Read an Excerpt
When We Were Young
"The real world was suspicious of girls who did not want to play Jane."
BLANCHE MCCRARY BOYD, from The Revolution of Little Girls
No More Frilly Dresses
Like most of us, I don't remember much from my early years. As hard as it may be to believe, I barely remember my parents' television show, or being brought on stage with them. In fact, I don't even remember my parents as a couple. My mom tells me that we were very close when I was little, that we'd play dress up together, that I went everywhere with her, attached to her hip. I have a photo of us together in matching black cat suits. She's smiling at me, and I'm clapping my hands. The picture is vivid, but I have no recollection of this moment, or any other until I was around seven.
I have a blurred memory of the emotional chaos that followed my parents' divorce when I was four years old. My parents decided that I should spend equal time with each of them, so I'd stay with my mom for a week or two and then move to my dad's. I'm sure they thought this was best for me, but the constant shifting was overwhelming.
When I'd arrive at one house, I would begin to get anxious. Sometimes it would take me a full day to adjust. I would cry and not be able to sleep, wishing that I were still at the other house. After a day or so, I'd settle in and feel fine, only to be uprooted in a week or so. Like most kids of divorced parents, I felt torn, with no one place to call my own. Even though I had doubles of a lot of toys and clothes, it wasn't twice as good: instead, I wanted one room, one set of toys, one household.
For a few years after they divorced, my mom and dad continued to work together in a nightclub show that moved around the country. I remember once they were doing a show in Buffalo. After the performance, someone threw a bouquet of roses on stage for my mother. From the wings, I looked out desperately at the forgotten flowers. I felt so sorry for the flowers, I ran out to save them. But my act of rescue only annoyed my mother, who admonished me for running out on stage. Her reaction confused me. Didn't she feel sorry for the flowers too? I think this image sticks in my mind because it captures how sensitive I was to both the pain of others and to my mother's reaction to me.
My most vivid memories of my childhood begin when I became conscious that I was somehow "different," specifically different from who my mom expected me to be.
Another memory, which shows how I was beginning to feel different, is from when I was seven and a half. My brother, Elijah, had just been born, and we were living in a big Spanish-style house in Beverly Hills. I was sitting on a high stool in the kitchen. Instead of a table, we had a kidney-shaped island -- at home it was never my mom's style to sit down and eat in a formal way. I was small. I'm sure my hair was an unruly mess, that my knees were scraped, that my jeans were covered in grass stains. I was planning my birthday party while my mom was making one of her health shakes. Her back was to me, her long dark hair cascading across her shoulders and back. She was probably in sweats and barefoot.
"Mom," I said, "here's my list. There are ten."
My mom glanced at the sheet of paper quickly and then said, "These are all boys, Chas. Don't you want any girls at your party?"
I looked up at her and saw this strange expression on her face, a look that I'd begun seeing more and more frequently. Her face was still, her lips drawn a bit more tightly. "All my friends are boys," I explained.
"You must have [some] friends who are girls."
I shook my head. "No." But I'd begun to feel bad: there was something wrong with not having girlfriends.
"Just ask a few girls from your class, okay?"
"Okay," I said, wondering how I was going to come up with three girls I could even tolerate. My mom brushed the top of my head, pulled the hair out of my eyes, and kissed my forehead.
I had always been a well-behaved, quiet kid who never gave my mother any trouble, so her anger, which was clearly directed at me, confused me. I began to feel nervous around my mother, which stirred up some of the anxiety I used to feel right after the divorce.
By the time my brother was two or three, my mother no longer worked with my dad. Most of the early confusion of shuffling between my parents' two houses had stopped. I saw my dad regularly, but I no longer had nervous reactions when I moved from one house to the other. I was getting older and began to assert some independence and choose my own clothes. I began my transformation into a tomboy, and as I did, I became aware that I was somehow different from other girls, and definitely different from what mom expected me to be.
I remember an incident vividly from around this time. My mother was traveling a lot for her career, and we were living in temporary housing while our house on Carolwood in Beverly Hills was being renovated -- never a simple matter for my mom, who has always been slightly obsessed with decorating every corner and corridor of a home. I was about ten and just beginning to get my sea legs as my own person. My brother was about three and starting to terrorize everyone, especially me.
I came downstairs, ready for my nanny to drive me to school.
My mom came into the hallway to kiss me good-bye. She took one look at me and said, "Chas, you're wearing that to school?" I looked down at my red-decaled T-shirt, my gym shorts, and my beat-up Nikes. This was my uniform at home, so I didn't understand my mother's problem with what I was wearing. I thought I looked okay. My clothes were clean. I had even combed my hair.
"But Mom --" I began.
She cut me off. "Chas, you're going to school. Don't you want to wear something a little nicer? What about the blue-jean skirt I got you?"
"Mom -- I can't wear that; I'll look like a loser."
But she wanted me to compromise, and I went along with her and wore the skirt with Wonder Woman patches all over it.
When I arrived at school, my friends looked at me in astonishment. Being boys, they started teasing me immediately. They called me a sissy; they wouldn't throw me the ball during recess. I was mortified. How could I be one of them in some silly skirt? I wanted to rip it off. In that instant, I vowed never to wear anything girlie again.
It's funny, but I think I stopped wearing dresses and skirts a lot younger than my mother recalls. It's as if as I began to change and have definite tastes, my mother clung to this image of me in a frilly dress. Like that of many parents, my mother's reaction was in part an unconscious expression of her not wanting me to grow up and become more separate from her. But I was also becoming someone who, on the outside at least, did not resemble either her or who she wanted me to be.
Because my dad seemed so much more at ease with my being a tomboy, I began to spend more time with him. In a way, I think I was the son my father never had. He'd play football with me in the backyard, challenging me to become the first female in the NFL, and take me to the track. He loved taking me to the horse races. I remember one time being dressed in a miniature Pierre Cardin suit to match my father's. I had invited my friend Ricky along, and we stopped at a toy store on the way so that Ricky and I could pick out toys: Ricky chose the Incredible Hulk action figure, and I decided on the Thing -- not exactly a Barbie.
When my father encouraged my tomboyishness, my mother would get annoyed. I think in some ways they acted out their frustration with each other through me: my father would aggravate my mother by encouraging my boyish behavior, and my mother became more uncomfortable with me because she saw me as mimicking my father.
My mother is very direct, and it's impossible for her to hide her feelings. As a child, I knew how upset I made her, but I didn't know what to do. I couldn't wear dresses or be more feminine just to please her. Even today, she criticizes how I dress. As she says, "I don't like the way you dress, and you don't like the way I dress."
But the real problem, I now think, was that my mom's idea of closeness was premised on the idea that we had to be similar. As we became more and more dissimilar, she found it more and more difficult to relate to me. She says that she didn't think that I was gay until I was eleven, but I suspect that underneath her anxiety about our being "different" were fears that my tomboyishness hinted at latent homosexuality.
Midway through fourth grade, I met Gina, who was the younger sister of our weekend nanny, Colleen. Gina was three years older than I was, but like me, she was a total tomboy: she loved sports, didn't hang out with other girls, and basically did her own thing. We became instant best friends, and for the next three years, we did everything together. Gina's appearance by my side seemed to relieve my mom. I think the fact that I finally had a friend who was a girl made her worry less about me: maybe it meant I was turning into a "normal" girl after all.
I also remember the first day of sixth grade. I was starting at a Montessori school and was nervous. Having skipped so much school when I traveled with my mom, I had missed a lot of the fundamentals. As a result, school had become an intimidating place for me. To combat my tenseness, I decided to wear my new black leather jacket as a kind of defense. It worked: I didn't want the other kids to bother me, and they didn't.
My mother didn't have a problem with my outfit that day. I think she liked that I showed some interest in clothes that she thought were fashionable or cool and wore herself. That was the same year that she helped me dress up for Halloween as a Hell's Angel. The school was having a Halloween fair, and she came. I was dressed in head-to-toe leather, and she had drawn a tattoo on my arm with "Mom" written in the middle. You can't imagine how cool I thought I was!
I felt much more at ease with myself at the Montessori school. The teachers gave me a lot of individual attention and encouraged creative thinking, and I began to build up my confidence again. My awkwardness with feeling different lessened, and I became more comfortable with myself. I still look back on Montessori as one of the most positive experiences of my life.
Unfortunately, Montessori ended in sixth grade, and I started seventh grade in a new school. Curtis was a very posh, uniform-wearing private prep school, and I instantly hated it. Once again, I felt alienated from the majority around me. I could no longer be one of the boys because my figure was now showing very real signs of development. Yet I still felt as if I had nothing in common with the girls, especially those prep school girls, who were obsessed with fashion and boys.
With the exception of Gina, whom I'd see on weekends, I had no friends. I was again doing poorly in my classes. The one person who made school tolerable was the gym teacher, whom I had befriended. I spent most of my lunch periods with her because she seemed to understand me. I'm fairly sure she was a lesbian. She probably recognized me for the baby lesbian I was and sympathized with my obvious confusion and distress at school -- thank God for gym teachers!
At home, my mom's behavior continued to distress me. Sometimes a simple preppy button-down shirt would upset her; other times she wouldn't bat an eye if I wore her black leather vest. When I started wearing her black leather jacket and steel-toed motorcycle boots regularly, she bought me my own. By that time she seemed to have given up trying to make me girlie, but that cloud of disapproval still hovered between us, and a certain distance had begun to creep into our relationship.
These memories of my childhood stand out as the first outward signs that I was somehow different -- different from how my mother wanted me to be, and different from other girls. At school I'd look at the other girls with a kind of contempt. They never seemed to do anything, never said anything. To me, they were boring. But I knew my mother wanted me to be more like them. At the time, I didn't understand my mom's reaction to me, and this made me extremely anxious, almost frightened of her.
Part of the way I responded to my mom's questions and criticisms of what I was wearing and how I was behaving is related to the somewhat frenetic way we lived. I had never known anything but the excitement and commotion of my mother's career. She had always been an entertainer, and showbiz was the backdrop of my life from its beginning. But the older I became, the more I needed to have some control over my environment, and the constant motion exacerbated my sensitivity to her disapproval of me.
Seeds of Shame
As a child, of course, I didn't have the words to explain why I preferred dressing in boys' clothes. I didn't understand why I felt different or why my mother seemed so upset by certain things about me. In hindsight, it's obvious that my identifying more with boys than girls was natural for me, but it was very difficult for my mother. Though my mom admits having been a tomboy herself as a child, she didn't understand why her daughter seemed to go to such an extreme. From her perspective, I was being rebellious without cause. What reason did she give me to rebel? Why was I behaving this way?
Somehow my mother's own tomboyishness was acceptable to her, but not mine. I went too far. I was hurt and angry that she didn't accept me for who I was. Why did she have such a problem with my jeans and T-shirts, my long scraggly hair and boys' sneakers? When my mother became distracted by other people or her career, I was convinced that she was withdrawing from me because I disappointed her. Looking back, I see that aside from my mother's confusion about and difficulty with me, she had a lot of other demands in her life. She had to manage a growing career, take care of my younger brother and me, and bear the full responsibility for a large household as a single woman. But like any child, I wasn't aware of my mother's real life. I could only focus on her increasing distance from me.
In the past few years, as my mom and I have closed the gap between us, she has admitted to me that my masculine style of dress and manner made her suspect I was gay way before I had any notion of it myself. Her suspicions are common among parents of children or teenagers who don't neatly fit accepted gender roles. Children like myself who may identify more naturally with the opposite sex provoke anxiety in their parents. But as a child, I didn't understand why my behavior upset my mother. Her disapproval of my clothing choices meant only one thing: she disapproved of me. I heard her comments or questions about how I dressed and how I acted as criticisms of my entire person. I didn't understand the distinction between my mother's love for me and her discomfort with how I was expressing myself. And the end result was that I began to feel ashamed of who I was because I was different.
In my conversations with gays and lesbians over the last few years, I began to uncover a similar map in their stories: first we feel different, then we are criticized or receive negative feedback, and then we internalize the criticism and become ashamed of who we are. This is what happened to me: I felt different, my mother disapproved of me, and I became ashamed. I believe that deciphering this map is the first step toward redefining ourselves in a positive way so that we can not only embrace ourselves as lesbians and gays but be proud of our difference, not ashamed.
As children and even as teenagers, we don't yet possess the language to communicate how or why we feel different, and when we are without the intellectual or psychological tools with which to make sense of our feelings, the feelings themselves can become exaggerated and overwhelming. We not only feel different, we feel ashamed of our difference. In their book Coming Out of Shame, Gershen Kaufman, Ph.D., and Lev Raphael, Ph.D., point out the impact of feeling different and its relationship to shame: "It is virtually impossible to be different, particularly in this culture, and not feel deficient for the difference, because any awareness of difference inevitably translates into a devaluing comparison. First we are devalued by others, and then we devalue ourselves." So at ages six, seven, eight, when we are convinced that we are different, we can also be convinced that we are inferior, deficient in some way we have no control over. This acute shame about ourselves is directly related to society's view that homosexuality is not just distinct from the norm, but abnormal.
I met with Richard in his one-bedroom apartment in Chelsea, a popular gay neighborhood in New York City. Richard is a twenty-seven-year-old urban planner who, much like myself, identified with the opposite sex rather than his own as a child.
Richard was raised in an upper-middle-class Irish-Catholic family in a Connecticut suburb. Richard's father worked on Wall Street and commuted into Manhattan each weekday. His mother was an entrepreneur and developed several of her own businesses over the years.
The youngest child with four older sisters, Richard describes himself as always having been gentle, soft-spoken, slightly effeminate, and not particularly athletic or interested in sports. Like me, Richard had difficulty relating to his same-sex parent. "My father was in the army, and every time he and my mother would argue, my father's retort was 'I should have stayed in the army.' My father was always frustrated with his life -- with his career, his marriage, his children. My mother paid little attention to him, and he hated being a stockbroker. He also had a temper and sometimes became violent. I was spared from his wrath, but not my sisters. There were occasions when he would rap them across their limbs or backsides. We were all scared of him, and I learned very early to be as quiet and docile as possible. You never knew what was going to trigger his outbursts.
"The older I got, the less my father and I had in common. He loved sports, especially football. I avoided contact sports like the plague. I would push myself into tennis or swimming, sports I could do on my own. He tried to encourage me to play sports, but I was just not that interested. He made me go to a real jocky summer camp, and I remember feeling completely out of my element.
"After a while, my father seemed to just avoid me and kept his distance. My mother would always badger him to spend more time with me. I would overhear these conversations and feel humiliated. It was clear that my father didn't know what to do with me because I was so different from him. Nowadays, all we can talk about is business. We have nothing in common. But when I was little, it was even harder."
Richard remembers his sisters actively trying to "toughen him up." "It was like they were obsessed with trying to teach me to be a boy because I didn't resemble one to them. They would curse at me or around me and push me around. Of course this didn't make me change. It just made me feel more ill at ease with myself."
Richard also recalls not fitting in with the majority of boys and feeling much more comfortable with girls. "I remember it always being awkward for me to befriend guys. There were all these things they would talk about, like sports or having sex with girls. I just wasn't interested in talking about those subjects."
When Richard was nine, his parents divorced, and he and his sisters moved to Manhattan with their mother. Living in New York City enabled Richard to feel much more comfortable. "I was in the big city, and there were many different kinds of people. I was exposed to kids who were Asian, Hispanic, Jewish. There were also different kinds of boys -- nerdy, not all white-bread sports types. This was a huge relief. My mother was in fashion, so I also met gay men -- not that I thought of them as gay at the time. But I could tell there was something different about them."
But his sisters kept on his case. Richard remembers when he was about eleven, two of his sisters took him to the school playground down the street to play basketball. "Terry was getting more and more annoyed because I wasn't showing any interest in learning how to do a layup. Then she threw the ball at me. It hit me hard in the stomach and knocked the wind out of me. She was furious and I was furious. But I was also afraid of her. She made me feel like I was a total piece of shit."
The older he got, the more his sisters persisted. "I remember once when I was about fourteen, I had just bought all these neat clothes and I was going out to a party. It was summer, and I was wearing white balloon pants, a black satin shirt buttoned to the top, and black suede pointed shoes. I felt very cool and was excited to go to the party. When I came downstairs, my sister Terry shrieked and said, 'Oh, my God -- you can't go out looking like that. You look like a' -- and then she couldn't finish her sentence. I was devastated. I knew what she meant. I could hear the word faggot ringing in the air." Richard not only changed his clothes that evening, but from then on, he became much more self-conscious about how he dressed.
In the same way that my mother questioned my only having male friends, Richard's mother questioned the fact that all of his friends seemed to be girls. When he was about sixteen, his mother remarked that all he seemed to talk about were the girls in his class -- how glamorous they were, how smart and interesting. "My mother finally said to me, `I don't want to hear about those girls anymore. Don't you have any friends who are boys?' I got the message. That's when I started to realize that I had to censor myself."
Soon after, Richard began dating girls. "I think it had to do with proving to everyone and myself that I was capable of it." Like many gay men, Richard felt more comfortable with girls than with straight guys, whose interests he generally didn't share.
Since the acceptable gender roles for boys and men are even more strict than they are for girls and women, Richard received even more criticism for being different than I did.
In her groundbreaking study Gender Shock, Phyllis Burke explores this rigidity of gender roles in our society and its effect on the natural development of identity. She writes:
In our early gender training, we are taught that there is something we are able to do, but are forbidden, because of our sex. Every child has this experience, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. It is a moment when the mind stops, experiencing a break in time, as a crucial facet of our identity is socially decreed: our behavior, or gender role, is determined by our sex, or body. Although the assigned gender role is declared absolute, definite, permanent and immutable, most of us secretly do not believe in every aspect of the role. A boy is told that boys do not skip, or jump rope, but he knows that his body is capable of skipping. A girl is told not to physically fight because she is a girl, but she knows that her anger is as real as her fist.
My experience and Richard's mirror each other in several ways: we both had a distant, disapproving parent, felt alienated from the other kids, and were generally uncomfortable with feeling somehow different. Both Richard and I were criticized for stepping outside the prescribed gender roles that our parents felt comfortable with. In turn, we responded to our parents' anxiety by becoming uncomfortable with ourselves. Whereas Richard tried to change his behavior (playing basketball with his sister and later dating girls to prove his masculinity), I withdrew rather than force myself to change. But in both cases, we actively suppressed parts of ourselves.
Seeds of Homophobia
Ben, who is at thirty-one an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, a mainstream Protestant denomination, grew up in Henderson, Kentucky. He describes his family this way: "We were a well-adjusted, professional, happy household. Both my parents were educators who encouraged my sister and me to be successful. My father played golf and wasn't that involved at home, though that has since changed. We were very close and loving."
Ben seems to embody the spirit of a minister. He is thoughtful, sincere, and guileless. Like Richard, he recalls being aware of feeling different from most other boys while growing up and links that early sense of not fitting in to his eventually becoming a minister. "In hindsight, I remember having a real heightened sense of other people's pain. When I was eleven years old I was part of a children's group that started a child-abuse prevention organization, and we became well-known in the regional area of the state. I devoted hours and hours to it while other kids were outside playing. I see a real connection between my always identifying with people who were hurting and my being gay."
When I asked him to explain this connection, he recalled being teased "all through my elementary school years. They called me `queer' or `sissy' or `faggot.' I was by no means the only kid being teased. It was perfectly accepted and tolerated, not only by the other kids but also by the teachers and other adults. It didn't matter if the child was really gay or not. The words were used as slurs. But for young people who know they are gay or are struggling with those issues, the teasing is even more frustrating and hurtful. There you are in the park or playground, and you have to hide who you are; you're thinking, `How do they know this about me?' As children, we don't understand that these are words being said indiscriminately to many young people; they're fighting words, street words, playground words."
The teasing made Ben immediately aware that he did not fit in with the others. It made him feel ashamed of himself because even then he knew that the difference he felt was difficult for others to accept. In the same way that Richard's sisters pressured him to be more masculine, the teasing put pressure on Ben to conform. "For me there was a real need to be accepted by my peers. I became more self-conscious with the name-calling. I wasn't especially effeminate as a young person. I played sports. But I was very kind and considerate, always sat up straight in my chair and didn't talk when I wasn't supposed to, I was always real attentive, I was a musician and sang and played the piano, good student, so most of the name-calling came from a set of kids that looked at me as a Goody Two-shoes; I doubt they thought the word gay -- maybe they did; the term fag can mean so many things to a kid -- they don't necessarily intend the slur to mean gay or lesbian."
But the words are definitely pejorative, and every kid in school knows that association. In fact, "faggot" and "queer" are some of the few slurs associated with a minority group that are still used with regularity by adults too and are not yet culturally censored, as is the case with "nigger" or "kike" or other defaming descriptions of oppressed groups or minorities. The fact that "fag" and "dyke" are still tolerated terms reinforces the shameful feelings associated with homosexuality.
Ben continues, "I remember always really trying to watch my actions in new situations, such as a class trip or a new school. I would always hope that in the next phase of my life, things would be different. I struggled to not let on that the other kids were getting to me with their teasing, but I could not hide the fact that it did bother me, and this just added to the verbal abuse. I got defensive, I didn't play along, got quiet or upset or nervous. In the process of maturing in high school and finding a group of friends that were supportive, I realized that I was not the class fag, the one who was always excluded. In fact, if they were asked now, I think my peers would probably remember me as popular."
Sometimes the abuse for being different is not limited to hurtful words. All too often homophobia can be expressed with physical violence, and some of this violence is directed at children who not only have little understanding of what gay means but cannot defend themselves from attack. And while the nation is becoming less and less tolerant of such hate crimes, their continued occurrence needs to be eradicated completely.
Bruce, who is now nineteen and works at a retail shop in the small Indiana town where he grew up, describes his experience with not fitting in. "Even in kindergarten I felt different from most of the other kids in class. I remember having my first crush in kindergarten; I didn't have a word for it at the time, but I liked being around this kid and smiled a lot when I was around him."
Unlike Richard, the urban planner, Bruce recalls having had a close relationship with his father. "My father and I are very different. He's this big lumberjack kind of a guy, and I'm effeminate." Despite their differences, Bruce and his father spent a lot of time together when Bruce was growing up. "My dad was very involved in my life. We'd play ball, put together my bike, and sometimes he would even play dolls with me. My father didn't treat me any differently than he did his older son, my half-brother."
But throughout elementary school, Bruce was teased by the other kids. "A lot of times I wouldn't go out and play; I'd sit on the swing set and just talk with the girls. I didn't want people to call me sissy or girlie if I wanted to play games like dolls. I think I knew immediately that they were feelings to be ashamed about." -Bruce tried to change his behavior but was unsuccessful. "No matter how hard I tried, I could never pass."
Then, in a matter-of-fact voice he says, "The first time I was gay bashed was in third grade. I was walking home from school and I was tackled by three older kids. They were probably in the fifth grade. Two of them held my arms down and one punched me in the stomach and called me a `fag' and `queer.' I knew they sensed something about me that they hated, and it scared me because that meant there was something wrong with me. At the time I felt lucky that they hit me in the stomach and not the face, because then I didn't have to tell my mom what happened. I was convinced that she'd have the same reaction. But I remember feeling very scared, lonely, and vulnerable. I had no one to turn to."
Richard, Ben, Bruce, and I all experienced being different in terms of gender: we didn't fit what was generally accepted behavior or appearance for our sex. However, sometimes gays and lesbians feel different in more subtle ways. On the outside they may conform quite neatly to what is considered normal for their sex, but inside they recall feeling nagging doubts about whether they really fit in.
Judy, who is forty, grew up in Washington state and is the third of four children. Both she and her youngest brother, Dave, are gay. Judy now works in real estate and shares custody of her two children with her former husband. Judy's father, a retired Methodist minister, and her mother raised their family in a comfortable upper-middle-class household. Judy describes her parents as "mainstream liberals."
"My parents were easygoing and approachable. I had a rather nondramatic childhood. But I was always restless," she recalls. "I was a terrible kid. I'd sneak out in the middle of the night. I was the preacher's kid that hated church." In hindsight Judy interprets her uneasiness as a child and young adult as an indication of her prehomosexuality. She continues, "I was very rebellious and had only a 1.2 or 1.3 grade point average." Her low achievement in high school is linked to her internalized negative feelings about being somehow different from her peers. Whereas I didn't fit in with other girls in obvious, concrete ways, specifically choosing to wear more masculine clothes, Judy masked her questions about herself by rebelling against her parents.
"I was definitely a tomboy and had a lot of male friends, but I was very much a girl." But, she explains, she always felt troubled: "I was definitely searching. There was something about myself that I just didn't understand. I thought I'd outgrow the feeling." At the time, her parents only reinforced her shameful feelings about herself. "I remember hearing my dad tell my mom that he didn't think I'd make it through high school," she recalls.
But those feelings of difference didn't disappear; they just went underground. Like many gays and lesbians, Judy pushed away her feelings of inadequacy. She says, "I guess I just started putting my feelings aside. By the time I graduated from college, I had a map of the rest of my life: I was going to be married by the time I was twenty-three, with kids by twenty-six or twenty-seven. I had all my goals in line. I was so focused on where I was going, I didn't let myself have time to think about how I felt about anything."
Her life plan did help alleviate that inner, unnamable anxiety for a while. "Then there I was, married with a couple of kids, and then I was like, `Oh, now I know how I feel, and I don't feel very good.'" Her lingering doubts were becoming larger, more concrete, but she was still unable to identify the root of her dissatisfaction. "At the time I didn't know why I felt so unsettled. After I was married, I knew I had made a mistake. The problem wasn't my husband. He is a wonderful guy and a terrific father."
Judy seemed to have repressed the source of her dissatisfaction. The thoughts and feelings were too frightening for her to address at a conscious level, so she pushed her feelings aside and didn't deal with them until she was in a more stable place in her life, when she had more to fall back on and had given herself a clear identity as a wife, mother, and professional.
Judy very clearly pushed away her vague, unnerving feelings and tried to live up to the image of a typical woman by marrying, having children, and doing what she thought was expected of her. Although she remembers always feeling "restless" and "unsettled," Judy wasn't able to identify why she felt this way until she was thirty-one, when she fell in love with a woman.
Turning the Shame Inward
Although both Ben and Judy sensed they were different and obviously felt some anxiety about themselves, they turned to positive outlets to sublimate or channel the feelings: they both developed positive feelings about themselves through school activities in the case of Ben, and in Judy's case through work and in her role as a mother.
However, that's not always the case. Often, gays and lesbians turn the shame of feeling different toward themselves and become self-destructive. As Kaufman and Raphael say, "Because of the close connection between the awareness of difference and shame, being gay or lesbian inescapably marks us as lesser."
Sarah, who grew up in a middle-class Jewish family on Long Island and is now a television producer in Los Angeles, said she was "different, but it didn't manifest necessarily in masculine ways. I was definitely more inclined to play with GI Joe than Barbie, but I didn't necessarily look or act like a tomboy. I played sports and was tougher than the other girls, but they all looked up to me. I was a leader, and a lot of my girlfriends wanted to please me," she recalls. "But this was confusing. There was something I wanted from my friends, but I had no way of expressing it -- to myself or to them. As a result, there was always friction between us."
But the shame was there. "I got into drugs when I was very young. I think I tried pot when I was eleven, and then got into quaaludes, speed, and acid. The druggie group at school was asexual, so I fit in. I didn't want to deal with my sexuality at all, so I denied it, blocked it out through drugs. In high school I became a Deadhead, an artist, but doing drugs was what pretty much organized my life."
Why did Sarah turn to drugs, an obvious self-destructive behavior? She explains that at the time, in the early 1980s, drugs were plentiful at school. "My two older sisters were following in my parents' footsteps, preparing to get married and settle down. That seemed so boring to me. I knew I was different, but I also think I was naturally rebellious." She sees that even though she thought of herself as "tough" when she was younger, she wasn't able to manage her feelings about being different. "I didn't want to deal with how I was different, so I did drugs."
Melissa grew up in an affluent Chicago suburb. As she admits, "My parents spoiled me and my brother. There was nothing I couldn't ask for." And like Judy and Sarah, she was popular and a leader of her social clique all through middle school. However, as her internal questions and doubts began to surface in high school, Melissa became promiscuous and self-destructive. "I think I slept around with guys because I didn't want to face the fact that I was really attracted to women. I did a lot of drugs -- smoked pot almost every day at school. I just couldn't deal." It took another fifteen years for Melissa to finally be able to accept herself fully.
As we'll see in the stories throughout this book, many gays and lesbians have become self-destructive at one time or another. The threat and reality of being rejected or excluded because of our difference can sometimes be so painful that it's easier to take the pain out on ourselves. In the moment, the drugs, alcohol, even running away, can feel like an escape -- but this is only a temporary solution to shameful feelings.
There is a minority of gays and lesbians who don't recall ever feeling different. One woman I spoke with enjoyed dating men for years before discovering that she was a lesbian. Sydney, who is African American, was born when her parents were both in their forties. Her father spent a twenty-five-year career in the Urban League after receiving his degree from Yale Divinity School. Sydney's mother was an educator before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Now thirty-six, Sydney works in research at a university library in central New York state.
When I asked Sydney if she ever felt different growing up, she declared emphatically no, and then said, "I went to the United Nations school with hundreds of kids from around the world. The only kids who were perceived as different were those who arrived at school not being able to speak English."
In Sydney's case, any possible or latent sense that she was different never developed, because she was exposed to children of so many various backgrounds. This is interesting: it seems to imply that the more narrow our exposure, the more likely it is that we will experience our "difference" as negative or shameful. It also seems to imply that if being different didn't have a negative value, then it wouldn't be a shame-based feeling or characteristic: being different in terms of sexual orientation could be seen as a genetic trait like left-handedness or blue eyes.
When we are younger, before we have any sexual experience, there are few straightforward clues that we may be lesbian or gay. Many of us don't even possess the words in our vocabulary. We just feel different, and it is this feeling of difference that is often the first sign that we may be gay. In general, this stage is associated with the middle school years, before most of us have a concrete awareness of ourselves as sexual beings, and has more to do with the trappings of gender: clothes, activities, sports, and other ways of presenting ourselves. Although we can experience sexual feelings from a very young age, we don't usually have the conceptual framework to categorize such feelings as sexual desires. The most we do is call our feelings "crushes" -- and God knows we've all had crushes, even as early as first grade!
As we all know, the playground and the classroom can be vicious places, where competition and cliques often rule, and most kids, even the most popular, feel insecure when confronted with the pressures of fitting in. But many gays and lesbians become overwhelmed with the belief that our difference is unacceptable. Sometimes it takes years for us to understand that these early feelings of difference created an inner source of shame, and the impact of this early shame leaves scars.
When I was growing up, the more I resisted conforming to my mom's version of being a girl, the further apart we grew, and the older I got, the more strained our relationship became. For the next few years, until I came out to myself at thirteen, we reached a kind of truce that was premised on "don't ask, don't tell." Neither of us wanted to dwell on the awkward feelings between us. But my distance from my mother, and hers from me, was painful.
The stress of those early years, most specifically my mother's reaction to me, stayed with me throughout my childhood and most of my adulthood. It has only been in the last few years, when as an adult I began to process both my own insecurities and my difficulties with my mother, that I have been able to uproot from my heart the shame of being and feeling different. The more I have spoken with other lesbians and gays around the country, the more I realize I have not been alone. Many of us have begun the often long, excruciating process of unraveling our histories so that we can see our difference as positive, not negative. This process, though painful, is not only necessary to accepting yourself, but also essential if you want to be truly happy.