When I was a kid, I did not know anyone gay or lesbian, except for my mother’s “swishy” haircutter, who dubbed himself “Mr. Robert.” And perhaps, in retrospect, the strapping female summer camp counselor who always showed up with a tennis racket in the middle of the night to fend off bats.
By the time I was in my midteens, I desperately needed to talk to someone about being gay. I convinced my parents to let me see a therapist, but I couldn’t tell them why.
Once I finally got to see Dr. Marilyn Lipschitz-Gould (not her real name), it took me seven months to get to the point. Even then, I made her guess.
She said, “Three other teenagers have had trouble telling me things. One was addicted to drugs, one was gay, and one had a stealing problem.”
“One of those things,” I said.
Once I finally told her the truth, she tried to talk me out of it.
That was a long time ago.
Those of us born before the 1980s like to assume that it’s “easier” for GLBT kids growing up now. After all, we can get married in some states. We have cultural role models. Gay people on TV and in the movies don’t even have to suffer or die before the credits roll.
My generation sometimes has sounded like our grandparents complaining about having to walk 12 miles to school in the snow in the old days.
We may say, “Remember when lesbians only could be sad, flannel-clad bull dykes who touched each other’s hair to express their erotic desires, and gay men only could be bitter lisping sissies? Now, they have Ellen! And Modern Family! And The L Word reruns!
I’ve heard us remark, “Being gay now is barely an issue, or if anything, it makes kids seem more hip.”
But after Tyler Clementi’s tragic death, among others, our enthusiastic assumptions about what it’s like to be a GLBT kid today clearly, are wrong. Adolescence is still hell.
A prevailing message still is that gay people are contemptible, and shouldn’t be allowed equal rights. Social status still is determined by the culture immediately around you, whether you’re in the Bible Belt or the gayest town on earth.
So, unless you’re a GLBT kid who’s lucky enough to live in a place with a lot of variety (in households, politics, artistic sensibility, etc.), being queer still is considered…well, queer—and not in a good way.
When I was in sixth grade, I was not like the other girls, with their blow-dried hair, shell necklaces, and platform shoes. Pushed around, called names, and excluded, I was certain that they hated me. I sat in the bathroom across the hall from my classroom, and fantasized about jumping off the roof.
Part of the reason I didn’t fit in was that I recently had moved from Brooklyn to Long Island, an entirely different culture. The other reason I felt different was that I was a budding little lesbian.
I don’t want to make it sound either more trivial or more dramatic than it was. No one threatened my life, and I never came up with a serious plan to kill myself.
Even now, although I am decades past that experience, and literally millions of things have happened since then, I still think of sixth grade as one of the worst years of my life.
Maybe Asher Brown, who shot himself in the head, and Seth Walsh, who hanged himself in his backyard, also would have gone on to mostly better years if they had made it past 13.
Only the extreme examples, the kids who are bullied, and then kill themselves (or are killed), end up in the media.
For every gay kid who is persecuted so much that he or she ultimately dies, hundreds of others must be suffering, usually stuck where they are, and shaped by their torment.
Like many friends, I’ve been inspired by recent events to look for ways to help. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) offers a list of specific suggestions of what you can do to make a difference at www.glsen.org.
Every GLBT person remembers that first exhilarating moment of finding his or her people—walking into a room, and realizing that someone in it…no, wait, everyone in it…is gay, lesbian, or trans. Or, finally being in a place where sexual orientation doesn’t matter…to anyone.
Kids sometimes have to wait a very long time for that moment. But we all can find opportunities to reach out—to say, “It’s going to be OK. It’s going to be more than OK.”
© 2010 Meryl Cohn. Address questions and correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the author of Do What I Say: Ms. Behavior’s Guide to Gay and Lesbian Etiquette (Houghton Mifflin). Signed copies are available directly from the author.