his personal details, J said he could no longer be friends with me after he discovered my Substack account about coming out under my real name.
He blocked me on Facebook with no real explanation and refused to speak to me on the phone. He's known about my underground life for years and accepted it, but I deduced from his fearful tone he's terrified that his new girlfriend who just moved in with him quickly after they met ("the love of his life" he said in his email) will reject him if he was even connected on social media with someone who is openly writing about sex and has a pro-decriminalization stance on sex work. I'm guessing she's probably conservative or manipulative of who he can be connected to in their relationship. Still, it felt shocking that a close friend would simply dump their friend they've known for 15 years over the feelings of a new partner.
I cried a lot for a few days feeling the loss of my friend, then I consciously noticed the dark shame coming up and it hissed in the voice of J: How dare you come out and expose your dirty whore self to me and my girlfriend, a clean decent woman. How dare you share your real name and self to the world? Your should stay in the closet and be ashamed, that was the only acceptable way I could tolerate you. You're selfish. You've never been my friend and why would I want to even be associated with you? I'm aware these words are are coming from me, that's my shame talking (my therapist gets to watch me mentally wrestle myself over our Zoom video calls, which must look like a low-budget reality show to her.) My logical brain has to remind my heart with all the tender feelings that these are just words in a narrative I've made up about myself that comes from the trauma from my past. Having the rug pulled out from under me by a close and trusted friend isn't a new experience, so I wondered if this was a common occurrence for most people. "How many friends or lovers have ghosted or abandoned you for no real reason?" I asked my friend over the phone this week. It seems like this has happened to me a lot over my lifetime, but maybe this is a normal loss that everyone goes through and I just make more meaning of it. Do most people brush it off quickly and get on with their lives, or do they feel a core wound in their heart get re-activated with dark thoughts and feelings of shame? Am I really a terrible person, a slutty, selfish, unpopular sad whore who's unworthy of love and friendship?
I've read books on shame, been in therapy and done workshops on love, relationships and sexuality to know this is a story I've created from my childhood trauma- I must simply be a terrible human down to my core, unworthy of friendship or even a mother's love. My rational brain knows it's a story, yet it feels the same each time I've lost someone I'm close to, as if it was true. There's a familiar sickening feeling that comes up every time-- I wonder if I'm just repeating the imprint of my mother's cruel abandonment and justifying her disappearance. Then my rational side defends me: But you know that's not true, Melissa! You are loyal, empathetic, funny, kind and you should win Cat Momma of the Year award. You just had a fucked up childhood with parents dealing with their own trauma.
The core pain of this loss hasn't completely disappeared, but what did surprise me was how quickly it exited and how much easier it's been to let the friendship go without as much anger and resentment as I used to have. In addition to therapy sessions and my online sex worker support group, I've lately been drawn to stories chronicling brave women who've had to overcome obstacles around their sexuality and how they let go of the circumstances that kept them down.
There's a news article that came across my social network feed a few months ago, From Pastor to Stripper: Nikole Mitchell Says She's Never Been Happier. I later learned Nikole actually worked hard at pitching her story to the press and she's a wizard at turning negative press, haters and ugly comments into expanding her brand as a life coach, bringing her more social media followers, more fans and a lot more money. Nikole is a face-out sex worker who's been out under her real full name since day one (which is extremely very rare in sex work and the adult industry.) She calls herself a 'Stripper', which is really a spin on her actually work as an all-online erotic content creator (self-produced porn and erotic media for sale through paywalled adult fan sites like OnlyFans.)
According to Nikole's story, she was on food stamps a few years ago and now she now makes $20k-$30k a month, mostly from selling her erotic content on her Onlyfans site, which also fuels getting more clients for her her one-on-one life coaching business (she starts at $4k a month with a three month commitment when I inquired a few months ago.) Her former pastor skills have transitioned into her strong leadership running two businesses. She's a great speaker, presenter and writer; a marketing guru and is also parent to her three young kids. All while being fully self expressed, sexy, unapologetic and vulnerable on the internet (naked on her X-rated OnlyFans site and her censored, R-rated Instagram account with over 240,000 followers.) While her images are captivating, what I admire most is her honest and raw captions under those sexy selfies she posts prolifically over social media. I did a group coaching course with her just before I came out in January and she was my biggest cheerleader and inspiration. We got to ask her anything in the live chat and all I wanted to know is how she's dealt with the stigma in her work and the cruel comments, especially coming from a very Christian conservative background. I told her I watched some of her early Youtube videos she did after she left the church and she first came out as queer/bisexual (this was before she had any real press or started 'stripping' on the internet.) The comments under her videos were so vicious I had to stop reading them. I felt angry and protective of this woman I didn't even know, yet she soared even higher and became even bigger after coming out as queer.
"Youtube isn't my people", she laughed when I asked her about about the comments, many of them saying she was a whore who would burn in hell for her actions and threats against her family. She said she found her people-- her real fans and supporters on Instagram. She had more trolls comment in the early days when she was new, but she said when you've got so many followers, there's always people there who will defend you and destroy the troll before you even read what they said.
I knew she got divorced from her husband in the last few years when she started getting press which made her a bigger media sensation. Before this, she left her mega church in Minnesota, then publicaly came out as queer. Then, her story really blew up on the internet when she came out a sex worker who took her clothes off online for money. She wrote openly about sex and desire but also spelled out her income numbers and what is was like to struggle being poor and powerless. Her unapologetic posts about desiring wealth, a life of luxury, power and fame even ruffled some of her fans but she never minced her message. Money and sex appeal are a powerful combination; it's no wonder the patriarchy criminalized women for harnessing that power.
I was nervous to ask questions that felt so negative and personal. I worried she would see me as another troll trying to push her down, but she took my questions like a buoy in the ocean that would pop right back up after each wave. I asked her how she's dealt with the stigma of being an open sex worker. If she lost any loved ones in the process and if she had any regrets.
"Oh yes. I lost my church community back in Minnesota. I lost my family. I lost my ride-or-die best friends I had since grade school. I lost my marriage. I cried and cried for weeks straight, but it never made me waver from who I was becoming and meant to be...I never imagined having the friends and loved ones who are now in my life who and support who love me for being the fully self expressed person I am today."
There is a price to pay to come out and be fully self-expressed to the world. I still feel a nine year-old on ice skates who's clinging to the wall as I enviously watch the seasoned skaters in sequined mini dresses and bedazzled skates do triple axles with ease and grace. It gives me a sense of hope and less aloneness knowing they also fell and bruised themselves many times, felt pain, cried and wanted to quit. All that suffering, getting back up and not giving up made them stronger to take more risks and falls, pushing themselves to where they want to be. I hope someday to be as graceful and strong as Nikole. I imagine her saying to me as my skating coach, "Get up right away when you fall, Melissa. Keep going forward, keep yourself focussed on one point a few feet ahead of you for balance and don't look back. Never look back."