This essay is part of a series that explores my personal history of queerness through the songs of the Indigo Girls, Amy Ray and Emily Sailers. For details on the project and links to all of the essays, check out this introduction: “My Queer History: Me and the Indigo Girls.”
In my little hometown in the 1980s, the high school kids spent Friday nights at the football game and Saturday nights driving up and down Main Street. The Food Lion was at one end of that main drag, and Pizza Hut was at the other. My classmates stopped at “The Hut” to squeeze into booths and have a bite, when they weren’t backing up traffic on the town’s main throughway.
I don’t know any of this from experience but from the stories I heard from fellow students. The only time I ever ate at the Pizza Hut was with my parents, long before I entered high school. The only time I ever went “cruising” was when my college girlfriend (who is now my wife) came to visit one summer. We blasted the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” as the tepid mountain air pushed through the open windows. I felt like a rebel — inside and outside the rural norms I’d grown up with.
I would describe my teenage social status as “on the outskirts.” On paper, I should have been “popular,” but I either refused invitations or was rarely invited. My parents were educators: Daddy at the community college and my mother at one of three elementary schools in the county. We lived in a big house that my parents were fixing up. I was smart — though not smart enough for the gifted program.
In retrospect, I had at least two strikes against me. My family was from the Shenandoah Valley, not the mountains. We moved to Appalachia when I was three years old, though ancestors of mine had worked the mill at Graham’s Forge in the county. But to belong in those hills, you had to trace your lineage back several generations. I was also not much of a joiner. I didn’t have any interest in partying and I was seriously flummoxed by the cliques of girls in my elementary and middle schools. I was the kid who got invited to a birthday party once — but not again. Honestly, though, I wasn’t tuned in enough that it ever bothered me. My books and my thoughts kept me company, which probably made me seem more than a little odd.
By the time I was old enough to drive, I was in love with a dairy farmer, a boy I thought I’d marry. Instead of cruising, we went to the movies, milked the cows or parked on curvy backroads. He was a football player, but shy and more interested in farming than most anything else. I was interested in proving my potential as a farmer’s wife. Thankfully, we never got that far.
Of course there was another reason I didn’t belong. Even though I dated a handful of high school boys (with “soft-rock hair”* and tasting like Reeses peanut butter cups*), I think the girls could sense my queerness long before I did. Perhaps I was “already mean and feeling bad for giving it up to the man, just to make the scene.”* Denying my queerness was probably my attempt to fit in.
I suppose all of us queer folk spend a good amount of time questioning our pasts. It’s a common question (expressed and unexpressed): When did you know? My answer is not at all what I would like to say. I didn’t. I hate that answer, but it’s the truth. I liked wearing dresses and taking ballet and piano lessons and reading books. My short tenure as an outfielder for little league softball was embarrassing at best. I preferred to play with Barbie, and not only because she looked pretty naked. My childhood didn’t fit the stereotype of a queer girl, mostly because I liked being a stereotypical girl.
I was watching and risking at the same time, but never as much as I would have to.
A phrase comes to mind when I’m feeling sorry for myself: Ain’t none of us is special. I don’t think anyone said that to me, but it was an idea that I remember feeling as I grew up. When the thought flashes through my head, I’m not being mean to myself (or anyone else). I’m simply acknowledging that we’re probably all more alike than different. I don’t know what anger or fear or awkwardness any of the “popular” kids felt, even when they were cruising up and down Main Street, but they probably felt a little out of place, at least once and awhile. That makes me feel better about my own sense of difference, my own confusion about why I didn’t feel like I belonged.
Kissing my best friend in college put some of those pieces in place for me, but in a sudden, lightening-bolt, out-of-the-blue way. For whatever reason — denial, lack of visibility, stupidity — until that moment I had no conscious idea that I liked girls.
Amy Ray and I are about the same age. She also grew up in a biggish town in a smallish southern area. Her second solo album, Prom, explores what it means to grow up queer in rural 1970s, in a place like my hometown. She’s written and talked about being “an overachiever of the wrong persuasion,” and good god can I identify with that.
“Driver Education” offers vignettes of being a queer teenager in the country. Learning to drive was the ultimate achievement, and although I never dated “guys who tried to commit suicide”* or “[tripped] by the lakeside,”* in the lines of this song, I can feel again what it was like to be on the brink of adulthood, moving into that long span of years when I was ready for independence but still so very dependent on my family, my town, my status. I thought I knew who I was, but I had no freaking idea. I was watching and risking at the same time, but never as much as I would have to. This is such a precarious bubble, and it’s nice to relive it through Amy’s words. In them, I don’t feel so alone, so confused by my lack of self awareness.