An anonymous student author, 2016. Reproduced with permission from the student author.
The timing of this breakdown was not ideal. I don’t remember exactly what happened in the middle of rehearsal that triggered this moment of hysteria, but I know it had been building for a long time, and for whatever reason, that was the day the dam finally broke. At the time, I had pinpointed the start of my crisis to a moment several months earlier when I started questioning my sexuality. Looking back now, though, I can see that this aspect of my identity had been there since childhood, when as a seven-year-old I couldn’t decide if I would rather marry Aladdin or Princess Jasmine.
Up until the age of 16, I lived in Amarillo, Texas, a flat, brown city in the middle of a huge red state. Even though my parents had never been blatantly homophobic in front of me, I grew up in a conservative religious community that was fiercely cis-heteronormative. My eighth-grade health teacher kicked off our unit on sex education with a contemptuous, “We aren’t going to bother learning about safe sex for homosexuals. We’re only going to talk about normal relationships.” Another time, when I told a friend about a secret I had (unrelated to my sexuality), she responded with, “That’s not too bad. At least you’re not gay,” her lips curling in disdain as if simply saying the sinful word aloud left a bad taste in her mouth.
I laid in a crumpled mess on that bathroom floor, crying until my head throbbed and the linoleum beneath me became slick with tears and dollar-store face paint. By the time my crying slowed and I finally pulled myself up off the floor, my entire body felt weighed down by the secret I now knew I had to keep, and despite being a perfectionist at heart, I couldn’t find it within myself to care that I’d missed almost all of rehearsal. I looked at my tear-streaked face in the mirror, makeup smeared all over my burning cheeks, and silently admitted to myself what I had subconsciously known for a long time: that I wasn’t straight, even though I didn’t know exactly what I was yet. At the time, even thinking the words “I might be gay” to myself felt like a death sentence. I promised myself then and there that I would never tell anyone; that seemed to be the only option.
For several years, I managed to keep my promise to myself. Whereas before I had spent almost all of my free time with my friends, after my episode in the bathroom, I became isolated, making up excuses anytime a friend invited me out for fear of accidentally getting too comfortable and letting my secret slip. I spent most of middle school and the beginning of high school so far back in the closet I could barely breathe or see any light. I felt like the puppet I’d played in that production of Pinocchio—tied down by fear and shame, controlled by other people and their expectations of me rather than having the ability to be honest about who I was.
Just as I ended up breaking down in that theater bathroom stall when I was twelve, though, I eventually broke down again. My freshman year of high school was one of the worst years of my life. Struggling with mental illness and missing large portions of school as I went in and out of psychiatric hospitals was hard enough, but on top of all of that, I was also lying about a core part of my identity to everyone I knew. After a particularly rough night, I sat down and wrote a letter to my parents explaining that I was pansexual (or attracted to all genders and gender identities). “I’ve tried to stop being this way, but I can’t,” I wrote, my normally-neat handwriting reduced to a shaky chicken scratch as I struggled to control the trembling of my hands. “I hope you still love me.” With my heart pounding violently in my chest, I signed the letter and left it in the kitchen for them to find before locking myself in my room and pretending to go to sleep so I wouldn’t have to deal with their initial response.
By some amazing twist of fate, my parents did not have the horrible reaction I’d been dreading for the past two years. They knocked on my door a few minutes after I’d left the letter for them, and when I nervously let them in, they hugged me and told me that they loved me no matter what; my dad even said, “Kid, you couldn’t have picked a better family to be gay in.”
For the first time in years, I felt like I could breathe again. My fear of rejection was still there—after all, I still had to come out to most of my friends and extended family—but it seemed so much more manageable knowing I had my parents on my side. It took me several years to fully come out and get to a point where I felt comfortable in my own identity. A lot of people, even those who had known and loved me since I was a baby, told me that they couldn’t be friends with me or my family anymore because of my “sinful lifestyle.”
As painful as it was each time I was shunned by someone I thought was my friend, I eventually gained enough confidence in myself and my identity to stop caring as much when people tried to tear me down for something I know is outside of my control.
Now, as a fully out-of-the-closet queer person, I still face discrimination from certain people in my life and from society as a whole. However, I’ve learned that it’s a lot easier to deal with judgment from external forces when you surround yourself with people who love and support you, and most importantly, when you have love for yourself, which I’m glad to say I now do.