When I came out at the age of 17, I knew my family would never look at me the same again. From the beginning, I was called pretty and beautiful. My mom kept my hair very, very long, and it was given a lot of attention and praise. I was enrolled in kid beauty pageants and put into dance classes. I was made to wear sun dresses and Easter dresses and I had those damn lace collared socks. I hated all of it. Well, I didn’t mind the tap and gymnastics portions of dance class. I knew then, when I was 5, that I was different from the people around me. Most of those feelings I dismissed because I was adopted. I figured, you know, adopted kids just feel a little out of place no matter how much their family loves them.
There were times when I wondered if I was supposed to be a boy. There were times when I wished I could be. There were times I cried about all of those feelings in that tiny overhang of bluff by the river. Of course, this was in the ’80s. In my part of the world, there was no such thing as gay people. And there was definitely no such thing as trans people, or any alternative gender. In case you’re getting excited about my own gender reveal, calm down. I’m not saying anything, really. I’m a girl. Probably. I guess. I just don’t care. I am just me. But more than enough people have called me sir. Or stared me down in a bathroom. Or looked at me with that look you’ve never known unless you’re gender-bending in some way.
Anyway, you know that coming out in Callaway County was hard. I don’t want to sound tough about it anymore; it was traumatizing. Someone keyed “dyke” into my gym locker. I told some teachers, but guess what, nothing happened. There were rumors that I was kissing random people at the softball field. There were people who straight-up told me that their parents wouldn’t let them hang out with me anymore. That I was going to hell.
When I went to basketball camp, only one person would be my roommate. She endured some teasing and a lot of questions from the others wondering how she could possibly be comfortable sleeping in the same room with me.
My basketball coach was so rude to me the first few days of practice, I quit. The previous year, I was MVP and won Best Female Athlete. When I handed him my uniform, all he said was, “okay.” Yes, you know him. And yes, you know his wife was also my fifth grade teacher and is currently a MO state senator. And yes, when my ex-wife was pregnant and I introduced her, she literally looked past us and said nothing.
My parents sent me to therapy. Not to help me in the sense we might think about it now, but to help me get back to being straight.
I saw someone in a gas station a few years after I graduated and he was like, “heyyyyy, how are you?” In that kind of voice that says something was really wrong with me. I asked, “what do you mean?” He said, “You know, all of that stuff you went through in high school?” I said, “you mean coming out?” And he was like, “no, all the drugs and stuff?” I was like, what the fuck are you even talking about? I was a total narc in high school. I hated drugs. I hated alcohol. I judged anyone who used them. I went to two parties; at one, I had three sips of Boone’s Farm and drove my friend home. I felt guilty about that for years. Maybe you’re wondering about the other party? My friend got high and drunk and started puking. Luckily, she came with someone else, so I wasn’t responsible for her. But there was so much hetero making out, I had to leave. I arrived sober and left even more sober. Anyway, I yelled at that guy in gas station, “I’m just fucking gay!” and left.
And then there was the sexual harassment, luckily all verbal, interspersed with lewd sexual questions and suggestions. There were threats of corrective rape.
So, being 17 and gay in a tiny ass, rural, southern town in 1997 wasn’t just hard; it was hardening.
Those obvious abuses were awful and plentiful. The worst things, though, were the looks and the utter silence. This came from the principal, who scowled at me any time I walked by. This came from most of the teachers and students. Most importantly, it came from my family.
That was surprising and the most damaging. I was doted on since I was little and even up until the point I was outted. I was the smart, pretty athlete they were all so proud of. Then suddenly, I was no longer beautiful; I was a wretched disgusting creature unworthy of words. No one really spoke to me. About anything. When they did, they didn’t meet my eyes. I had hoped that my family’s love for me would help them understand that gay people are just people. I believed that if they really knew a gay person, they’d learn that it wasn’t sinful or bad or whatever they thought. At the time, I wanted them to ask questions because I had the strength to teach them. There were no allies to do the emotional lifting for me. I was ready. But. It was just a year of silence. And those looks. How does one describe them to someone who has lived such a life as not to experience them?
Well, it is the face of someone right before they vomit. It is pale and disoriented. It is the face of someone seeing a mugshot of a pedophile on the news- that sick sonuvabitch. It is the face of someone as they draw up their nose at the first hint of skunk. It is the face of someone who has been betrayed.
It is the face of your parents and cousins and aunts and uncles. It is one of those dreams when you realize you’ve gone somewhere naked.
Yes, that’s it. You’re naked. But you can never wake up.