In middle school I was, in no particular order: loud, tall, muscular, funny, a prankster (I once commandeered my eighth grade teacher’s car with two boys and drove it onto the blacktop), a feminist, and a discipline problem (see earlier prank). I played basketball with boys in the street and I would have rather died than lose any competition.
I was also gay. I didn’t know it then but I knew it about my uncle, who wore pink shirts and got manicures and only brought men wearing earrings over to our house. No one in my family talked about this. This made me feel like there was something wrong with him, too.
All I knew was that I was different. But when you don’t know why you’re different, you think something is wrong with you. You stand with your back against the wall at school dances, watching the cool girls dance with fellow cool boys, and you wonder why you are not being asked— you are, supposedly, also a cool girl. You wonder if maybe you’re not really cool at all. Maybe you are a fraud, maybe your friends aren’t really your friends, and maybe you just don’t belong there.
When I was growing up, “lesbian” meant failure to be a girl. When you were too loud, you were a lesbian. When you were too opinionated, you were a lesbian (and a feminist). When you were more interested in hanging out with your best friend than fantasizing about a boy, you were a lesbian.
And I didn’t want to be a lesbian. Lesbian meant other, uncool, cast out, alone, defective.
The minute I understood what “popular” was, I barreled towards it. Popular would be my escape hatch. My refuge. I would wear what they wore, talk like they talked, write purple bubble letters, gush about boys.
When the hook-ups and drinking at parties began, I studied the other girls and mimicked them. I drank and told myself it tasted good. I let boys touch me and told myself it felt good. I told myself a lot of things that weren’t true, which only made me feel like I was watching my life from the outside—a movie about someone else.
When teenagers are growing up, the textbooks say they are searching for an identity. I was engaged in the opposite exercise: I was desperate NOT to become something. I wanted to be a NOT-lesbian. This meant I spent almost no time thinking about what I desired, what I needed, what I hoped for – and all my time trying to be someone else.
One day, when I was 15, I felt a jolt of attraction zing through me when a girl touched my hand. It was as palpable and unique as any other body feeling I’d ever felt. Until that point, I had been able to ignore my mind. But my body would no longer let me pretend.
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#Thisis18 in Jerusalem in 1992, singing in bed with (!?) a People magazine cover on my wall. What I’d tell that girl in the photo? Dude, you are not bi. Stop pretending. It’s okay to be gay for the stay! Over at @nytgender, you can learn more about the lives of 18-year-old girls around the world. nytimes.com/thisis18 (And Happy Coming Out Day y’all!)
I wish that was the end of the story, but it was only the beginning. From there I hacksawed between the joyful pursuit of my found desire and terror that I would possess it. As I entered a public career, I faced questions about my personal life. I dreaded the, “Can I introduce you to my son?” or some passing reference to my boyfriend or husband. There were even times I lied: Yes, in fact, I do have a boyfriend. It was easier than seeing their face change when I said, “I date women.”
It was Simone Marean, my (straight) co-founder at Girls Leadership, who finally shook me awake. I was terrified for our summer camp’s counselors to come out to campers, and angrily insisted they keep their personal lives to themselves. Simone refused. Why would I deprive the girls of a chance to know someone just like them?
Only then did I understand that my anger was self-hatred I had swallowed whole, and that it was now reversing course; instead of silencing myself because I thought I was defective, I wanted to silence others. Simone helped me understand that a new generation of girls didn’t have to feel like there was something wrong with them, too.
I had my first healthy, “normal” relationship with another woman when I was 27, well over a decade after most of my friends. Spending most of your life trying to be someone else takes a toll – and a long time to untangle. But I did it. When my seven year old daughter tells me she’d like to have a wife instead of a husband, I laugh. And I am grateful and relieved to laugh.
Twenty years after that summer, when speaking on stages to thousands of teenagers, I have begun to share cautiously that I am gay. I freeze up inside right before but push through it. It is part of my story, and there is no reason to censor it. Mostly there is no reaction – exactly as it should be.
Once in a while, though, some students clap. Many have come up to me after my talk to thank me for being visible. Others message me on Instagram. I have been surprised to realize that my visibility still matters, and that we haven’t come as far as a culture as many people seem to think.
The fear that someone in the audience is waiting to sneer isn’t as strong as the part of me that wants to show students that there is nothing wrong with them. Now, when I share that I am gay, I imagine what it would have been like for eighth grade me to see grown-up me: loud, funny, happy and whole.