The Silence of Growing Up Queer
I stay buried in silence because I am scared of what will happen if I talk.
A personal video on my experience of being gay in a Catholic school — torn between a need to confess and the refuge of silence.
Growing up queer comes with a lot of introspection. When I first started questioning my feelings for girls at 14, I had to reconsider how I saw myself and what I believed about myself. I didn’t know what my feelings meant anymore or whether they were even real. I’d always had playground crushes on boys. Suddenly, I liked a girl? Suddenly, my feelings meant I had to rethink how my entire life was going to pan out. What would happen when I would be an adult? Could I even be gay at 14? I’d only met gay adults.
My knee-jerk reaction was not to tell anyone. Better yet, I forced myself to only stare at boys when I walked outside. I’d pick a good looking guy in the bus, and imagine a future with him. If I was looking at boys, then I was bisexual, and if I was bisexual, I could ignore my attraction to girls. At the time, this was my 14-year-old’s biphobic logic as I didn’t know more about bisexuality. I could marry a guy and live happily ever after. Because when you start having feelings for the same-sex, your first thought is that these feelings are incompatible with happiness. So this can’t possibly be happening to you. But it is. And as much as I questioned it, I couldn’t reject it. I soon realized I didn’t want to. If I liked girls, then that was who I was. So I opened my browser in private mode, and Googled, “How do you know you’re gay?” I immediately found a WikiHow article, and decided that if that website could help me figure out how to cook potatoes, it could help me figure out my feelings. One advice they listed was to imagine kissing a person of the same gender. Here’s what my 14-year-old self wrote in my journal:
I’m still not sure if my assumptions are right about my sexual orientation. This is a common feeling, Internet says. I will probably be confused my entire life. There are a few criteria to make a more precise assumption. Some are too explicit for me to know or think about, least of all imagine. For instance, can I imagine kissing a girl without being grossed out? There is no real answer.
Obviously, I figured out after that melodramatic paragraph that I could happily imagine kissing a girl. In fact, it took two months of writing in my journal for me to fully embrace that I was gay.
But when you’re a LGBTQIA+ member, the struggle doesn’t end when you’ve accepted your personal identity. I was lucky that my parents were friends with lesbian and gay couples. I was terrified of approaching the conversation of my sexuality, but I had the reassuring knowledge that my parents were more likely to accept me than reject me. I confided in my mom four months after I first started questioning my sexuality. She hugged me, and I was relieved I didn’t have to keep it from her anymore. And yet, despite knowing she accepted me, I was too uncomfortable to bring it up again for months.
School was a different matter. I went to a Catholic school, and it was stifling. People who knew me at that age — if they remember me — will only remember a girl who kept quiet. I stayed silent for fear I would betray my feelings and my identity. It was easier to stay safe buried in my thoughts. Although not all the students were Catholic — some atheist, some Jewish, and one or two Muslim — our school was built on very close-minded religious principles. We went to mass, we had Bible study, and we were taught abortion was evil. When gay marriage was in the process of being legalized in France, my school sent an email inviting all parents to an anti-gay protest. It makes for fun reminiscing.
When I came out two years before graduating, I was lucky that my close friends supported me. I was the only LGBTQIA+ person “out” at my school. Apart from the occasional remark, such as a girl who questioned how my best friend could stay friends with me without being scared of “being jumped,” there was no backlash. At parties, people asked me about my sexuality and told me they were relieved they weren’t gay because their parents wouldn’t accept it. Guys asked me questions about lesbian sex, and girls asked me who I liked — some worried I was attracted to them. I answered all their questions, no matter how intrusive or personal they were, because at the time, I equated being acknowledged with being accepted. I was just happy I didn’t have to hide.
What people don’t understand is that there doesn’t need to be a strong backlash for it to be difficult to be gay. It took me years to realize how hurtful questions and comments that appear inoffensive can be because they are so deeply ingrained within our heteronormative society. Growing up as a lesbian, I died a little bit inside every time someone asked me if I had a boyfriend or if I liked a boy. If people really have to pry, why can’t they just ask, “Are you in a relationship? Are you attracted to anyone?” Is it really that difficult to ask a question without inserting gender in every sentence?
Why will I have to spend my entire life justifying that I knew I was gay since I was 14 even though I have never had a sexual relationship with a man? If you are a straight person, no one has ever asked you to justify your attraction to the opposite gender. Yet, when I was 18, my mom told her lesbian friends I was gay, and one of them answered I was too young to know. Little did it matter that sexuality is fluid or that I had embraced my orientation for four years.
Why is it that in a movie about a queer topic, like “Harvey Milk,” a straight actor is praised for having to act in homosexual relationships? Is a queer actor ever praised for having the courage to act in a heterosexual role? Why is it that when I was watching a movie with graphic sex scenes, it wasn’t until two girls passionately made out that the people I was with commented that the movie was “a little too steamy”? When I asked them, “What about the previous straight sex scenes?”, all they could answer was, “It’s not the same.”
Growing up as a part of the LGBTQIA+ community hurts no matter how accepting or supportive your environment is. Words and jokes dig into your skin every day, and you stifle them and silence yourself. Everyone’s experience of their gender identity and sexual identity is different, but at their core lies a deep-rooted silence. When you do articulate who you are, you are then questioned, and pressured to explain yourself. I was told countless times, “You’re the first lesbian I’ve met,” and I was then expected to become a spokesperson for all lesbians. When I was 16, I wrote to my friend, “It’s hard being gay, but at the same time, it’s not, and I never thought of it as that. I always thought of it as why is it hard for people to understand?” It is not the responsibility of an LGBTQIA+ person to educate you. And it is not that difficult to understand the world outside of heteronormative terms. Instead of questioning queer people around you, do yourself and us a favor, and challenge your own thinking. Chances are, you’ll find there isn’t much you won’t understand if you are willing to look past your own experiences. And we will be grateful.