Shame, Sweatpants, and Seventh Grade

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Last fall, I went to school with my sweatpants tucked into boots. Yes. That’s really me. I guess this was a moment where I needed a fashionable gay dad – actually, I can’t blame it on my parents. Even the mom who hates shopping warned me not to wear it out of the house. My sister’s still mortified that she had to be seen with me.

​My only bigger embarrassment happened in 2009, during the year I’m sure we all look back on most fondly: seventh grade. While I now go to a school so diverse you have to be a Wiccan to be a religious minority, I spent middle school in a place that, despite its many strengths, was so predominantly filled with wealthy, white, Christian, Republicans that a political “discussion” meant telling me, “Ew, you’re a Democrat?” There’s nothing inherently wrong with that demographic, but the vast majority of my classmates never questioned their own beliefs because they were almost entirely surrounded by people who agreed with them. There WERE other people who didn’t agree, probably more than I even realize, but hardly anyone spoke up because we felt like we were all alone. I was the most silent of all.

​When I wore boots and sweatpants, I was just lazy, tired and oblivious. It was an accidental embarrassment, and before the end of the day I was already laughing and moving on. Half the people who know about it know because I told them while making fun of myself. However, the most shameful thing I’ve ever done was in no way accidental. I knew exactly what I was doing.

​I’m most embarrassed by a calculated, cowardly move to avoid embarrassment. Sitting in the hallway working on a school project, one of my classmates said: “I think I heard the gym teacher is a lesbian. I mean, she’s seen me running and stuff. I don’t want her looking at me like that.” Surely someone else would tell her that “looking at women like that” doesn’t mean you look at children like that. Surely someone else would ask why she thinks she looks so hot when she’s running. (I mean, seriously?) But no one did. Neither did I. Another girl added, “I’ve never met a gay person before. I think they should maybe be able to get married, but I definitely don’t think they should be able to have kids.” I felt like I couldn’t stay totally silent after that, so I came up with the rousing, “Well, I know some gay people who have kids… and they’re really good parents.” Not, “I have gay parents. Should I not have been allowed to be born?” Terrified of what other kids would think of me, I let them bash my own family and spread the type of lies Michelle Bachmann would be proud of.

It would be easier if I really believed other kids would have done the same thing. But I know better. My sister Jillian never would have done that. When she was in seventh grade she wrote on her “About Me” page: “My family’s different, just the way I like it.” At that age, I was purposely saying “my parents” when other kids said “my mom and dad” and instead of ever distinguishing between the two when I talked about them, I made my moms sound like one mega-superwoman – people had to think that “she” was a non-profit CEO AND an English teacher AND a stay-at-home mom AND the PTA president. It’s not that I never told ANYONE, it’s just that I avoided talking about it whenever possible. My sister would have considered it impossible not to talk about our family when a friend said gay people shouldn’t get to have kids. I didn’t. Not yet.

​I learned later that being real, being an ally, being honest, doesn’t just mean telling the truth when someone asks you directly “do you have a dad?” It means LIVING your truth, every day, no matter whom you’re with. Now, I go out of my way to talk about having gay parents. I bring it up every chance I get, especially if I’m around other teenagers. Because you never know who’s listening. Twice in one day last fall, I had friends tell me I’d made a difference for them just by talking about my family. I never could have made that difference if I’d only been willing to tell the truth when I had to, because probably, no one would have asked me the question. 

​Humans want to know they aren’t alone. If no one talks about the parts of ourselves that are different, we’ll always feel like we’re the only ones who ARE different. If statistics hold true, between 80 and 90 of my middle school classmates are gay – and they knew it even in seventh grade. (So yes, sweetheart, you’d met a gay person before.) Other kids might have had two moms or two dads. If we’d talked about it, I know we could have made a difference for each other. But we didn’t.

​Staying silent didn’t protect me from bullies. I still got made fun of – just about other things. In first grade, for having no hair. In third grade, for being too chubby. In fifth grade, for not being in the popular group. In middle school, for being the girl who never totally fit in no matter where she was, despite how desperately hard I tried. I didn’t get relentlessly teased or harassed, but socially, school wasn’t a happy place for me. More and more though, I’ve realized that pretty much everyone gets bullied in middle school for something. That’s normal. Here’s what isn’t: I only vaguely remember the mean things kids actually said to me, but I remember with searing clarity the constant fear of what they would say to me if they knew about my family. I don’t think the reality of their knowing would have made things all that much worse, but the fear of it certainly did.

When you don’t live your truth, you might not find out who doesn’t like you, but you’ll also never find out who does. Part of the reason school felt so lonely is that I didn’t give my friends a chance to be supportive: I felt like “the real me” had no friends because no one knew the real me. Even going to a tiny, progressive high school wasn’t an immediate fix; it took me a year to figure out how to be myself because I’d spent so long trying to be someone else. 

Eventually though, I set myself free of the fear that had consumed me for eight years: the fear that I wasn’t cool enough, thin enough, pretty enough, likeable enough, that my family wasn’t normal enough. Not everyone at my school likes me – some people really, really don’t – but I’m happier than I’ve ever been because everyone does KNOW me. So if they do like me, they really like ME. My best friends and favorite teachers do make fun of me for talking too much, saying things like “accelerating at the speed of gravity,” and of course, for wearing sweatpants with boots, but I’ve never doubted for one second that they love me, and wouldn’t really want to change who I am. I AM enough for them, and I’m enough for anyone worth my time.

I’ve already shared this blog on the Stanford Class of 2018 Facebook page and mentioned having two moms even before that. My new friends and classmates have been incredibly supportive, and I’m making sure they all meet the real Kinsey from the start. I don’t want to waste a single day of college trapped by fear. Truthfully, when I think of the seventh grade girl frozen in the hallway, suffocated by her own silence, I’m not ashamed of her; I just feel bad for her. She is so much more worthy of love than she knew. 

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3 thoughts on “Shame, Sweatpants, and Seventh Grade

  1. Kinsey, let me begin by saying that I think your blog is eye-opening, and your choice to write it is undoubtably brave. That being said, I am startled that you would throw some of your -albeit, closed-minded- past classmates under the bus, as you did in this passage. Referring to your classmates as “sweetheart” in a derogatory manner, or chastising a seventh grade girl for feeling attractive when she runs in gym class is both rude and vindictive. In fact, you seem to be taking on the same bully persona that you claim to have been threatened with. I don’t know if this utter rudeness was intentional or a mere slip of the tongue, but I encourage you to relieve your articles of their undeniably patronizing tone- for the sake of your readers.

    1. I understand your point, but I’d like to share with you my thoughts as I was writing the two “rude” lines you mentioned. In the sweetheart line, I didn’t want to reveal the girl’s identity – I didn’t even reveal my school’s identity – but I also wanted to make it clear I was talking to her and not the reader. Considering her absolutely ridiculous statement that she’d never met a gay person before I thought “sweetheart” was more effective than “So yes, girl…” My friends also say “sweetheart…” when I do something really stupid, like wear boots and sweatpants.

      I was not chastising her for feeling attractive when she runs; I was chastising her for acting like she was so much more attractive when she runs that a grown woman couldn’t help “looking at her like that.” Plus, offensive or not, those were my exact thoughts in seventh grade. I don’t think she REALLY thought she was more attractive when she was running, but she had to find some excuse to justify being offensive and undermining our teacher’s competence.

      I can’t believe that if you’ve read all five of my posts, you think that as a whole they have an “undeniably patronizing tone.” The only people I’ve criticized are ones that don’t believe my family should have equal rights. If I didn’t want to fight those people, why would I write this blog? These girls though, I didn’t really want to fight – in reality, they’re very smart and genuinely nice people – but I did want to make it clear how hurtful and ignorant they were being that day. By patronizing not them, but one thing they said, I think I made that clear in a humorous way that the vast majority of my readers seem to enjoy. Since I didn’t name them or even my school, I think it ultimately does more good than harm.

      Finally the person I criticized – jokingly and seriously – the most by far in this article was me. I called myself a fashion disaster, a coward, and a sell-out; the whole article was about my own shame. The tone I try to set in all of my blogs is “real”: I want people to know my real feelings, I want them to get real with themselves if they have other ridiculous excuses for homophobia, I want them to see the real me, unpolished and uncensored, occasionally wearing sweatpants and boots. If I ever patronize, it’s to try to break through to the reality we all need to see. Thank you for reading and taking the time to give feedback; while I don’t see my tone changing drastically, I will take your advice into my next post.

  2. I didn’t find your writing patronizing at all. Really well written, actually.

    Kinsey, thanks so much for writing this. I particularly loved “When you don’t live your truth, you might not find out who doesn’t like you, but you’ll also never find out who does.” I think that was one of the greatest lessons I learned when I came out my freshman year. Being open about who you are and taking pride in it creates this amazing support system around you of individuals who are worth your love and time. Rather than facing the anticipated crushing moments of rejection, I found that all my greatest friendships grew even stronger and helped fuel my sense of self-love and acceptance.

    I’ve never had the chance before to hear from someone that has gay parents, and I’m so glad that now I finally do!

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