I was baptized into the Cult of Dog when I was 14 years old.
Growing up, I didn’t have many friends. At school and at home, I was quiet. I tried to stay out of the way. My best friend was the dog my parents (finally) allowed me to get in second grade. We were inseparable. Then, before my freshman year in high school, I brought home a new puppy. I put a lot of dreams into my relationship with him. I started attending training classes, prepping for competitions, and for the first time, making friends. I wasn’t out to anyone then, not even to myself. Like many teenagers, I was searching for belonging, for community, for a higher power. I found it in dogs and in the people who have dedicated their lives to them.
Dog-show people are a bit of an awkward bunch. We think nothing of outfitting our dogs in custom collars and leashes while walking around in the same T-shirts (of course featuring our respective breed affinities and training philosophies) weekend after weekend. We pay hundreds of dollars in entry fees and spend innumerable hours training for just seconds in the ring at a dog show, all with the hopes of winning ribbons with a monetary value of around 50 cents. We have, shall we say, unique values, but as disheveled as we may allow our appearances to be, our dogs are always in peak form.
As a teenager, I spent every weekend in dirt-floored barns and horse arenas repurposed to hold training sessions and competitions in my then-favorite sport of dog agility. In agility, a sport based on speed and accuracy, a dog, directed by their handler, runs through a brightly colored rainbow of obstacles — from jumps to tunnels to large “contact equipment” like teeter-totters and A-frames. I was obsessed.
I covered my school notebooks with pictures of my dogs at competitions, and pictures of champion dogs and handler teams I wanted to emulate. I even convinced my high school yearbook committee to write about my dogs’ agility wins in the sports section. (My school skirted the edges of suburbia and had an equestrian team, Future Farmers of America, and 4-H. I argued that if horses were in the yearbook, dogs should be too.)
My senior year in high school I came out as gay, and for the first time found myself at odds with dog people. I already knew that the dog world could be dog-eat-dog. Friendships are fierce, and fighting is fiercer. Arguments about the slightest changes to the rules of a canine sport can send dog people into hysterics. Currently, the most rabid of fights in the dog world include arguments about shifting regulations in the American Kennel Club (if dog shows are our church, the AKC is our Vatican) and whether the height of the apex on the A-frame should be lowered. These debates are the dog world equivalent of Congress having impeachment proceedings. Confused? Don’t worry, so are all of our very patient partners, who listen quietly while we recount the latest dog fight over dinner (fights between people, of course — our dogs are all properly trained, socialized and managed.)
But when I was 17, I didn’t know how ugly the arguments could be. I assumed — incorrectly, as I would discover — that dog people would keep their fighting limited to the subject of dogs.
That is, until I accidentally came out.
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When we began training together, my agility coach became the best (human) friend I’d ever had. I spent every weekend either training with her or traveling with her to competitions. My mother, who liked to spend her weekends draining bottles of wine, lifted the hold she had kept over me and started to let me travel with my dog show friends.
We spent weekends in camper trailers at fairgrounds outside of horse arenas that would be filled with hundreds of dogs flying over hurdles, racing through tunnels, competing for titles and ribbons. On the long drives to and from shows I began to open up to my coach about what my life at home was like, what it had always been like. I’d never told anyone about being abused. She wanted to help me, but I wouldn’t let her. Finally, one weekend, she said that if she saw another bruise, she couldn’t keep turning a blind eye: She would take me to the police.
That Saturday night, she dropped me off at home with a plan to pick me up early in the morning. My mother had been drinking more heavily than usual. She was angry. The next morning, I was waiting for my coach in the driveway. I had my training bag filled with extra leashes, dog treats and grooming supplies, and my two dogs were straining at their leashes ready to jump into her van. I didn’t hide the new bruises on my forearm, or the black eye that bloomed across my face.
We went to the dog show. My dog and I ran well, and then instead of bringing me home, my coach brought me to the sheriff’s department. I was terrified of telling the truth about my mother’s abuse because I was afraid I would be put into foster care and lose my dogs. She promised me that wouldn’t happen. She said I would be able to come home with her. That night my mother was arrested and charged with assault. The police let me leave with my coach and my dogs, and I moved into the house she shared with her boyfriend and nine dogs.
I knew that my coach, like most of the dog people in my orbit, was not politically liberal. When we first started living together, her boyfriend had asked me, “You’re over that gay thing, right?” in reference to the hints I had made to a mutual friend the summer before. (Their response had been, “You can’t be gay, you like male country musicians more than the girl ones.”) In the rural area of Oregon where we lived, I’d never even seen an out gay person.
I didn’t mean to come out. Sure, I dyed my hair purple and wore Rainbow Brite T-shirts to shows, but I kept my teenage crushes on my women friends secret, scribbling them in a journal that I left in my bedroom.
Then, on a random Friday, someone read my journal.
That night, my coach and I were in her van driving north to Washington, our dogs crated in the back, towing a car trailer that we would spend the weekend in at a dog show. On the way, my coach asked if what she read was true.
It was a trick question. If I said no, I’d be lying, and she had warned me that if I ever lied to her, I would have to leave, and if I said yes … I didn’t know what would happen. I told her I was gay. I wanted to feel proud, but instead I felt afraid of what would happen next.
She kicked me out while I was at school. She called the school administrators and had me paged to the office. I walked along the cracked linoleum, worried that something was wrong with my dogs. I knew my coach was mad at me, and I couldn’t think of any other reason why she would need to talk to me during the day.
She told me I couldn’t come back that night. She told me I couldn’t come back ever.
I was homeless. I’d never met a homeless person before. I was 17 years old. I didn’t have a driver’s license. I didn’t know where I was going to live. She said I had until the end of the week to figure out where my dogs were going to go. The friends I was staying with wouldn’t allow dogs in their house. I was running out of options. There was no way for us to stay together.
In the end, my grandparents — who weren’t safe people for me to live with — agreed to take my oldest dog. To make everything even more painful, my coach kept my youngest because she wanted to compete with him. I don’t know what she told our mutual dog world friends; none of them would take my calls. I stayed with an acquaintance from school and his supportive parents. They weren’t dog people.
Losing my dogs, and the dog community, was so devastating I didn’t know if I could survive, but I didn’t have a choice. Life kept going, and slowly, dogs have called me back.
In my 20s, I moved to New York City. In the middle of all of the people, the concrete and the buildings, the Church of Dog found me again. This time I was lucky enough to find an openly gay trainer to work with, and I became her apprentice, helping her teach beginner dog-agility classes in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Today, I make my living writing about dogs (yes, I’m even a card-carrying member of the Dog Writers Association of America) and gay things (go figure!). My social media pages are a melting pot of radical queers and old-time dog people. I get private messages from people I know through dog training, confiding in me that they too are gay, or that someone in their close family is and they don’t feel comfortable telling other dog people about it.
A lot has changed in this country over the last two decades — for the better and more liberal — even in the dog world. But to be honest, I’m still worried when I meet dog people. Being a visibly queer person in the somewhat conservative world of dogs does at times have challenges, and anytime I see I’ve been unfollowed on social media by a dog person I used to be friends with, I assume it’s homophobia.
Even now, in my mid-30s, on my bad days I’m still haunted by what happened when I was 17.
When I met the breeder of my youngest dog, I was grateful it was deep winter on the East Coast so I could wear a hoodie. It didn’t cover my facial piercings, but it hid the tattoos that cover my arms and chest. I hoped it made me seem more approachable. Even though I had been vouched for — thankfully, with my New York City queer dog world connections I had some of the best references — I was still afraid of being rejected.
Similarly, walking into a training class or a dog show, I feel extra pressure because I know that there are a percentage of dog people who don’t think I belong because I’m queer. Sometimes this means wearing a hoodie and hiding who I am, or ignoring the misgendering assumptions that I’m “mom” to my dogs (I identify as genderqueer, not female).
Other times I let my freak flag fly. I’ve had trainers assume my dog and I couldn’t work because I showed up to class wearing a flouncy dress instead of utilitarian training clothes. We showed her! Or just a couple of months ago, when I entered my first competition obedience trial since I was a teenager, and I wore glittery pink leggings underneath my skirt, paired with a tacky Newfoundland T-shirt.
Nonetheless, on the daily, the interactions tend to veer toward the more humorous, like last week when a dog show competitor stumbled into a conversation about nonbinary pronouns. My dog friend wasn’t maliciously mispronouning someone. She just wasn’t familiar with how to use nonbinary pronouns like they/them, ze/hir and others, but she came away from the conversation knowing (maybe more than she wanted to) about queer genders and the array of pronouns people might use. I’m often surprised at how well these interactions go.
For better or for worse, I can’t leave my queerness at the door, and I won’t abandon the dog world — people just have to get used to me. I’m here, I’m queer, now let’s train our dogs!