Updated: Sep 19, 2022
June is recognized as LGBTQIA pride month. What does that mean? Pride is defined as “a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.” What does that mean to me? That’s a longer answer.
When I was a grade schooler, circa the late 80s, I watched the movie “One Crazy Summer”. This was the first time I “fell in love.” Demi Moore’s character, Cassandra, was something magical to my little child's heart with her suede-fringed jacket and electric guitar. I watched the movie obsessively for weeks.
At some point, I happened to mention to a classmate that I was going to marry Demi Moore. Besides the problematic age gap, all I knew was that she was perfect. Her voice, her smile, the way that she laughed. No New Kid on the Block had ever given me butterflies like I got watching Demi’s character strum her guitar on stage. My classmate responded with “that’s weird” – girls could only marry boys. This was the first time I was directly exposed to compulsory heterosexuality.
This was the norm cultivated in the bible-belted South. Girls should be clean and pretty and do things to make boys notice, and if we did it right, we would get married and have kids and be a wife. Luckily for my sister and I, my mom had bigger plans, and wanted us to go to college as well, so that we could be educated wives (because that idea of marriage and childbearing was still very important). Later on, I told my mom what the little girl at school had said. I couldn’t tell you exactly what I said to her, but I remember that my mom told me basically the same thing, albeit with kinder words. She never called me weird or was mean or offensive, but it was clear that the idea of her little girl being “in love” with another girl was a scary thought. She told me that what I was feeling was admiration and that I simply wanted to be like Demi’s character. My mom knew everything as far as I was concerned and was the coolest mom so, of course, I knew that she had to be right. I took her word for it and carried on with being a kid.
Not terribly long after that, around middle school, however, I began binge watching music videos on MTV, back when they actually showed music on Music Television (insert eye roll). I would record them onto VHS cassette tapes to watch back later. This is how I discovered the Whitesnake video for the iconic monster ballad “Here I Go Again”. In the video, a beautiful red-headed Tawney Kitaen rolled around in an oversized white button up shirt on top of a sports car. Watching that video, I knew that what I was feeling was not simply adoration, as was explained to me before. I was a kid and didn’t quite understand attraction, but I did know that I didn’t want to be her. I didn’t understand what I was feeling, but I knew that girls with girls was a “sin” according to my Sunday school youth leader. I was about 12 or 13 at the time and I was afraid that the feelings I was having made me a bad person. The youth pastor, who I had trusted with this information, affirmed this shame along with another male senior church member, when they told me that they didn’t want “people like me” at the church. These were my first experiences with real shame and homophobia specifically directed toward me and I internalized all of it.
I was devastated. I didn’t understand these things that were happening inside of or around me. The emotional turmoil I was going through wasn’t something I was mature enough to wrap my head around. I still wanted to believe in Santa for goodness sake, so I was stubbornly trying to hold onto my magical thinking while my mind and body were moving on without me. I stopped going to church and just said I “didn’t like” that church anymore, but I never told my parents what happened because I didn’t want to disappoint them. Their approval was of highest importance to me and somehow, in my mind, the narrow-minded lack of acceptance from the church elders was my fault and I was responsible. These events compounded my feeling of self-loathing and low self regard, but I was really good at putting a smile on my face and pretending that everything was okay. This was a practice that I implemented and used for decades.
As a pre-teen/teen I always felt like a round peg trying to fit in a square hole. The idiom is actually stated opposite in that particular imagery as a square peg in a round hole, but the round-in-square imagery is more fitting for me. Everyone around me was “normal” and I always felt the oddball. My personality was big. I was loud and loved knowing the answers and enjoyed attention and learned very quickly that I was really good at making people laugh. Middle school (and gym especially) exacerbated my feelings of inadequacy that were constantly growing and so this exuberant, large round peg made herself feel smaller so that she could at least fit inside the square that was everyone else’s idea of what I should be like.
The thing about that image, if you can picture it, is that fitting that round peg into that social norm of a square left gaps in the corners. Those gaps were filled with feelings of shame, self loathing, fear and doubt. Those gaps were never big enough to hold those feelings and so they always spilled into the round, into me, defining my self worth and esteem for years.
High school shifted things a bit for me. I found a group of fellow outcasts and fit in by not fitting in. We were so cool in our Nirvana t-shirts and Jnco jeans, bonded together through music, art, teen angst and general apathy towards social constructs and “the man.” We were rebellious and quirky, all struggling with our identities and for the first time in my life, I knew other people that were queer. I hadn’t named myself as a lesbian just yet, but I knew that is what I was. This was the mid-nineties, and while you were beginning to hear more about it thanks to people like Melissa Etheridge and Ellen Degeneres, being gay was still very taboo.
Mix that in with a bit of gender dysphoria and I was all kinds of out-of-sorts when it came to my identity. I was no longer alone, however, and my fellow travelers on my adolescent journey eased the internalized homophobia enough that, at the very least, I could share with them how I was feeling. Add a dose of marijuana and psychedelics to the formula, and suddenly, life was not so bad. I had what felt like true friends and was finally starting to feel like maybe living was better than dying, an option that, for many years, seemed viable. It became less appealing as my circle of friends embraced me as me, and the suicidal ideation I experienced from time to time lessened it’s hold.
I was still in the bible belt, however, so as comfortable as I was becoming, there were many hurdles to overcome. The first hurdle was coming out to my parents. I was not ready for that one just yet. I had so much fear that they would reject me, and the mere thought of that possibility was agonizing. My full public coming out story, though, would happen in a big way, a little bit by accident.
In 1997, I began attending a LGBTQIA youth group in Charlotte called Time Out Youth. They were a youth advocacy group in its infancy that provided support for young people aged 13 to 23 (the age range has changed since the 90s). We had weekly meetings in which we discussed what we were going through, how to deal with societal rejection and pressure, what to do to combat homophobia and providing a general safe space, at least once a week, for queer youth. This group saved me. Beyond being accepted, I was not alone. There were other kids just like me and via this organization I was able to connect with successful queer adults in happy, healthy relationships so that I had representation of what life could afford me that I had not had previously. This was around the first time I attended a gay pride event. The event was small compared to what it has grown to today, but it was still a wonderful experience. I cried tears of joy as I watched a mass “holy union” ceremony be performed, as it would be many more years before the legalization of gay marriage. I found a home in advocacy. I loved being a peer mentor. I volunteered in a multitude of ways, discovering my love of helping others and acts of kindness and service. Although I still struggled with feeling like an outsider, it was easier to feel safe, at the very least.
It was via this advocacy work that I was asked to participate in an interview from the area news publication, The Charlotte Observer. My experience at my high school had been relatively positive as far as being an out teen and they were looking to interview a couple of students from different schools to relate the variety of experiences that people had in the school system as queer youth in our city. I agreed without a thought and a couple of weeks later an article was printed that, though initially touted as a small article for the local section, became a front page of the local section's much larger article, complete with a full-color photograph of me laughing as two girls tried to mess my perfectly spiked hair. It was pretty flirty.
I was at once proud and scared. No way people would not see this. My sister, forever my sidekick, had me stop at every store that sold papers on the way to school so she could get as many copies as possible. She made sure people saw this. This is how I came out to my parents. When I got home they were sitting at the kitchen table waiting for me. My stomach did a flip flop, but they weren’t mad. They were sad that I felt that I had to keep it a secret from them, that I thought they would reject me. This day I recall very distinctly as the first moment that I felt truly seen and whole as a young queer person.
I continued to struggle with self-acceptance. Although I had made great strides in self-acceptance as a lesbian, I still had bouts of gender dysphoria, body dysmorphia, anxiety and depression. I went my entire young adult life with undiagnosed depression and anxiety that I began to treat with drugs and alcohol. While I continued to try and be the small, round peg, the corners of that square hole were overflowing with all these dark feelings and thoughts. I never felt good about myself, good enough as a partner, pretty, good enough as a daughter. I put undue pressure on myself to achieve in order to circumvent the low self worth. Good grades and work accomplishments were the only way I felt worth anything.
Eventually, those dark feelings catch up with you and all the substances stop working like they used to. When I got diagnosed with degenerative disc disease in my spine and began suffering from acute and chronic pain that the doctors immediately treated with heavy opiates, the corners of that square hole began to fill with physical pain as well, and the round peg, me, the person I was, became smaller and smaller. The medicine that was treating the physical pain I soon began to use to treat the emotional pain as well, to numb the feelings so that I could just get by day to day. I was no longer living, but simply existing. It was a bleak existence. There seemed like there would be no end, but, luckily, after a second and very successful spinal surgery, I was relieved of the physical pain that I had endured for about five years. I was left with a severe dependence on opiates and a numb existence. This is when I reached out for help and was directed to try a 12-step program.
It took many tries, a lot of bad decisions, two stints in rehab and several life-changing experiences to finally get to a space where I was able to successfully stop using substances as my tools to cope. I learned through the stories of others that I was not the only person to have endured what I had endured. For the first time since I was a teen, I felt like I was not alone. I caught a glimmer of hope that maybe I could be happy. Truly happy, not just the fake-it-til-you-make-it happy that I had been most of my life.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the first 12-step group that I was a member of uses an emblem of a square inside of a circle. My whole life I had spent trying to fit into the mold society had created and told me I had to fit into. I had made myself smaller so that I could fit in. The fact is, I am much greater than what society wants me to be. I am that round peg, but, thanks to the support of the rooms of 12-step meetings, I no longer feel the need to make myself smaller. I can be the person I was created to be and now am able to overflow my feelings into the world in a better way, instead of trying to fit and having my feelings slowly suffocate me. Now the square has to fit into what I envision for myself and I can make an impact on the injustices and phobias of society through action and compassion for others, but also, for myself. The imagery has shifted and changed, because I have changed. I have a program that has given me the tools to live life in a positive and healthy way and no longer feel as if I’m simply existing. I manage my mental health struggles with medication and therapy. I have other like-minded friends on my same path who support and love me in a way that I have never experienced before from friends.
Today, I am not just accepting of myself as a queer person, but I also have language that helps me to understand my gender. There is representation in the media for me of people like me. There are songs that feel like they were written for me. I can legally marry a woman if I should choose to. I am the round peg, but I am more than what the world would have me believe I am capable of being. My peg is rainbow-colored, loud, funny, bedazzled and just plain delightful. Today I have pride. As a queer, as a gender non-conforming female, as a human. Today I have hope that those that come after me can look back on the changes and growth within the queer community with as much pride and reverence as I am able to today. Today I am not alone and you don’t have to be either. Albus Dumbledore said it best. "Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” For me, today, my 12-step program is the light that I have turned on so that, even when things feel dark, I can always see the light. Today I have pride. Today I am happy.
Happy Pride 🏳️🌈