[Cross-posted at Our Big Gayborhood]
The following narrative was inspired by Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project, which he formed in response to recent suicides committed by youths who were bullied for being, or perceived as being, gay. LGBTQ youth, especially those who are rejected by their families, are much more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.
I grew up in a small town and I have known family rejection. I also know that it does get better. This is my experience.
[TW: Sexual Assualt; Homophobia]
I am in first grade and am walking down the hall with my best friend. I reach out to take her hand.
She pulls her hand away in horror, saying, "What are you, queer?"
Last year, in kindergarten, this was okay. Today, I learned that there are new rules. I have also learned that whatever queer is, I Am Definitely Not That.
Today was the first day of 3rd grade. Cute Redheaded Girl is in my class this year. If I was a boy, I would ask her to be my girlfriend.
It is the early 1990s. I am 13 and watching he news with my mom and my aunt. A clip comes on about Homosexuality In America. I become engrossed in this clip as I simultaneously try to squish myself into the couch so I'm less visible.
My mother turns to my aunt and says, "If my kids turn out gay, I'd kill myself."
They both look at me.
I pretend to be engrossed in the program.
Perhaps noting a look of terror in my face, my aunt adds, "But we'd still love you anyway."
My mom remains silent.
I am 14 and am going through some major awkward teen years. I have no interest in makeup, bras, or girly clothes. I'm getting a snack before basketball practice when I overhear two girls snickering.
"Is that a dude?" one of them says, about me.
"I don't know what it is," says the other.
I am a sophomore in high school. I don't think much about whether I'm gay or not, but a few boys in my class think a whole lot about whether other students might be gay.
There are three of us who are selected as potential queerbaits and, throughout the course of the year, the Bullies institute a rotating interrogation schedule.
"Do you like boys or girls?" one of them asks me.
"Are you a fag?" another asks Dorky Sensitive Guy who, I recently found out, is not gay, actually.
"Admit it," they demand of us.
During the Spring of that year, a few of the Bullies corner one of the possible male queerbaits in boys' locker room and rape him with a shampoo bottle. The Bullies remain in school and on their various sports teams. Other students, out of fear or meanness, snicker at what happened to the queerbait.
I guess they showed him.
They showed all of us. I definitely wasn't a queerbait
I am 15 and on my Very First Date With A Boy.
I'm growing into a new body. Not necessarily mine, but a young woman's, nonetheless. People are somewhat nicer to me now that I appear to fit in the right gender box.
The Boy is a year older than me and he picks me up in his truck that is blaring Metallica. I'm not quite sure what I'm doing here or why I said yes. The guy, who I had previously never even had a conversation with, looked up my phone number in the phone book, called me, and asked me out. I guess I gave him props for that.
He's cute, tall, and, apparently, sings in a band. I feel neutral toward the Boy himself. Like, could we just drop this whole charade and play video games together like two normal people?
Instead, we go to his house and awkwardly chug some Red Dog beer before meeting his friends at the movies. We arrive at the theater and meet his friend Drummer and a girl with long brown hair who bears a striking resemblance to Alanis Morissette.
I shift out of neutral. Hello.
We take our seats in the theater. The Boy is on one side of me and Alanis Girl is on the other, preserving that rule that makes all straight guys sit as far apart from one another as possible. Which, when I thought about how it placed me next to Alanis Girl, actually turned out to be counterproductive if the whole point was to maintain optimal heterosexualization of teens.
Halfway through the movie, my date musters up the courage to grab my hand. The moment his sweaty palm touched mine, I knew it.
Alanis looked at my hand holding the Boy's and quickly looked back to the screen.
"No," I wanted to assure her. "Don't get the wrong idea. This isn't who I really am." And also, want to make out?
I am gay. I am definitely gay.
No big whoop.
I am at my dad's house the day after my Very First Date With A Boy. My dad is in the kitchen blabbing to me about some computer doohickey thingamabob that he just got.
My dad's voice mutes and my vision becomes spotty. I'm breathing, but I feel like I'm not actually taking in air. I lean back against the kitchen stove.
Minutes later, I open my eyes and see that my dad is cradling my head in his hands and his mouth is moving. I am lying on the floor and everything seems to have a white tint to it. My head hurts and I close my eyes. I don't understand why my dad is trying to wake me up.
"Fannie," he said, shaking my head. "You fainted."
I sit up and realize that I have a major case of the clammy sweats.
"You knocked your head on the stove," my dad said. "We better take you to the ER."
At the ER, the doctor asks me if I am on drugs or am pregnant. I briefly wonder if either of those shenanigans would please my parents more than the truth.
When I was 15, on My Very First Date With A Boy, I casually admitted to myself that I was gay. The next day, I had my Very First Panic Attack.
I am 16 and thinking that I don't care that much that I'm gay. It's more like the suckiest part about it is that other people care so much that I'm gay.
If I came out, I would lose all my friends and my mom would basically kill herself. Being gay seems to negate all of the good stuff about a person. It is what seems define a person as evil, sick, and wrong.
I would like to have a girlfriend, like how my friends get to have boyfriends. But, apparently, Everybody In The World thinks a girl liking a girl is the most disgusting thing ever. Surely, I am destined for a life without sex, love, and relationships. Which is also a sucky thing about being gay.
I wonder if things will ever get better. I frequently think about suicide. While I never go so far as to gather actual suicide supplies, I do think about the various ways I could kill myself. I also weigh the pros and cons of doing so.
Pros: Not being gay anymore.
Cons: Hurting my family, not being able to play sports, being dead is sort of final, not getting a chance to make out with Alanis Girl.
I'm watching TV after school. Flipping through the channels, I see a show with two girls playing basketball together. I keep watching because they are cute and sporty and there's this homoerotic element I'm picking up on.
When the two girls finish their game, they share an awkward sexually-charged moment full of heavy breathing and averted glances.
I hear the rattle of keys at the backdoor signalling that somebody just got home. My mom walks through the door. In a panic, I switch the channel to something less gay, like Full House. (Which, Full House, kinda gay now that I think about it.)
Anyway, as my mom goes about her after-work routine around the house, I surreptitiously flip between Uncle Joey and Stephanie Tanner's G-rated banter and this other show. I learn that this movie is called More Than Friends: The Coming Out of Heidi Leiter and, even though I think it's pretty cool, it is apparently part of HBO's "Lifestories: Families in Crisis" series because having a gay child is basically just like having a child who does drugs and kills people.
At 16, I want to go to there. I'm also starting to pick up on the fact that the "crisis" isn't so much that these girls are gay, but that other people are mean to them because they are gay.
I am 17 and sitting in the back of the bus with my teammates. We had lost a game and our coach, Dyke, was punishing us by not letting us talk on the way home. We didn't know if she was a lesbian, she just looked like how we all thought lesbians looked.
My friends and I began quietly talking and snickering on the bus. My Best Friend Who Later Turned Out To Be Gay Too had accidentally done the splits when she dove for a ball. We crack up each time we remember it.
"I said no talking," my coach yelled, ruining our fun.
We all shut up.
"Whatever, Dyke," I said, under my breath.
I think she hears me, but she turns around and sits down. What is she going to do, tell the principal that I called her what she was?
As I look out the window, my heart begins racing and I feel short of breath. On my walk home, alone, I begin crying. When I walk through the door of my house, my mom and her boyfriend are making dinner. They ask me what is wrong.
"Nothing," I said. I walk toward my bedroom.
My mom's boyfriend follows me.
"Did your coach....touch you, or something?" he asked. "Gay people do that, you know."
I am 17, bored on summer break, and being nosy in my mom's bedroom while she's at work.
Scanning her bookshelves, I see a book called Our Bodies, Our Selves that is from, like, the '70s. Amidst the chapters on pregnancy, sex, and women's health, is an entire chapter devoted to lesbians. For the first time, I see photos and read stories of Real Lesbians Who Actually Admit To Being Lesbians. They talk about what it's like to be gay and to have relationships and sex with other women. It basically becomes my hobby that summer to read that chapter over and over again.
I go back to my mom's bookshelf and, this time, find a book called My Secret Garden, by Nancy Friday. I open it up and see that it is a book of women telling their sexual fantasies. It includes an entire section on women who fantasize about having sex with other women.
I put that book away (after reading a large chunk of it of course) and come across a book that appears to be a Victorian novel. At first, I think, "Boring." But when I flip through it, I see that it is actually some sort of porn-without-a-plot book consisting of various old-timey characters having sex with each other, including several chapters where women get it on with other women.
At 16, I think it's ironic (a little too ironic) that my mom's kind of a homophobe who reads lesbian erotica.
I am 18 and am living in my small hometown during the summer between my first and second years of college. I have a serious crush on my best friend. After many months of angsty sexual tension, we kiss each other one August evening.
She becomes my first girlfriend.
Bonus of having a secret girlfriend: Unlike a boyfriend, she can sleep over with you at your parents' house.
Minus of having a secret girlfriend: Having to hide this totally awesome new thing about your life.
I am 21 and about to graduate from college in a somewhat large city. I have a girlfriend, a bisexual roommate, a lesbian sister (who knew?!), and a small gaggle of lesbian, gay, straight, and bisexual friends. I hang out in lesbian bars, an "alternative" coffeeshop, independent bookstores, and at lesbian sports leagues. I am contemplating going to law school so I can do civil rights for the ACLU or Lambda Legal.
As I become part of a new community and learn that I'm not alone, I gradually care less about what people opposed to homosexuality think about me. Instead of letting homobigots define me by my "sickness," I start naming their hatred and intolerance for what it is.
I am not out to my family, but life is great.
I am now in my 30s. Even though the ACLU/Lambda bit didn't pan out, I'm working succcessfully as a lawyer.
With the privilege of being financially independent and able to remove myself from or avoid homophobic situations, I see being gay as only a small part of who I am as a person. For, it is sexual prejudice that first marks us, then stigamatizes us, and finally seeks to humiliate and eradicate us.
My mom still refers to my sexual identity as my "chosen lifestyle," but she does assure me that she loves me anyway, she accepts my partner as a legitimate part of my life, and she now thinks it's bullshit that gay kids are bullied so often.
In hindsight, I see now that bloody feet, of both myself and other people before me, have worn smooth the path through which I have arrived at this point in my life. Unfortunately, it is still a path that nearly every LGBT kid has to trample themselves, as most of us are not born into families that are overjoyed to have LGBT children.
Americans, especially conservatives, talk a lot about preserving and defending the family, but I found that leaving my biological family was necessary for my own sanity and self-preservation. Biological intact families, that oh-so-celebrated "nuclear family," is oftentimes a source of great pain and rejection for many of us. So, over the years, I found true acceptance and love in the communities that I joined as an adult, both online and in the real world. Family becomes what we make it, not what we happen to be born into. Real family, we learn, is less about sharing DNA and more about sharing values.
I'd like to say that all of the people who were mean to me in high school and homobigots throughout my life are now losers, but really, only some of them are. Some of the bullies are actually cool now, having matured and learned that the world has bigger fish to fry than gay people. Others are still assholes, and maybe they're the ones running stupid homophobic blogs, but the best part of being an adult is being able to walk away from people like that when you need to.
My life isn't perfect now, but it's pretty damn good. It does get better. You are stronger, more beautiful, more right, than you might think.