When I was sixteen years old, I was a very lost little girl.
I am tremendously lucky; my family is open and kind, my parents are loving, my church was liberal and warm, my school was progressive and thoughtful.
But I still remember getting teased mercilessly about how much of a ‘boy’ I was, with my short haircut and my t-shirt and shorts at the pool. I still remember getting mocked for being fat, for being not enough of a girl, for not developing fast enough, for developing too fast. I still can’t question my identity as a woman too much without cracking into a nasty mess of trauma. I was nine, and I wanted to be anything but what I was.
I still recall the pastor at our church crying because of the gay brother she lost to AIDS. I remember people outside of our little circle mocking us for working on his quilt square. I remember sobbing myself, wondering what I would do if I got infected, wondering if the way I was would kill me before I graduated. I was fourteen, and I knew that I was going to die. Young, probably. Certainly alone.
I can replay in my head when, at summer camp, were were tasked with writing monologues including one from the perspective of ourselves, fifty years in the future. I wrote a comedy about robot limbs and virtual pets. My friend wrote about how she would be dead, because something would have killed her. The world would have killed her. AIDS or violence or the government would have killed her. I was sixteen, and I knew none of us would see the other side of twenty. Some of us had pills to make sure it was so.
And then I remember this day, this miracle, magical day, when a girl from my youth group, three years older than me, beautiful and queer and proud, just came to my house. I think she knew, though I never talked about it, I think she could see in me what I was and where I was going.
We never hung out, but she picked me up and she told my Mom we were just going to hang out, and she drove me to a part of town I’d never been before. It was a coffee shop, and it had a bookstore, and it had rainbows painted into the fence, and I knew what that meant. And I was terrified. But N, she was so cool. She was so cool and so amazing and so confident and so self-assured. So I went with her.
She ordered a french press and I had a tea, and we just talked. About life, and philosophy, and all the beautiful, weird things teenage girls talked about. And all around me, there were these people I’d never seen before. There were boys holding hands. There were photos of women kissing on the walls. There were shelves of queer studies texts. There were Polaroids of quilt squares stuck all around the register.
And the longer I was there, the better I felt. And when we left, when the shop closed, I was so regretful to leave, so grateful to be there – I put every dime of my money in the tip jar.
And when I got back to my bedroom, I cried.
Because that place – it was home. Home. Home. It was safe. For all my objectively wonderful, fantastic life, I had never, not once in my life, felt like that. I could say anything. I could do anything. I could be anything.
And there were people there twice my age. Three times! There were old people drinking coffee, holding hands, buying books, obviously not alone and they were like me.
My mom asked why I was crying, and all I could tell her was that I was going to be okay. And that was it, that was the whole story. I was crying because I was going to be okay. Because there were people who lived beyond twenty. Because no matter what else happened, there was a home. I went back, over and over. When school started, I gave my carefully hoarded pills to someone else, but I also asked them if they wanted to come to the coffee shop with me.
That coffee shop is long gone, and N has moved on and we haven’t talked in decades, but that first trip was absolutely essential to my survival, because it taught me there were places out there that’d feel like home. Other queer spaces, ones that were quite explicitly so. Clubs. Parties. College groups. I never really came out, I just started being this person. The world around me was accepting enough that I could. And always, no matter what, if the world got too hard, I could find one of those places. I wouldn’t get hell. I would be home.
Where you go in, and you see someone like you. You see a hundred people like you but not like you, old people, successful people, beautiful people, ordinary people. You feel safe. You go home. Because it doesn’t matter what the place is, what people do there, it’s the people, it’s the strangeness, it’s the things you can not see in your mainstream life that make them special.
These places are so important. And when one of them is violated, even when I don’t know anyone personally affected, I feel like my own home was broken into. I feel terrified.
My family has been relentlessly, endlessly, constantly under siege since long before I was born. It will still be at war long after I die. But there are places like that coffee shop, like Pulse, where I can go to plan and play, to mourn and dance, to be.
I don’t have some big conclusion for this. I don’t have one of my usual messages of hope. I just wanted to say that places like this are important, that we need more of them. Places like this changed me, and for the better. Places like this are where my family lives. And while I will be on my guard, I refuse to be afraid to go there. I will go home, any time, any city, and there is nothing anyone can do to change that. The reward is worth the risk.
If you feel the same – if you can, if you feel safe – please, go to one of these places this week. Go to a club, go to a coffee shop, go to a mixer or an event, hell, go to a thrift store if it’s an explicitly queer one. There are a lot of people that are going to be afraid, this week. Go, please, if you are brave, and make those places weird and wonderful and diverse and home.
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