I’ve written about the first time I kissed a girl. I’ve written about how much it would have meant to me to have queer role models. And I’ve written about why it was really important for me to have access to queer books as a teenager. I’ve never really talked about the “not just a phase?” phase: the time in between when I had my first relationship with another girl and when I came out. The hiding. The secrets. The confusion and anger. What it was like to not really be able to be myself–not to be whole and real. Not with family, not with friends, nor with anyone around me.
Adolescence is a time when we work on separating out our own identities. When we figure out who we are, what’s important to us. We begin to define our own values and beliefs separate from our parents. It’s a time when we are searching for ourselves. And my own search was marked by the knowledge that I felt a certain way that didn’t necessarily fit in with social expectations as I understood them. So I kept it a secret from others. I also found myself trying every possible way to convince myself it wasn’t true. Every time I had a queer thought, I followed it up with a reminder that those thoughts were bad, and I needed to stop having them.
Taking Refuge in Queer Literature
In spite of this self-flagellation, I craved examples of queerness around me. I devoured queer literature–as much as I could find in the public library. Where no one but the librarians would know what books I checked out. (I dared not look in my school library where someone might find out what I was looking for.) I became deeply involved in HIV-related volunteer work, which became a safe place to meet other queer people, even without admitting my own queerness.
Queer Storylines on TV
I could find queer books in the library, but queer people on TV or in movies? Positive examples on TV were nearly impossible to find. Queer people were victims of homophobia, or the butts of jokes. LA Law was one of my favorite shows, but when they featured queer stories as part of their episodes they were most often about things like people with HIV or AIDS and how they were fighting discrimination at work or battling pharmaceutical companies that wouldn’t pay for treatment.
Or queerness was played up for the shock value, as in the first episode where the attorneys discovered that one of the founding partners was gay, or much later in the series when the firm hired a bisexual attorney whose character shared an on-screen kiss with another woman, beginning a series of “lesbian kiss” episodes on several different TV shows. Rather unsurprisingly, eventually the bisexual character ended her relationship with another woman and began dating a man.
Seinfeld. Yes, Really.
Queer storylines were often about being outed by others or someone being perceived as queer and how terrible that was. Seinfeld had an entire episode (“The Outing“) about George and Jerry being mistaken for a gay couple. And any time a network wanted to show a same sex kiss it was surrounded by weeks of controversy, news stories about the upcoming kiss along with warnings about adult content preceding the episode. And that’s only if the kiss wasn’t cut from the episode, as it often was. If they didn’t cut away, they found other ways to hide it, like turning out the lights in the bedroom so you couldn’t actually see anything.
I was desperate to see positive images of queer people. I needed the reassurance that I was normal, that it was possible to be happy and whole and healthy as a queer person. Needed to know that I wasn’t going to be alone forever. That it was possible to come out, and for that to be okay.
I wasn’t seeing those images in TV shows. Not in comedies or dramas. But movies were a different story. Movies told much more involved stories. Stories where queer characters were able to thrive. And I wanted to see them all.
Queer Storylines in Movies
I found movies on TV whenever I could. I rented them at Blockbuster Video. Borrowed tapes from the library when I saw them available. And sometimes I was able to convince friends to go with me to see them in the movie theater.
I needed to see queer stories. To see anything that might help me make sense of what I was feeling. I had been a movie lover for a long time and I hoped I might find some explanation in the films I watched. Comedies. Dramas. Musicals. Made for TV movies. It didn’t matter. I craved these queer stories at a time when I didn’t have a queer community to teach me how to be a queer person. There was no one advising me on how to come out or how to navigate a real date with another woman. I didn’t know what queer life might look like beyond hiding from everyone. I was isolated and alone and seeking guidance.
And from the films I learned so many things about queer life. Not lifestyle. Life. Stories about the lives of queer people. Sure, they were fictional stories, but they were what I had.
La Cage aux Folles
I found La Cage aux Folles in the public library. I had already fallen in love with the original cast album from the Broadway show. In fact, “I Am What I Am” is still one of my favorite songs. I missed the music from the soundtrack, but this movie showed me the relationship of a long-lasting, happy, gay couple. I could believe in love and happiness after watching this movie. (Nearly twenty years later it was remade as The Birdcage. I didn’t love this version when I first saw it, but in the years since, it’s grown on me.)
Kiss of the Spider Woman
I sat in the basement one night clutching the remote control so I could quickly flip to another channel the night I watched Kiss of the Spider Woman. I didn’t want to get caught watching a “gay movie”. What if my mother or siblings “caught” me? How might they react? After all, if my mother caught me watching something “like that” I would have to answer all kinds of questions about why I would want to see that on TV. There might also be endless questions from my sister and merciless teasing from my brother.
My Own Private Idaho
So many friends loved My Own Private Idaho. Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix were major teen idols at the time and the chance to see them together was exciting. I first saw it in the movie theatre, sitting next to a friend I had a tremendous crush on, but who I knew I could never admit it to. I desperately wanted to hold her hand during the film, but doing so would have been admitting to my terrible secret. But as long as we only talked about how gorgeous Keanu and River were, it was okay to see a film with queer storylines.
Just a Phase?
I watched those two films and saw deep friendships between queer and straight characters. Seeing that on the screen probably hindered my own self-acceptance. After all, I could see the way queer and straight people were friends. Maybe that meant I was an ally and not really queer. I’ve spent my entire life being told I was “too sensitive.” I had always had a soft spot for underdogs, for people who were suffering, for people who were hurting. And seeing how people around me treated queer people, hearing how they talked about them, I tried very hard to convince myself that my connection to queerness was just part of being “too sensitive.”
And of course any education about queer life has to include a few coming out stories. I spent a few more nights hiding in the basement with the remote control learning about that part of queer life. Early in 1992, it was the made-for-TV movie Doing Time on Maple Drive. Later that year, during Pride Month, the local PBS affiliate showed the movie The Lost Language of Cranes.
The Lost Language of Cranes and Torch Song Trilogy
This film was the one that led me to the public library to dive into queer literature. Based on a novel by David Leavitt, it’s the story of a gay man in his twenties who decides to come out to his parents, and who discovers a family secret when he does. Both movies tell stories about coming out to dysfunctional families–a scenario that hit close to home for me. And while coming out to my siblings went relatively well, my parents were another story entirely.
As I tried to understand what it really meant to be a queer person I found what is still one of my favorite movies, Torch Song Trilogy. The love between Arnold and Alan was so true and so honest. The tension and eventual confrontation between Arnold and his mother felt like exactly the kind of thing I expected would happen in my own family if anyone ever found out about the kinds of things I was feeling. (It wasn’t all that far off from what really did happen either. I suppose Jewish mothers, whether real or fictional, share some universal qualities.)
Sometimes it Feels Like the Closet is Locked… From the Outside
The overwhelming memory of watching these movies, though, is the secrecy. I was so focused on making sure that no one found out what I was really feeling or thinking about. I couldn’t talk about the movies with anyone. And I spent years in constant fear of someone finding out the truth. And as a high schooler, that felt like the worst thing that could happen. It would ruin my future. I’d be ostracized at school, I worried that my parents and grandparents wouldn’t be able to accept it. That they would be disappointed in me for turning out “that way.” I couldn’t imagine what it might mean for my siblings.
I could only imagine it having terrible consequences, especially for my sister, who was one grade behind me in school. In spite of so many of the things I saw on screen, I could only imagine negative outcomes in my own life if I admitted to anyone, including myself what the truth was.
Facing the Music
There’s only so long that you can hide from yourself. Eventually the stress of hiding became overwhelming and I was forced to confront the reality of my feelings. This meant first admitting to myself what I was feeling, and with tha,t also finding the strength and courage to accept the scary realities of being queer and all of the risks that go along with it.
Queer people have a higher risk of mental health issues as well as other health disparities. In spite of the 2020 Supreme Court ruling that employees can’t be fired for being queer, employment discrimination is still a problem. Housing discrimination is still not illegal in every state. The list goes on and on.
It feels kind of like a scale. On the one hand is the weight of society’s pressures to keep you in the closet. On the other hand is the pressure to live without hiding. And part of that pressure is the anxiety and self-loathing of keeping it all boxed in. Eventually the pressure to be myself won out. And I found a community that supported me. I made friends who guided me as I came out. Began to discover what it meant to be a queer person in the 1990s. And started to let go of the secrets and find happiness in being my authentic self.