I see you at 17, you have just graduated from high school: feathered hair, parachute pants, asymmetrical smile. Despite your outward ebullience, I see beneath the jocular façade that you are so very sad. Of this you are (mostly) unaware.
I see the reason for your sadness: 12 years of institutionalized bullying—pervasive, relentless. I am touched by the exquisite coping skills you cultivated, the exaggerated belief in your own exceptionalism that you use like armor to guard against painful things, made to measure to compensate for what is being denied you or taken away.
I see the cruelty of children: they throw food at you, but you keep walking; they punch you in the back but you keep singing; you do a jazz dance to Styx’s “Rockin’ the Paradise” — “tonight’s the night we’ll make history, honey you and I”—wearing a Burgundy leotard and the entire school laughs as one, but you keep dancing. You confront the principal’s office like Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich when some creep lights your locker on fire—I’m laughing at your indignant reaction when the principal told you they bore no responsibility, as the conflagration could have been due to “spontaneous combustion.” Despite feeling humiliated, you looked him in the eye—well really glared at him—holding your melted acrylic winter coat and hissed ”we both know full well my locker spontaneously combusted when someone threw a lit match in it! I demand this administration’s accountability and I will see that I get it.”
Sanctioned abuse is what it was—and you stood your ground with your own unique brand of defiance. So many who were less flinty became terribly introverted or disappeared entirely. When I see you at 17 I am filled with admiration. You may be a shame-filled Show Tune Sally, but you are no less a warrior for the legwarmers.
Take a breath because the next few years are going to be a different sort of test: there is an epidemic coming that will exact stunning losses. You will come of age in an environment of complete hysteria, terrified to have sex and then diagnosed yourself at age 34—the immaculate sero-conversion, as it were. With detached compassion, your doctor will give you nine years to live. By the time you realize you didn’t die, you will be middle aged and realize you also haven’t lived. You will be irritated when it begins to occur to you that life is an aggregation of adjustments and dashed expectations. At this you will bridle and then—finally—begin to bend.
It is risky business to stake your happiness on what is, essentially, an enormous revenge fantasy. Your first therapist, Dr. Fader, will tell you one day in the not too distant future that you are “pathologically ambitious.” At this you will spin on your heels and storm out of his office like Bette Davis in All About Eve. Placing such capital on the necessity of having global impact is a strategy that involves far more luck than you can currently bear to consider.
But trust me that the more you let go of the need conquer the world the more alive you will feel. Don’t exhaust yourself needing to “show them,” because, truth is, there is no “them.” Though you will never be able to forget the pain of growing up gay and the brutality of those early years, eventually that pain will lessen and you will, at last, begin to treat yourself as compassionately as you do most everyone else.
A version of this piece was featured in the Huffington Post.