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June 27, 2022

The first time I came out to a member of my family, it was to my sister over lunch at a Panera Bread three minutes from work.

I remember my order: a You Pick Two, mac and cheese and a kale Caesar salad. My nephew chomped on apple slices in his booster seat while racquet club moms split almond-flecked bowls of leaves and office guys slurped broccoli cheddar soup. I was in a booth holding a plastic fork, telling my sister that I had known I was queer for most of a decade. She listened, thanked me earnestly for sharing this part of myself with her, and then finished wrestling a napkin out of my nephew’s mouth.

It felt surreal at the time to break the glass of heterosexuality inside this perfect pocket of suburban straightness, but now it seems exactly right. I know so many queer and trans people who have come out to loved ones at the straightest American chain restaurants you can imagine: Olive Garden, Chili’s, a Sonic drive-in.

You step into these spaces and something wraps around you and holds you close. The steady, slightly stale comfort of a meal you’ve had a million times, a hundred memories of bottomless chips or endless breadsticks or complimentary biscuits. There never seem to be limits in places like this, even when every line of the menu is laminated and predictable. You know how every ingredient will taste, which is a reassuring foundation for introducing one gigantic variable to the experience of dinner with someone you love. You’re not home—you don’t know if you want home to forever be the place where this happened—but you’re at home.

If you’ve never done it, I invite you to picture it. Imagine yourself as a person at a table under a wall of copy-and-paste corporate-mandated tchotchkes…

For your 18th birthday your dad takes you to the Hooters by his office because he thinks that’s the kind of thing you do for an 18-year-old boy. The waitress is named Krystal, and she’s got brown lip liner on her front tooth and body glitter that shimmers under the Miller Lite sign, and you’re pretty sure she’s the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen. Your dad winks when he catches you staring at her, but you’re just picturing what you might look like in her tiny shorts and slouchy socks and chunky sneakers. When your dad leaves to take a call, she seems to know, somehow, in all her divine feminine silicone wisdom, to drop off your hot wings while you’re alone. She smiles when you tell her you wish you looked like her. She’s the first person you’ve ever told.

Your best friend Cody loves Arby’s, which is the worst thing about him. Every third Thursday after swim practice, he picks up two sandwiches and you sit on his tailgate under the glow of the big red hat and eat a roast beef with cheddar. You’re looking at him one evening, the pool still sticking to your arms, and you tell him you think you might like guys. Cody laughs, points at the sign. The neon flashes to life the second you look: WE HAVE THE MEATS. You groan and throw your sandwich at him. Relief rushes in like chlorinated water.

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