Spirit Day: In Support of LGBT Youth
I am extremely fortunate to say that I was never bullied, much less violently, for any aspect of how people read my sex, gender, or sexuality, even though I know there were people reading me as gay before I did. Watching some of the testimonies on the "It Gets Better" Page on YouTube only reinforces how lucky I am in this respect. And I was hardly mainstreaming my gender or opting for deep cover during those years, not least because I wouldn't really have known what I was "covering." I effused about actresses as much then as I do now. I walked down the hallways of school belting Whitney like an idiot. I sucked at sports and wrote a lot of (bad) poetry. My groups of friends were almost exclusively female. A 9th-grade English teacher caught me craning my neck during That Scene of the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet. You know, while he walks to the window. My 11th-grade English teacher gave me stern, somewhat bemused, but understanding looks whenever she saw me gazing like a fool at the back of the head of the very cute and charming guy who sat in front of me. That same year, in a high-school pageant for which I was voted to participatecatapulted unexpectedly into this popularity contest on a surge of Nerd Voting (nerds unite!), at the controversial expense of some of the jocks who actively campaigned for this annual eventI offered, for my talent portion, a full-on drag routine to Boy George singing "The Crying Game." The castle walls of heterosexuality did not exactly quake in the face of my routine. Sometimes we queers, especially the white, male, middle-class ones, can get a little precious about thinking that every sissy or saucy thing we ever did struck a giant blow for The Cause. Still, I wouldn't say it was the safe option. I wonder if anyone I went to high school with, including me, even knew what a drag show was in 1994, and I am baffled that I went ahead with it, not knowing at all how people would react. I just couldn't think of anything else to perform and thought it would be fun.
I have to say, at risk of flaunting my good fortune, all those varsity football guys and Prom King types I was suddenly thrust into company with were nothing but nice and jovial and back-slappy during our rehearsals, while I learned to walk in heels and they practiced whatever skits they'd worked up. (The only one I remember concerned sleeping with a girl and drinking a six-pack of beer, and I guarantee my 16-year-old self found his routine at least as alien as he probably found my wig and rhinestone clip-ons.) I add this detail for three reasons. One is that I sometimes want to reach out to the LGBT kids who actually enjoyed high school and say that that's okay, toojust recognize, as I did and do, your incredible good fortune! Another is to say that there are lots of kind people in the world, many of them wearing football jerseys and revering Animal House like a religious scroll. Struggling gay kids should know that it's not only from other LGBT folks that they'll eventually receive friendship and support, no matter what their present antagonists look like. Don't let the bullies or haters currently in your midst mislead you into forming your own sense of entire categories of people who are never to be trusted. Maybe I'm also addressing some other kids, too, with these comments: I know from experience that you can be the captain of the football team or voted Best Looking in the yearbook or be devout in your faith and even be uncomfortable with some of the things in your world without being a jerk, much less a hooligan or an oppressor. There are a million ways to be Homecoming Queen or Big Man on Campus or a hero to your buddies or a member of your church, just like there are a million ways to be gay. Let's everyone try to avoid the small fraction of ways to be any of these things that turn you into a bully or a snob or a bigot or a creep.
Most importantly, though, I'm trying to say this: as much as I marvel at all the LGBT role models and Gay-Straight Alliances and out activists and queer entertainment options and pre-college romantic relationships that exist for today's queer high schoolersand which I absolutely didn't have, and of which people older than I am had even fewermy heart sometimes goes out to today's LGBT youth for, ironically, these same reasons. The increased visibility of gays, lesbians, and transgenders, and the chance to identify yourself or identify others at very young ages within those terms, can have a really vicious kickback. I wonder if I would have had a harder time in high school if more of my peers had really been thinking all that much about homosexuality, and whether they were "for" or "against" it, and who in their vicinity might have stuck out as a tempting emblem, or a scapegoat. I'm speaking to my age bracket and older right here: sometimes it's easy for us 100-year-old queens to think today's young-duckling queers have got it made, at least by comparison. We need to remember how hard it is (and I'm reminding myself here, too) to come out and fit in even if you're not surrounded by overt aggression. And we also need to know that with all these new privileges have come lots of new pressures, and some people get swatted by the pressures without enjoying any access at all to the privileges.
I know of one other guy and one girl from my senior class who have come out since I graduated high school in 1995, in a cohort of nearly 400 students. There must be more, but since I don't go to reunions, I don't know. On both occasions I have learned about classmates who have come out (one of them a very good friend, with whom I'm barely now in touch), I have felt a huge wave of surprise, which is crazy. I should be surprised that I only know of two! But for me to be this taken aback, even now, only signals how not on the radar non-straight sexualities were for most of my high-school classmates. That probably caused some suffering for people who felt totally lonely, totally unrecognized, totally lacking in a vocabulary or a context for their own feelings. But at the same time, few people were walking around with a police-lamp looking for a gay kid or a butch or a flamer to antagonize. Whether because of the time or the place or the people, there just wasn't nearly as much of this happening as I gather there was and is in so many other high schools... though I don't mean to imply there was none. Our lesbian gym teacher, who was absent from school the day of a major LGBT Rights rally in nearby Washington, got hit with some gross epithets, sometimes to her face. A handsome guy and National Honor Society member whom I literally never met was transferred out of our school during sophomore year by his parents, because someone had written an article in an underground newspaper calling him a "cocksucker," and, from what I gather, offering highly ornate verbal portraits of him engaged in this felonious pastime.
But here I'm writing about myself and my experiences when I meant to write more directly to you, imaginary lesbian, bisexual, gay, or transgendered readeror to any imaginary reader, anyone who wants to know what you or someone you know might be feeling as they advance into a sense of sexuality that is awfully hard to know how to manage, at least at first, even without the additional and vicious threats of bullies and hate-mongers. And in that category, I am tempted to include anyone from teachers to parents to community leaders to school administrators to politicians who won't say or do anything about acts of violence or intimidation transpiring in their midst. Sometimes the bullying is internal, and I urge you so strongly against this: the last enemy anyone needs is themselves, not least because they're the hardest enemies to get away from. I am trying to be honest enough to say how strongly I empathize with you and how often I think about you even though I didn't exactly walk in the same shoes as all of younot even when I was wearing high-heeled pumps and fishnets in front of the whole school and tossing my lollipop into the audience. I've been through plenty, have seen a lot more, and have read and heard about still more than that. I worked for three years as a hotline counselor. I can understand the feelings and the pressures, though if one of you bullied lesbians or transgenders or gay kids were to say to me, "You can't really know without having gone through what I go through," I would respect you enough to say yes, you are right, and ask you to tell me what it's like for you.
The official rallying cry this week has been "It Gets Better!" and I'm of two minds about this. Part of me wants to say, it does and it doesn't. Mostly it does, but it's not always a consistent upswing, and in general it really depends on almost everything that life always depends on. More LGBT visibility, politics, and action means more power and more peers and more love for you, which counts for a lot. But in some cases they unwittingly entail more pressures and more danger. As a certain image of homosexuality (often white, often male, almost always upper- or middle-class) becomes more "normal" anywhere in this country, there's usually some other group, even some populace within the LGBTQ umbrella, who gets stigmatized with new fervor as the bad queers, or the people it's safer to pick on, or to try to silence.
Some queers need hope, some need love, some need power, some need a job, some need medicine, some need basic acknowledgment from fellow queers. Lots of people need all of these things. I read last week that one in three black men who has sex with other men in Washington, DC, is statistically likely to be HIV-positive. If that's the community you're already in or growing into (and I wish we all felt it to be part of our whole community, to at least some broad degree), then that is a really, really tough row to hoe. You might not give a damn about Brokeback Mountain or the right to get married. My purple-tinted Profile Picture, or anyone's, is unlikely to count for anything, especially if you never see them.
I wonder what Tyler Clementi needed to hear after he found out what his roommate had done, found out in what way his privacy had been exposed to the world. I wonder if any of what I'm saying today, or what anyone is saying today, would have assuaged him in what was surely a moment of profound mortification. It's so crucial that we reach out to LGBTQ kids, but I hope we think of ways to reach out pre-emptively, too, to the people who are most at risk of becoming their antagonists and attackers. (Sadly, Rutgers was in the middle of trying to do just that, in the week that Tyler died.)
Then again, the fact that the media now reports these kinds of news, ideas, and terrible tragedies, and that I can openly post a blog entry about it, and I can expect sympathetic readers to take note of them and think about them and maybe even respondthat's huge. Life is tough, and it's tough in different wayssometimes more difficult waysif you're transgendered, or bisexual, or gay, or intersexed, or lesbian. But to have a partner, a circle of friends, a circle of co-workers every single one of whom knows I'm not straight, a Web-based network of people I read and admire, and a country that's as far along as it is in respecting its LGBTQ citizens, though not nearly far enough: all of that constitutes a tremendous gift in my life that I didn't know I would have when I was younger. I bitch plenty with my friends, gay and straight alike, about everything I just mentioned, but I've got the friends, and I've got the life. Clearly, a lot of LGBT kids need to hear that, and to know that it's much closer to being within their grasp than they might think. It's a climactic refrain in my and everybody's favorite gay play, Angels in America: "More life."
And there's the catch. There's the reason why, despite my concern that "It Gets Better!" could unwittingly conceal some of what might be tricky or hard about your burgeoning queer adulthood, I nonetheless enthusiastically agree: It does get better. Even if it was never that bad, it still gets better! I am so blessed that I never thought there was anything wrong with me for being bi or gay, and that even settling on one of those terms doesn't even feel important to me now, when I once thought my whole world hung in that very balance. I didn't assume I would be unhappy, but what I didn't know is that being gay (the easiest shorthand) would become one of the very sources of my happiness. Even at my most optimistic, near the end of high school or in college, even as I accepted that I wasn't straight and refused to give myself a hard time about that, I think I instinctively felt it would be a hardship I would managea fair burden for a life that frankly hadn't been saddled with all that many, like having a disability so slight that some people wouldn't even notice it, or having a latent health condition that wouldn't flare up if I were responsible about monitoring it. That's probably what I thought, and it's so off the mark of what has actually happened. Being queer is an absolute source of joy to me.
I thought when I was really young, that if I were gay, as I secretly secretly secretly suspected I might be, I would still be okay, but I might not ever meet another person like me. Do kids today, after Ellen and Will & Grace and Glee, still worry about that? Not only do I know more LGBTQ people than I can count, I find them to be, on the average, remarkably generous people, open-minded about all kinds of things. "We" are not any one wayI'm talking about a huge swath of people here, thank goodnessbut on the whole, the kind of thoughtfulness, humor, compassion, self-reflection, and principled living I see among my LGBT friends and acquaintances sets a hugely high standard that I love aspiring to. Coming to grips with yourself is tough, especially if you're simultaneously dealing with hostility from the outside or the inside or both. However, it's also a way to find out who you are, and to grow up into an adult with a clear, sturdy self-identity. Like anything that's tough at the start, it eventually makes you stronger. Like anything you have to put some work into, the fruits of your labor get repaid twofold, at least.
If you're young and stigmatized, bullied, suspected, jeered, unprotected, or unloved, you probably feel a huge, huge weight on your shoulders, your back, your heart. It can feel like no one will ever take it off of you. And then you meet huge groups of people, and you really, finally, fully meet yourself, and with all of those people putting their two hands under the weight, it gets lightened, maybe even lifted off entirely. Sometimes this can even feel bizarrely easy, if only compared to what you might have expected. Though I spend a lot less time at the gym than some of The Gays (read: no time at all), I do understand the principle: working against a weight endows you with muscle. You have to break that muscle down in order to build it back up, stronger and tougher and more resilient than before. It gets bigger. It gets more flexible. It can more easily lend its power and support to someone else. It gets better.