It was a bright, sunny Sunday morning the first time I realized I had feelings for women. I was about 12 or 13, and I’d made a friend who was older and also a lesbian (but I didn’t know it at the time… there were rumors). In my infinite wisdom at that age, I decided to call her on it. I told her that people had confronted me and told me that she was gay. She looked at me straight on, angrily, thoughtfully, and said, “how would you like it if people said that about you one day?”
In that moment, I knew they would.
I was too young to know what I was getting myself into. How hard it would be, how alienating it already was, because when I came out to myself, I didn’t have any peers. I just felt like a freak-of-nature seventh grader with no one to tell that was my own age. I had to walk this path by myself, and hope that it would work out. Maybe by the time I got to college, I’d be ok.
I didn’t want to tell my parents, but that was a lost cause, because they could see it. It’s not like I went to great lengths to hide it, because I couldn’t. It was the equivalent of a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail… “How do you know she’s a lesbian?” “SHE LOOKS LIKE ONE!”
Interestingly enough, though, I went on to date boys just like all the other girls I knew. The other girls, though, didn’t have as cool a boyfriend as I did. As far as 7th and 8th grade boys go, he was the absolute cream of the crop. Tall, handsome, athletic, full of life and hilariously funny. I called his parents “mom” and “dad,” and he called mine that, too. If it hadn’t been for the whole lesbian thing, which I see as a flaw in a heterosexual relationship, I would have married that boy in fifteen minutes. It would have been a great story- meeting at 7th grade band camp and ending up together for the rest of our lives.
All this is to say that I didn’t get my love of women from my hatred of men, which was a common stereotype back in those days. I was also never molested as a child, another wildly inaccurate stereotype. However, I can’t really be mad about that. When I was growing up, not many people knew a whole lot about being gay. A LOT of people thought that if you said you were gay, that was admitting you were going to grow up to be a pedophile. Even more people thought that being gay was an illness. It has been a long time in the making that so few people in our society think that now.
(As an aside, I suppose it finally clicked for most people that you can’t catch the gay like a common cold.)
High school was a nightmare, all four years. For starters, I couldn’t pay attention worth a damn. I was lost in my own head, thinking about what it would take to make myself feel normal. I didn’t mean that I wanted to be straight. I meant that I wanted to be comfortable in my own skin. Because I wasn’t, I was teased a lot.
There was a guy in orchestra that tormented me by standing behind the kettle drums and holding up Playboy centerfolds.
There was a girl who, when I told her I had a crush on her, threw up.
There was a group of kids who marched out to where I was sitting at lunch and screamed Bible verses at me.
Here’s the kicker. My first two years of high school were at the High School for Performing and Visual Arts. I know, right? You’d think that I would have gotten a little more tolerance. The flip side of the coin is that I’m not sure they were making fun of me because I was gay. I think they were making fun of me because I was a very easy target- I was so scared. If I’d had the guts, I probably could have stopped have stopped the bullying with a well-placed “yeah, I’m gay. What’s it to you? F@#$ off.” But I didn’t. I never stood up for myself, because again, I felt like it was all my fault. I was a freak-of-nature ninth grader now.
My luck changed when we moved to the ‘burbs. I know, I know. How is that even possible? I went back into a very large closet, and didn’t say anything to anyone. I had a friend named Gary who would pick me up for school in the morning and hang out at my house in the afternoon. People automatically thought he was my boyfriend, and I didn’t do anything to correct it.
Lying caught up to me at my junior Homecoming dance. Gary was coming to pick me up, would be there any second, and I was in my bedroom having a panic attack. And by panic attack, I am not kidding. I mean shortness of breath/Chevrolet on your chest panic attack.
When I recovered, we went to the dance, and I actually had a really good time. But there was this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that this wasn’t the way I wanted the school dance to go down. That I would have rather stayed home than just lie. In the end, I decided that Gary was ok with just being friends, and that I’d overreacted.
I couldn’t have been more wrong about that. When I finally came out to him, HE had a panic attack and said that he had wanted to follow me to college and that one day, I’d want to get married. Now, keep in mind that while I’d never corrected others’ impressions of me, I’d never led Gary on, either. Not once did I ever try to be affectionate with him- the best I could do was an awkward hug. Not because I didn’t love him as a friend, but because I didn’t ever want to give him the impression that we were a thing.
And then there was David (name changed to protect identity). David was probably the closest thing to love that I found at my high school, because the first day we ever talked, he said, “why do you wear those rainbow rings around your neck?” He later told me that he thought I might be clueless, because he didn’t know how in the hell someone would get away with wearing Pride rings to high school. When school let out (and keep in mind, I’d just met this guy that morning), we jumped in the car and headed to the gay area of Houston… because back then, there was only one.
We sat in front of Crossroads bookstore and had coffee, which was pretty much our only option, being under 21. Then, we went shopping at Lobo. I mention that he was the closest thing to love I found at Clements, because he was the first person to look at me the right way. The first person that made me feel like I was normal and there was nothing crazy about going to a gay bookstore rather than a straight one.
It’s a great love that continues to this day, all because he wanted to talk to the girl who was brave enough to admit she was gay in some uptight, rich, conservative suburb.
A few days later, I met my first girlfriend. That was a relationship in which “she’s just not that into you” would have been great to hear at the beginning. I put up with a lot of bad behavior simply because I was so excited to have a girlfriend in the first place. She’s not really part of the story so much except to say that in the abyss that was my self-esteem, I really felt like I was getting sieged from all sides.
I was right about college. There, I could just be me. The weight of having to carry around a secret had lifted, and my life wasn’t any less normal than anyone else’s.
Things have come so far, so fast, that many of you will never have the same experiences I did, and that’s a good thing. The amazing thing about being 34 is getting to see younger people grow up without the stigma that I did. Because believe me, you are entirely, wonderfully normal.
For those of you who are getting bullied, and it seems like it will never stop, keep telling adults until you find one that will go to bat for you. If it’s not your parents, it might be your aunts and uncles. If it’s not your parents, it might be a close family friend. Just keep talking… and just keep believing that it gets better.
There’s so much to look forward to after high school. The world is wide open. If you had a really crappy high school experience, go to college out of state. There are plenty of GLBT scholarships available which will make your schooling free or low-cost for your parents.
If you have the means, take off for Europe (or anywhere else that will give you a sense of what the rest of the world is like). Get out of that small emotional space you lived in as a teenager, and broaden into the person you want to become. That person isn’t based on your high school self. That person is based on all your hopes and dreams.
Dream big. Don’t let the experience that was “growing up gay” color your view of the world, because it will… IF YOU LET IT. Believe that there are good things out there that you haven’t discovered yet, and don’t ever lose your sense of wonder. Life is too short to live and work where you feel unwelcome.
Here’s the story that changed my attitude about where I should live: one of my coworkers was talking about a baby, and when she finished, she looked over at me and said, “I guess you can talk to us about your cats like that.” What did that even mean? That I was barren? That she thought my cats were as important to me as children? Let’s be clear. I like cats, but I am not a cat lady.
So I packed up and moved to Oregon, where life has been extraordinarily hard at times. But here’s the thing. All of my problems became regular life issues, and I’ve never had to lose an ounce of sleep over coming out.
In short, I’m just normal.