A few years ago I spent the Christmas holidays with extended family. During one of the evenings I was watching a cousin’s two young boys horsing around and was suddenly struck with a realization. The eldest of the two boys was eleven. A typical if slightly shy eleven year old kid who liked toys, video games, getting goofy with his younger brother, and even occasionally attempting to tackle one of us decrepitly ancient types. I remember watching him careen away to his next adventure, after having spent several minutes turning him upside down and tangling him up in his own limbs in response to being ‘zombie pounced’, and musing to myself. So that’s what eleven years old is supposed to look like.
I was always an introspective and independent minded kid. I made friends easily enough and enjoyed spending time with them, was outgoing and didn’t mind being the center of attention when the spirit so moved me, I was often more comfortable interacting with my parents’ adult friends than kids my own age, but being an only child I spent a fair bit of time on my own which actually suited me just fine. I was quite happy to spend endless hours alone in my room listening to music, conducting epic quests and grand tales with my various toys and figures, singing songs, crafting stories, creating and practicing theatrical performances of various types which I would occasionally summon my parents into the living room to bear witness to once they had been sufficiently rehearsed. I was self-entertaining and spent a great deal of time inside my own head.
As such I also had a pretty solid sense of what I liked, what mattered to me, I had my own ideas and was comfortable with the fact that other people may not always share or understand them. How I behaved needed to match with the world around me but my thoughts belonged to me so it was okay if they were sometimes different. In stories and TV shows I was drawn to characters who were true to themselves and stuck to their convictions even if it meant they lost the battle, and who would sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. I was also far more drawn to the supportive characters than the ‘stars’ of the story. I found the idea of Merlin far more interesting than the idea of Arthur.
So at age eleven when the caring and well-handled language of my grade six health class made things click together and I realized I was gay I was well practiced at contemplating and turning ideas over inside my own mind. I already had a fully formed and embraced inner world to take a step back into and consider things. The realization rang true and since I was considering things first and foremost on my own terms there was no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ of it, it was just the truth and it settled into place as part of my sense of self. When I then looked outward, however, the message was clear it would not be a welcomed truth, to put it mildly. Thus my comfort with keeping my thoughts to myself was to become less of a quirk and more of a survival skill.
I could see that being all of myself openly would provoke a lot of grief and hurt for me so I was going to have to keep that part of me isolated inside. But since being true to myself mattered a great deal to me I would need a way to do so which didn’t involve pretending to be something or someone I wasn’t. I also didn’t feel I could live one version of my life out in the world and then a different one at home with my parents. If this newly realized part of me was going to stay confined to my internal world then it was going to have to stay there full time. So I relegated my queerness to the same private internal island as all the epic tales and adventures and songs and stories, I vowed never to be anyone but myself and to be honest if directly asked, I vowed to tell my parents before going away to school, I squared my shoulders and embraced my Merlinian role of ‘other’.
There’s a very powerful difference between keeping things to yourself because you choose to and doing so because you feel you have to for the sake of your wellbeing. Choosing the closet is a choice, it’s true, but when your safety is at stake it doesn’t feel like a choice. It feels more like a condescending imitation of one. To the newly realized eyes of an eleven year old in a small town of less than thirteen thousand and a culture devoid of any queer people who weren’t the butt of jokes or victims of open scorn it didn’t seem like much of a choice at all. What I did feel I had choice over, though, was how I went about it.
My hormones and emotions developed and surged just as much as those around me just perpetually shadowed by the internal echo of ‘that’s for them, not me’, a sentiment reinforced when my brief period of incredibly tame experimentation with my closest friend at the time ended with him never speaking to me again. No yelling or name-calling or outing me to others so they could do it for him. He just retreated silently and permanently. As much time as I spent beating myself up for destroying the friendship by getting recklessly carried away, and it was a lot, my anger was never directed at my queerness only at my choices and behavior.
Over the years it wasn’t as hard as one might assume to keep dangerous questions at bay. No lying or stand-offish defensiveness. Whenever the topic of girls or crushes or any of it ever came up my response was always ‘I have too much else on my mind for all that’. And anyone who knew me, or had ever provoked the creative story generating part of me into spilling out, had very little difficulty accepting that. I am always constantly involved in multitudes of creative enterprises so my being ‘too creatively distracted’ was pretty much universally accepted.
Growing up knowingly ‘other’, even if the true extent of it is known only to you, can be powerfully isolating. Conversations happen all around you clearly assumed to include everyone as you sit back and silently, internally, disqualify yourself. To watch your friends and peers have experiences and go through assumedly universal rites of passage you are only able to observe from afar can weigh heavily to the point of crushing. To feel that being fully and openly yourself, all of yourself, would revoke all sense of acceptance or belonging can be extremely toxic engendering understandable fear and paranoia.
I was able to avoid those emotional pitfalls and traps due in large part to the fact that I had been given the immeasurable privilege and blessing of being instilled by my parents, from my earliest memories on, with the understanding that different wasn’t ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘better’ or ‘worse’ or ‘more’ or ‘less’ it was just different. It enabled me to accept my truth on my own terms before turning to deal with the outside world. Not everyone is so fortunate as to be set on an isolating path with such a sure and solid footing to start from.
The sense of disqualification and isolation often made me sad, still does, but it also gave me a great deal for which I am immensely grateful. I know and understand my own mind and motivations. Not only do I feel that empowers me to be in control of the choices I make but it also allows me to fully trust them. To know and like and trust yourself is an invaluable gift. To know that I am at peace with everything inside me, even the parts which are sad or wounded, enables me to face the world around me without panic or desperation. The outcomes may not always be as desired but there is a big difference between being disappointed in an outcome and being disappointed with yourself.
I deeply value the ability to step back and examine things and the calmness in a crisis that enables. I cherish the ability to think before I speak, even when my emotions are running high. I treasure the ability to remove sexuality from circumstances where it truly isn’t relevant as it enables me to offer safe and nurturing spaces to those I dance, create, and heal with. I have seen firsthand many, many times the incredible impact that can have and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I am fortunate that my otherness is essentially an internal one. While it becomes quickly apparent to anyone who gets to know me I have choice about how much of it to display or broadcast. It isn’t so outwardly obvious that it precedes me into every room provoking reactions and consequences completely outside of my control denying me choice simply because I am present. That my isolation has been chosen and self-inflicted makes it cut in a different way, deprives me of an external enemy to rail and rage against, but I am grateful for those choices because so many people who’s otherness does not have the option of invisibility do not have such a luxury.
I wasn’t likely to ever be a ‘typical eleven year old’, queerness or not, and as quirky and playful as I have been my whole life I do sometimes mourn the childhood I never really allowed myself. Once you wrap yourself in the mantle of ‘other’ it can be a very hard bell to unring, in yourself never mind other people’s perceptions. Perhaps if I had been less removed, put myself all-in earlier, it could have been difficult and painful but I might have felt more a part of the world around me and less a life-long lunar object. My otherness has given me many incredible gifts which are not without their cost, and some days I feel those costs more than others, but I am able to feel when things ring true and thus firmly plant my feet and stand by them. Even if it means I lose a particular battle.