Dear Gay Youth of America: Recently, many celebrities and public figures have posted videos across the internet telling you that life gets better out of high school, out of college, in “the real world.” They are shining examples of how violence, anger, homophobia and bigotry can become part of your past, how you can grow into healthy, strong, happy individuals.
But I’ll be honest here: They’re famous. They have overcome “the odds” to become movie stars, famous writers, TV comediennes, and other amazing, incredible things. All of which feel a long way off when you are in high school, or middle school, and dealing with crap every single day.
So here’s my story. I am not famous. I am not a singer/actor/author/dancer/TV star/politician. I work in a gift shop. I ride my bicycle everywhere. I am a “regular” American. But I wasn’t always.
I grew up in a small college town. In the University community and the Art community, people are generally more tolerant of diversity (including sexual orientation). But in the school system, not so much. Nobody really talked about sexuality. When, in fifth grade, we had our “sex ed” two hour tutorial (mostly about menstruation and sanitary products), no one mentioned being gay. I was always a bit of an outsider. I had plenty of issues going on at home, and since I didn’t have a “normal” family, I wasn’t popular. When I hit middle school, I started reading more, started learning about the outside world, started thinking outside a small-town mentality. I stood up for people being bullied. I dated a friend … It was completely platonic. In fact, later we both came out as gay, and having dated one another solidified that we were NOT attracted to the opposite gender.
I started coming out when I was 13. It was the summer after eighth grade, and I had been struggling with depression for a few years but couldn’t identify the issues. I just felt like I was living a lie. One day, after spending some time working on a few of my poems with an adult friend, I left a note on her office desk, in which I simply said, “I am a lesbian.” Not my best planning: she was the secretary for my family’s Lutheran church, and the pastor read the note. The next time he saw me, he informed me (in his office, away from all other ears) that I was not welcome in his church. I never went back.
Once high school started, I was in choir and drama, I was a total nerd, and I still had friends from middle school. Some of my friends came from gay parents, some identified as bisexual. It wasn’t something we talked about, but we all knew who was a safe teacher and who wasn’t. There was no gay-straight alliance, but there was a community program starting a support group for gay youth (not affiliated with the school district). I started attending with some friends, but only casually.
Then I met a girl. She played a lead in the school musical, and I worked in the costume shop. I thought she was smart and beautiful and funny and I just wanted to watch her sing all the time. We only kissed once. It was mostly by accident. She told me she was bisexual, but that I was just a freshman and we couldn’t date. I was crushed, in that first-love-ending sort of way. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I really was gay, and not just bisexual, and that wasn’t going to change.
I started going to group meetings every week. I told my parents I was hanging out with friends or working on choir music (I wasn’t out to them). I started coming out to teachers. I felt like I needed to tell people that I was gay, I wanted to be respected, I didn’t want them to assume I was straight.
Maybe I told the wrong person. Maybe I told too many people. But the threats started. I would find them in my locker. Sometimes they just said “Die Dyke.” Sometimes they contained feces. Or blood smears. Sometimes used condoms. I stopped using my locker. I tried to tell a teacher, but none of the teachers I had were really interested in helping.
My sophomore year, I had a locker in a different part of school, an area where many of the really homophobic students tended to hang out. I had my head shoved into a locker daily. I had knives drawn on me, shirt sleeves torn, blood drawn. I made sure to never to go to my locker after school. One day I was forced into a boys’ bathroom and fondled. It was designed to make me straight. All I needed was “a real man,” right?
Things got so bad that the people I knew from the gay students group decided I was a risk. Someone told the facilitators that I was outing other students. No one mentioned the threats I was receiving. I was told to leave the group, that I couldn’t return until I could prove that I wasn’t a risk. It was the worst thing that happened to me, because I was suddenly alone, fighting an entire school’s homophobia because I was unwilling to pretend. Or lie. Or be silent.
I once wrote an open letter to the editor of the school newspaper. I talked about the homophobia I faced. It was printed anonymously, but everyone knew it was me. The threats got worse. I didn’t have anyone I could talk to, didn’t have understanding parents or family friends or even peers who would listen and understand. I was swimming in an ocean of hatred and I didn’t even have a lifejacket.
I tried to kill myself. I started cutting. I took pills. I even started to slit my wrists one night, but chickened out and stopped.
No one sent me to therapy. I was hospitalized once, for two days, but only because I was a risk to myself. When the doctor came in, he didn’t ask why I did it. He asked if I would do it again. When I lied and said “no,” he cleared me for discharge.
Somehow I managed to keep my grades up. When I started my junior of high school, I also took classes at the local college. After one semester at college, I went down to only one class in high school. It meant I got to leave after first hour, and didn’t have to come back. I started meeting people who were more open-minded. I started taking classes in the Women’s Studies department and learning about homophobia and how vicious it really is. I met someone again, a woman I had always had a crush on but never dared to approach. We dated. It was bliss. I became active in the gay-straight alliance at the University.
And then one day I mentioned a (GSA) meeting. It was going to keep me from doing something with my family. I didn’t tell my mother what kind of meeting it was, just that I needed to be there. She wasn’t satisfied. Things had been bad in our house for a while. It would have taken a LOT of work to prevent what happened, and no one was prepared for it.
I got kicked out. At 17. With no car, nowhere to live, and two weeks before University finals. I lost it.
I moved in with a friend, for a month. I dropped out of my one high school class because I couldn’t get to the school. I started looting a liquor cabinet, trying to drink away my sorrows (at night, after everyone else went to sleep). I moved to live with my aunt and uncle for the summer, after finals were finished. I didn’t have a plan. I was too scared to think clearly about the future. My aunt made a deal with my parents to let me move “home” to finish my last year of high school. It was vital that I graduate.
The stipulation: I had to be straight. I had to date a boy. I had to leave all that gay stuff behind.
So I caved. I dated a boy. I pretended to be happy. I acted like I really cared about him, and later loved him. I even fooled myself. He proposed, and I said yes. I was so terrified of losing my home, of having to drop out of school, of the facade shattering, that I played the game so well new friends thought I was normal. Some of my old friends stopped speaking to me, feeling it was too painful to support me in lying to myself in such a huge way.
I went to visit a friend over New Year’s. I had been engaged a year already. She asked me, “What are you doing? Why are you engaged? Are you happy?” I lost it. I couldn’t stop crying. I think I cried for a day. I realized how much I had sacrificed of my own life to be someone else’s ideal. I love my family, but I could no longer pretend to keep their lives simple.
I came out to the boy. I returned his ring. I shut myself into my room and focused on school. I was terrified of losing my mind, so I absorbed myself in books and classes and working for equality. I had to come out again to all my friends, my professors, my classmates. They continued to assume I was straight, everything was normal about me, because I had dated a boy.
I dated. I fell in love. I had some screwy notions of what a healthy relationship was, and I made some bad choices. I learned. I dated some more. I made some other choices. I learned some more. I discovered how unhealthy some of my behaviors were.
I learned that I needed to discover some positive role models for myself. I had always considered myself to be a good role model for others, being open and available for listening and sharing wisdom. But I learned that, even at 25, it’s good to have positive, healthy role models.
So, maybe it gets better. Maybe it gets easier. Maybe it just gets different. Maybe we move out of those places of pain and into communities of loving, caring friends. Maybe we choose our own families, or our families decide to accept us. Both have to be okay. Waiting for the love of those who are related to us but can’t accept us just makes our hearts grow heavy and bitter. And who needs a heavy heart?
Please, read my story. See your own experiences in it. Laugh at the bullshit, cry at the strangeness. Follow it through to the end, to the now, to the part where I’m living an imperfect life in an imperfect world and some days just getting out of bed hurts. If your life feels too hard to live, than live mine. Look at the steps I took, and find those cobblestones on your own path. Email me. Email a stranger. Write an email and don’t send it. But don’t think that you’re too “normal” to relate to Dan Savage, Ellen DeGeneres, and all those other celebrities. There are normal gay people. There are normal lesbians. There are even normal heterosexuals. Not everyone is as flamboyant as RuPaul (love you too, girl!) or as close-minded as Glenn Beck.
Somewhere in this big, beautiful world, there is a person waiting to meet YOU. Someone who wants to see you when you wake up. Someone who wants to hold your hand on the sidewalk. Someone who can’t wait to buy you a birthday gift. If things are too painful to live through on your own right now, remember that there is someone looking for you. If you die, they’ll just keep looking.
Signed with all of my love, and all the love of the Universe,
Sara a small-town dyke living in a big city and still looking, every day, to meet you
On Monday, October 11th, I am going to come out. Again. I’m going to come out in a way I’ve never done before. It’s something I have been considering for a while, but it’s only after this recent flurry of videos and emails and facebook groups that I have to take a stand. And I want you to join me. I want you to come out, as a queer, as an ally, as a parent or a child. I want you, normal regular you, to come out. Imagine how different the world would look if, just like in Bruce Coville’s great short story, for one day all the gays (and their allies) would turn blue. Let’s make the world a little blue-r by coming out on Monday. Please spread the word. Please share this letter with the gay youth in your life. Please give them my name, tell them they email me if they just need someone to hear. I’m not fancy. I’m not famous. I’m not going to share their stories. I am just here, wanting to be the safe shoulder that I didn’t have a young lesbian in a small town just trying to find her self in this world.