i’ve been tossing around the idea of posting my written contribution to dan savage’s it gets better project for a while now. my reservations about participating in the project are the same that kept me in the closet–namely fear, shame and embarrassment. all the same things that lgbt youth are feeling so intensely–especially after cruel, vicious bullying at the hands of their peers–that they’re killing themselves in shocking numbers.
i kept thinking: i want to share my story. i want lgbt teens these days to have a better experience coming out than i did. i want to help them feel a sense of hope that i never did. so they can see thru the despair, shame, sadness, hopelessness, fear, depression and head-spinning confusion they may be feeling right now and fully realize that, as the project mission states, “love and happiness can be a reality in their future.”
it’s been embarrassment that’s held me back. after all, as my blog readers, i don’t want you to view me as anything other than put together, funny, fun-loving, well-adjusted. happy. and i am all of those things. but i didn’t want to tell you about the hurt and heartache i had coming out. b/c i’ll tell you the truth: i gave myself such a hard time about being gay when i was younger, i am ashamed. but i shouldn’t be. b/c i see now it didn’t need to be that way. it doesn’t need to be that way. i want to keep it from being that way for teens and young people out there that are in the same predicament i was.
so i’ve finally decided to suck it up and take one for the team. if my story can save the life of just one teen, even just help save the sanity of a young person out there, or make them see that yes, they can have a normal life. more than that, they can have a happy life. then it’s worth it. so for once, i’m not going to joke around, and i’m going to tell my story.
if you’re a regular reader of this blog, or you know me personally, you already know that i grew up in a small town in northern new jersey about 25 miles outside new york city. i’m also jewish, not just culturally so, but i actually care about being jewish and have a firm belief in G-d.
i’ve also always been, as my late grandfather used to say about me as a toddler, “an arch individualist.” i cut my own bangs when i was 3. i asked for an atari for my birthday when everyone else was getting nintendos. i wrote elementary school fan letters (written in cursive pencil) to jon bon jovi beginning with “dear mr. jovi.” i’ve always done my own thing, and, luckily, was always encouraged to do so by my parents.
“different” was always ok. but by the time middle school hit, i’d say seventh grade, something started creeping up my spine and settled uncomfortably in my brain. it made me feel different in a new, uncomfortable way. it was a question without an answer, something so foreign to me as an 12-year-old in 1990, that i couldn’t even think about it.
am i gay? a voice whispered quietly. i didn’t even truly know what “gay” was. there was no “will & grace.” there was no out & proud ellen. there was no adam lambert. there was nothing, really. but i knew my feelings, i knew who i had crushes on, and i knew it wasn’t “normal.”
i kept my feelings to myself–because they felt wrong. after all, i had crushes on boys. i loved the new kids on the block the same way all the other girls did. but things were off.
i pushed my feelings way way down. packed them down so deep they turned into concrete in my stomach–and my heart. they plagued me day and night. what you’re feeling isn’t normal, they whispered. you’re not normal. you’re weird. you’re a freak. you’re different. you’re wrong. and the very worst one: you’re a bad person.
here’s the catch: no one else was bullying me. i was bullying myself.
year after year the feelings were there, as was the voice in my head. the self-bullying continued. the feelings got stronger. the voice got louder. the bullying got worse. i was my own worst enemy. i didn’t know it at the time, but i was destroying myself. by the time i reached tenth and eleventh grade, you’re a bad person morphed into you’re a bad person and a bad jew.
one by one, my dreams started crumbling. marriage. children. a happy life. i might be alone forever, i told myself. i couldn’t see my way out. i felt doomed.
a loop of self-made insults and self-loathing swirled in my head day and night. i joked around in high school, did well in classes and had plenty of friends, but i felt crushed and breathless all the time. instead of hanging out with my friends, i cried alone in my room, scared to death of my feelings. scared to death i’d be shunned by my family, shunned by my friends, shunned not only by an entire religious community but also by G-d. looking back at it from the safe distance of a happy, open adulthood, i don’t know where all the self-loathing came from. after all, no one in my family ever said anything bad about gay people. no one, absolutely no one, told me that if i was a gay, or had an attraction to anyone of the same sex, i would be anything less than a good jew. (and that’s the truth–for any religion.)
but you see, all of those feelings–those feelings of being wrong, being a freak, being a bad person–are indoctrinated in us as we grow. i’m a perfect example of that. i’ve always been a free thinker. i grew up in the new york metro area. my parents are open-minded. but i got the message from society at large: gay is different. different is bad. gay is bad.
and so i stayed quiet. i stayed quiet until i came out to my high school best friend in a fit of tears and shivers in the middle of the night just a few days before our senior year started. i came out to her b/c i literally was making myself sick. i had prepped myself for our friendship ending once she heard my secret.
instead she wrapped her arms around me and told me it was ok.
“really?” i said thru my tears. “you still like me? you still want to be friends?”
“of course i want to be friends!” she said smiling. “i don’t feel any differently about you. you’re still jessica. you’re still my best friend.”
a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. i had told someone and she didn’t care. she loved me unconditionally. but i was 16. and even though i wasn’t completely sure about my sexuality, i knew, deep inside, that i would have a long way to go. b/c i didn’t love myself.
i’d like to say that i replaced fear and shame with pride and happiness, and came out to everyone that was important to me, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. i didn’t feel any better about myself. and i would continue carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders, and continue bullying myself until i literally made myself sick–sicker this time–and finally came out to my parents when i was 18 and in college.
and you know what? when i told my parents, they didn’t care either.
no one, not one person, who i’ve come out to in the years since–and i’m 32 now–has ever cared. they don’t see me as “gay” they see me as jessica. you see, when you’re a teen, you have a limited view of yourself and others: pretty. cute. smart. athletic. artistic. gay. straight.
oh but we are so many other things! if only i had known that–had really really known it. not just known it but truly felt it. gay, straight, bi, trans, queer–however you identify yourself. it’s simply one small aspect of who we are as people. it’s not the main course. it’s a side dish. you see what i mean?
if you’re struggling with this right now, i want you to go to the mirror, look at yourself and say “i’m (your name).” if the words “gay” or “bi” or “trans” or “queer” are on your lips, replace it with your name. b/c that’s who you are. that’s the core of you. i hope you can understand that. b/c it’s something i didn’t understand for far too long.
i wasted years–years!–feeling bad about myself when i didn’t need to. it’s hard enough when you’re a teenager. you don’t want to be seen as “different.” maybe different in the sense of you’re a cool dresser or exceptionally creative or something like that. for me, being gay was the last straw inside of me. i already felt like i didn’t fit in. and it pushed me over the edge. but it didn’t need to.
i felt so alone, so completely alone, when i was closeted in high school. but let me tell you something: when i got to college everything changed. everything! i started meeting like-minded people. i started meeting people of every sexual orientation and background. my world opened up. like a screen door in a windstorm–BAM! and suddenly i wasn’t alone anymore. and i started becoming the jessica i once was as a kid, before worries about my sexuality came along in middle school and high school. i started coming into my own. and i started to realize, hey, i am normal. i am totally and completely 100% normal.
and you don’t need to go to college for that to happen. once you expand your world–meet new people, go new places, graduate high school–things will start changing. b/c if you’re living somewhere now where people don’t accept you, or are bullying you, there are so many places where things will be different. you just need to hold on. even if your family doesn’t wind up accepting you, families don’t always have to be blood relatives. we can make our own families. and if you haven’t come out to your friends or family yet for fear of being rejected, give them a chance. they just might surprise you.
the it gets better project has focused on other people bullying lgbt youth. i was lucky enough to never experience that. but i think what i experienced was just as bad. i bullied myself.
if you’re bullying yourself, please stop. i promise you things will get better. go easy on yourself. you are a good person. and you will find your way.
if you’re religious, please know that G-d loves you no matter what. do you hear me? gay, straight or anything in between, no matter what. if anyone tells you anything different, ignore them. shut them out. b/c it’s untrue. do you know how many lgbt-friendly houses of worship there are? tons! and you’ll find yours one day, i promise.
life as an lgbt person can be happy, extremely, gloriously happy. and normal. when i was 22, just six years after i came out to my best friend in high school, i met holly, who would become my partner of now almost 10 years. she is the love of my life! we have so much fun together. i feel like the luckiest person in the world. we got married not just once, but twice. and you know what? we are ridiculously normal. as in: we fall asleep on the couch together and watch movies and go grocery shopping and do laundry and go to starbucks and make meatloaf. we have a home and its filled with love. and you’ll have that one day, too. you really will. i promise. you just need to have faith. and give yourself time. and talk to someone you can trust if you feel so hopeless that you’re considering taking your own life.
because you need to be here.
you hear me?
you need to be here. you deserve to be here. i want you to be here. holly and i want you to be here. we all want you to be here. you might not know us but we’re out here. and the people closest to you that you might not think care–they care more than you know. you need to stick around so you can meet all the awesome, fun, impossibly sexy people that are going to help make your life not just bearable, but totally and completely awesome.
don’t bully yourself the way i did. don’t worry yourself about things that are going to work out just fine. i bet you’re not all that much different than me. and i’ve managed to figure it out. and you will, too.
i didn’t know at your age that it could get better. but it does and it has and the craziest thing? it just keeps getting better. it gets much, much, much better.