I was one of those squeaky clean, annoyingly mainstream, overachiever types. I got good grades, did student government, sang in musicals, played team sports, and joined lots of clubs to fatten up my college applications. But even though I was popular and friends with lots of different people, I felt alone, really alone, like no one knew the real me.
How could they? I was trying so hard to be perfect.
On the outside, I was a thriving, active, make-my-family-proud, successful teenager. But on the inside, I was emotionally numb, comatose, flat-lining. My mom had died of breast cancer two weeks before the beginning of ninth grade. She was an amazing mom, loving and supportive, and she gave me enough freedom to explore who I was so I could succeed or fail with my own personal style. After she died, I was devastated. But I was determined to prove to the world and to myself that I was okay.
I found myself working really, really hard to be the best because I was scared. Scared of being different. Scared of being defective. Scared of feeling my feelings. So for years, I didn’t let myself feel.
I got a lot done in high school but I didn’t have a lot of fun. And even though I wasn’t ever bullied by other people, I was relentlessly bullied by my own thoughts and fears about who I was, how I was supposed to behave, and what would happen if I didn’t.
I actually had this pathetic idea that I would somehow let down my community—people I barely knew in the conservative, snooty neighborhood where I grew up—if I ended up being a lesbian. How ridiculous is that?
Bullying isn’t just what real people in real time say to you or try to do to you. Bullying is everywhere—it’s in the words of fearful, judgmental parents who are trying to control you. (BTW: it’s also in the words of well-meaning but misguided parents who are trying “to protect you from being hurt.”) Bullying is in the news and in government policy. It’s in the imagery of pop culture. It’s in religion. And as a result, it gets into your head.
How did it get better for me? Slowly. It helped that I went to college across the country, as far away as I possibly could go from my hometown without needing a passport.
I eventually found the guts to stand up to my inner bully, the judgmental, fearful, bossy voice in my head that kept telling me, You can’t . . . You shouldn’t . . . Don’t you dare! And then I finally found the confidence to listen to my body and to my heart and to be honest with myself.
And then I moved to New York.
When I was living there, I met tons of people who were a lot like me—squeaky-clean, annoyingly mainstream overachievers who just happened to be gay: former high-school cheerleaders, homecoming kings, class officers, student leaders, star athletes. And I realized . . . yeah, I can do this. Yeah, I can be this. And now, I love being different—in my squeaky-clean, annoyingly mainstream way.