A few days ago I did one of my favorite (and also least favorite) things to do. I finished a great book. Halfway through the novel, I read three paragraphs that were so fantastic I was forced to underline them… even though the book belonged to the NYC Public Library.
“We, the Drowned” is a sailor story filled with cannibals, naval battles, shipwrecks, storms, murder, and shrunken heads. Even though the novel is in no way gay and takes place between 1850 and 1945, these three paragraphs describe perfectly why I think most modern gay people break into a nervous sweat whenever they’re forced to remember Jr. High…
No one in our town has such a thing as privacy. There’s always an eye watching, an ear cocked. Each and every one of us generates a whole archive of talk. Your slightest offhand remark takes on the weight of a lengthy newspaper commentary. A furtive glance is instantly returned and pinned on its owner. We’re always coming up with new names for one another. A nickname’s a way of stating that no one belongs to himself. You’re ours now, it says. We’ve rechristened you. We know more about you than you know about yourself. We’ve looked at you and seen more of you than you’ll catch in the mirror.
Rasmus Asswhipper, Cat tormentor, Violin Butcher, Count of the Dunghill, Klaus Bedchamber, Pissy Hans, Kamma Booze, how can any of you imagine we don’t know your secrets? Hey, Question Mark: we call you that because you’re a hunchback! And Masthead: well, what better name for someone with a tiny head, a long body, and no shoulders?
Everyone in our town has a story – but it’s not the one he tells himself. Its author has a thousand eyes, a thousand ears, and five hundred pens that never stop scribbling. (p. 205)
When I read that passage a few weeks ago, my heart raced. I felt my 13-year-old self sneak awkwardly to the surface. For a boy just realizing he liked boys, Jr. High was so stressful…
There’s always an eye watching, an ear cocked. Each and every one of us generates a whole archive of talk.
… going to school, pretending to be something. Going to church, pretending not to be something. Hoping nobody would notice the things I noticed…
Your slightest offhand remark takes on the weight of a lengthy newspaper commentary. A furtive glance is instantly returned and pinned on its owner.
…trying to stay low profile to avoid attention one day, becoming the class clown to deflect attention the next. Hearing the things they whispered and wondering if my secret was out. Wondering how they could know something about me that I wasn’t even sure of, something I thought might just be a phase, something I was praying God would change…
We know more about you than you know about yourself. We’ve looked at you and seen more of you than you’ll catch in the mirror.
… knowing I wasn’t like everyone else, but not exactly sure why.
Research shows that most gay kids’ first memories of sexual discovery aren’t of feeling aroused by people of the same sex, but of feeling “different.” Before we know we’re gay, most of us simply know we’re different. For many LGBT kids, this difference isn’t a feeling of uniqueness. It’s not the cool individuality that made the popular kids popular. Instead, our “difference” was a feeling of being “wrong” or fundamentally unlike the other kids at school or church. Even before we understood who we were attracted to and why, we had an innate sense that something about us just didn’t fit (Flowers & Buston, 2001).
A researcher named Anderson (1998) found that the average gay youth first recalls feeling different at the age of seven, five years before most boys are even able to label their attractions as homosexual.
I think that’s partly why Jr. High is/was so hard for so many of us. It’s an in between time. We suspect and we fear, but we don’t know. And before we can label our own difference – or maybe while we’re labeling it – somebody else labels it for us.
Gay. Queer. Faggot. Dike. Homo.
A nickname’s a way of stating that no one belongs to himself. You’re ours now, it says. We’ve rechristened you. We know more about you than you know about yourself. We’ve looked at you and seen more of you than you’ll catch in the mirror.
These labels are terrifying and humiliating not just because the words are ugly, but also because we can’t figure out how everyone knows they apply to us.
And so, after Jr. High is finished and we finally accept that we’re gay – in our teens, or 20’s, or 30’s, or after – we want to be free of the whispers and the secrecy and the shame. We want to invent and discover a new self. We want to replace the old nicknames with new ones. We want to claim our identity as our own. “From now on,” we say, “no one else will decide who I am. I belong to myself.”
For those of us who grew up in the church, this is an especially difficult process. Building a new self often means leaving the old one behind. Many of us feel that taking control of our life requires us to reclaim the control we once gave to God. If the church makes us feel like we did during Jr. High – unaccepted, afraid, and forced to hide – many of us choose to walk away. After all, judgmental whispers and sideways glances are what we’re trying to get away from.
The challenge is for us is to stop listening to our 8th grade tormentors, and quiet the memories of our misinformed preachers, and listen instead to the voice of God…
“But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you.
O Israel, the one who formed you says,
‘Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
I have called you by name; you are mine.'” (Isaiah 43:1)