I don’t often write about my childhood, but this Pride month has me feeling nostalgic.
I remember the first person I ever came out to, my freshman year of high school. Actually, I remember the first person I THOUGHT I came out to: Her name was Jenn, and she was a cheerleader.
She wasn’t your typical bouncy blonde cheerleader—she was the cool cheerleader, a junior with dark hair and darker eyeliner, who traded her cheerleader uniform for Green Day t-shirts and Converse on days there wasn’t a game.
I say I THOUGHT I came out to her because I didn’t actually say the words “I’m gay.” After a weekend of watching stupid movies and eating McDonalds (small town Iowa life—actually, that’s exactly what I do now in New York), she was driving me home when I brought up a gay senior who’d just come out. “I don’t understand why everyone is making such a big deal out of it,” I murmured, my jet blue/black dyed hair gleaming in her rearview mirror. “Who cares if someone is gay? Let people be who they are, and leave them alone.”
“I totally agree,” she said, smiling.
What I understood was that I’d implied “I’m gay” and she said “I’m fine with you being gay.” What she heard was “I’m feminine but comfortable with my heterosexuality and also others’ homosexuality” and she said “That’s so cool that you’re so comfortable.”
And so, the next day at school, a cheerleader named Charity cornered me at my locker. “Do you like girls?” she asked pointedly, chewing spearmint gum with her mouth open.
I froze. Did Jenn tell everyone I told her I was gay? “What?”
“Ugh, never mind. What I’m asking is: Do you like Jenn?”
“OK, well, Jenn likes you too, so you should ask her out.” Oh. Oh, no.
I went bright red, but Charity didn’t notice, already skipping away to let Jenn know she’d told me.
In first period English, I couldn’t focus on Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby; all I could think about was Jenn. I figured I had three options: 1. I go out with her, everyone stops teasing me for being feminine, but I’ll hurt the first person I’d ever trusted with my secret; 2. I don’t go out with the hot older cheerleader, and everyone teases me relentlessly, because now they’ll KNOW I’m gay; or 3. I take this as my opportunity to come out.
Option 1 hurt Jenn the most. Option 2 hurt me the most. Option 3 would hurt us both, a little, but was the best choice to avoid casualties.
So, I came out. A little embarrassed, Jenn supported me, helping me pick out a rainbow wristband at hot topic. This is how I told the world (or, rather, Knoxville High School, which I guess was my world then): “Listen up: You were all right. I’m Gay. Read my wrist, and don’t ask me about it again.”
After coming out, all the straight boys stopped bullying me: What fun is it calling someone a fag when their response is “Guilty as charged”? But I faced a new bully: Jordan.
Jordan was an out gay junior, one who’d never paid me any attention until I came out. Jordan was blonde, wore Abercrombie and Armani Exchange, and was popular. I’d looked up to him, honestly: Even in a small town, with enough confidence, a gay boy can be popular.
But Jordan didn’t want to share the spotlight. One day, rainbow wristband intact, I found a letter slipped into my locker:
“Listen up, I know you want to be me, but you’ll never be me. You’ll always just be a wannabe poser. I’m the top fag at Knoxville High School. <3 Jordan” I was shocked. I wanted to be Jordan’s friend, to weasel my way into popularity—and he hated me, without ever having talked to me. That night, Jenn drove me to Walmart for supplies. I was not going to be bullied, not by another gay, and I had a plan. I showed up at school the next day in a neon-green t-shirt that read, in sparkly silver letters, “TOP FAG.” When I walked by Jordan’s locker before third period Spanish I, his mouth dropped open. I nodded, smirking. I got through the whole day wearing the t-shirt. It wasn’t until the next day that I was called into the principal’s office, and told very carefully that he was proud of me for being out, but that the word on my shirt had offended someone. “It was Jordan, wasn’t it?” He said he couldn’t say. So, I handed him the letter, and told him about Jordan’s “hot and not” list in his locker (guess which I was on?). They searched his locker, and that plus the letter got him a week’s suspension. (I explained that my t-shirt was making a point, and that I wouldn’t wear it again.) (And yes, I’m just now realizing that scrawny, 14-year-old me was wearing a t-shirt that said “TOP” on it.) When Jordan returned to school, he looked me up and down at my locker and said, “I like your shoes. Doc Martens, good choice.” And, by the laws of high school, we were best friends ever since. My dad showed his support by making me a magnetic faux-bumper sticker that read, proudly in all capital letters, “MY SON IS THE TOP FAG AT KNOXVILLE HIGH SCHOOL.” I kept it in my locker all four years; somewhere, in my mom’s basement, it’s kept safe in a plastic bin of all my high school memories. We’ve all got a coming out story. Good and bad, funny and painful, these are the stories that have made us who we are today, whether you were the “TOP FAG” or otherwise. Whatever your shirt says—or doesn’t say—wear it with pride this month. I might even break out the rainbow wristband…for nostalgia’s sake.