Coming of Age the Hard Way

Many people have commended me for my ability to be myself but this has always been easy, if not plainly and catastrophically unavoidable. After all, who else can I be? There is only so much we can do until who we are comes spilling forth from the security of secrecy and into the savage scrutiny of the world. In fact, several people with whom I was acquainted with before and after coming out had suspected as much of me. My own parents knew and had even accepted the fact long before I had. What I had previously thought to have cleverly concealed from detection was dead obvious to others. However, despite how evident my personality was, being honest in how I lived has not always been easy.

Since childhood I have made use of a diverse variety of defensive mechanisms to protect myself from pain. Each of these eventually failed when new problems and obstacles arose but it is because of these pragmatic steps that I have come to my current state of mind.

Stage 1: Egotism
When I was a child I was blissfully unaware of how effeminate my behavior was. This only became plainly evident to me while viewing old home movies my father had recorded of my sister and myself when we were around ten years of age. In one particular video I swished about in front of the camera, told my father that I was waiting for Romeo (you must forgive me this most terrible cliche), and then ended it all with several melodramatic suicide attempts with my spark-producing, plastic ray gun. Whether I was imaginatively preparing for future circumstances or not, my fascination with death and suicide propelled me into every facet of the subject, even to proper procedure, which I gladly demonstrated for my father.

Other boys at my elementary school teased me terribly and I argued back impetuously, boldly defying others to shame me in public. I had then no sense of what being gay was even though it was the preferred term my antagonists used to ridicule me. One boy once angered me so much that I chased him across the playground with every aim to maim him, but he was fortunate enough to be quick on his feet and had only to suffer my cursing. Violence is, of course, not the best method of dealing with bullies; it is an embarrassing quick-fix, unless you’re simply desperate—in which case all is excused—and much too exhausting on the body and mind.

Stage 2: First Awareness and Cheap Imitation
When I began the transition into high school (which begins in middle school) I became what most people refer to as a “closet case.” On occasion I would overhear pieces of whispered conversations my fellow adolescent boys were having behind my back in the locker room or some class clown would make some cruel joke at the expense of my failure to live up to their masculine etiquette and yet despite this my life was relatively free from persistent harassment. In elementary school the teasing was overtly homophobic but in middle and high school the harassment decreased and either changed target or merely became covert. Once I came out this all changed dramatically.

Stage 3: Absolution of Guilt and Nonchalance
When I look back on coming out it seems all the more impressive to me. At the time I treated it as a practical and necessary solution to a problem and have only in the last few years come to realize how unique my situation was.

The first time I made any public acknowledgment of my homosexuality was in a college application essay I was assigned to write early on in my senior year. In it I related an anecdote about an old friend who said I wasn’t like the other boys. She said this because I professed a strong disgust for greeting cards but in my essay I used this as a lead-in to the admission that I was indeed different and quoted the famous line, “I am the love that dare not speak its name.” I become all the more anxious and excited when my teacher read it aloud to the whole class. Not only had I now public admitted it in a perfectly poetically enigmatic manner but escaped having to perform the difficult stage of having to do it myself. My classmates did not react one way or another and so I took it as a sign that I was free to proceed. My teacher later asked me to her desk after class; when she asked me for the meaning of my message I couldn’t speak a word, so instead I wrote it down on a piece of paper and admitted it personally.

With the support of my friends, family, and newly found ideals I went on to do the things I had longed to do for years. I attempted to dye my hair red and settled for pink, painted my nails blue, and walked about the campus wearing a purple scarf I took from my sister’s closest. (After all, she never wore it.) Over the Spring break I discovered androgyny and soon began wearing make-up, tank tops, and a long, brown-haired wig.

This was the first time since my early childhood when I felt truly free. Whether people had anything to say about my appearance, or my silver lame cardigan, didn’t matter to me in the least. I went about in a fog of my own enjoyment and applied my make-up (as a friend’s mother once described it) like a young girl discovering it for the first time. This wasn’t far from the truth and I have since then simplified my appearance to a point beyond the use of artificial coloration but I think back on that period in my adolescence as a necessary stage in becoming. If I have learned anything from my casual glances at Vogue, it is this: All things must first pass through garish experimentation before they can reach steady refinement.

Stage 4: Second Awareness and Defiance
Now more comfortable in myself than ever before I wrote an article for our school’s newspaper about my coming out, which received great praise from my instructor and compliments from fellow students for my ability to be. However, my perfectly impervious reign over the sovereignty of my individuality was soon to be challenged.

School administrators suddenly took interest in me and did their best to discourage my behavior. The school psychologist, a woman who had once told me that I looked cuter when I was a freshman, called me to her office and spoke to me on the matter. Although I did not know it at the time, her explanation was the same as those given by countless other school officials to transgendered students. She wanted me to “tone down” my appearance by not wearing make-up, wigs, and women’s clothing, on the grounds that my appearance was a distraction to other students. (If they’re not blaming student inattention on ADHD, it’s the transgender students.) I was shocked by what I was being asked to do and couldn’t justify going along with it but because I didn’t know how to defend myself I shyly agreed to follow her proscriptions. Upon learning that the dress code did not forbid what I was doing, I continued to do so. However, now I dressed up not only for my enjoyment but for disobedience; nothing about my appearance changed but my attitude towards other people did. I could no longer live in oblivious bliss and had to realize the painful social reality my desires would evoke in those weaker than I.

Oddly enough, when I attended the school’s fortieth anniversary with a fellow graduate I learned that in the 1970’s the administrators would have long-haired male youths wear short-haired wigs. They mentioned this as people do when they want to laugh at the backwards past but my friend and I only laughed at the irony.

School administrators never spoke another word to me about my appearance, even when I was sent to receive the contents of a mailbox for a teacher or pickup photocopies, and I continued to dress as I pleased for the remainder of the school year. My appearance changed during the last few months before graduation but remained conducive to harassment and when I finally was free to leave for the world outside I was temporarily relieved.

Stage 5: Moral Condescension and Pity
The discovery of social networks both exposed me to meeting new friends and even harassment but I was already accustomed and adjusted to the reality of this. During the first few years after graduation I had taken a few temporary jobs and remained relatively isolated at home with my parents, concentrating on educating my self through reading and refining my writing style.

In my imagination I see myself as a kind of monk or similarly humiliated person who lives on little more than modest means. In many ways this was and still is very true. Since my graduation from high school I have come to new conclusions about myself and my relation to society, a perspective that places me above harassers like a saint about sinners, and has given me a firm sense of where I and others stand. The key to good healthy self esteem is moral condescension.

Whenever I am publicly harassed two thoughts come to mind: Firstly, they are quite wrong about me and whatever they think their mocking; and, secondly, their compulsion to harm others through ridicule is a sure sign of moral and psychological dysfunction. I finish my thoughts with this: Whatever my faults might be, at least I don’t seek self-aggrandizement through the dehumanization and degradation of others. Once you can say this and believe it then the activities of detractors become nothing more than impropriety, humiliating only to them and worthy only of your pity. At no time should you give the impression they are worthless and their weaknesses immutable; instead you must imply that they can redeem their actions through pious devotion to your superior morality, and if you are correct in your assumptions you’ll have nothing other than pigheaded disagreement to worry about.

This I have practiced for years and, believe me, it takes time to master moralism, especially because so many people accept convictions as easily as they would offers of money, but it can be done. All that it demands is an openness to ideas, an acceptance of the possibility of being wrong about everything, a keen apprehension of not only one’s own psychology but those of others, and a willingness to feel compassion for even the worst people. If there is anything worth being stubborn about it is kindness and, in spite of what popular wisdom suggests, it really isn’t so dangerous to the well-being of others. The final necessity is friendship because, as Ernest Becker once said, we cannot stand on our own meanings. We need the loving support of friends and we must be prepared to do so in return, because without them I would not be the person I am today. Of course, if you have no friends, sycophants can be a suitable, though unreliable, substitute.

With that said I will end my comments with the same two words I used when I would pretend to commit suicide: “Bye bye.”