When I was in second grade, I called my art teacher gay. She was always bright and sunny, one of those art teachers that came up with the craziest projects and really let kids go wild with their creativity. It made sense then, that I would call her gay, since she was such a sunny woman and her name started with a G as well.
I can remember that afternoon clearly. As my mom and I left the school alongside other kids and their parents, we ran into Ms. G. I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation, but I probably wanted to contribute to the adult conversation by showing my appreciation for Ms. G. “Ms. G, you’re so gay!” Nobody said a word. I’d like to think there were crickets in the background to truly highlight the awkward silence that followed my proclamation. Ms. G and the other adults around me looked at me like I had cursed her and her future children and grandchildren. Finally, one of the adults pulled me aside and told me to never say that word again because it was something bad. Obviously, seven-year-old me was confused. Didn’t gay mean happy? “Well…..yes, but…” and with that I learned that “gay” was what you called a person who liked another person of the same gender. I also learned that it was apparently an insult and something shameful that shouldn’t be mentioned. So I never used the word again.
When I was in eighth grade, I started going to an all girls school. I made a tight-knit group of friends. I loved going to school. And if I took second glances at girls I thought were pretty, well it was obviously because I wished I could look like her. Nothing more than that.
When I was in ninth grade, I came out to my mom in the car on the way home from school. Historically, I have a track record of making confessions in cars where you can’t escape from the situation should it go horribly awkward. I said: “Mom…. I like guys, sure…. But… I like girls too.” And then I burst into tears. “Are you sure?” “Isn’t this just a phase?” “You just haven’t met the right boy.” “You’re too young to know these things.” “Is it because you’re at an all girl school?” Although my mom is now my number one supporter, her initial response led me to believe that maybe I really just hadn’t met the guy for me. I could be bisexual, right? At the time, I felt like if I could still like guys in some capacity, I wouldn’t be so shameful and could at least have a chance at a “normal” life. Of course, I now realize all the problematic aspects of that mindset.
When I was in tenth grade, I realized I was completely head over heels in love with one of my closest high school friends. We were always together and were freely affectionate with one another. We’d always be touching in some capacity, whether it be brushing through each other’s hair or hugging each other from the back when talking with other friends. Being by her side as just a friend was both painful and wonderful. Especially when our close friends would joke about us dating and she would just laugh off the comments. She must feel something too, right? And with this small hope, I stayed in love with her even after graduating high school. In that time, I came out to my dad and brother too. Their quiet acceptance meant the world to me.
When I was a college freshman, I confessed to my friend who had gone to a different college than me. I remember gripping my phone tightly with sweaty hands while my roommate and another friend sat on either side of me as support. The rejection was so gentle that the ache reminded me of a healing bruise. I cried myself to sleep that night and then downloaded Tinder the next day. Obviously, not the greatest coping method.
That summer, I met a guy through Tinder. He was a nice enough guy, your average nerdy white boy. We went out on a few dates and kissed often. And then it happened. We had sex. It was painful and not that pleasurable an experience and we took a nap afterwards before going out for dinner at a Noodle & Co. Not the most romantic first time. It was while we were sitting at the table slurping down our noodles that I slowly came to realize that this would never work.
Last fall while I was moving in, my new roommates came in to keep me company. We were all laughing about how diverse the apartment was compared to the university as a whole. And then one of them jokingly asked if I was gay to add even more diversity. I hesitated. Took a breath and let it out. “Yeah. I am, actually.”
Looking back to that afternoon in front of my elementary school when I called my art teacher gay, I think about how much has changed since then. For one, I no longer feel that frisson of shame I once did when I look at a girl and think about what it would be like to kiss her. Being happy comes more easily to me now and my self-esteem has risen by leaps and bounds. Who knew accepting yourself could be such a positive thing?
Of course, some things still remain the same even now. I still hate tomatoes. I love dogs and hate waking up early in the mornings. More importantly, I can now say at twenty-one years old that seven-year-old me was right. To both of us, being gay really does mean being happy.