For weeks now I have had a post brewing inside me as a result of reading about all the teen suicides in the news.
About 17 years ago I had my first girlfriend. I met her at the pro-choice March on Washington and I was so into her. Head over heels. She was the cutest thing I'd ever seen, and so cool. I was totally crushed out. A former Catholic school girl, she was dealing with a lot of issues around coming out. Me, I was not one to keep anything a secret. Defiant to the last, I came out to everyone and anyone. My parents - liberal when it comes to anyone but their own kid - were less than thrilled. They begged me not to tell my grandmother since she was not going to live much longer and couldn't handle it. My dad wanted to know why, why, why. Was it anything they had done? Was it from a bad experience with a boy? Truthfully, it was not the coming out I had hoped for. But at least I did it. The girl I was dating did not. She was out to her close friends, but she shied away from holding my hand in public. And to her family I was Alex or Andrew or whatever. I don't even remember. So we held hands in private. We made mix tapes for each other, wrote passive-aggressive letters back and forth. But we didn't date long.
A few years and a couple of girlfriends and boyfriends later, I was married to my former spouse (a man). I went to a gay pride parade with him and bumped into this girl. She was still totally adorable and for a second I wished I still had a chance with her. As I remember it (and I totally admit to having a selective and revisionist memory) she said hi but then asked me what I was doing there. It took me a moment to register. What was I doing there? What did she mean? As though now that I was with a guy, I didn't have the right to attend a gay pride parade? I smiled sweetly at her and asked if she'd yet come out to her parents and then walked away. For years I was sore about that exchange but now I see where she was coming from.
Why? Because we all experience things differently. I felt excluded, but she must have felt like I had moved to the other side and crashed her party as a spectator. I get it. As a mostly-straight-identified person, it's easy for me to bark about coming out and so on. I don't have to fight for rights that should be universal. I don't have to come up against the religious right just for wanting to share my life with the person I love. I don't have to worry about my safety when I hold my husband's hand. I don't have to choose between stupid words like "boyfriend" which makes me feel like a little kid and "partner" which makes me feel like love is a business transaction. I am legally married. My partner is covered by my health insurance. We are each other's beneficiaries on every single policy we share. We are both the biological parents and legal guardians of our child. Should I become hospitalized, he can make decisions on my behalf, and vice versa, and should one of us die, the other will automatically get custody of our child. These are rights everyone should have. The ring on my finger provides me with a heterosexual privilege that I don't necessarily want, but I nonetheless have. I get to pass. I feel fortunate to have this all handed to me. But it makes me lazy. I don't fight the way perhaps I should, and my reaction to these suicides reminded me of that.
At first, Johnny and I weren't going to get married. We'd carefully planned a baby but marriage wasn't on the agenda. We'd both been there briefly in the past, both marriages ending quickly and in divorce. Plus, we'd been together on and off for so many years that we didn't really think marriage would change anything even with a child on the way. And finally, since we both have a touch o' the gay, we didn't want to take a step that not everyone has the legal right to take. While we both love being married to each other, it bothers us both a little that we didn't wait until it was a right for every citizen in our state. When we decided to do it, for us it was to officially create our family. And I changed my name, not because I am into the idea of a woman giving up her identity and taking a man's name, but because in an effort to rid myself of a terrible maiden name, I'd taken my first spouse's last name years earlier. And now I wanted to share a last name with my baby but I couldn't give her a name that came from a man I was married to before her father. And I didn't want to ask Johnny to take either my awful maiden name or the last name of my former spouse, so I changed mine. Obviously I don't explain that to every person I meet so I guess it really does look like I'm Cathy Conformist. Oh well. Maybe in some ways I am.
On the date we chose for our wedding, I was halfway through my pregnancy. We kind of eloped, opting for a small ceremony in Prospect Park. It was us and our fetus coming together with only four people watching: two witnesses (my very dear friend and Johnny's sister), a photographer and the paid officiant. To us, it was magical and perfect. We chose a spot by a small waterfall on a gorgeous Saturday morning in September. We didn't tell anyone until afterwards, not even our parents. We picked out and saved up for rings we loved. We wrote our own vows, chose meaningful song lyrics to read to each other that made our four guests cry, and acknowledged in the ceremony the things that mattered to us: our long and complicated history, our unborn baby, and our hope that someday soon everyone would be able to experience what we were experiencing. Then we rented a car and drove up to Maine for a few days. I realize now that to the outside world, it looks like we got hitched quick, perhaps to legitimize the pregnancy. Perhaps this is why so many people asked me if she was planned. (I was always shocked when people asked me that. As though it were any of their freakin' business if she weren't. And as if it mattered, anyway!)
But this is not a blog entry to talk about my sexual identity or my marital history, not that any of that is secret. I wanted to write about bullying and the awful awfulness of being a teenager.
I've always been oversensitive. When I was a kid, I was a total crybaby. When it came to being made fun of, I had no sense of humor. I couldn't take it. My mother would tell me to "laugh it off" but I never understood how I was supposed to laugh when I felt like I was being tormented. Kids made fun of me for stuff I had no control over, like my last name or for being adopted. At summer camp with the rich kids, I got made fun of because my mom worked there and I went for free. I would cry, and then the bullies would laugh at that too. Grownups called me "Sarah Heartburn" and I had no idea what they were talking about.
What I'm not proud of is that just like the girl in Blubber, I could dish it out like a pro. Being a giant target myself, I knew exactly how to hurt the weak kids if given half the chance. But it never worked for long. The popular girls would eventually remember that I was a total loser and then once again I was be the butt of many jokes that I heard over and over and over. How can you laugh that sort of thing off? It makes you mean and angry. It makes you want to retaliate. But you don't know how, so you take it out on kids who don't deserve it, or you take it out on yourself.
For me, being a teenager was terrible. And that was even before I was thinking I might be into girls. Sometimes I wonder how on earth I survived those years, because for a while there I wasn't so sure I would. The pain that just being alive caused me was intense. Being told, as I was, every single day, that I had no sense of humor and needed to lighten up, would send me into a tailspin of fury. No one got me. I was misunderstood. A lonely soul. I pined for boys who didn't know I was alive. I memorized Cure lyrics. I filled notebook after notebook with dramatic words like anguish and despair. (I kept journals even then. Ask my husband about the giant military footlocker that takes up half our bedroom. Notebooks and notebooks and notebooks, all pre-blog, pre-internet. He hates it but I will never get rid of it. That locker is my memory!) I had a lot of woes. Being gay wasn't one of them. I almost wish I'd had a problem, a thing, an issue to hold on to. I didn't have a thing. I was just unhappy and I could not figure out why, and this became my identity. I wore it like a target, and people made fun of me for expressing it the way I did.
"When's the funeral?"
"Did you dye your hair with shoe polish?"
"What happened to your arms? Did you get scratched by a cat?"
"Oh look, it's the girl from Beetlejuice!"
"Hey it's Morticia Addams!"
"Halloween isn't until October!"
"A pretty girl like you shouldn't be wearing ugly boots like that!"
"Oh my GAWTH!"
All this on top of how I felt inside. That made every single day feel like nothing but unending misery.
Sound dramatic? It was. And I was. For a long time. But I did figure stuff out, slowly. I wallowed for a good ten years or so. And ten years after that, here I am loving my life to the fullest. Who'da thunk it? In my high school yearbook I was voted "most likely to get lost in the dark." Of course I didn't think that was remotely funny. I realize it was meant to be a joke, as I wore all black even then. But I took it seriously, since I did for a long time feel like a lost soul and it pained me that others might have seen it too. What pains me more is that I felt so lost that I actually contemplated taking my own life. I learned the hard way what a dumb idea that was not once, but twice, when two people I loved very much took their own lives. It made me sad to lose them, then angry, because they got off easy and left the rest of us with the pieces to pick up, and finally guilty: partly because I couldn't save them but mostly because I soon realized how incredible life was and they never got to.
If I as I am now could talk to me as I was then, just for five minutes, I think I as I was then would be incredulous. Life would get this good? I would love every second? I would have my dream job? I would be married to the love of my life? Have the most incredible daughter? Wonderful friends, and a closeness with my family that I never expected to have? I don't think I would have believed myself. I was unable to imagine myself grown up at all, let alone happily so. I think this is difficult for many teenagers, and I know my mind would have been blown by a glimpse into my future. And if I had a sixth minute, I would have told myself not to waste so much time being miserable. What's that line from Ferris Bueller that everyone (but me) quoted back then? Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. I wish I had known that then. I know it now, and I wish I could share it with every person who has ever contemplated taking his or her life. I am now making up for lost time. And it is my hope that everyone else in the world has the opportunity to do the same, too. It does get better!