November 2, 2007
by Els Kushner
Age 13 at the time
In 7th grade, I got a crush on my French teacher. A huge, yearning, painful crush. On my female French teacher. It hit me like a truck, and it was terrifying. Particularly so because I read a lot and knew exactly what it was called if these sorts of feelings for people of the same gender continued; I had it on good authority that they could be Just a Phase, and I hoped fervently that they were.
See, all those advice books for adolescents -- the ones with questions supposedly from Real Teens about things like menstruation and pubic hair -- always included a question from some poor soul along the lines of "I think I have a crush on my best friend, s/he's a girl/boy and so am I, does this mean I'm gay?" To which the answer was always something like, "Now, there's absolutely nothing wrong with being gay. But don't worry [emphases mine] about your crush on your friend; it's perfectly normal for heterosexual teens to have feelings like this..." and blah blah blah. It was supposed to be reassuring but was actually confusing: if there was nothing wrong with being gay, what was there to worry about, with the crushes on friends? Why the need for reassurance? Anyone would smell a rat.
In 8th grade, I tried to put the whole emotional mess behind me and concerned myself with the standard teenage-girl nerd things: reading the Foundation trilogy, writing in my Notebook, and trying not to get beat up by mean kids.
The mean kids were really, really mean. Especially Noelle Johnson, who was constantly threatening to beat me up because I was so bad at volleyball. Noelle was one of those girls who were mysteriously allowed to spend every gym class sitting on the bleachers, gossiping and making obnoxious comments. (And you have to wonder: why did she care about me? I wasn't even on her team!)
One day Noelle ventured down from the bleachers again. I figured she was going to give me yet another hard time about how my inability to spike the ball was going to lead to my imminent demise at her hands. Instead, she stared at me, hard, and demanded accusingly, "Are you a lesbian?"
My jaw dropped. My first impulse -- honestly, I was this nerdy -- was to say something like, "How am I supposed to know if I'm a lesbian? I'm only thirteen! No one can know if they're a lesbian when they're thirteen! All the books say so! I'm waiting to see. Ask me again in a few years." But even I knew that that would've been a Big Mistake. Though, in retrospect, maybe not worse than what I did say, which was (after a few seconds during which all the above thoughts flashed through my mind) a bare and unconvincing "No!"
As it was, she stared at me for a couple more seconds, while all her friends went "ooooooh!" with that rising inflection indicating a fight's about to start. But nothing happened. She made a few more remarks about how dumb I was and went back to the bleachers.
I went back to the volleyball game, shaken. How had she known to ask? How??
Now I think that she probably just randomly picked the most damning accusation she could come up with. But at the time it was so scary and creepy, like she could see inside my thoughts. If she could do that when I wasn’t even sure how I felt, what would happen if I decided that I really was gay? It was too terrible to contemplate, so I put it all firmly out of my mind.
Or rather, I did the best I could. A year or two later, in unrequited love with my best friend and trying to decide what “counted” as being in love, I remember writing something like this in my notebook:
"Am I gay? I know I'm in love with Z. But does that mean I'm a lesbian? I'm really too young to decide something like that! When I'm maybe 20, if I still feel like this about girls, then I'll decide I really am. But I can't know now."
And that’s more or less what I did: I waited until college, when nobody I knew was threatening to beat anyone up, and it didn’t matter how good anyone was at volleyball, and I didn’t feel like my whole world would come tumbling down with one simple “yes.”
In the decades since then, most people in my life -- my friends and family and even the people I work with -- have been just fine with who I am and who I love. Even my daughter says that no one at school gives her a hard time about having two moms. I know it’s not like that for everyone, and I feel really lucky.
At times I wish I’d had the courage to come out sooner, at least to myself. Sometimes, now, I wish that when Noelle Johnson asked me that question, I'd said "Yes!," swept her into my arms, and given her a big smooch in front of the whole gym class. It would have made for a much better story, even though I probably would've gotten suspended and beaten up.
And at other times I think I was right and smart to wait until it felt safe for me. Life isn’t just a story when you’re living it, after all. It’s easy for me now, safe in my grownup life, to wonder whether it’s worse to get hurt, or worse to live scared that you might get hurt. Some kids who come out as teenagers did and do get hurt, in real and lasting ways, and I escaped most of that.
But you know what's weird? No one ever did actually beat me up, even though they spent much of 8th grade threatening to. I didn’t even exactly know what “beaten up” meant, even though I spent most of 8th grade being afraid of it.
I do wish I’d been able, somehow, to not be so scared of something that hadn’t even happened to me. And to let myself decide for myself what I felt, and what it meant, and what counted as real.