Thursday, March 19, 2015

On Teaching Acceptance (Or, No More Hiding...)

There's a thing I've been trying to talk about, and I don't know how. So I'm going to talk about me for a little while.

I learned what it meant to be gay in school.

It was maybe around 1996. I was about ten years old. We were in music class. It was December, and we were singing, “Deck the Halls.” One of the boys raised his hand and asked what, “gay apparel,” meant, not because he was curious, but because ten is the age when kids really start figuring out how to be snarky. The old-school nun behind the piano looked at him sharply and said, “In this song, it means happy. It also means something very inappropriate that we don’t talk about. But in this song, it means happy.”

I’d heard, “gay,” used the other way before, but not with enough context to understand what it meant. This was pre-Google, and I wasn't going to ask my parents, so I didn't really have a lot to go on. Now I knew – sort of. It meant something bad.

That’s how easy it is to plant an idea in the mind of a trusting child. I still get upset about it, about the months I spent genuinely believing it.

It was my older sister who eventually set me straight, as it were. Six years my senior, she’d often pick me up and bring me back to her high school if she had meetings and both of my parents were working too late to pick me up from extended care on time. We had a good relationship – I was never treated like a cumbersome little sister, never banished to a corner or told to stay away from her friends. I knew her friends, and liked them. One of them, I learned, was gay, and I whispered a question about him once. Maybe she didn’t know?

“Yeah,” she said firmly, “It’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

That’s all it really took to reverse the damage that had been done.  I had wanted, since learning its true definition, to believe that being gay was fine, because it seemed a silly thing to think otherwise. It’s equally silly that I needed somebody else to give me permission to trust my own feelings about the matter, but I was ten. I’m willing to forgive kid me for not being better.

I was raised Catholic, and I received an exclusively Catholic education, from kindergarten right on through to college graduation. During this massive chunk of my life, I learned a lot. When I hit high school, my personal value system really started to form, and I was so lucky to have teachers who encouraged me to trust myself. A few of those teachers really stepped up and acted as mentors, patiently helping me navigate the challenges and curveballs that got thrown my way while I tried to carve out my path. They never judged. They always listened.

When I think of the eighteen year-old kid in her college dorm who had just experienced conscious feelings for a woman for the first time, I think of how much harder it could’ve been for her if she’d been born to a different family in a different city. I know it would’ve been harder if she’d had different teachers.

It was still hard. It would be another two years or so – two years of quiet denial and confusion – before I fully understood and accepted that I was bisexual. It would be another eight years before I said it out loud.

Full disclosure: my master plan was to only indulge the attraction I felt toward men so that I would just never have to talk about it. It was a really dumb plan. Like, it was always a dumb plan, because feelings are feelings and we should really just go with them, but it was especially dumb because wherever I fall on the wider and much debated spectrum, I’m for sure attracted to women more often. Not exclusively. But more often. If you're thinking of adopting a similar plan, maybe don't. Just some friendly advice.

Saying it out loud? Best ever. There was so much of me that I was holding back because ridiculous, paranoid closet logic told me that letting it out would let everyone know. You know how sometimes you’re playing hide and seek, and you’ve got the best hiding spot, but after a while you kind of just want to be found so that you can go back to having fun being loud and visible and a part of the world? That’s how I felt at the end of that gross and complicated decade.

I don’t know that I hid all that well. There were people who definitely knew, or suspected. Toward the end, the closet door was cracking like crazy, I was so sick of keeping it closed. But it was a punishing way to live all the same, and I want to go back to that me and let her know that it's all going to work out.

Once I did it and the initial wave of euphoria passed, I spent a lot of time being irritated with myself. It was upsetting to acknowledge that I spent such a long time denying a huge part of my identity, not because I thought it was wrong, but because I thought it was wrong for me. I had gotten so worried about what people would think that it felt like I had arrested my development – like I had wasted time in understanding myself, and was now behind everyone in the race to be a person.

People who were much younger than I was with much more to lose came out everyday. I felt like a coward and a hypocrite.

Last November, I got to see Rhea Butcher and Cameron Esposito live for the first time. I was a week off my first bike accident. I was tired, my ribs were kind of busted, and I needed the laughs. I got much more. Rhea and Cameron are stand-ups and fiancĂ©es. They talk about their lives without apology. Their sets touched me and made me happy in a way that I don’t think they could have if I hadn’t stepped up and taken ownership of who I am. Post-show, after receiving compliments from them on my tie (always makes me proud), I said, “Listen, I came out this year, and what you said – what you do – really means a lot.” I mean, I probably said it way worse than that because I was nervous and being nervous makes me a jackass, but that’s what I meant to say. And immediately, Cameron pulled me in for a hug, then looked me in the eye with a big smile and said, “Hey! You’re doing it!”

That stuck with me in a big way. I have no problem admitting that I repeat it to myself when I hit rougher patches, when I start to get mad at myself or do something that scares me. It was a nice thing for one stranger to say to another stranger because she knew, and I’m grateful for it.

The way we treat each other matters. The things we say to each other matter. Words carry weight, whether we want them to or not.

Ugly words have been thrown around recently by powerful people in my city. It’s upsetting, disturbing language designed to denounce and condemn. It can call itself whatever it wants, but that is what it is. And it is wrong.

These words, and worse, have existed for a long time. But now it feels like they’re in my home, in my safe space. I’ve been trying to write about it for weeks and I haven’t been able to. I get too angry to do it right.

I don’t know that this is doing it right.

So yeah, rather than talking about it, I decided to talk about me. Because there wasn’t some Divergent-y ceremony when I turned eighteen where I stood up in front of my peers and sliced my hand open over the bowl of bisexuality, making my choice. It’s who I’ve always been. I started writing stories when I was in grade school, guys. It is not that difficult to read between the lines and see that I was a little bi kid with gently romantic feelings for a pretty diverse range of people.

My parents didn’t get weird when I didn’t want to play with dolls and begged for a poster of Jennifer Love Hewitt to put above my dresser, where she remained for years, looking amazing. When I came out to them, they said okay, and kept right on loving me. I’m so, so lucky for all of that.

Despite what some of the textbooks and official party lines may have said, my teachers taught me to honor myself exactly as I was, because that was more than enough. I don’t know that I believe in a higher power – and I’m so happy in the not knowing, so don’t worry about me – but if I did, the one with that message is the one I’d get behind.

I’m a teacher now. I’ve had chances to be the mentor, advisor, and non-judgmental ear that my teachers were to me, and I hope that I’ve done even half as well as they did. Standing up and being myself – loving who and what I love, wearing what I wear, doing what I do – feels like a responsibility now as much as a right.

There is no rule, no word, no power that will make me go back to hiding any part of who I am, nor tell anybody else to do so.  

I will do my best to lead by example, because I’m in a position right now to do that. I will continue to try and be a good person, who surrounds herself with others who are trying to be good people.

“Good,” is not who you love or do not love. It is not who or if you marry, how or if you have kids, who or what you believe in. It’s not what you look like or where you came from.

It is how you are. To yourself. To others.

I will teach acceptance.

And I stand proudly with teachers and students and parents and people who are doing the same.

Hey. We’re doing it.