The following is an excerpt from Putting Out: Essays on Otherness by Samantha Mann. Pre-order here, or buy March 2019 wherever books are sold.
Before pop culture, boys, and the “shoulds” of our mothers overpower us, girls have a window of time to engage in their most natural curiosities. For many of my friends and me, our early hobbies included nature exploration, light witchcraft, and repetitively creating our own sacred spaces in the forms of outdoor forts, basement clubhouses, and our bedrooms. Although they can’t be accurate, I have memories of playing the game light as a feather, stiff as a board and it actually working on multiple occasions. I can vividly see my petite friends floating above the ground while a group of us circled around her, chanting. The fact that many girls start out believing they are powerful witches only proves the destructive influence of the damaging culture we raise them in. As girls, we transition from trusting our own supernatural aspects and valuing the strength of friendship to viciously turning on each other and ourselves in less than a handful of years. The external forces that fracture us speak to society, realizing and being fearful of the awesome power that a cohesive group of women hold. It has long served in the best interest of men to keep women separate and feeling powerless.
We should have kept practicing witchcraft in covens instead of joining the cheerleading squad.
Today the window of time that girls have to run, jump, read, and nerd out in whichever subject area they choose is becoming smaller. You’re lucky if you can escape societal pressures for a period of time, eventually finding your way back to that weird girl you used to be, all by the time you reach your mid-to-late twenties. At twelve, my best friend and I sat in open construction sites writing hilarious erotic poetry, pretending we inhabited the empty two-story homes. Just three years later, we would spend most of our time trying to impress boys and make each other jealous.
In sixth grade, my friends and I lived between these two worlds. We were slowly losing our grip on our carefree disheveled-haired selves in favor of the Britney Spears-sexy idea of an adult woman. Sixth grade was the last year we inhabited both of these conflicting internal spaces. For my twelfth birthday party, I begged for a sleepover. I always wanted a sleepover birthday party. Nothing felt better to me than having my best friends over to stay up as late as we could to pull silly pranks and obsessively discuss our favorite topics: “sex,” our current bodies, our future bodies, and boys. Pranks usually involved a tampon, condom, or whatever adult paraphernalia we could access. One time we each decorated a tampon and then sent the whole fleet of them afloat in my neighborhood lake, betting on which “boat” would expand and sink first — our own regatta.
Another time we soaked a box of tampons in water dyed with red food coloring. We then took turns using the blow dryer to dry them out, which took quite a bit of time due to quality absorption. Once they dried we snuck out and hung them in a tree in the yard of this girl we hated. We blew up condoms to use in a makeshift game of volleyball and stretched them out over our feet in an attempt to use the lubricated tubes as sliding socks. (This doesn’t work.) The cruelest prank we ever pulled was calling a taxi to one of our teacher’s homes in the middle of the night. Over the phone in a hack British accent, my friend Sara* explained to the taxi company she would likely be sleeping so they might need to ring the doorbell multiple times if the honking didn’t make her come out. A different night, we ordered ten pizzas to this same teacher’s home. I can’t remember if we hated this woman or wanted to befriend her, as those emotions felt similar in sixth grade.
Some nights a group of us would share two strawberry-daiquiri flavored Seagram’s wines. Then the entire bunch of us would proceed to run topless up and down our quiet neighborhood streets at 3 a.m., convinced we were drunk. At twelve our breasts collectively ran from size just nipple to full C. Everyone loved being topless under the protection of the night sky. It’s not often girls get to feel fresh air on their bare chests the way boys frequently do. The act rang of rebellion and freedom. We were at an age when we weren’t overly self-conscious around each other, because our own sense of body hatred hadn’t quite settled in. This allowed us to intrusively inspect one another without caution. Lara, who rang in at breast size just nipple, routinely would grab an entire fistful of breast belonging to another girl seething with jealousy. I pray every night for these, she said with her hand full of my friend Emma’s left breast. Knowing her family was overtly religious, I genuinely believe this prayer was a part of her nightly ritual. I was personally fascinated in seeing the variety of nipples — like snowflakes, no two were identical. After, doodling penises on whichever girl fell asleep first was an obvious requirement.
Sleepovers felt like a practice for what I hoped adulthood would be like: freedom. It was the one time when my parents left me mostly unattended, and we had hours of uninterrupted time to chatter loudly and endlessly. At a recent sleepover at Emma’s house, she’d told us, in a ghost story-like fashion, about how her cousin had let a boy finger her. And then he put his finger inside of her…vagina. And then… she totally liked it! she said, screeching. We all screamed with disgust and swore we would never allow a boy to put his finger inside of us, and if it did happen we vowed to never enjoy it. Unless he’s going to do something helpful, like put a tampon up there, then I just don’t see the point, Katie, a girl one year older than most us, said with authority. We all nodded in agreement at her sage knowledge. Soon we’d all see the movie Fear, and watching Reese Witherspoon’s face transform on that fateful roller coaster ride with Marky Mark would have us all questioning our initial suspicions about fingering.
At another memorable sleepover, my buddy Amanda, who later would devote her life to international missionary work, taught us all how to smoke cigarettes without coughing. Spoiler: you just hold the smoke in your mouth and then blow it out in a lackadaisical fashion. She also taught us how to hold a proper séance, which essentially is just lots of salt, handholding, and screaming at one another to not break hands in the circle. During one particularly spooky séance, Amanda, Sara, and I sat in Amanda’s garage and tried to summon up Sara’s father, who had recently passed away. A gust of wind from seemingly nowhere slammed the kitchen door shut, blowing out the candle. Sara cried hysterically for the rest of the night, and we never held another séance, as it turned out we possessed too much power. Sleepovers were a transient place we created to learn and explore all the possibilities that lay ahead of us.
My twelfth birthday party was extra exciting, because my parents had recently cleared out our attic and turned it into a play space for my brother and me. The perimeter of the attic was stacked with typical suburban attic boxes: Christmas decorations, Halloween decorations, 100-year-old antique family crib that my mom had already convinced me I would want for a child of my own someday, dressers that were out of style but maybe we would need later, boxes of my parents’ childhood memorabilia, and dusty luggage. My parents put a Berber carpet down in the middle of the room, taking up about 12 feet one way and 15 feet the other way. They added my brother’s wooden Brio train table and two plastic chairs designed for miniature preschool bodies. It was May in Virginia, which meant it was almost too hot to stay alive up there, but the feeling of secrecy overrode the heat, so we kept ourselves locked up in the attic for hours. We drank pink lemonade crystal light by the gallon and devoured ice pops to keep cool. Just as we were laughing about how disgusting pubic hair must be, my mom shouted up that dinner would be ready in five minutes. As we cleaned up the room and got ready to head downstairs, the silliest idea occurred to me.
I have a big announcement to make, I said proudly.
What is it? everyone asked excitedly.
You guys will have to wait until dinner, I want my parents to hear it too, I said with a smirk.
As we walked down the stairs into the kitchen my dad shouted, There’s the birthday girl! He was holding our family camcorder and waving at my friends and me.
My face flushed with excitement when I saw the camera. I needed to time my announcement perfectly, I thought. This was going to be the funniest thing I’d ever said, and it was going to be recorded. I have to tell everyone something important, I said, facing the camera and smiling from ear to ear.
Great, what is it bug? My mom said, beaming as she finished setting the table.
Well, I wanted to tell you guys that I’m gay. Like how Uncle Adam is gay. I said completely stone-faced. Then, for fifteen long seconds everyone was silent. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, I thought. Does everyone think I’m gross? I wondered as I started to panic. I held my breath, and then, in what felt like a lifetime later, all my friends began to howl. I let out a sigh and giggled, too.
My giggle turned into a belly laugh, and soon I was laughing so hard I began crying tears composed of equal parts genuine laughter and enormous relief. My friends keeled over, completely beside themselves. I saw Emma literally slap her knee; it was clearly the funniest thing they had ever heard. My bit had killed.
Knowing that the camera was still rolling, my friend Katy jumped in front of it and pretended to hold a microphone news reporter-style and grabbed me. Now Sam, you have just announced that you’re gay. What else can you tell us about this? How gay are you? She said in her best news anchor voice, attempting to maintain her professionalism. At this point, the rest of my friends were rolling on the floor, screaming with laughter. Everyone was gasping for breaths.
My parents, who had not said a word, were making eyes at each other from across the kitchen. The camera continued to film. Well, the technical term is lesbian, I said back to Katy in my best serious interview voice. But to answer your question, I am very gay. Maybe the gayest. Ellen got nothing on me, I said and threw up a peace sign at the camera.
The interview abruptly ended when my dad turned off the camcorder. I wiped the joyous snot and tears away from my face and helped my friends off the floor. We managed to settle in at the kitchen table, but periodically would break into hysterics throughout the meal. My friend Katy spit out a chunk of burger during one laughing break, which ramped us all back up. It’s a miracle no one choked to death during dinner that night. My parents never mentioned my announcement again. They didn’t even ask me to clarify it the next morning after everyone went home. I stayed on edge for days, thinking one of them would bring it up, but nothing happened.
Today, I have no idea why I said it. I’ve sat with this moment for countless hours, but still haven’t been able to come up with a meaningful explanation for myself. Did I simply think it would be an amazing bit? I was an attention seeker. On some level did I know I was gay? Did I want to see how it felt to say out loud? Either way, I wouldn’t make that announcement again for a solid decade.
I like to think that hearing my friends laugh with me while “coming out” helped give me the courage to repeat those same words to many of those exact women and my family again 10 years later. I like to believe this moment acted as a safe dry run that I held onto somewhere deep in my brain. Before calling my parents to actually out myself at age 22, I sat on the floor of my apartment closet, nervously inhaling a six-pack of Natty Light, revisiting this childhood moment. You’ve literally already done this, I thought to myself, laughing out loud like a young woman on the edge of freedom or a mental breakdown. I reexamined my initial “coming out” experience, searching for reassurance.
Even though everyone laughed when I made my announcement, no one responded with disgust or disapproval. While my parents didn’t respond at all, they also didn’t send me the message that being gay wasn’t an option. No sit-down took place where they talked to me about “morality” or pushed any agenda on what they thought an acceptable life for me would look like. They didn’t even reprimand me for the joke, which sent the message that maybe this gay stuff wasn’t that big of a deal. Saying I’m gay out loud as a small 12-year-old girl felt powerful and electrifying. I’m not sure if it was due to releasing something deeply true inside of myself, or if it simply felt amazing to hold the attention of a room and make everyone laugh until they cried. Coming out 10 years later to many of those same people felt similar. It was a huge relief and laughter filled much of the conversation.
*Names have been changed.