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Design by Jess Murphy; photography courtesy of Tucker Gaccione

Growing up in the rural New Jersey town of Whitehouse Station, I didn’t necessarily feel a connection to the LGBTQIA+ community in my day-to-day life.

It wasn’t until 2007 when I was in middle school that I began to question whether I felt the same way about girls as my straight male friends. Because of the environment I’d grown up in, I still didn’t equate my feelings with being gay.

In my mind, being gay entailed a certain accent, a certain way of dressing. I didn’t fit the image of “gayness” that was being presented in the media in the early 2000s.

In high school, though still in the closet due to uncertainty, I began to accept that what I was feeling was not the experience of my straight male friends. As much as I tried, I was not the same.

Much like them, I played sports and I got involved in school politics, but there was an undeniable barrier that remained.

This was around the same time that my best friend came to me with a crisis: He’d just found out that his dad was gay.

The only prior LGBTQIA+ representation I’d seen in the media had come from sources where a gay person was shunned by society. Now, in my personal life, this same representation was becoming a reality. My best friend told me that his father had left his mother for another man.

Experiencing the animosity firsthand that my friend felt for his father in those months reinforced everything I believed about myself due to my own feelings. In order to keep my friend, in order to keep living the life that I knew, I needed to be straight.

And so for a while, I put my true feelings aside and kept to myself. I felt isolated from the people I held closest.

This attitude didn’t change until after high school when I enrolled at Northeastern University and studied abroad in Australia for 6 months.

There, I was able to gain a lot more perspective on my own sexuality. Meeting people who didn’t conform to the heteronormativity I was raised with encouraged me to come out of my shell.

The more I interacted with people who belonged to the LGBTQIA+ community, the more I realized my preconceived notions about the community weren’t accurate. I did fit in.

Spending time in Australia was not my cue to come out of the closet, but it was a catalyst. I came back to the United States, and during the next few years in college, I eventually became comfortable with myself.

I came out to my family, my friends, and my classmates. I was finally my authentic self in every aspect of life. My mental health transformed; the previous waves of isolation and uncertainty no longer swept over me.

Once I reached this level of honesty with myself and my loved ones, I realized that I was no longer interested in pursuing a career related to my political science degree. I wanted to embrace my creative side, which had flourished through countless hours of perfecting my cooking, making drinks for my friends, and arranging flowers and plants.

After I graduated college, these hobbies organically transformed into a small venture of selling my wares at a local craft show in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Later, I formed my own business called Happy Cactus Gifts.

Today, Happy Cactus Gifts is the same business I run, though operations have certainly grown.

I’ve expanded to multiple venues in New York City, Boston, and Rhode Island, and I have plans to expand even further. I get to work alongside major competitors in some of the largest markets on the East Coast.

Regardless of any capital gains, I am a happier and healthier person now that I’m living my life in a way that I can be proud of.

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Whereas I had been struggling considerably with my own identity, I now feel myself more so than I ever did when I was struggling in middle school and high school.

When I came out, I became the person I wanted to be rather than the person I felt that I should be.

I want to make sure young people today feel represented by an LGBTQIA+ community that isn’t one size fits all. We exist in all professions, all walks of life, and all neighborhoods.

Tucker Gaccione is the owner of Happy Cactus Gifts, a small business based in Boston, Massachusetts. He focuses on offering unique gifts, tropical plants, mouthwatering bites, and decadent drinks at seasonal pop-up markets. Tucker prioritizes creating an inclusive environment for his employees and customers alike. You can follow him on Instagram.