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Maggie had told her that for a while, everything would be shiny.

And it was. God, it was.

Every kiss had felt like coming home. Suddenly she was constantly noticing people on the subway who she suspected could be gay. Her friends had all laughed when Maggie mercilessly crushed Winn at pool. She’d unlocked a huge part of herself, figured herself out, and maybe now that she had this piece, things would come easy.

But now? Now there were cracks in the surface, and Maggie wasn’t perfect, and their relationship wasn’t perfect, and their community wasn’t perfect.

Of the three, the last was the one that surprised her.

Alex has said it more than once – that coming out had made her feel like a kid again – but it wasn’t just her attraction to Maggie that was destabilising. It was also her new-found cluelessness, the feelings and identities she was only just learning all the big words for, the rawness of the emotions she’d unwittingly buried for years without ever knowing it.

Alex has always prided her on being a quick study (something Maggie had been jokingly praising her for in bed), but even she found the process of discovering a new community, a new history, overwhelming. A lot of what she learned felt like someone handing her a shovel after years of digging through herself with bloodied hands. But some of it? Some of it made her scared. Some of it made her ashamed.

She was letting it get the better of her one night at the bar, several whiskey shots deep after straight losses at pool, when it first came up. “Are you mad at me?” she’d asked Maggie.

“What? Why?”

“Because I’m not a gold star?”

Maggie narrowed her eyes, leaned against the pool table. “Where’d you learn that term, Danvers?”

“The internet. I’ve been researching. It came up a lot, so it must be important right? To be a gold star? I mean you are, obviously.”

“It’s not important, Alex.”

“I promise I didn’t mean it,” Alex apologised, her stance unsteady. “I was blackout drunk for half of them, I swear. I don’t even know why I… God, I was so stupid, but I was just trying to be normal – not that you’re not normal, you’re perfect, but -”

“Alex, listen to me,” Maggie told her, taking her face in her hands as M’gann subtly brought over some water and slipped away. “You know how everyone always assumes you’re straight? Well you were trained from birth to assume that you were straight too. That shit is loud, and sometimes you can go your whole life without hearing yourself think. You weren’t stupid. It wasn’t you.”

Alex shook her head, tears on the brink of falling. “You didn’t listen, though. You’re a good lesbian. A real one.”

“No, sweetie…”

“I’m so sorry,” Alex wept. “I should have figured it out sooner, so I could be good for you, you can do so much better -”

“Babe, enough,” Maggie murmured, kissing her hair and pulling her into a hug. “You have nothing to apologise for. It’s real. You’re real.”

Once Alex’s breathing slowed, and Maggie made her sip some water, the room started to feel malleable. Not quite there. “I’m dizzy.”

Maggie chuckled, stroking her love’s hair. “Yeah, that’s what happens.”

“I’m sorry I got all… I drank too much, I’m not thinking straight.” She stopped, laughed to herself. “Ha, get it? Coz I’m gay.”

“You’re drunk. Come on, babe, let me take you home.”

Alex giggled, blushing. “Pretty lady wants to take me home.”

“Not like that, Danvers. To bed. Let’s go.”  

That was the night Alex learned the word “heteronormative” – really understood it – and when Maggie sat her on her bed and untied her shoes, Alex felt herself implode, felt herself sobbing, grieving that she’d lost so much time, remembering every example of relationships in her family, every movie she’d ever seen, every song she’d ever heard, every couple who’d kissed openly in front of her, and just knew that she’d never had a chance. Not really.

Other words were harder to get used to.

She’d only known “queer” as in weird. Queer as in different. Queer as in wrong.

She remembered the sound of it like a locker slamming shut, seeing the only gay boy in her school, in her town, move to the city. So whenever Maggie said she wanted to take her to a queer art show, or queer film festival, or went to see a queer friend, Alex had to unlearn her flinches.

She had to unlearn the clench in her gut when she was in that corner of National City she’d never spent time in, seeing rainbow flags above the windows of cafés, because why do they have to get in people’s faces about it, can’t they keep it to themselves like everyone else, can’t they just stay quiet, quiet, quiet, and Alex tried to force the blush out of her face, knowing she’d almost rather the concrete swallow her whole than follow Maggie into a place that…obvious.  

She didn’t want to be that sort of lesbian, she thought – one who shaved her head the second she came out and only hung out in this neighbourhood and only had gay friends. No. She was going to be subtle. Palatable. Normal.

So when Kara gleefully brought her rainbow cupcakes on her 6 month coming out anniversary, Alex baulked, she froze, stammered out a “You really didn’t have to”, and Maggie smiled knowingly, rubbing her back as the three of them ate together. Because Maggie knew more than most how hard it was to shake off shame when it was as familiar as your skin.

After Kara left, Alex learned the term “internalised homophobia”, and broke down in tears, in apologies, under the weight of feeling like she was part of the problem.

She was only just beginning to realise how invisible their culture was. How she couldn’t remember the last time she saw a couple like them holding hands. How when she tried to think of a lesbian movie for Netflix night with Maggie, she didn’t know any.

In the end, it was Kara who did a lot of the research. She’d send her interesting Autostraddle articles and collected all the gayest movie choices for sister night. When Alex admitted she didn’t know any gay music, Kara made her a mix tape of artists she’d googled, and the first time Alex listened to “Sleepover” by Hayley Kiyoko with her eyes shut, she was 16 in Vicki Donahue’s bed again.

But if she was honest, Alex couldn’t make it through a full Tegan and Sara song, let alone a full episode of the L Word, and maybe that made her a bad lesbian.

It was about a month later that she stumbled across a copy of Against Me’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues album in the punk section of her favourite record store, her breath catching when she realised that both she and the lead singer were closeted when she was obsessed with this band as a teen. In the car ride on the way home, she almost wanted to cry hearing Laura’s voice, just as raw and angry as it’s always been, but somehow truer now, and suddenly her older songs made a lot more sense.

Once she was a little more comfortable being in queer spaces, Maggie brought her by her gym to meet the owners Khaleela and Marisol for the first time. There was something incredibly tender about the way Sol, all buzzed hair and swagger, smiled almost shyly at her wife even after all these years, helping her fix the pins of her scarf (“Sorry, guys, I’m having such a bad hijab day”), and Alex noticed that she was…well… cute.

She asked Maggie about it later – what was the deal with girls liking butch lesbians? At a certain point wasn’t it almost like dating a guy? If they liked being masculine so much, why didn’t they transition? Maggie was patient with her, explaining that there were a lot of different ways to be a woman, that no matter what she wore Sol still had that same heart, that she still went to bed at night knowing she was a woman, and Alex nodded slowly through it all.

The next time they saw Sol, she was sporting a black eye and busted lip, and that was how Alex learned the term “passing privilege”.

Her first few times at a gay bar were just as challenging, a confusing blend of euphoric moments of recognition and confusing interactions with people she’d never really been allowed to associate with growing up. Maggie had to teach her that it was OK to ask about pronouns, but more invasive questions were considered impolite in their culture. That drag wasn’t anything weird, but that gender expression and gender identity were entirely different things.

Maggie always seemed to bump into four or five acquaintances every time they went out, and Alex had the sense that there was a family out there she still wasn’t quite part of yet – that she maybe wasn’t ready for. She was embarrassed by her age, her lack of knowledge and experience, all the in-jokes she didn’t get. But when a guy raised his eyebrows at her for not knowing what “cis” meant (“Where’d you find this one, Maggie?”), she instantly had a group of guys tell him to back off, kindly explaining the answer, buying her a drink and welcoming her to QBar.

Still, so much from those nights made no sense to her. Like how each bar seemed overwhelmingly catered towards men, save for a couple nights a week when they had girl parties. How when she drunkenly helped her new friend Jin swipe through his Grindr one night to a barrage of no fats, no fems, no rice, no curry, no blacks, no trannies, no uncut, she just didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, why people would type that so brazenly. How Maggie asked her friend Ash about her boyfriend (Did they let straight girls in here? Was there a rule?) only to later see a too-drunk girl lean over the bar and snarl at her, “Why are you even here? Shouldn’t you be off sucking cock somewhere?”

Alex had taken the crying woman outside to get some air while Maggie sorted out her abuser, with no idea what just happened. “She’s bi,” Maggie said after Ash decided to head home, by way of explanation.

“Oh. I’m sorry, I just assumed -”

“Yeah it’s easy to do that,” Maggie admitted. “That other girl was her ex. Saying shit like that is why she’s an ex, pretty much. Got way too paranoid, doesn’t believe bi girls dating guys deserve to be in the community, yada yada. Some people are like that.”

Alex sighed, leaned against the brick of the alley. “Every time I think I’m starting to get on top of everything, I realise I know nothing. The community isn’t what I expected. I didn’t think there’d be so much infighting.”

Maggie nodded, smiling sadly. “It’s just like any other family, I guess. I mean you’re fortunate that you’re white, you’re cis, you’re rich, you can pass when you have to, but for other people it’s not that easy. Whatever prejudices people have outside the community get brought in too. We’re not perfect. We have a lot to work on. But these people took me in when I had no one, I’ll always owe them my life. But we do have to make the community better, make sure it’s a safe place for the people coming in now.” She stepped in to kiss her girlfriend’s cheek. “Come on. Let me take you back inside and show you how fun we can be when ignorant dickheads aren’t around.”

And she did, and they danced and danced and danced, with old friends and new, Alex revelling in the freedom of kissing her girlfriend and knowing that no one was staring, that no one would hurt them, and that everyone in the room understood.

On nights like that, being openly gay felt like having the lights turned on after years stumbling through her own house in the dark. But it wasn’t always like that. It could be messy, and uncomfortable, and felt a lot more like going backwards than forwards some days, being made to remember parts of her youth she’d forced away.

Like at a spring lunch with Eliza, when Kara had made the mistake of bringing up that National City Pride was just a few weeks away. “You’re not thinking of going, are you, Alexandra?” she’d chuckled over a glass of wine. “You know I’ve always supported you, sweetie, but I just don’t see why they need to shout about it, you know? They can get married now, I don’t know why they can’t just enjoy their relationships in peace like the rest of us.”

Under the table, Alex had squeezed Kara’s hand tight. “I- I haven’t thought about it yet,” she lied, suddenly remembering that Eliza had made similar comments when she was growing up, full of half-support that had always made her feel uncomfortable without knowing why.

The community talked so much about pride, but Alex didn’t know what that meant. She didn’t understand it. Kara had told her, in her darkest moment after Maggie first rejected her, that she was proud of her - but how could that be true, when all her life she’d never done anything right, never been enough, and this was just another thing that was fundamentally wrong about her?

How could she have failed this badly at knowing herself, so blind to her own heart? 

How could she go to Pride, when she was still carrying so much shame, when she was still scared to hold Maggie’s hand in some neighbourhoods, when even naming herself as a lesbian, out loud, still made her breathless?

As soon as her mother left, Alex called Maggie as Kara washed the dishes.

“Maybe mom’s right.”

“She’s not, babe.”

“Maybe she is. I dunno, I just…” Alex choked, tears starting to sting her eyes. “I don’t feel…”

“It’s OK, babe, take your time.”

“I just…I’m not like you, Maggie. I’m not confident in this yet, and I’m proud of you, I’m proud of us, I am - I don’t want you to feel like I don’t love you, but… I’ve been out for almost a year and I still have days where I feel unworthy from the inside out and I don’t know why, like nothing’s happened, but I just… Maybe I don’t deserve to go to Pride. Maybe I don’t belong there.”

“Babe, I’ll never push you into anything you don’t feel you’re ready for,” Maggie assured her. “But it’s exactly for that reason that we have Pride. To come together. To keep each other strong, even when we don’t feel strong. To celebrate how far we’ve come, as a community. God, when we were born, Pride was a funeral. Fifteen years ago I truly believed I was going to hell. A year ago you weren’t even out. But now, so much has changed, and laws have changed. I can kiss you in the street and I can love you and I want to show the world that. I want to fight for the things we still don’t have. With you.”

“I want that too,” Alex wept, chuckling a little through her tears. “Were you a nervous wreck at your first Pride?”

“Of course I was, Alex. Can you imagine? A small town kid like me, in a crowd like that? It was a whirlwind. I desperately needed that family but I was scared they wouldn’t accept me. Parts of it were really emotional. But overall I was just amazed at how many people there were who were like me. It was the first time since coming out that I truly felt I wasn’t alone. It was beautiful. Every year I still feel that. And I want that for you. But only if you’re ready.”

In the end, Alex promised that she’d think about it.

Maybe it was Kara’s excitement rubbing off on her, but as the weeks passed, Alex found herself unable to sleep thinking of what it would be like, for the first time in her life, to stand in a sea of people like her. To finally dismantle that deep-seated idea in her head that she wasn’t normal.

Because life was too short. And she should be who she was. And she should kiss the girl she wanted to kiss. And she should do it with pride.

There were so many moments in the last year that did make her feel proud. Whenever Maggie introduced her to someone as her girlfriend. Whenever she got to kiss her in public without anyone saying anything. Whenever they were at the bar, J’onn or James betting money on her girl.

The day itself, like Maggie promised, was a whirlwind. There were pre-drinks and selfies and glitter and potstickers at Kara’s place, Alex weeping when her sister made her a flower crown for her first ever Pride. The subway ride over was the most colourful Alex had ever seen. “There are this many of us?” she asked Maggie, not seeing a single person who wasn’t holding a rainbow flag or covered in glitter or both.

“I know, right?” Maggie replied, beaming.

“Where do they go the rest of the year?”

“They’re around. Just not always easy to see.”

The whole carriage broke into an already drunken chorus of She Keeps Me Warm as someone played guitar, and Maggie kissed her shoulder. She took a pen out of her back pocket, wrote on the inside of Alex’s forearm, Even on the days you find it hard to be proud, I will always be proud of you. A love heart. X’s and O’s.

Then, like a cracking levee, Alex let herself feel it all. Wrapped in the arms of her love, her sister, her friends, Alex wept, grieving for the time she lost, for the pain she suffered. She let Maggie kiss away her tears, telling her she was beautiful, she was perfect, the was strong, she was loved.

Next year, she promised herself, there would be no tears. Only dancing. Only joy. Only love.

Nothing could have prepared her for the doors opening in the city centre, the whole downtown area completely awash with colour, with music, with kisses, and between moments of being overwhelmed, Alex could only laugh. Because Kara blushing over a dancing shirtless James was the funniest thing she’d ever seen, and Winn getting his groove on was impossibly funnier, and she was young and in love.

Because Maggie Sawyer was holding her hand. Maggie was dancing with her in the middle of the road. Maggie was pinning her against lampposts, fixing her flower crown, kissing her way to her ear and telling her how she loved her, loved her, loved her.

Her tiny powerhouse of a girlfriend, in short shorts and a backwards snapback, bare legs wrapped around Alex and she piggybacked her down the street to the after party.

Through it all, Alex couldn’t stop thinking about how just a year ago, she never could have imagined she would end up here - covered in a dozen different people’s glitter, dancing in the street, hopelessly in love.

And yes, maybe her sense of pride wasn’t constant yet. Maybe it would come slowly. But with the most beautiful girl at Pride on her back, she knew she would find her peace, however long it took. Because when Maggie kissed her cheek and murmured “Happy Pride, beautiful”, the world had truly never shone so bright.