Sitting in the cheap & rusty fold-up chair in my sweltering high-school auditorium, my hands were shaking while beads of sweat formed on my upper lip. It was June 1998, and my classmates and I were practicing for the big event — our high school graduation. As the Vice Principal read out our names so that we could go on stage and practice receiving our diplomas, the butterflies in my stomach would not settle. When I heard my name called, I stood up quickly and approached the stage.
Within seconds, I heard it: “Dyke!” someone shouted from the back of the auditorium.
As the room filled with giggles and sounds of astonishment, I continued to walk onto the stage and went through the motions of receiving my diploma, all while choking on tears and wanting nothing more than to run out of the building and never turn back.
I'm a lesbian. At 38 years old, I’ve been out & proud for nearly two decades now, and I am intimately familiar with the knowledge that coming out is often a lifelong process — something I do when I meet a new coworker, make friends with other parents at the playgrounds my daughter and I frequent, or meet a new hairstylist. Even still, it’s been a long time since I’ve really had to “come out” in a big way to the people that matter — family and friends. But of course, at one time, that wasn’t true.
I grew up in a small town (population: 3,000) in Central Pennsylvania. A former coal-town that was once booming, it was full of mom & pop shops and a thriving community that had been all but decimated after a Walmart came rolling in, promising jobs to locals. My hometown is mostly conservative, predominantly Christian, not a whole lot of gay folks. At least... not out gay folks. There are as many bars as there are churches in the town and not much else.
As a young girl, I would lay in bed at night and pray that God (or whoever was listening) would somehow magically turn me into a boy.
I loved being a girl, don't get me wrong. It’s just that I knew something was "different" about me from a very young age, and assumed that if I woke up with a penis placed on my body by an invisible deity in the sky, I wouldn’t be different. I would fit in. I’d be “normal.” And I’d be allowed to kiss girls. But the penis never came, despite my silent nightly pleas. I still ended up kissing girls.
I had no idea there was a word for what I am until I was nearly 15 years old. Up to that point, the only other lesbians I knew of referred to themselves as “roommates.” I’d met them at a cousin’s wedding the summer I turned 15. Though I didn't know them, the women felt familiar to me. Maybe it was in the way they moved their bodies, their mannerisms, or their style of dress. Whatever it was, I couldn’t take my eyes off of them throughout the wedding reception because I knew they were like me somehow; I just couldn’t quite place how.
Could I kiss her? Would we hold hands and go on dates? Would I finally be able to run my fingers through her soft hair?
By the time I reached my senior year of high school, I'd gone through my private self-discovery journey and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was a lesbian. Once I realized that my feelings for other girls weren’t disappearing — if anything, they only intensified with age and raging hormones — I vowed to myself to tell no one. I’d heard what everyone around me had to say about gay people, and it wasn’t good. The stress of holding in my secret and hiding who I was gave me acne — angry pimples adorned my face, an outer reflection of the battle waging war inside of me.
When Ellen Degeneres outed herself publicly on national television, it was a momentous moment not just for Ellen, but for the LGBTQ community as a whole. Within a week of watching Ellen come out so courageously, I decided I couldn’t live with the secrecy anymore. At 17 years old, I came out to my closest friends as bisexual to test the waters and gauge their responses. I wanted to maintain some sense of normalcy by saying I was bisexual. Why yes, I DO like boys too! (No, I didn't). I could marry anyone! (As long as that anyone isn’t male).
The handful of friends I told were warm and accepting. As luck would have it, my best friend Carrie was also gay. And I had a giant crush on her. She wore crewneck Champion sweatshirts, black Adidas sandals with white socks (no one ever said small-town fashion was cool!), and made me laugh so hard I cried, every single day. She grew up on a farm and had little tolerance for people’s bullshit — particularly rowdy high school boys — and she wasn’t afraid to let them know it. I thought she was the sexiest, funniest person alive, and I was utterly smitten.
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In geography class, I’d scribble ner name next to mine in the margins of my school notebook while daydreaming of kissing her. In history class, I sat behind her and stared at the back of her head, wondering what it would feel like to run my fingers through her golden ringlets. Every evening, I would pick up the phone, dial her number and quickly hang up, unable to hear anything but the sound of my heartbeat pounding loudly through my ears. My journals were filled with angst-filled poetry on the pains of unrequited teenage love. The weight of these intense feelings was crushing my overly-dramatic teen heart, so one night as Carrie drove me home from softball practice in her grey Subaru Justy, I asked her to write me a letter and tell me who she “liked,” and promised I would do the same in return.
Carrie and I wrote our letters and exchanged them in the hallway the next day between classes. I went to math class with her note in my hand, my heart pounding out of my chest, ready to rip into the letter. It said what I had hoped: she liked me! I wanted to run down the hall, pull her from her classroom so I could squeeze her, and never let her go. But instead, I sat through math class and let my mind run away with the possibilities. Could I kiss her? Would we hold hands and go on dates? Would I finally be able to run my fingers through her soft hair?
As my mind ran away with the possibilities, for the first time in my life, I finally understood why my straight friends got so excited when a boy liked them.
Carrie and I made a promise to keep our relationship under wraps, and for the most part, we did, telling only our closest friends. Until one June night at the local drive-in movie theatre, which was holding a special all-nighter for seniors graduating from schools in the area. Carrie picked me up to take us to the drive-in where many of our peers would be. In the back seat of her Subaru was a six-pack of peach wine coolers waiting for us to consume.
It only took about two of those peach wine coolers to get me drunk enough not to notice or care about anyone else around us, and we started kissing as we stood next to the snack stand. Which meant people saw us. More specifically: our classmates. I remember seeing the flashes from cameras but being too drunk to care. Finally, our friend Nathan — a fellow queer kid — managed to pull us apart from one another and ream us out for being so careless. But rumors in our small town swirl around faster than my head felt in my drunken stupor. By the time Monday rolled around, most people knew: Lindsay and Carrie are LESBIANS. And they had the pictures to prove it.
There was no way for us to deny it, though I tried in vain before realizing it was futile. My youthful naivete landed me in the situation, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to change it. Besides, I didn’t really want to live in the closet anymore. I was tired of hiding who I was from almost everyone around me but felt I had no choice.
As the pictures were passed through the various classes and cliques at our school, I walked through the entire day with a heavy heart, tear-filled eyes and what felt like lead in my shoes. People whispered and stared as I approached slowly in the halls — my skulking around the walls and trying to blend in didn’t seem to work. A few bullies said horrible things to me (think of every derogatory word you know of for lesbians, and it ’s likely I heard it that day).
Being forced out felt so violating, and I felt ripped open, raw and exposed.
Carrie, being the protective junior-butch she was, did her best to defend us, but mostly me. She cornered the bullies at their lockers and made them apologize. She held her head up high and didn’t seem as bothered by the fact that everyone knew our secret. She squeezed my hand under the table at lunchtime and promised everything would be okay. I didn’t believe her.
Near the end of the day, one knowing smile from a supportive friend in Spanish class was all the kindness I needed to unleash what I’d been holding in all day. I ran to the bathroom, took my first deep breath in hours, and cried until it felt like I ran out of tears. All I really wanted was to go home, hole myself up in the safety of my bedroom, write in my journals and shut out the world.
But unbeknownst to me, home wasn’t going to be the sanctuary I was hoping it would be. My mom’s best friend Sandra was the secretary at our high school. And given that the news of lesbians in the school was a big deal in this tiny town in 1998, the rumors had reached Sandra’s desk before lunchtime that day. Without talking to me, Sandra called my mom and told her everything she’d heard. And my mom — rather than picking me up from school to rescue me from the hell she surely had to have known I was enduring — chose to read my journals. The same journals filled with poetry about my love and desire for Carrie. The love and desire my mom knew nothing about up until that point.
On the bus ride home, I heard a sophomore boy shout something at me about being a “ditchlicker,” prompting me to put my Walkman headphones in, slink down in my seat and seclude myself from everyone. For a moment, I was able to escape my reality as Dolores from the Cranberries crooned in my ear. My peace was short-lived.
Moments after stepping off the bus and into the door of our home, my mom confronted me. She told me what she’d heard and confessed to reading my journals. Stunned, I stood silently as I watched my mom cry as if someone had died. “Where did I go wrong?” was wailed out a few times, and I had to assure her that my queerness had nothing to do with her parenting.
Already emotionally exhausted from my day at school, I didn’t know how to handle what was happening. All I wanted at this point was to shut the door of my bedroom and never emerge. My mom told me in no uncertain terms that she would be calling Carrie’s mom and that we may never be allowed to see each other again. I put up with a lot of shit that day, but hearing that I could be kept from the one person who offered me a safe place and a shoulder to cry on was too much for me to bear. I stormed up the steps, slammed the door and screamed at my mom to never speak to me again.
Of course, she did. But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses.
I didn’t have one of those coming out moments that involves hugs and tears and “I love you no matter what,” though that did come in time.
Instead, I heard a lot of my mom’s concerns — for me (I could go to hell), for her (having a gay child is undoubtedly some sort of failure), for her concern about the lack of future grandchildren from me (spoiler alert: she now has a granddaughter from her lesbian daughter!).
Returning to school the following days wasn’t easy. It felt downright impossible at times. The only thing that gave me the gumption to walk through those doors each day before graduation was the knowledge that I’d be able to see Carrie. Every day, she would stand at the school’s entrance, ready to hug me and act as my bodyguard or defender should anyone else try to bully me. We endured and got through our official graduation ceremony without expletives being shouted at us.
Carrie and I spent the summer months after graduation enjoying young love. We spent balmy summer nights visiting the local driving park, making out, talking about our love, our friends, and what life would look like for us as we grew older. We promised each other that if we somehow found ourselves single at 30 (which was ancient to our 17-year-old selves), we would get married. At the end of the summer, we went our separate ways when we went to different colleges with slightly broken hearts and forever changed souls, but we always stayed in touch. I still count her as one of my best friends.
When the invitation to attend our 20-year high school reunion arrived in my mailbox earlier this year, I snapped a picture on my cell phone before throwing it in the recycling bin. Moments later, I texted Carrie the picture and said, “What do you say we show up at the reunion hand-in-hand, dressed in the butchiest outfits we can find?”
“I don’t hate myself, not worth it, lol,” she responded.
And it wasn’t. Spending time with some of the people who kicked us down on our hardest days sounded less appealing than a root canal. And although I am not the same person I was at 17 years old, and I’m sure the homophobic bullies aren’t either, walking down memory lane with them would’ve felt more like punishment than a celebration.
Today, I live in a diverse, multicultural city where being queer is not only accepted; it is embraced.
My entire family — my mom included — are my biggest advocates and supporters. My mom even loves Carrie now too, and often asks about how she’s doing and when we’ll see each other next. When I make the six-hour drive to visit my hometown, I am more welcome than not, though I do still occasionally get the side-eye from someone who isn’t used to seeing a woman so visibly queer. When I catch someone staring, I want to smile and say “It isn’t contagious, you know…”
The last time I visited our hometown in the summer, I took a walk through the driving park where Carrie and I would make out, share our dreams and talk about life in her Subaru Justy. I took a photo of our spot — the exact place where used to park — and sent her the picture with a text: “Hey — I’m here and I miss you, wish you were here. We could get some peach wine coolers and reminisce.”
“Miss you. Go have a drink for me. Tell your mom I said hi.”