It took me several years to be able to type the word “gay.” Even now, it looks better in quotes — separated from the rest of the sentence. The first time I wrote it into a document, it looked out of place, as if someone had pasted the language in a different font. I began writing about my queerness in tenth grade, more than five years after I recognized it. Until then, I had never considered my sexuality a topic to be discussed on paper. I had come to terms with what I youthfully named “liking girls,” and I had found a group of confidants with experiences similar to my own. At a young age, my sexuality became one of my most prominent identifiers. I knew — and supposedly accepted — who and how I was. Yet, I could not write about it. To think about queerness — to verbalize it, even — was comfortable, but only because it was fleeting. To write it down was (and is) something entirely new.
My friend once read me a memoir about their sexuality that they had written for English class. I was immediately bewildered: first, because the act registered in my mind as one of bravery; second, because I wondered why I had never considered doing the same. Throughout my time at Horace Mann, I have been assigned plenty of personal essays, self-reflective narratives, and identity poems, yet somehow, not one of these assignments prompted me to discuss my sexuality.
I should be clear: at a place like Horace Mann, submitting an essay about my sexuality would not have caused me any additional struggle. In my many years at this school, I have never been harassed, oppressed, or mistreated because of my identity. (It is important to mention that I am fortunate to have had this experience, and it has not been this way for everyone. I am not claiming that this institution is one without embedded homophobia and discrimination. I can only speak of my own experience, one that is likely an exception.) I have had the incredible privilege of being taught by people who are queer, of discussing queer experience in my classes. Sexuality is taught in the Health curriculum, and GSA is a thriving club. The Katz Library has a comprehensive collection of queer literature for young adults, a section which I visited secretly each day in seventh grade.
But I came to these shelves in private (never checking out a book, always looking around to make sure I was alone) for the same reason that I never wrote an essay about my sexuality: the expected fear of discrimination was replaced by intense feelings of shame. It is humiliating to discover something within yourself that is not a part of everyone. It is embarrassing to write (and to read) stories of love and longing that are fueled by their secrecy. My identity is given a separate, secluded space in the library, removed from the ordinary and made uncommon.
I am at a place that accepts my sexuality but does not guarantee my comfort within that identity. I was not afraid to come out because I was scared that someone would push me into a locker or call me a slur, but because I was terrified of the possibility of someone really knowing who I am. I was scared that I would become associated with what Horace Mann teaches its students about queerness — its normalcy, yes, but also its uncommonality. I am grateful that this school buys LGBTQ+ fiction for young adults, but I find it hard to grapple with the fact that it needs its own section, far away from the romance a straight student would read. Queerness is an exception, and it should not be. Straight students don’t spend their middle school years wondering whether the world will accept them on top of worrying about what to wear to school. Straight students can be accepting and kind and incredible allies, but they will never be entirely understanding. They have never felt this kind of shame.
The first time I came out to someone (my best friend in fifth grade, who was kinder than one could possibly imagine), I could not say the words out loud. After minutes of awkward sniffling, I managed to scribble out my secret (the phrasing too embarrassing to recall) on a piece of tissue, in orange gel pen. In eighth grade, I cried after (not during) an assembly about homophobia. I went to the bathroom and locked the door. It took me almost two years to reveal my sexuality to my favorite teacher at this school. When I did — and when we talked about it — I pretended to be nonchalant, unphased. In reality, I could not have been more terrified.
This is the third time I am rewriting this piece. For some reason, it is proving to be more difficult than I originally expected. Perhaps it is my obsessive nature — I want to convey exactly what I mean through these words. More likely, however, my perfectionism can be attributed to this pervasive and quiet shame.
When I ultimately finish and publish this piece, I will choose to remain anonymous. To put my name on this would be to acknowledge my queerness — my oddity, my difference — to the student body. I know that I would not be hurt, oppressed, targeted, or bullied in my decision to do so. In fact, I am quite sure that most of my grade is already aware of my sexuality. Still, I cannot let myself attribute these thoughts to myself. By remaining anonymous, I am protecting myself from the possibility of embarrassment. I may be cognizant, accepting even, of my own identity, but that does not mean I am entirely comfortable with it.
I acknowledge that by remaining anonymous in my publication of this piece I am doing Horace Mann students a certain disservice. Perhaps I am missing the opportunity to support queer students. Maybe I am even taking part in this greater cycle of internalized homophobia. I worry that my anonymity equates to selfishness: if I am not comfortable enough to do this, will anyone be? Still, I cannot help but feel an incessant, internalized worry. What if they think of me differently? What if my shame is more valid than my truthfulness?
Let me be clear: I am not trying to send the wrong message. Being ashamed of one’s existence should not be the norm. I am working to get to a place where I can not only type out my experience, but publish it under my own name too. For now, I hope this piece can be a source of comfort to queer students and a moment of education for others. If you are straight, being kind is not your only job: please be cognizant of the sense of normalcy this school has granted you, a normalcy which is so often taken for granted. If you are queer, it is important to remember: this shame is common, but it is not necessary. I am working towards leaving mine behind, and I suppose writing this down is a step in the right direction.