There is a thing that happens as we move through our teenage years. We work to figure out who we are. We work to build our identities. As we move further away from the identities formed for us by our parents and families, we seek out reflections of ourselves in other places. We often look to books, movies and television shows to find the parts of ourselves that we know exist, but might not have yet named and claimed as our own. And if we are lucky, if we have the privilege, we are provided with a plethora of people from whom we can pull bits and pieces of who we might be and form them into our own identities. We seek parts of ourselves out in the world around us in order to understand and validate those parts of who we are. And the identities that we build during these years, they are what carry us into adulthood. They stay with us and shape our sense of self. They are the foundation for who we will become.
I remember this identity-building from my own youth. And what I can see now, though I was not aware of it then, was that my own identity-building involved a lot of seeking without ever really finding what I was looking for. At least in regards to some aspects of my own identity. There were parts of my identity that remained undefined, parts of me that I simply did not understand or recognize or claim as my own until far beyond my teenage years. And I wonder now if part of the reason that it took me so long to claim parts of who I am, was because I did not see representation of those parts of me in the books I was reading or the t.v. shows and movies I was watching.
When I was growing up, I only remember reading books with straight characters. I do not ever remember being given a book in school with a single Queer character. I do not ever remember encountering a book outside of school with a single Queer character. In fact, when I think back on my childhood, the only Queer characters I remember were on television shows and even those were few and far between and steeped in stereotypes. I remember Will on Will and Grace and I remember Ellen Degeneres coming out on her show. But that was it. That is all that I remember.
Knowing that, I guess it should not be much of a surprise that I did not come out as a lesbian until I was 26 years old. I had no models for what it meant to be gay. I had no examples around me from which to pull that piece of my identity. I did not have the words or the images I needed to craft that part of who I am. And it is only now, as a 38 year old woman, that I am able to see how much that lack of representation affected me. How it continues to affect me today.
Those who meet me today would probably say that I have a clear sense of who I am. And they would be correct. For the most part. But, my identity as a lesbian has never felt fully formed. It has never felt as certain as other parts of who I am. Growing up, I didn’t have examples of Queer women around me. There was no one for me to find that piece of myself in. There were no models to pull from in order to build my own sense of who I was as a lesbian.
All I really knew and all that I really understood was that being a lesbian meant that I wanted to date women. And because of that, I did not come out until I had my first serious girlfriend. Because I did not know what it meant to be a lesbian other than it meant that I would date women. So, in my mind, if I was not currently dating a woman, I did not understand how to be gay. From the very beginning, I attached my identity as a gay woman to the relationships that I was in. It was all that I had.
But the problem was that when I first came out, I also had no real models of Queer love. While Ellen existed on t.v., when I first came out, I had no positive examples of what Queer love really looked like. What I had was the old joke about lesbians. The one that asks what a lesbian brings to a third date. The answer being, “a u-haul,” reinforcing the stereotype that lesbian relationships move quickly and intensely through the stages of love and commitment.
So that was where I was when I first came out. I had a weak sense of myself as a lesbian and a limited understanding of what it meant to be in a healthy relationship with another woman. And that led to trouble. Because I did not know how to be a lesbian without being in a relationship, I became desperate to hold on to the first serious relationship that I was a part of. Because if that was over, I did not know how to hold on to my identity as a lesbian. And because I did not have a strong concept of what healthy Queer love looked like, I was willing to accept an unhealthy relationship that moved way too quickly and way too intensely.
So while my world grew smaller around the relationship I was clinging to, I allowed myself to lose other pieces of who I was. I gave up people that mattered to me, I gave up things that I was passionate about, I gave up other pieces of my identity in a desperate attempt to hold on to the relationship that validated the one part of myself that I was never able to define on my own.
And while I am not saying that any of this would have been different had I simply had books that showed more lesbian women and more lesbian love, I do have to wonder. What, in my life, would have been different if Queer girls and Queer love existed in the books that I was reading? If I had examples of positive lesbian relationships, would I have been less likely to have accepted such a toxic one? If I had examples of positive lesbian characters with a strong sense of identity, would I have been less likely to allow myself to be lost in my own relationship? If I had examples of lesbian characters who had come out and been okay, would I have allowed myself to come out earlier in life? If I had seen myself reflected in the books I read as a kid, would I have had an easier time seeing my place in this world?
Because here is the hardest truth for me now. I am 38 years old. Instead of that first relationship that I was clinging to, I now find myself at the end of a marriage that has recently fallen apart. And now. I find myself again uncertain of who I am without a relationship to define me. I have only known being an out adult as a part of a lesbian relationship. I have only known being an out educator as someone else’s wife. I have only known being an out mom as a part of a married, two-mom family. And now, I find myself uncertain of how to be all of those things now that I am on my own. As much as I have struggled through this divorce process, one of the greatest struggles has been trying to figure out who I am as a lesbian now that I am not someone’s wife or girlfriend because the truth is I never really knew in the first place.
So I find myself now seeking out what I wish I had as a child. I look for models of strong, independent Queer women who do not need a relationship to validate that part of themselves that is their gay identity. I am drawn to the books that I wish I had when I was growing up. I am watching movies that can help me to rebuild the parts of myself that I was never able to fully develop in the first place. And I am just so grateful that the world that we are living in now has more of these characters and stories to offer me.
I don’t know what would have been different in my life if my reading world had been different growing up, but I know that I am so grateful that Queer kids today have the chance to find out. The books are out there, the stories are being told more often, and now we, as educators, must make the decision to bring them into our classrooms. Because I’m telling you, I believe these books can save lives. And I believe that these books can make lives better. But it is up to us to get over whatever fears we might have of having these books in our classrooms and remember that we are here for kids.
These books, ones with strong Queer characters of all kinds, they are what all of our kids deserve. Because everyone deserves the chance to figure out who they are. And everyone deserves the chance to do that by seeing themselves reflected in our classrooms. And our Queer kids deserve just as much of a chance to figure out who they are by being presented with just as many models of who they could be as any of our straight kids are given. And while we might not have the power to make the world a kinder place, we do have the power to give our Queer kids the books that will allow them to develop more fully into the strong and healthy and capable human beings that they are meant to be.