I’ve been writing novels for young LGBTQIA folk for more than a decade now. I started when I was 32, which may sound old to some of you but is MUCH closer to 17 than I am now, more than a decade later.
One thing I’ve learned is that some things are universal, and some things aren’t. Some parts of the teenage experience come very naturally to me, because, yes, I was one once. In case you don’t believe me, here I am with my best friend from high school on graduation day. In, um, 1989.
So yes, I was your age once. Which sounds pretty Captain Obvious, but in some ways it isn’t. I just read a novel in which a character explains that people who meet you later in life will never REALLY be able to imagine you before that age. It’s just not possible with our brains. So I guess you imagining me as a teen would be a little bit like me imagining Judy Blume as a teen. Only I’m much, much, MUCH less famous. 🙂
So I was once a gay youth. That’s the term we used back in the 1980s. Much less inclusive, no? I absolutely do know what it feels like to feel alone, to feel like the only one, or one of the only ones, who understands what it feels like to be different. I don’t know, however, what it must be like to grow up TODAY, which is different in so many vital ways. Social media. The Internet. Increasing visibility of LGBTQIA people. Gay marriage.
With all that in mind, I wanted to write you a letter to tell you some things about you, in case on a certain day you will have forgotten them. If you are like me, there will be MANY days when you forget who you are. And I don’t mean forget like you might lose your phone or your keys. I mean in a more elemental way, sometimes we “forget” how fabulous/wonderful/flawed/human/fill in the blank we are.
- You are the chosen people. Believe it. Not everyone is so lucky to have this unusual journey, to realize at a young age that you are different, and therefore blessed. When I was in high school, fitting in was so important to me, and I so didn’t. But I figured out in the long run how lucky I was that I didn’t fit in. What person who fits the accepted definition of normal goes on to change the world for the better? Mostly what I’ve seen in my life is that it’s the misfits, those who felt they didn’t belong, who have made the biggest mark on the world. Own it. Fly your flag loud and proud, because the ways in which you are different are the ways in which you are wonderful. The ways in which you are you.
- You are stronger than you think. This is a tough one for me to talk about. I always thought that I was weak. That I didn’t have what it took. I think a lot of that was tied to being LGBTQIA, and some of the stereotypes I ingested about people like us. That and I compared my rough drafts to the final drafts of other people–or the drafts that other people allow the world to see–and I found myself wanting in so many ways. I had a belief all my life that I was a screw up. In my teens, I wasn’t popular enough. In my twenties, I made all these mistakes in navigating my life. Well, if that’s the case, it was all a spectacular screw up. Because I’ll tell you what: my life today is exactly what I wanted it to be all along. I have love, I have family, I have a career I love. And all along the way, I made the wrong choices. So many wrong choices! But I kept going. You will make mistakes. You will screw up in love and in life. And you will get up and keep going, because you can. And knowing that you have that strength matters. It helps us persevere.
- Along those lines, you are more resilient than you realize! It’s simply harder for LGBTQIA people, isn’t it? It’s hard to have to navigate a world which still mostly assumes we are heterosexual, cisgender, you name it. The world as we know it was made for those people, and in my experience, sometimes we don’t even know we’re dancing their dance. Some day maybe we will create a world that was made for us. Or better, for ALL of us. So we don’t have to dance their dance all the time.
- You are not alone. Let me repeat that. YOU ARE NOT ALONE! Ever. Any feeling you have has been had before by someone else. No matter how weird/different/bizarre something you’re dealing with is, rest assured someone out there has navigated this before. This has taken me so long to learn in my life. That I am not as terminally unique as I always thought I was. It can be hard, in those moments when we feel so alone, to reach out. But we must. Sometimes we need someone else to walk the path with us, and that doesn’t make you weak; it makes you human. Promise me, in those moments where you feel utterly by yourself, that you’ll take the chance to reach out. Please. Promise.
- You are welcome to your feelings. We do a really shitty job in this society of teaching young people the truth about emotions. That truth is as follows: That which you resist, persists. Don’t like feeling angry or sad? Tough. Life will bring us all anger and sadness and fear and every other emotion, and it’s totally okay. It’s better than okay. These are yours. As Mark Oshiro would say, Anger is a gift. And if you’re LGBTQIA, you’ll probably have more of them, because there’s more stuff out there that will make you feel stuff. You may or may not get help in learning this, but you must. Own those feelings because they are yours. And also because if you don’t, they’ll own you.
- You don’t need to live in addiction. Addiction is, basically, EVERYTHING. Take it from me, a recovering addict. When we are addicted, we lose our freedom. As soon as we lose the ability to choose what we do, our lives get messy quick. And sadly, perhaps because of the unique challenges we face as LGBTQIA people, many of us struggle at one time or another with addictive behavior. There’s help, though. The 12-steps work for many people, if they do the work. Other things help, too. Meditation. Mindfulness. Help from others. Connection. Find the help you need, because you may be all the things I’ve said in Numbers 1-5 (and you are), but if you’re living in addiction, none of that matters. You’re in jail. Straight up true.
- You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna do. Well, that’s not entirely true, but stay with me. I’m referring to peer pressure inside and outside of the LGBTQIA community. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out who we are and what we like, and along the way we may need to experiment to learn about ourselves. But you don’t need to do what works for your best friend, or what you read about in books or see on TV. It’s okay to love sex. It’s okay to be afraid of it, or to not like it. Same with drinking, drugs, dancing, parties, etc. Be you and stand strong. It took me years to realize I didn’t like to stay out until after midnight, drinking. I just thought that’s what people did. I haven’t done that in many years now, and I don’t miss it in the least. That wasn’t for me.
- RuPaul speaks the truth very, very often. The most important quote: “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” These are words to live by. Figure out how to love the package that is you, with all its glory and all its mess. This is your life, and this is your lot. This is who you are. I wish I’d figured this out much earlier. It would have saved me a lot of time wondering why I was alone.
- You don’t need to be so hard on yourself, and others. This is a controversial one, I think. And I want to make it clear I’m not saying to not call people out for the things they do or say. What I am saying, though, is that it’s easy for us to forget the humanity of others in doing this call out, and in so doing, we lose a piece of our own humanity. Everyone is human. Everyone is allowed to screw up, to misspeak, to make a mistake, to act shitty once in a while. In the same way that we might want that same grace, so that our words or misdeeds don’t come to define us. My take on this, as a call out guy from way back, from someone who was challenging homophobia years before you were born, is that we sometimes forget the humanity of others. Focusing on the words and actions rather than on the person is one great way to avoid doing to other people what we’d never want them to do to us. There is a difference between SAYING something transphobic or homophobic and BEING transphobic or homophobic. When we challenge words and actions and not a person’s being, we offer them the grace to do better, and we welcome them into the human race, along with us. They are not them; they are us. Treat them that way whenever possible.
- You can change the things about the world you don’t like. Take it from someone who spent years belly-aching about homophobia, the evils of the world in all its forms. This wasn’t a useful way to spend my time. Complaining about homophobia/transphobia is useless. This is not to say you shouldn’t FEEL things about these things. They suck. But feeling them and then taking action is one thing. Feeling them and getting stuck in the complaint is another. And if this describes you, know you are not alone. I was totally this way for so long. Today, if I’m not willing to act on it, if I’m not willing to speak out in strength about something, I try to shut my mouth. And yes, one person can make a difference. One person can change the world. Never doubt your ability to do that. It’s in you!
That’s all I got. And sorry if this got preachy. I mean it with love. I want for you to be happy and free and everything you want to be.