There's something I have to confess. It may shock you. It may make you want to turn your back on me. Or maybe, just maybe, you'll understand and be able to identify with me. Here's the confession. I have spent a good portion of my life being dishonest with myself and sometimes other people too, either consciously or unconsciously. I won't blame my society for this, but if I'm going to continue to move my life towards the state of being an open book to others and myself, then I have to speak out about the world that helped shape me into the person I am today. The truth is that I was heavily influenced by society to deceive not only myself but others as well.
You see, one of the things I learned early on from society is that being gay isn't okay. If you are my age or older, then you're probably nodding your head as you read this. If you are much younger or grew up in a state or country that is more progressive in their laws and their thinking, then you may not be able to relate to this at all. Thankfully in the twenty-first century, the laws are changing as the ranks of the accepting grow and the ranks of the homophobes die off. The younger generations growing up simply have no reason to deny the LGBT community equal marriage and all other civil rights. It isn’t part of their ideological heritage for the most part. Even many older people with sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren who are living their lives openly as gay, lesbian, and bisexual, now have a face to put on that old “queer” label. They love these people and want them to be happy. It makes no sense to them to deny us equal rights either.
However, growing up in the 60s and 70s, I learned (first at school and later at church) that being gay isn't okay. So I hid the truth about my gay-ness not only from other people, but also from myself. How did I do this? Indeed, how does any gay person hide it from him or herself? And yet we do. I certainly had plenty of evidence of my gay-ness. I started having sexual fantasies about women when I was in junior high school. I remember the first woman I fantasized about and what school year it was, although I don't remember the fantasy exactly. She was one of my teachers, married and very definitely not gay, at least as far as I knew. I mean, really, we don't always know about others. How can we when we are so good about denying the truth about our own lives?
Oddly enough, during ninth or tenth grade, I double-dated with this teacher and her husband. Her husband's younger brother was visiting, and they asked me to go out with him and them on a double date, which I must say was a little strange to me. I had fun with them all, but I felt like a fish out of water, perhaps because while the guy was nice, I was definitely not attracted to him. I suspect, had I been honest with myself at the time, I would have had to admit that I was way more attracted to my female teacher than to her teenage brother-in-law. It's hard to admit something like that as a teenager. Those years are so much about exploring your sexuality and your worldview in general.
The internal conflict didn't always go unnoticed either. One of my peers, who was apparently either more perceptive than the others, or at least less inclined to filter her thoughts, blurted out one day in geometry class than she couldn't really think of me as either male or female. Wow! There ya go. She figured it out before I did. This was after the lesbian fantasies, mind you, but I had certainly not gotten as far in my thinking as she did with that one statement. It gave me pause, I have to admit, but I didn't disagree with her. I simply looked at her and said, "Okay." Then I thought about it later and still couldn't disagree with her. I mean, I knew that I was female. There was no ambiguity there. I had been a tomboy growing up and very athletic, but I was still female inside and out. What I wasn't, was a heterosexual female, and that I suspect was the energy she sensed around me. I filed that thought away and went on my merry way, fantasizing about my female teachers. I think by this time, I'd stopped fantasizing about male teachers, although there had been a couple in junior high who had been fantasy worthy.
What did happen after that point is that I got engaged between my sophomore and junior years in high school. I was fifteen going on thirty that summer apparently. Needless to say, my mother choked on that, but she didn't freak out. She simply suggested that we wait until I graduated from high school. Had she gone totally berserk, it might have solidified the thing in my mind, but she didn't. In her outwardly cool way, she tried to accept it for what she thought it was--hormones. In a way it was and in a way it wasn't. I really liked, maybe even loved the guy. He was really nice and a great friend. But I must say that he didn't rock my world, even though together we did manage to rock my mother's world. Sorry, Mom. Thank you for letting me work through that one on my own. I suspect in some way I was trying to prove to myself that I wasn't a lesbian. I thought I was doing what women were supposed to do, i.e., grow up and get married to a nice fellow. Only as was my wont, I was trying to skip the whole growing up part. I had always been ahead of the curve, but this was one area where I really needed to slow down and take my time, time I desperately needed to figure out that I really wasn’t like the other girls.
When you realize just how different your worldview is from the majority of teenagers around you, it can be quite daunting. While other teens are thinking about the opposite sex, you find that you are thinking about the same sex. It can be quite a profound wake-up call, or it can be a more subtle awakening, bit by bit, to a different point of view and life experience. I was acting like my peers on the outside, but I was a different person on the inside. I was rather timid about letting anyone know about the inside me, so I dealt with it by denying my true feelings. This leads, I think, to a breakdown of a cohesive sense of self. If you can't be honest with yourself, how can you help but become somewhat dishonest with others. Even if you want to be honest and open with the world, you have already figured out by listening to your peers that being "queer" is anything but normal, and when you're a teenager, you generally want to be normal. You want to fit in with the crowd.
I used to hang out with different groups in high school, but I never completely fit into any single clique. That's part of what made me so independent and capable of standing on my own, so it's not necessarily a bad thing. I do wish though that I could have done that in a way that was more open. Instead, I hid parts of myself I thought were too different and searched for some way to move through the world that fit my experience. My way of moving through the world turned out to be that of being my own person, set apart by virtue of my different-ness, but also somewhat split in my thinking. I had to dichotomize my world into my outer me and my inner me.
To a degree I still do this, even though it's no longer necessary because I'm a lesbian who is very out of the closet now. But I didn't reach this level of openness overnight. I don't think any of us do. The process of coming out takes time, and sometimes we sacrifice important bits of ourselves, including significant relationships, while we are in process. How can we not sacrifice bits of our own integrity when we feel such a strong need to hide who we are? We are in fact being trained by our cultures and our laws to deceive ourselves, our friends, our families, our teachers, our students, our employers, law enforcement officials, the military, our neighbors, our landlords, virtually everyone, including the stranger on the street who might be lurking outside the gay bar just waiting for the opportunity to assault us. The more restrictive the laws and culture, the more deeply ingrained are the levels of deception. How can this not impact who we are and how we move through the world? How can it not train us to deceive?
Beth Mitchum is the author of five novels, one collection of poetry, and one music CD. Her works are available at Amazon.com through the following link: http://tinyurl.com/bethmitchumbooks