Greetings, MP readers, and welcome to my new series called Baby Gay. I’m going to be sharing some cute and funny stories of my childhood in which I was saying or doing things that really should have just made it obvious to everyone around me that I was a tiny huge lesbian. But at that time no one really knew — not even me — that I liked girls, because I was under the impression that everyone liked girls, because they were the best. So once I got to seventh grade, I realized that there was a word for that feeling. USWNT Superfan. (Just kidding!)
I love these stories because they remind me what the root of my identity is — love, enthusiasm, and something to celebrate. When the world tries to make lesbian and sapphic identity something dirty, shameful, or fabricated, I can raise these moments as solid proof that sapphic love is beautiful, special, and truthful. I was gay then, I am gay now, and I will be gay well into the future, as long as I keep renewing my membership to the gay agenda, which, as you all know, just means I need to keep streaming a monthly minimum of Prince songs.
Today’s installment of Baby Gay has to do with one of my earliest exhibitions of lesbianness, unless there is one from earlier. I can’t always tell. I’m going to have to do some personal unearthing for this series, because back then, me being infatuated with girls was as common as needing a drink of water, so a lot of those moments don’t stand out to me in my memory.
This story has to do with how I single-handedly hulk-smashed the concept of compulsive heterosexuality (also known as comp-het, which is the enforcement and assumption of heterosexuality, where in reality, it is not the case, because Prince has been on the radio for too long for that to be true), as a child only with a mere 48 months under her bedazzled Gymboree belt. And this is about how that act wasn’t only good for me back then, but how it has become even better for me now.
Picture preschool Alyssa, four-years-old, lover of cherry water ice, baby dolls, and the women of Disney lore. When I wasn’t in school clothes, I was in a princess dress, and I was making my stuffed animals get married or memorizing movies. I dreamed about creating my own dance studio, adventuring with Disney superheroines, and getting fairytale happily ever after, but I spent the ends of most movies in a confused daze. I knew the world was telling me to be the princess, and I definitely wanted to be, but I also wanted to be the hero that proposed to her at the end of the movie. And, to be clear, I wanted to be a princess at the same time. I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of that. But it didn’t matter too much to me at the time. It didn’t have to matter.
I was a pretty honest kid. I didn’t keep much inside. I would talk about how much I loved the princesses. And everyone would agree with me that yes, those princesses were the best. And life went on.
It was time for Thanksgiving, and that meant it was time for class crafts. Our task this holiday was to write things we were thankful for on colorful paper turkey feathers (which means we told the teachers what to write on the feathers.) Some kids in our Catholic preschool wrote that they were thankful for God, Jesus, or Mary. Some wrote that they were thankful for their family, food, or school.
I wrote that I was thankful for Aurora and Violet.
Like, Aurora as in the princess from Sleeping Beauty and Violet from The Incredibles.
I guess at that moment in my four-year-old brain my crushes translated to immense gratitude, enough so that I found it only right to proclaim to the whole of our preschool and all who walked through our halls that I thought the fictional animated characters of Aurora and Violet were people to be very thankful for.
And either the afternoon after I made the project or a couple days after, my teacher called my mom, genuinely curious as to who the heck Aurora and Violet were. And my mom and her probably laughed a bit because I was such an original kid, never like the others. My mom responded that they were Disney movie characters. After the call she found me in my bedroom, and I was probably playing with two Barbies who shared a house and a car and a life and were really really good friends. She asked, again, genuinely curious — “You’re thankful for Aurora and Violet?”
And I looked up from my playscene, decked out in a princess dress and tiara, put down my two really good friends who are girls Barbies, and blinked, and said, “Yeah,” like it was the fact that made most sense in the world, and went back to playing.
And ten years later, when I came out, this Thanksgiving story resurfaced at family dinners, eliciting a lot of good-natured and kind laughs, including my own. It linked all of my gay past to my gay present, and I probably pointed a lot of spoons at family members, asking them, “HOW and WHY was it not obvious that I had huge crushes on Aurora and Violet? What little kid chooses to write that she’s grateful for friggin Sleeping Beauty more than GOD or FOOD? (A gay kid. That’s what little kid.)”
Back in preschool times, they all probably took my craft to be a showing of how kind, sweet, and self-aware I was to be thankful for the movies that I broke the DVDs of because I watched them so much, and the heroines in them that I desperately kept saying that I wanted to be real. But the long-uncovered truth was that those turkey feathers were were an expression of how what I felt for these characters was different than “I think they’re so cool” or “I think they sing so prettily.” It was literally my first accidental attempted coming out. And it was pretty painless, too.
My story stands for proof that a person can know that they are LGBTQ+ at any age. I clearly knew, but didn’t have the vocabulary for it. The thing that prevents a person from knowing their sexuality or gender is the lack of information available about the fluidity and galaxy-like-nature of these identities. Kids assume their gender because they’re told that’s who they are. Kids assume their romantic interests because they’re told who they like. Not even that they’re told who to like. It’s more like, “You are girl. You like boy. Now kiss.”
The world projects cis-heteronormativity on even the littlest of kids — think about the wedding photo shoots that parents and guardians hold for AMAB (a male at birth) and AFAB (a female at birth) three-year-olds because they’re “such great friends,” or the things that family members say to a little AFAB kindergartener when they get along with (or worse, fight with) an AMAB kindergartener: “He probably has a crush on you!” That might be true, because little kids are capable of having crushes (EXHIBIT GAY: TURKEY FEATHERS). But there also may not be a crush in the mix.
The kid should be allowed to express the crush if it’s true. The kid should not be turned into a blushing, blubbering mess when they won’t admit the crush to be real for everyone at the birthday party table because it just isn’t true but they’re being forced to admit that it’s true, otherwise the table won’t stop singing about how the kid’s name with the perceived-crush’s name will be K-I-S-S-I-N-G in a tree, because that’s basically the worst thing the kid could ever imagine, and it’s making the kid more and more and more upset, and howitcanitbeanymoreobviousthattheyarenotenjoyingthisohmygodwhyarestraightpeoplelikethis.
(No, this extremely detailed event didn’t happen to me once. I don’t know why you’re thinking that. Rather, it happened to me several times.)
(Also, feminist sidebar: in the case of the little AMAB kid being aggressive to the AFAB kid…why are we equating aggressiveness of male or perceived-male individuals with feelings of a crush? That’s literally how we start giving men passes for mistreatment of women and start conditioning people of all gender experiences to expect this. The crush thing seems like an innocent comment, and in some way, it opens up the conversation allows the kid to express these *new feelings,* but if you’re feeding your kid the idea that this other kid hitting you means he loves you is super misogynistic, no matter how unintentional.)
As much as I loved (and still love) all of the Disney media that I took in, it still modeled only one type of romantic experience for me, a young human, who has a lot more to herself than her romantic orientation, but sometimes was made to feel as though my movie ended with the prince taking me to the castle and that’s the only way we would get to the end credits with the fun song by a b-list mainstream band. So naturally I faked a lot of crushes on boys in my class in 6th grade. Because all the other girls around me were talking about was their crushes (real or not.) And I thought this is how my movie had to be written, otherwise I would be stuck somewhere in the exposition. And I didn’t want to be there forever. I had waited my whoollllee childhood to become an adult. As a tween, I would start learning words that would help explain my insides. Maybe this was the way. Expressing tolerance for mediocre dudes.
I couldn’t comprehend how liking boys was enjoyable for anyone, and for a while I settled on the idea that the girls were just very good at hiding their dissatisfaction. I put this huge blanket of my own experience of not liking boys onto the world around me because I was still stuck in a world that combined what I felt with the singular exhibition how to experience attraction, where in reality, there is an infinite reality of avenues.
This is how I stayed afloat: I would say I liked a particular member of a boy band out loud. (I will never ever forget proclaiming loudly and proudly to my mom in the car around 6th grade’s Thanksgiving that I have finally had my first crush on a boy.) But I would allow myself to say in my brain as many times as I wanted that I liked their TV show’s female sidekick a lot more.
Here’s the main and painful difference between preschool and 6th grade. In 6th grade, there aren’t turkey feathers to write what I’m thankful for on anymore. Because I somehow was starting to understand what preschool me didn’t have to understand quite yet, because she was just starting to downloading what would unfold as this desperately important and wildly inaccurate memo to the middle school me: I really shouldn’t be too open about this sort of thing. Because no one else is talking about it. So maybe I made it up.
Maybe I didn’t get what my movie was supposed to be.
And maybe it’s my fault.
As an elementary school kid, when I would harp on the fact that I would never kiss a boy, and the people around me would innocently chuckle and assuredly comment that “you’ll want to one day…”
I felt scared.
I was genuinely horrified of the fact that I would lose the part of me that I had come to love the most.
When queer and gender variant youth learn from limiting messaging that does not reflect the true spectrum of identity but instead projects a “default” experience, it becomes harder to comprehend and easier to undermine what they’re feeling. Because they’re not feeling abnormal things. They are feeling normal things that are deemed abnormal by the world around them.
Because here’s the thing that the world can’t seem to understand: My four-year-old love for Disney princesses was as healthy and as common as a little girl loving a Disney prince. Full stop. I am nineteen years old, and I still have to tell myself that sometimes, and I don’t always believe it.
Let me tell you, it is difficult to reconcile the truest part about yourself with a point of view that is conducive to your growth. It’s an action that leads to my healing turning into the hardest thing I’ve ever had to sit through. It’s like I’m back at the birthday party table. At the sleepover where the girls from my dance class made me say which boy in the class I liked or they wouldn’t give me my iPod back. At the back of the first-grade classroom where a boy kissed my neck when I didn’t want him to and I didn’t tell anyone for three years. At the movie release parties for DCOMS in kid’s basements where the girls wore “I love Troy Bolton” shirts and asked why I wasn’t wearing one. At the front of the church being told how to be a good wife to my husband. At the moment I wrote in my diary “I’m ready to never come out if I’m not able to.”
When I was four, it didn’t hurt to be taking in this comp-het messaging. Because it wasn’t called comp-het, it was called life. And everyone around me was hearing the same things. We were told they were good for us. We were told they would make us healthy and strong like how fruits and veggies did. Like how math exercises or Hail Marys did.
The messaging didn’t hurt when I was five or six or seven.
When I was eight or nine it started to hurt a little bit.
A little bit more when I was ten and eleven.
Some more when I was twelve.
When I was thirteen, it hurt the most.
Because at that point, the best thing to do to stop this incessant comp-het imposition — coming out — was also the worst thing to do.
That would be opening up a whole new kind of struggle.
And no, you can’t sum up this blog as a summary of how this one girl struggled as a kid because she was gay. I did not struggle because I was gay. My queerness did not make me struggle. There is no inherent struggle to being gay because instead there is an issue that the world takes with us and then we are made to internalize it. Especially when you’re 13 years old and have heard the word gay less times that can be counted on two hands which is enough to convince you that it’s some disease. That you have no idea that being attracted to women is possible. That when you learn that it is, and when you learn what it’s called is what you originally thought was a disease, you can’t help but feel a little sick to your stomach.
We learn from what is around us. It is all we can do as living beings. And I first learned who I was from institutions that hated me.
But when I now, at almost twenty, have a hard time processing what was taken from me as I got closer to learning the word gay, I remember that preschool Alyssa got it.
She understood the world better than the others who were telling her what the world was.
She got it on account of her big heart, and she modeled for future-me what it means to match what I’m saying and doing and writing on turkey feathers to how I’m feeling. She knew what it meant to be a WLW without being able to pronounce her W’s fully. She understood without even knowing what being sapphic was that being sapphic was something to be thankful for and something to be celebrated.
Ever since coming out, I’ve had times where, all at once, who I am just hits me in the face, and this time it’s in a good way. And I realize all over again how amazing gender-variant folx and women are. And I feel incredibly lucky to be someone whose heart drives me to a future where I will spend the rest of my life among these humans. And I know this love of mine is something that was with me when I was born. It was with me in the good baby gay times and in the worst baby gay times. Schools change, holidays come and go, we grow older, and I grow wiser, and I grow more knowledgeable of who I am every day, and that is the best thing I can do to show my gratitude to my four-year-old self. That is the way I can take steps to telling myself who I was.
Okay, I’ve unpacked a lot of feelings in this piece, more than I planned to, so I already feel some of that toxic comp-het leaving my soul (and Prince songs entering.) Do you want to fight comp-het and other cis-heteronormative ideals and the ways that they teach our kids that there is one way to be? Give the child in the nearest proximity the option to pair their princess doll with another princess doll. Let an AMAB child play with the princess doll too. Tell them it’s cool and they can always do that if they want because it’s not weird. Only having one option of toy to play with what’s weird. Tell these kiddos that not every royal figure is a boy or a girl. Show them that the doll does not have to date or marry another doll if they don’t want to. Show them that what makes a great movie is themselves, in every way that they are, because the way that they are feeling is 100% real, and no one should take it away — especially not their own selves.
About the Author:
Alyssa Sileo’s Thespian identity comes first and foremost in anything she carries out. As a member of the Drew University Class of 2022, she studies theatre arts, women’s and gender studies, and Spanish. She’s a proud NJ Thespian Alumni and member of their state chapter board. She is the leader of the international performances network The Laramie Project Project, which unites worldwide productions and readings of the acclaimed Tectonic Theater Project play and encourages community-based LGBTQ+ advocacy. Alyssa is humbled to serve as the 2017 Spirit of Matthew Award winner and as a Youth Ambassador for Matthew Shepard Foundation. She believes there is an advocacy platform tucked into every piece of the theatre catalogue and intends to write outreach into the canon.