If you asked me today, I would tell you that I’m definitely in the pro-LGBTQ camp. I’m not an activist per se, but I would tell you that I think about gender and sexuality in a very open-minded way. I don’t know if anyone would call me an ally, but I know this: I don’t care if my friends are gay; I don’t care if my peers are questioning–hell, sometimes I do as well. I’ve been pretty vocal on Facebook about why gay marriage should be a thing and why it’s unreasonable to oppose it. And while I think those are good things, while I love the support that comes out of LGBTQ and its allies, and while I’m so happy that young kids are now learning to embrace non-straight leanings and be accepting of their peers, I’ve had to reflect on my own experience as a kid to realize exactly how far we’ve come in just ten short years.
When I was in elementary school, I had an amazing P.E. teacher named Theresa. She was the most laid-back person ever, but she was also really fun and enthusiastic and supportive. She was definitely my favorite part of elementary school–aside from teaching me how to play tetherball, she showed us a bunch of great ways to stay active and have fun (two things that I’d previously thought mutually exclusive because jogging with my dad was not fun at all). Most of all, she was fair, a blessing for a kid who was pretty socially awkward and accidentally rubbed kids the wrong way on the playground. Overall, she was a pretty awesome person. I was saddened and a little confused when the school suddenly decided a few years later that P.E. should be led by normal teachers, not by Theresa. I know now that the district was clamping down due to budget cuts, but I didn’t really understand it then. I just remember that one day, I went back to school and there was no P.E.
Inevitably, I ended up talking with one of my classmates about it. “Oh, that,” he’d told me. “They fired her because she’s gay.”
“Gay?” I echoed. Until that point, I’d never heard the word before. “What does that mean?”
“It means that instead of liking boys and marrying a boy, she married a girl.”
It seemed like such an innocent explanation, but I remember turning it over in my head and thinking, Girls marrying girls? That’s not normal. And then I thought, That’s not right. Very quickly, my kid brain made the connection that gay = bad. At the time, I accepted that explanation. Theresa was gay, and she’d been fired. To me, there was nothing out of place with that. It felt appropriate, and I accepted it.
When I was in fourth grade, I had a teacher who, aside from being a man (which was already weird in my eyes), really enjoyed getting the class to connect through music. He called it ETM (Education Through Music). On the first day of school, he had us all introduce ourselves with a short song, and singing became a motif throughout the rest of his classes. The first thing that irked me was having to sing in class. Singing wasn’t for the classroom, I thought. This is stupid and childish.
The second thing I thought was that a male teacher shouldn’t be singing, period. Why was he so fond of music? Why was he so good at singing? Was he gay? I remember my brother and I making fun of the teacher. “He probably touches little boys,” my brother had said. And I accepted it; I even embraced it. My male teacher who wanted his kids to grow through music was gay and a pedophile. I no longer felt safe in his classroom. I began to find reasons to hate him. He sings, so he’s gay; he’s gay, so he must touch little boys. It was a progression that made perfect sense to fourth-grade me. Even now, I find it appalling that I ever thought that way.
I think it’s why I’m still so shocked and relieved to hear stories about little kids who are perfectly accepting not just of gay and lesbian kids, but also of transgender and questioning ones. Undoubtedly, it’s great to hear about young kids who are already growing up to accept differences. But it’s also a little jarring that those kids had the kind of progressive, loving thoughts that never occurred to me when I was younger. I think it’s why I still can’t bring myself to indict kids on the other end of the spectrum–the homophobic kids. It’s because I was one of them, once.
I’m not sure why I’m writing about this at all. I guess it’s only in retrospect that I can really pay attention to the change that gripped me and my peers as we grew up. We accepted LGBTQ in the same way that people fall asleep–slowly, then all at once. I can’t really put my finger on the moment where I changed from gay = bad to gay = who cares? but I’m really glad it happened. No matter how angry I get at homophobia in the modern age, I’m still trying to come to grips with the fact that ten years ago, that was me. I’m not sure how to feel about that.
A lot can change in ten years, I guess. As it damn well should.