When I was a teen there was a boy who ran for student council. He had a speech impediment, and when the whispers started as he began his pitch for candidacy I thought he was really brave for standing up in front of a room full of teens. I never realized that his speech impediment wasn't the reason for the whispers, and he was far braver than I had guessed. It was as if the whole school knew he was gay, but no one could say the word out loud or the world would explode.
Fast forward to a few years after graduation, when one of my best friends came out via email, too nervous to do it in person, and while everyone else in our group of friends said, "Well, of course. Duh," I was busy thinking, "Huh. I can't believe I never realized that." She had hidden away that entire part of her life for years.
Fast forward again to two years ago, when my then 11-year-old wanted to tell me something but was too embarrassed. She wrote it on a piece of paper, worried that I would look at her differently, or laugh, or I don't know what. It had the name of the person she liked on it. The name was quite obviously a girl's.
I paused, because she was 11. I told her that it didn't make any difference in how much I loved her whether she liked boys or girls, but that she was 11, and sometimes at 11 we don't know what we want, and since she couldn't date that young anyway, it was good to know, but she had plenty of time to figure out if she liked girls, boys, or some combination of the two.
Again I hadn't expected it. Despite the number of gay people in my life, cousins, friends, co-workers, I wasn't expecting my daughter to tell me she was gay. I knew strong, independent, caring lesbian women and gay men, and even still it made me sad, not because I had any less love for her or because I was disappointed or un-accepting. No, it made me sad because in my experience, in my teenage years, gay teens had a difficult road. I didn't want my baby to have a difficult road. I didn't want her friends to suddenly see her differently or maybe even disown her. I didn't want her to become a target for hate speech or violence. I knew these things were possibilities. I had seen them, both in my life and on the news. I was petrified that my daughter, who was shy and quiet, would become an outcast in a place where it was already rough enough -- middle school.
I began to research home schooling, and LGBT support sites, convinced that I was going to have to help her navigate through this, even though I had no experience with being gay, and even though I clearly couldn't tell gay from straight anyway. I read article after article about the rate of LGBT teen suicide, and articles like this one that painted a very scary picture of middle school. Sprinkled amidst comments of support were more and more belligerent men and women, and my heart suffered a little bit more for my sweet girl. As parents, we hurt when our child hurts, and my fear was that she would suffer because I was too inept to stop it, or because I didn't have all the answers. All I could do was let her know exactly how much I loved her and communicate with the school faculty as much as possible.
Summer ended, and the first day of school approached. I worried. She had begun to wear plain t-shirts, jeans, had cut her hair very short. I think it was the real beginning of her search for her identity. On the first day of school, the principal, welcoming her into the school, said "C'mon guys," to her and another child. My heart sank, and I thought, how could anyone mistake my beautiful girl for a boy? And now the issues would start. I wondered whether to let her deal with it, or to address it right then. I went home, and crafted a careful email. I didn't know this principal, I didn't know what to expect from him. Would he be supportive, or would he be the kind of man who left nasty comments on anonymous websites? He emailed me back immediately, and took time out of what I'm sure was the busiest day in the school year to introduce himself to the kids at lunchtime, and specifically to address my daughter as a girl.
A week went by, and she was late for school, and as she was signing in a teacher called her "He." My daughter never cries, but she looked at me with tears in her eyes, and broke down. She could completely understand students making a mistake, but to her, a teacher was supposed to know that she was a girl. My heart broke, and even as I understood it wasn't the teachers fault, I wanted to attack her for making my kid cry. I took her home that day, and we re-grouped, and she went back the next day. I wanted to support her, and at the same time I knew that if I didn't let her meet this obstacle on her own I would be crippling her when it came to dealing with it in the future. She braved that period of time with more grace than I did. She was intrepid.
Fast-forward to halfway through the sixth grade, when a friend who was angry with her threatened to "out" her. She outed herself instead. Another student asked in the gym locker room if she was gay and her response was, "Yeah. And?" I worried. Now the issues would start. But instead of her friends being "weirded out" or slowly breaking away from her, they clung closer. She made friends in all different parts of the school.
Fast-forward to this year. She is "out" at school, wears her "Gay by nature, fabulous by design" pin everywhere, and wears her own unique style of clothing that ranges from dresses with combat boots to jeans with t-shirts and 50 bracelets on her arm. She is confident, self-assured, and each day my fears that her life as a gay woman will be difficult get a little smaller.
But I can't help but compare it to my high school years, and those whispers, and wonder how I missed this big change occurring. The kids at my daughter's school have become interested, and supportive. Middle school kids can be dramatic, and over-sensitive, but sometimes they get a bad rap. Sometimes what we expect of them is far less than they are capable of, especially when it comes to empathy and compassion. Sometimes they even outdo the adults around them.
It gives me hope that those same children will be the adults of the future.