Coming of age and coming out
It’s a word that Kait Counter, water quality analyst at Denver Water, says accurately describes her.
The word can be jarring, given its history as a derogatory term or offensive slur for gay people. But over the last few decades, the word has been reclaimed by some members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and/or queer, intersex and asexual community, or LGBTQIA+ for short.
“I’m different — unique from others — and maybe a little strange. But aren’t we all a little different in our own ways?” said Counter.
Counter is bisexual, something she discovered gradually as she navigated the stages of adolescence.
“Maybe I always kind of knew I was queer, but I was too young to really put words or labels around my feelings.”
Like many elementary school kids, Counter developed innocent childhood crushes on some of her classmates. But unlike the other girls in her class, Counter’s infatuations included both boys and girls.
Her feeling of “differentness” became more evident to her when she started middle school in Omaha, Nebraska.
She dated several boys in her early teens, but those relationships ended quickly, and Counter began to worry.
“I remember thinking very early on, ‘What if I never find a guy to love?’ and how scary it would be to admit to the world that I love women,” she said.
This question, along with the emotional confusion of adolescence, led Counter to confide in her eighth-grade history teacher.
“She was the first person I came out to. I felt safe talking with her; she wasn’t a family member or a close friend, so there wasn’t that extra pressure or fear of judgement.”
Counter believes their mentor-mentee relationship was beneficial to each of them.
“We sort of helped each other in a way. She was there for me during a scary, confusing time in my life. At the time, she was studying to become a counselor, and the experience of helping me work through all of my emotions and thoughts validated her decision to pursue a different career path,” Counter said.
Counter felt some relief finally acknowledging her sexuality. But although she confided in her teacher, Counter kept her secret from others for nearly a year.
“I didn’t know anyone who was queer, and there were certainly not any openly-out women in my Midwest middle school,” she said.
Counter found that high school was more of the same — she still felt different from everyone else.
“I dated a few boys throughout middle school and had one serious boyfriend toward the end of high school, but those relationships weren’t fulfilling. I was playing the part and maybe in denial, doing things to appear straight,” Counter said.
She kept in close contact with her eighth-grade history teacher, whose support helped her navigate the complexities of her first year of high school. The two texted and talked frequently, and Counter was thankful to have a trusted adult to talk to about her struggles.
Then everything came crashing down around her when Counter’s father discovered a text conversation on her phone between Counter and her former teacher.
He confronted her.
Counter admitted she was queer and explained the innocent nature of her friendship with the teacher.
But her father kicked her out of her home, and she went to live with her mom full time.
“I didn’t get to choose my own terms. I didn’t get to decide when or how I would come out to my family. That was taken from me,” she said.
Although the news was unexpected, Counter’s mom was very supportive.
“I wish I would have told her sooner. She’s my best friend and we have a great relationship. She accepted me with open arms and later told me that I also have a gay uncle who moved away from his small Iowa hometown due to the family’s disapproval of homosexuality. But, with my mom’s love and support, he was slowly rebuilding relationships with some family members,” Counter said.
But her father was not as accepting.
Despite Counter’s adamant denial of anything inappropriate, he was not happy about her relationship with her former teacher. He attempted to press charges against his daughter’s closest confidant, falsely fabricating claims of an inappropriate relationship between them.
“It’s hard to keep that kinds of news — that kind of gossip — a secret. I knew I needed to tell my friends. It was time for me to be proud of who I was and to tell them I was queer,” she said.
To Counter’s astonishment, her friends were incredibly supportive. And it was the care and compassion of her friends that would help get her through the next three years of high school as news of her father’s allegations circulated throughout the school district.
“People made assumptions about me, teased me and threw insults my way. Students who I didn’t even know asked me personal and blatantly inappropriate questions about my relationship with my former teacher. But I had a really great group of friends who stuck up for me and spoke out when they saw me being bullied or heard others gossiping about me,” said Counter.
As her friendships continued to strengthen, the relationship between Counter and her closest mentor was also restored when the allegations against her former teacher were determined to be unfounded.
“Ironically, we had gone through such a traumatic experience together that it actually brought us closer. We are still friends today,” Counter said.
After graduation, Counter knew she needed to get out of Nebraska and start her life anew as an adult. She enrolled at the University of Tulsa, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to study biochemistry.
She moved into her dorm room, decorated the walls with her favorite band posters, and was filled with the excitement and feelings of freedom that often come from one’s first move away from home.
But there also were reminders that not everyone would accept her.
“I walked into our suite and found one of my new roommates giving her friends a tour of my part of the dorm. I later found out she was showing them what ‘living in sin’ looked like,” said Counter.
“She never even took a chance to get to know me. It was difficult living with that kind of outright bigotry for a year. It was awkward.”
Unfortunately, similar scenarios would play out throughout her life, and Counter knew she needed to build a new support system in Tulsa. She joined the Delta Gamma sorority and found companionship and belonging, although she remained guarded.
“Early on, I actually considered leaving the sorority. There weren’t many other queer girls in Greek life at the school, let alone in Delta Gamma,” she said.
Counter decided to stay, and she developed strong friendships with many of her sorority sisters, as well as other students across the campus.
Early in her freshman year, Counter met Casey at a small gathering in a friend’s dorm room and the two women developed a close friendship.
Then over the next year, Counter realized her feelings had transformed into something deeper.
“It was this immediate moment of panic for me. I was always falling for straight girls, and I definitely didn’t want to lose Casey’s friendship,” Counter said.
To her surprise, Casey told Counter she was gay, saying, “I guess I’ve just never met another woman worth coming out for.”
They began dating, and Counter helped Casey come out to her family and their friends.
“Casey’s family is so supportive. They accepted the news, and me, without question and whole-heartedly,” said Counter.
But the two didn’t feel the same acceptance in all aspects of their lives.
In 2017, Counter saw a shift that unnerved her.
Violence and acts of hate against the LGBTQIA+ community on her college campus started to rise, and student groups at the university requested volunteers to chaperone queer students around campus to ensure their safety.
“It was a reminder that our position in this world is tenuous,” said Counter. “My safety as a queer woman has never been guaranteed. I rely on the allies I surround myself with to help keep me safe.”
Leaning on her friends, sorority sisters, and of course Casey, Counter was able to thrive in college, eventually earning her biochemistry degree in December 2017.
And as she moved into the next phase of adulthood, she knew she wanted to spend the rest of her life with Casey.
The two were engaged and shortly after moved to Denver in search of more scientific job opportunities and a more progressive, accepting community.
Counter was hired in Denver Water’s Water Quality Lab and the two began planning their 2020 wedding.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the couple’s wedding plans were derailed.
“We had been looking forward to finally making it official, and the decision to cancel our wedding was heartbreaking,” said Counter.
They decided to self-solemnize their marriage, as Colorado allows parties to conduct a legal marriage without a judge or officiant.
They selected an intimate mountain cabin with a small stream running behind it and were married June 14, 2020 — using a selfie-stick to take pictures of their private milestone.
And they kept their marriage a secret — from everyone.
“There’s so much pressure on couples that first year, and we wanted to do something for ourselves. It was kind of exciting to have a secret between the two of us for our first year of marriage,” Counter said.
The two surprised their closest family and friends June 13, 2021, at their “wedding," outside of Vail, Colorado, when they revealed the ceremony was actually a celebration of their anniversary.
While some of their friends suspected the couple had eloped, most of their guests were shocked. “It was such a fun, casual and happy occasion. It was absolutely everything we had hoped for.”
Counter’s fondest moment of the day: surprising Casey with a custom band to go with her bridal set.
“It was so hard to keep that secret for so long and I almost let it slip a few times. But seeing her reaction when I gave her the band was my favorite moment of a weekend of memorable moments,” Counter said.
But like other important moments in her life, the celebration was accompanied by an uncomfortable reminder for Counter. A close friend in attendance at their ceremony later voiced her belief that the couple’s marriage was not legitimate and she does not support gay marriage.
“It’s always shocking when you believe someone is a true friend and you later learn their true intentions are not in your best interest. This was a reminder that the queer experience is often bittersweet, but the heavy experiences will never eclipse the love and joy I’ve found throughout my life,” said Counter.
As Counter begins the next phase of her life as a wife, she reflects on all she has been through to get to this point, focusing on the friendships that have come and gone over the years.
“I heard a parable once that goes something like this: Some friends are buses and others are bus stops. You get on the bus and ride until you reach your destination, then it’s time to go. These friends serve to keep you connected with your bus stops: the friends who are reliable, you always know where to find them, and they’re never far from home,” she said.
Counter knows these life lessons will continue.
“We all change and grow throughout our lives, which means our identity is always changing with us. Who we are now isn’t who we were 10 years ago, nor is it who will be 10 years in the future.”
“As a queer woman, I’ve always been searching for that label to help describe who I am. But I realized that sometimes we don’t always find the right one first, or perhaps we do and eventually we learn more about ourselves and outgrow it. And that’s OK.”
“Change and self-discovery is part of what makes us all human.”