How this Tennessee woman came out, fell in love, and became a marriage advocate

Lindsey Wagoner never thought that she would be a vocal advocate for the LGBT community, or for the freedom to marry. As a young girl growing up in Ooltewah, Tennessee, she struggled to come to terms with her sexuality, finding it difficult to identify as a lesbian and feeling bullied by her classmates in middle school and high school at nearly every turn. She dealt with the regular challenges of being a teenager in a small town, but on top of that, she questioned why she wasn’t more interested in dating boys and why she didn’t fit in with the rest of the kids in school. And when she did realize that she is gay, she was nervous and afraid to tell her family members and friends.

Just a few years later, much of that fear and uncertainty is behind Lindsey; nearly three years ago, she met Megan Smith, and the women quickly fell in love. Since then, they’ve moved in together in Chattanooga, Tennessee, gotten engaged, and started an organization dedicated to winning the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in their state called Tennessee Marriage Equality.

“We will not be forced to move out of our home and away from our friends and families for equal rights,” Lindsey and Megan said, explaining why they founded TN Marriage Equality. “We want to keep fighting here until we see change here in Tennessee.”

Lindsey and Megan have found inspiration to speak out about why marriage matters to them through their personal struggles in growing up and fighting for acceptance in their community. Reflecting on those stories and understanding those motivations for our passions is hugely important. That’s why Lindsey took the time to share her own coming out story and track her growth from a young girl in a sheltered Tennessee school to a confident and outspoken woman speaking out on behalf of same-sex couples and LGBT people across Tennessee.

Read her story:

“Coming out” was not something that occurred to me in my youth, because I did not even know what gay meant. I was a tomboy who grew up in the sheltered confines of a Christian private school, and “gay” was simply not something that people talked about. I knew that I had what I called “interests” in girls, but I did not think of it as having a crush or being something abnormal; I just assumed that everyone felt this way. Things felt so safe and simple in the little world where I attended school. We were not taught that anyone was different.

It wasn’t until I transferred to a public school in a small community at age 9 that things took a turn for the worse. Kids at my new school did not welcome a girl who wore boyish clothes and had unkempt hair always pulled into a messy ponytail.

That year is when the teasing started. The endless, demeaning ridicule spread to the point of seeming inescapable. Occasionally other girls would shove me for no reason and try to start fights with me on the playground. I was accused of being gay and called names like “dyke.” I had never heard these words and did not know what they meant. I did not know what “gay” was. I had never been exposed to this type of hatred, especially for something I did not understand and did not even think applied to me.

Things got worse when it came time to start middle school, as many of my classmates joined me in these awkward years of adolescence. Some of the friends I did have from elementary school shied away from me for the sake of trying to be more popular, the teasing got worse, and the jokes got harsher and more personal.

I would try to joke along too just to get through each day. I figured that if I could be the funny girl and laugh with them sometimes even at my own expense then maybe it wouldn’t hurt as much when they were laughing at me. I would beg my mom daily to let me stay home from school, sometimes shedding tears, and I would get physically sick from the fear of having to go back there, day in and day out. I couldn’t stand it. My grades slipped, and everyone acted like they did not understand why. At the age of 13, I started to really question my sexuality and think that maybe there was some truth to the things the kids were saying.

Soon, I genuinely believed then that a lifetime of feeling sad and empty was what I was destined for – that, for me, things would never get any better. At a particularly dark time, I felt so lost and hopeless that I thought I had no way out.

When I got to high school, things started getting better, but I still struggled silently with my sexuality for religious reasons. I swore that I could just ignore it, but when ignoring it didn’t work, I acknowledged it to myself, promising that I would never talk about it or act on those feelings. I felt that if I looked “normal” and blended in with all the other girls, no one would accuse me of being gay, and I could have an easier life. I grossly overcompensated by only wearing name-brand clothes, changing up my hair, wearing more makeup, and working hard in the gym. It was never about trying to be popular. It was about survival and being able to go to school every day without being publically humiliated. I had to show everyone that I had what it takes to succeed. To be something. To be somebody. I felt like I couldn’t do this if people thought I was gay.

College came around, and I got to start all over. I went to a new school with new people and finally got the blank slate I’d always wanted. I dated guys from my college, still convinced that I could ignore and stifle this other side of me. I knew on the inside that I liked girls, but my religious background coupled with all of the teasing from childhood made these feelings seem shameful.

I struggled with these feelings for several years. I was terrified to come out, especially to my family. I do not know what I thought would happen - perhaps it was fear that the bullying from childhood would start again.

My fear was somewhat lifted about three years ago, when I met Megan, the love of my life. She helped me find the courage to face everything I was afraid of and to live my life openly in a way that makes me proud. I have since faced my fears and come out completely.

Coming out to my family was easier than I expected. My mom has been the most accepting of me and also really loves my fiancé. The life I have with Megan is wonderful, and I could not ask for anything better. All of the hurt and pain I experienced as a kid from being bullied about my sexuality does not seem real now.

Megan and I have a passion for wanting to make a difference and change the way the LGBT community is treated. We started an organization called TN Marriage Equality to advocate for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples living in our home state. We hope through that work – and other work in standing up and speaking out for equal rights, we can help other young people in our area who may be growing up now the way that I did. We want to let them know that it does get better.

Learn more about TN Marriage Equality HERE.