Being a glass-half-full type, I always hang onto that: we CAN change, and we HAVE changed.
When I was thirteen, I had just entered high school (a year early as I had skipped Grade 3 … I know, high frickin’ accomplishment…). It was Grade 9 and I was full of all the usual hormone-y, aching, hopeful, vibrant-yet-vague desperately romantic dreams of an adolescent girl with limited experience. This was it: I was finally (yes: FINALLY! …shut up) going to find love. The year started off slowly, but I was still scoping this new jungle, searching for prey.
Not long into this, my first high school year, I found myself playing in the freshly-fallen November snow—a veritable bonanza of childhood delight—with my best friend, Louise. She had decided to go to another high school and for the first time, we weren’t spending every minute together. So an afternoon together out in the bright, sunny cold of my front yard, throwing snow bundles at each other and just reveling in the fresh air and each other’s company, seemed like the best way to celebrate this (now rare) opportunity…. And then, it happened.
I almost can’t remember who moved in first, but I do remember the bright halo of sunlight around us, the snowflakes frozen in my mind’s eye, each flake uniquely starred and suspended and glistening in the air between us, when our faces came together and there was a kiss. I say “there was a kiss” in that general way because I don’t really remember the actual details. What I believe I remember is her kissing my cheek, but then I also remember leaning toward her, as if there was intent behind my actions too. I will say this—it was pure joy.
And then we came apart and both turned our heads in unison to register that a boy—an older boy who went to my school, a neighbor but one who I rarely if ever spoke to, a cute boy, one who might have been part of the vast array of possibilities I had amassed in my adolescent dreams—was walking past, his head now turning away from us, but obviously having seen us, a slight (not attractive) smirk on his lips. Even at thirteen, only just barely familiar with the whole high school protocol and order, knew—KNEW!—that this was going to be bad. Bad enough that I desperately called out to him for the first time in my life, called as if I was throwing a hook around him and trying to pull the moment back: “Hey, Bradley (or whatever his name was)!!!” But he just shrugged and continued on. And then both Louise and I succumbed to hysterical laughter, falling into that now treacherous, cold snow as if we didn’t care about a THING in the world!
I think in that moment, she knew what I knew, but we never spoke of it. Anyway, she didn’t go to the same school as me and this boy. Our friendship might have petered out of its own accord, or maybe I pulled away from her, subconsciously angry and resentful that my imagined glory years in high school, my years of discovery and experimentation and LOVE had now been snatched away because of one brief kiss on the cheek, but anyway, that was one of the last times I ever saw her.
The next day, I went to school and the nightmare began. The news was circulating fast. The high school was large enough, probably 800 students, to make me feel like the whole world had ostracized me. In 1976, it was a bad thing to be a lesbian. It meant I had to walk the halls to sneers and snide remarks. It meant I was stared at and whispered about. It meant being openly groped—my barely-formed, bra-less, but intensely private breast was openly grabbed one day by a Grade 9 boy as I made my way down the hall. He mumbled some incomprehensible but certainly vile gay slur while his friends guffawed and jeered after me. I was burning with this unknown rage: it was not outward anger, but seething anger forced inward at myself. I had done this. I was wrong.
In all fairness, many kids at school probably didn’t know and/or didn’t care. But when you’re thirteen, those people melt into the uninteresting background, no longer significant. Thank god I found the after-school drama program and was able to immerse myself in the extraordinary experience of performing. And the drama kids were crazy-fun and sweet. Of course we never spoke of my sexuality. I don’t know what they thought. Thank god I found my next best friend and her circle of gentle friends. They all made me feel welcome and “normal”.
So if I say I know how awful it can feel to be ostracized and mocked and assaulted for being gay, even though my experience is only a slight one compared to so many of yours, I can say it with some visceral experience. It sucked. It sucked because it was so emotionally painful at the time, it sucked because I was definitely not gonna get any of those 14-year-old boys that I dreamed about, and it sucked because when I finally did land a guy two years later, I emotionally subjugated myself to him. It does “get better”, as they say, but it does take an awful lot of work and an awful lot of support (which, btw, you need to ask for). And it’s a whole lotta fuss for something that, at its core, is love, pure and simple. Interesting bookend to this story, many years later, I discovered that a few of the brightest lights from high school, the ones who lit up the place with their loving support and which included that high school best friend who saved me, turned out to be gay.
But the real truth here is, growing up, I knew as little about being gay as any of those other ignoramuses. I couldn’t imagine men or women being together and choosing that. And I certainly didn’t equate that connection to love. And all because we never talked about it. It never came up at home and I never asked about it. It was just a turn of phrase, a … slur. It took years of cultural exposure, of education, of discussion and contemplation, for me to first understand and truly accept it, and then take it completely for granted. Even for me, who considers myself to be an open, curious person, it took a process of intellectual and emotional development.
It’s not something I’m proud of, but it is the reason I see hope in how far we’ve come since the ignorant old days. The more we communicate, the more we expose, the more we share our experiences, the more we sift and search and examine our collective psyches like careful archeologists, the closer we get to true intelligence, to goodness, to enlightenment. (And please don’t point to the bible and say it never refers to same-sex marriage—if in the 1970s we weren’t talking much about it, let’s assume that in the early hundreds it wasn’t really on the radar. Oh, and here’s my favourite quote from the trailer below: “If God doesn't want homosexuals, why does He keep making so many?” Amen, indeed.) And the sooner we share our enlightened, accepting knowledge with our children, the easier it is for them to skip all those awkward growing stages … and get right to the good part.
Deb: This is a brave post, Barb, and I thank you for it. I had only recently heard this story from Barb and sympathized with her adolescent self, struggling with the injustice of it. I had no idea, Barb, that you struggled to understand homosexuality and I think it is a testament to who you are that you sought out information. And of course, once you learned what it was, you had no issues at all. The key was learning about it. As a result of your “les-be-friends” incident it was confusing to you at your young age. Why wouldn’t it be when you knew so little? You set out to find out as much as you could about it and ... you got there. That is the crux of this story for me. You were confused about something you didn’t understand and you sought information.
That, for me, is what is missing in bigotry. Bigots shut their eyes and hate. Bigots close their minds and judge. They don’t seek information because, heaven forbid, they should find something reasonable that would challenge their immovable stance. It’s fine to not understand. And for those who gather information and still do not understand, it’s imperative that they step back and live and let live.