I am seven years old and playing with my neighbor Maria. She’s a year and a half older than I am and about a hundred times more knowledgeable about the world than I—a naive, freckled, homeschooled girl in hand-me-down overalls—will be for quite some time. Maria, at the tender age of nine, has discovered a passion for 80s music. We’re jumping on her mattress, listening to Karma Chameleon by Culture Club on a cassette tape. “It’s about being gay,” Maria tells me authoritatively. “Like being happy?” I ask, puzzled. The only time I’ve come across that word is in the old children’s novels I devour and maybe a Christmas carol or two. Maria sighs. “No, it’s like if you’re a boy but you really act like a girl.” I frown. I am currently in the middle of one of the tomboy phases I’ll cycle in and out of for most of my childhood. “Okay, but I really like boy things,” I start. Maria rolls her eyes, exasperated with my ignorance. “No, it’s different, it’s worse than just that. Trust me. You’re not gay.”
I am eight years old, wandering with my cousin in the woods behind her house. “Do you know what ‘gay’ means?” she asks me. I recall Maria’s explanation. “Yeah, it’s like if you’re a boy but you wanna be a girl,” I say confidently. “Yeah, but it’s more than that,” my cousin clarifies. “It means you like people who are the same as you. Do you know what sex is? It’s like you wanna have sex with them.” I pause, flummoxed. “How does that even work?” My mother has just recently given me a talk on the birds and the bees, so I consider myself an expert on the mechanics of the act. “I don’t know, Em,” my cousin responds, “just don’t worry about it.”
I am nine years old and in the fourth grade, sitting on the floor of my elementary school’s gymnasium, watching the younger students file in to join us for the school-wide assembly. My little sister Anna, who is in the first grade, comes in, holding hands with her best friend. “Lesbians,” the girl I’m sitting with snickers. I’m indignant, embarrassed for Anna. “They’re just little kids,” I hiss back. “They don’t know any better.”
I am eleven years old. The boys in my sixth grade class have decided that calling my best friend and me lesbians is the funniest new way to insult us.
I am thirteen years old. A friend in my gym class tells me that our phys ed teacher likes women, that she watches the girls change in the locker room when we’re not looking. My friend swears to god that she caught her staring at her butt once. Later, I am trying to tell my cousin about this and stumbling for words. “Apparently she’s a…how do I say this nicely? She’s a…you know…a lesbian.”
I am fourteen years old, wearing a pink paisley bikini and lying on a wooden dock over a lake in Ontario with my best friend, still somehow convinced that maybe I could get a tan without burning myself to a crisp first (apparently my sexuality wasn’t the only thing I was severely in denial about as a young teenager). Esther is telling me about something sucky, something obnoxious, something unpleasant or foolish or ridiculous. Esther and I have been drifting lately; she’s become more crude, more boy-crazed, more obsessed with the predatory world of high school. I miss her, miss the easy, silly friendship of children. She concludes her story with an air of indignation. I make a face. “Well that’s gay.” The word—which I’ve never used this way before and never will again—lingers in my mouth, makes me wince a little. Still, Esther’s slightly surprised “Good for you, Emmy!” makes me smile.
I am fifteen years old and my high school marching band is teeming with couples. As a joke, my friend Amanda and I decide to get “engaged,” speculating that maybe if we’re on our honeymoon we can get out of performing in the competition the next day. We argue about who should be the husband and who gets to be the wife, eventually deciding to take turns—a weekly Sunday night sex change that will serve as the fodder for many more cringe-worthy jokes over the next few years. When I ask why we can’t just be two girls who are married, Amanda explains very seriously that she has a moral problem with being a lesbian, even for pretend.
I am fifteen years old and riding to church in my mother’s car. For some reason, my mom has gotten to talking about gay people raising children. “Now, I think gay men could be good parents, but lesbians just couldn’t,” she tells me. Her justification has something to do with the evils of feminism and gay women bringing up daughters who refuse to let boys open doors for them, or something to that effect.
I am sixteen years old. The winter color guard program at my high school is recruiting middle school students for a new junior guard. One family refuses to let their children join, on the basis that our instructor is a gay man.
I am seventeen years old. My father, grandfather, sister, and I are on our way to the Adirondacks for a four day camping and hiking trip. I’m sitting in the backseat with Anna, reading a book and occasionally tuning in to the conversation taking place between the men in the front. “I asked my pastor about this,” Grandpa is saying, “and she said that the best biblical proof that it’s not natural is in the creation story. ‘Just look in Genesis,’ she said. ‘God created a man and a woman for each other.’” He continues in this vein for a while; then he goes back to singing the Dr. Demento Star Trekkin’ song that will be the bane of our existence for the remainder of the trip. It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, not as WE know it…
I am nineteen years old, and home from my sophomore year of college. I’m eating dinner with my dad and my youngest sister, who has just finished the seventh grade. She’s rambling on about her adventures with her friend Eric and detailing all the obnoxious, awful ways thirteen year olds interact with each other. “Yeah, we even came up with our own insult for each other: queer-do.” She pauses, pleased with her own cleverness. “It’s like a combo of queer and weirdo.” An awkward beat of silence follows. I’ve been out to my family since the preceding Christmas with minimal ill consequences, but my sexuality still isn’t something we ever openly discuss. My father glances at me. “You should be careful,” I begin. My dad joins in. “Yeah that word has historically been used…” He trails off. “It’s a slur against gay people,” I tell her. “…Against homosexuals,” my father finishes awkwardly. I consider broaching the topic of reappropriation but decide that now probably isn’t the time. Embarrassed, my sister excuses herself from the table and heads outside.
I’m not hurt by my sister’s gaffe. She has always been very naïve, and like my own younger self, has spent hours upon hours immersed in old book series like The Chronicles of Narnia, in which “queer” is used liberally as a synonym for “strange.” I’m nearly certain that she truly didn’t know that she was using a derogatory term (though I doubt the same can be said of her friend Eric). If she did know, I reason, she would have had the good sense not to repeat it so gleefully in front of her dad and her gay older sister.
Still, it saddens me. I myself am not hurt by queer-do, but I do wonder how many already hurting kids have had to listen to it and felt the sting of knowing they’re the butt of a joke. And I wonder how many more kids will listen and internalize queer-do without even noticing it, only to look back years later and understand that maybe there was a reason they didn’t realize they were different for so long.
Sometimes, I’m truly baffled by the fact that it took me eighteen years to even seriously consider that maybe I wasn’t straight. But as I help my father clear the table, both of us keenly aware of the air of discomfort lingering in the wake of my sister’s remark, I find myself thinking that maybe it isn’t all that surprising after all.