On a sunny Sunday afternoon in June, 1980-something, I was helping my mother change the sheets on her bed. I was in my early teens. Local news was covering the NYC Pride Parade and my mother turned to me, made a limp-wrist gesture and said, “Why do they need to flaunt it?” She continued, “I don’t go around flaunting that I’m straight all the time. Why do they have to show off that they’re ‘like that’?”
I didn’t say anything. My insides were melting. I was angry and sad and hurt and confused. I didn’t know whether to yell or cry or walk away angrily or do something else. What I did know is that I might not have words to say it yet, but I was pretty sure that I was “like that.”
And I also knew what my mother thought of “that,” too.
When I Knew I was “Like That”
I can remember the moment I was pretty sure I was “that way.” I was in seventh grade. Sitting in Journalism class, talking to some of the other girls in the class while we ate lunch. (Journalism was an extra class–instead of going to the cafeteria for half a period and then to study hall, we went to one of the English teacher’s classrooms and worked on the school newspaper.) The lunchtime conversation turned to cute boys, which seemed to take up a lot of conversation time. Along with the injustices perpetrated upon us by parents and by school. Makeup, music and television seemed to round out the popular topics of conversation.
Boys were the problem for me. Or maybe confusion was the problem. I didn’t dislike boys. They were reasonably interesting. I’d kissed a few, and I’d liked it. I was even interested in doing more of it. That part made sense. What didn’t make sense is that I was also interested in kissing girls the same way. Even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to want that. I was definitely not supposed to do it. Most of all I was not supposed to talk about it. About any of those feelings. Under no circumstances ever would I tell anyone about how I felt about girls. Because it was wrong. Very, very wrong.
A Lesson in “Passing”
And yet, sitting with those girls eating lunch, when asked which boy I thought was cutest I realized that, although there were cute boys, at that moment, I was much more interested in one of the cute girls. She was tall, she had shoulder length hair and we played field hockey together. When I looked at her, I felt all of the same things I’d felt for cute boys, and a few other things. I wanted to kiss her. More than any of the boys we’d been talking about. Definitely more than the boy whose name escaped my mouth when asked directly about which boy I liked best.
Those other things. Confusion probably topped the list. It was very clear that girls kissing girls was not a normal thing to want to do. And then fear. Because, if I wasn’t supposed to want that… and I did anyway, what did that mean? Was I broken? Could I be fixed? What if someone found out? It was a big, heavy secret to carry around. I was about twelve.
My Potential Role-Models couldn’t “Flaunt” it, but I Wish they could Have
I didn’t know any queer adults.
Except that’s not really true.
I didn’t know that I knew queer adults. But they were there.
There was Ray, the caretaker at my grandparent’s home. Ray was around for the first ten years of my life, and I had no idea he was gay until I was in my late 30s.
There were my Dad’s friends, L & L. I didn’t realize they were a couple until many years later. Around the time I began to prepare to come out myself.
There were others, I’m sure, too. Coaches, teachers, music instructors. All of the usual people a teenager would be around. No one talked about it.
And I needed them to talk about it. I needed them to talk about it so that I could know I wasn’t sick. So that I could know I had a safe place to ask questions. (There are reasons why the letter salad abbreviation includes a Q for “questioning.” I’m definitely not the only person who knows a few BUGs. Bisexual until graduation. Furthermore, “questioning” is a completely valid experience, which can later result in a “yes” or “no” answer.)
The Need for Role Models
I needed role models. Just like my straight peers did. I needed to see happy, healthy, functioning queer adults. I needed to see queer relationships that worked. To see people do all of the things that adults do–work, play, create relationships, build families and just exist.
But back in that bedroom with my mother, I wasn’t seeing any of that. “That’s so gay” was a way of objecting to someone. “I pledge allegiance to the flag, Michael Jackson is a fag,” was the beginning of a popular playground rhyme when I was in elementary school. (As with many playground rhymes, the words that followed have many variations. The way I learned the rhyme as a child went on to talk about soda, but there are far cruder versions I’ve heard.)
If I saw gay people on TV or in movies, it was “Bury your gays” or any of the other queer TV tropes that indicated only misery when you felt “the love that dare not speak it’s name.” Sex outside of marriage meant death or terrible consequences for basically everyone but the swiftest and most terrible were reserved for the queerest of the queer.
The Closet in the Classroom
I saw this discussion on Twitter over the weekend:
And it’s an accurate picture of my growing up experience. Teachers would mention a husband or a wife. They would talk about their families. We knew when teachers were expecting new babies. My field hockey coach (who also taught social studies) got married and went from being Ms. to Mrs.
We knew. We just didn’t talk about it. Because it’s what we saw everywhere. It’s what we expected to see. We didn’t talk about it the same way we didn’t talk about the teacher who died of “pneumonia.” In August. In 1992.
Should I Take Care not to Flaunt my Confusion, Also?
Not talking about it doesn’t make it go away. Not talking about it left me with more questions than answers. It left me scared and insecure and uncertain. It meant I didn’t have anyone to ask questions. I couldn’t talk about how much it hurt to know that people were talking about me behind my back. Perhaps the most long lasting impact, the deepest pain comes from the fact that I had no one to reassure me that it was normal to have questions, to feel uncertain. And no one to tell me that I was okay, no matter what I discovered the answer to be.
Now obviously some of this has changed with the marriage equality rulings. “Mrs.” is not a reliable indicator that a marriage is not between two same gender partners. But all that means is that we need to talk about it more, not less. We need to make it clear to students like Will, who was terrorized by classmates, that they’re loved, supported and safe.
You Flaunt your Heterosexuality Plenty
There are a lot of people who tell us that talking about “gay stuff” is “sexualizing kids” or “grooming kids.”
It’s not. And the fact that someone is suggesting it says a whole lot. About the people doing the suggesting.
Because heterosexuality is all around us. It’s a man talking freely about a wife or a woman talking freely about a husband. It’s fearlessly holding hands or being affectionate in public. And every piece of paperwork that assumes things like “bride and groom” or “mother and father.” It’s PTA events billed as “mother-son” or “daddy-daughter.”
It’s asking a preschooler “Do you have a boyfriend,” or saying: “Daddy’s going to be in trouble when you grow up.” Or the onesie that says “Chicks Dig Me.” or “I <3 Boobies (Like my Daddy.)”
And it’s reducing queer people to only what they do in the bedroom. Which is something that children aren’t thinking about. Adults are.
The “Grooming” Fallacy
The “grooming” argument is even worse. It downplays the real meaning of grooming and how dangerous it is. Grooming is not telling kids queer people exist. It’s a way of manipulating a potential victim by developing trust, encouraging them to keep secrets, desensitizing them to discussing sexual topics with the person doing the grooming and trying to normalize all of these behaviors in the eyes of a potential victim and the people around them.
Saying: “some people are gay and that means that they fall in love with people of the same gender. And some people are not and they fall in love with people whose gender is different. And some people can fall in love with a person no matter whether their genders are similar or not,” isn’t talking about sex. It’s talking about the emotional connection that creates loving, supportive and caring relationships between people. Loving relationships that are about so much more than sex. Like who does the dishes.
Conflating grooming with discussing the existence of queer people is dangerous. It takes the focus away from what grooming truly is and the role it plays in abusive relationships. That harms kids. Telling them about the range of possible permutations for two (or more) adults who might fall in love… does not harm kids. But age-appropriate sex-ed would include warnings for how to identify grooming. And that would save lives, too.
I came out in the 90s. Many years after the first thoughts about loving girls crossed my mind. After many years of shame and secrecy. My first romance with a girl was a summer camp romance… and I hid it from everyone. Including my best friends. All of the ups and downs of teenage romance with none of the support. The shame and fear I felt about being queer was so deep that when my high school guidance counselor helpfully pointed out that one of the big college guide books we were looking at (in the days before the internet, they would publish huge volumes with one or two page summaries about different colleges) included notes about the climate for gay and lesbian students on campus, my deeper-in-the-closet-than-poodle-skirts self was horrified at the idea that someone might know that secret.
I angrily told friends about it and yet secretly took notes on that section of the book. Seven years after I faked my answer to the cute boy question, I finally admitted to some people that I was queer as a football bat and I felt so much better. It didn’t cure the depression or the anxiety that I still deal with, but it became one less rock on the pile. I see queer kids around me and yes, they still have to struggle with the homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism in society, but many of them get to do it without the degree of internalized homophobia carried through my own process. They get to do it in a world where they can see adults around them having lives. Not lifestyles. Just lives.
We’ve Already Tried Silence… Remember?
I know how it feels to grow into a queer adult without queer role models. How unsafe it feels during the time when you’re trying to figure yourself out and maybe even take some steps towards sharing that part of yourself with others. I spent years working in HIV-related fields where I learned how not talking about it enabled HIV to spread. How silence delayed research about testing and treatment. How the queer community was affected. Not only by the incredible number of deaths but how subsequent generations lost their queer role models.
Talking about it won’t fix everything. It won’t completely end homophobia or transphobia. But it might make a few kids safer from bullies. It might keep a few more kids alive. It might mean a few more parents are prepared to respond with love and kindness when their kids come out… even if those parents don’t really get it. And if just the act of being out, and publicly identifying myself as a queer person, means I’m flaunting it? Well, I’ll just be as fabulous as I can.