By Erika Grumet
A few weeks ago, a thirteen year old I know showed up at my house wearing a t-shirt that read:“Bisexual Trash Panda.” Even before I was a parent, I knew adolescent sexuality pretty well–years of teaching about HIV and STIs, contraception and LGBTQ101 gave me a lens into that topic long before I was ready to have children of my own. I was still unprepared for what I felt when I saw the shirt.
I saw this kid, full of confidence, standing there in front of me, and I flashed back to my thirteen year old self. I sat there one day, eating lunch with friends. The conversation was all about boys… which boys were cute, who liked who, kissing… Suddenly the questions were flying at me… who did I like, who did I think was cute? There was a boy. I’d thought he was cute for a long time, but I wasn’t thinking about him. I was thinking about her–the girl across the table, a girl I’d thought was cute from the moment I’d met her. A girl, who I was totally ashamed of my crush on. Because girls were not supposed to have crushes on other girls. I hoped no one knew what I really felt or what I was really thinking. Could anyone know? They couldn’t. I had never told anyone. Whenever I thought about it, I rushed it out of my head as fast as I could. No one could find out because it would be horrible.
In 1988, when I was thirteen, I didn’t have a word for what I was feeling. The only thing I knew was that it was wrong to feel that way. In 2021, this thirteen year old has a word for what he feels, and a world of people around him who would accept, matter of factly, how he is feeling–friends, family, community. In 2021, I still struggle with that.
Not too long after the thirteen year old Trash Panda appeared at my house, I came across a Facebook memory about a conversation with my older kid. We had been talking about how the media influences the social and cultural expectations of women’s behavior–my sister had shared with an article from a 1958 issue of McCall’s, 129 Hilarious Ways to Get a Husband. I’d shared it with the kiddo, who was reading it aloud. One of us would comment on the list, sometimes I’d answer a question. Then we got to number 76. I listened to a child’s voice read it aloud: “76. Double-date with a gay, happily married couple — let him see what it’s like!” Then a pause, and a confused but indignant eleven year old asked, “What difference does it make if they’re gay or not? Who cares?”
“Who cares?” The assumptions. Oh the assumptions. The “gay, married couple” necessarily meant two people with matching gender identities who were married to each other. The amazing kid reading this article with me knew, in theory, that homophobia existed–in fact, this was right around the same time that we attended a Pride Parade and had described the location we were standing in while waiting to meet friends as “a block from the homophobes.” And this is the same kid who, at age six, listened to an NPR story about marriage equality with me and responded “but that’s segregation,” when I explained that the law at the time was “only boys can marry girls and girls can only marry boys,” but the court was trying to decide if it should be changed.
My kid only understood “gay” as a word that described sexual orientation. Not “cheerful” or “bright” or “merry.” And even more than that, it was a matter-of-fact thing to talk about. There were no negative associations. No flushed face, no nerves, no anxiety. It was just another variation on things like being left or right handed, or having cats and dogs. My experience with the word was so different; I can remember my elementary school days hearing kids around me saying “That’s so gay” and tossing around the word “fag,” in a terrible, angry, hateful way. I also remember both not knowing exactly what it meant and simultaneously knowing that I felt uncomfortable with it and that it definitely didn’t feel right. It made my insides tie into knots even though I didn’t know why.
It’s just… different now. But isn’t that how time always works?
I came out in the 90s, and, as a college student, I was so lucky to have access to the internet. I found Usenet newsgroups (internet forums before graphic access to the web.) One of the groups I joined was soc.bi, a group for and about bisexuals and bisexuality. I had taken a long time to get to a place where I was comfortable with any label at all–I grew up in the 80’s, and, while it took far too long for it to even reach national exposure, eventually HIV and AIDS were the topic of frequent and tragic headlines, and “bisexual” was a term fraught with danger. I really only ever heard it applied to men as part of those terrible news stories. And then, I found this community online… at a time when “online” wasn’t well understood, and people assumed that everyone you met online would be up to no good. This was different from the LGBA (the name of our queer student organization) crowd I hung around with because these weren’t only other students, many these were “real” adults, with jobs, families, relationships. It was a place where I could find friends but also queer role models, people who could teach me about queer history, queer culture, queer life–the kinds of things I’d learned about my Jewish identity, for example, just as a natural part of growing up, but had to work hard to learn about my queer identity as I grew into it.
Soc.bi just celebrated the 30th anniversary of its founding, normally something that would have been celebrated with an in-person gathering of people from around the globe at a location voted on by members of the group… for obvious reasons, we couldn’t gather like that this year, and instead held a 24 hour Zoom party. At a Zoom party, instead of visiting local attractions, sharing meals, and the other kinds of things that we might do at a gathering, we talked, as one does on Zoom.
We talked… we decided a group of bisexuals is called “a phase of bisexuals.” We reminisced about past get-togethers and parties, about relationships that have begun and ended. We talked about children… some of us have gone from practically being children to now being parents of children who are not that far from the age we were when we first joined the group. We laughed at the way some of the same conversations are still happening now–thirty-ish years later, about the label bisexual vs pansexual, and whether “bisexual” feeds into the idea that gender is binary, and is not inclusive of the full gender spectrum. We talked about activism, the things that we have fought about and fought for over three decades.
Three decades. There was gratitude expressed by someone a generation older than me for the teacher who brought gay and lesbian speakers into their Christian school to talk to the class. A couple of us talked about figuring ourselves out in the 80s and early 90s; we talked about the second wave feminism experience where a great deal of emphasis was placed on whether women were AFAB (assigned female at birth) or not, and space was restricted sometimes to “women born women,” and how sex-negative feminism, with its anti-porn and all-penetrative-sex-is-rape rhetoric, conflicted with the sex-positive attitude so many of us were learning at the time.
We talked a lot about how the way we use the word “queer” has changed, shifting from angry and transgressive (the reason I liked it in the first place,) to broader and more inclusive (which is why I like it now–it’s intersectional and can cover gender, sexual orientation, romantic orientation and more.) It’s not a word for everyone; there are people who still bristle at it, who have had it hurled angrily at them, but more and more, there’s room for everyone, and more and more people are finding that they can come out and stand safely under the umbrella. It’s just not as shocking anymore to hear “queer,” and it’s even gained some mainstream acceptance; in 2017, the AP Stylebook still classified queer as a slur and by 2020, they reversed course on that.
I thought a lot about my Trash Panda friend, and about the other queer kids I know, and about the queer parents I know who are raising queer kids. I thought about how when I was these kids’ age, I needed so much that just wasn’t possible in my world, not for me and not for so many of my contemporaries at the time. I thought about how I needed someone to tell me that the confusion and fear I felt at thirteen when asked about my seventh grade crush was totally normal and okay, and that one day I’d figure it out. I needed someone to help me discover words like “bisexual” or “queer” or some of the other labels that people are using now. I needed grown ups who could help me find my footing in the queer community, who could help me figure out how to be all of me, and I didn’t find that until I was in that preciously short time between child and adult. I needed someone to tell me that it was okay if it turned out that “bisexual” was a phase on the way to something else, but it was also okay if it wasn’t, if I stayed in “bisexual” forever. I needed someone to tell me it would be okay.
And my Trash Panda friend, and other kids I know? Their experience isn’t universal, of course, but they, and so many other kids… they’re not sneaking around in the library or trying to find the local queer newspaper without anyone finding out so that they can find some little nugget of hope that they’re “normal” and not evil. They’re finding peer support that isn’t exchanging whispers which they’re trying to hide from parents, teachers or other adults, and they’re finding schools with gay-straight alliances, rainbow clubs and other safe spaces. So many more kids who are coming out at younger and younger ages, and into accepting or affirming arms. I’m a little jealous.
The green eyed monster is mostly tamed though; that jealousy helps remind me to be the kind of adult I wanted in my world. It helps me figure out how to set up a place where kids won’t grow up remembering how a favorite teacher passed away just weeks before senior year began… a “single” (as far as we knew) man, who died of “pneumonia” in August. Back when people were survived by “companions” and “pneumonia” was code for something else. I want kids to grow up in a world where “marriage” is just “marriage,” with no qualifiers about who is getting married, and I’m grateful that my own kids are among the last who will remember a time when there were prohibitions on marriage; I suspect that mine may only remember because our family was involved in advocating for and celebrating marriage equality. I want to make sure that kids can live in a world where pronouns and bathrooms aren’t controversial, where they see all kinds of happy, healthy people in all kinds of relationships around them, in their books and shows and games.
When I’ve had kids come out to me, the first thing I say to them is “Thank you for trusting me enough to share that.” I’m in my 40s, and have been out for decades, and I still struggle coming out to new people sometimes. Even the most affirming people–I struggled to come out to a friend a few years ago… a community leader I met after the Pulse Massacre in Orlando, who had told me about their own queer kid. The second thing I say to kids who come out to me is “I’m glad you told me because now I can make sure to choose more correct words when we’re talking, and I can do things to support you and help you.” I talk about how proud I am of them for coming out and their bravery in doing so. I talk about how much I care for them, love them. And I talk about how each of us has a unique coming out story and that their story is their own; no one should out them, no one should demand they come out anywhere, anytime… only they can determine when they feel safe and comfortable coming out. I tell them that they own their coming out story… I can only tell my coming out story, they need to tell their own. I ask if they want my help telling anyone… I ask who it would be okay for me to speak openly with so that I don’t accidentally out them without their consent, and I emphasize even more, I want to know who they definitely don’t want me to tell–whether that’s because they want to tell the person themself or because they feel unsafe telling that person. It’s what I wish someone had done for me when I came out… to take the time to honor the journey to get there, and to help me find some solid footing to get started on the path ahead.
LGBTQ History Month is winding down, just as we begin to prepare for the upcoming holidays, which, this year, many more people will be celebrating in person with families. I’m old enough to recognize how much things have changed in my lifetime–there were queer people around me growing up, but no one was out… at a time when I desperately needed to see positive queer role models, needed someone to help me feel less alone, I had none. I did eventually find “my people,” who could teach me about history and culture, and what it means to be queer, and I’m so glad I did, because unlike many other distinct identities, most queer kids don’t grow up knowing what it all means. It’s never been a conscious choice, but within a few years of my own coming out, as I sought out queer connections and queer community, and wanted to honor the gifts that my own role models had given and were continuing to give, I started to volunteer with organizations that served queer youth. I was 21, still finishing college, not even in grad school yet… in the hazy space, not a child anymore but not quite entirely an adult. It was easy to see sometimes how the work I was doing to provide safe space and support for the kids helped them… but back then I didn’t know how they helped me to discover the kind of queer adult I wanted to be. What dos it mean to be be the queer adult I want to be? There’s a long list of things I end up thinking about, like healthy relationships and love and safe spaces and self-esteem… but I think I might just sum it up as: ”I want to help everyone move towards a world where coming out means someone says, “Hey Mom, Dad, I think I’m queer… Oh, and could you please pass the peas?” It’s family dinner. Someone drops a fork or spills milk or tries to feed the dog under the table. Someone complains about a math test or a history project. Dad reminds everyone to collect their library books so he can drop them off later, and talks about weekend plans perhaps even suggesting that the kids might want to bring a friend along when they go to the beach, the amusement park, the dinosaur museum, and Mom says, “Of course! I had no idea you even liked peas.”