The middle school principal folded her hands on her desk. The crepey skin crinkled around her eyes as she glowered at me. “Think about it, Chelsea. We only want to help you.”
I wiped salt residue from my right eye. I didn’t say what I was thinking:
“If you call my Dad, he’ll kill me. And if you call my mom, she’ll kill you.”
I got sent to the office over a nature club that consisted of me and my two other friends. I had excluded a girl in class from joining our club because I didn’t like her, and her mother had called the principal. (I was eleven, y’all. Cut me some slack). I don’t remember how the conversation turned to the fact that I had never liked a boy, but I already understood that something was terribly wrong with me.
I had known this since age five. Specifically, I had known this since February 14, 1996. On that day, everyone in Ms. Cook’s kindergarten class brought in shoeboxes to collect valentines from everyone else in the class. We proceeded in waves, each wave of children scampering around the room to pass out their valentines. Mrs. Cook mandated that everyone bring a valentine for everyone else, but I wanted Rachel to know that her valentine was special.
So after I slid the dollar store valentine into Rachel’s shoebox (“You’re outta this world,” it read, with a picture of an alien), I lifted her hand and I kissed the back of it. She began laughing uncontrollably. So did the girl next to her. Then the rest of the class started laughing. I turned beet red and ran away.
For the next year and a half, the idea of going to school gave me so much anxiety that I came up with a new excuse every single day to get my mother to bring me home early. I tried feigning illnesses. I tried claiming that I had forgotten some unspecified, very important object in my room. It never worked—not even once. My duping skills left something to be desired at age six. By the second grade, I had improved at willing myself to stay in school until 3 PM. I had learned what I needed to know about the wrongness I felt: you can’t be this. It’s not possible because you are a good kid, and you don’t deserve for this to happen to you.
This all might sound absurd to you if you grew up in California or Manhattan or some other relatively progressive place instead of Clay, Alabama.
But Clay is where I spent a good chunk of childhood. And sadly, Clay is not unique.
Take Tennessee, for another example. Despite the fact that Tennessee still considers homosexuality to be a mental illness, it permits mental health professionals to refuse service to LGBT kids on ‘religious grounds.’ Believe me, I wish I were making this up. You wouldn’t get fucked up laws like that in places where a critical mass of people weren’t bigoted about gender and sexuality.
But anyway, back to the story.
Fast forward eighteen years: I lived in Washington, D.C., and I hadn’t been to Alabama in about a decade. By day, I worked as an open source intelligence analyst, deciphering smeared farsi and picking out Syrian airplanes in fuzzy satellite images. By night, I performed stand-up comedy. I hadn’t said anything to anyone about sexual orientation since the time the principal had threatened to call my parents.
At this point I mustered up the gumption to come out as bisexual. Bisexuality is generally interpreted as an attraction to people of the same gender and also of a different gender. It doesn’t fit my situation. Nevertheless, I identified as bi before coming out as gay.
It was not attempt to lie. It was an attempt to acknowledge the reality of who I had found attractive thus far—combined with a last-ditch effort to hold onto the hope that I could be normal, that my life could be normal, that maybe I was just picky, and one day I would meet a man who I could feel attracted to, and once that day came everything would be okay.
I know many others who went through this. One of those people performed comedy with me in D.C. She and I had similar career paths and similar senses of humor. We became friends; she was a little older than me and had come out as gay a few years prior.
Every time the topic of my bisexuality came up, she’d toss me a wink and a knowing smile. It annoyed me. I knew she assumed that my self-identification was just a phase, like hers had been: a lie. It’s easy to view it as a lie after the fact. It’s easy to assume that you always knew, that you weren’t trying to convince yourself along with everyone else.*
*Fun fact: Human brains are notorious for making egregious errors about their past experiences like this. Explained on pp. 253–9.
One Friday night, at a club called Heaven & Hell in Adams Morgan, my comedian friend (we’ll call her Helen) and I were slated to perform at an open mic.
Two of my other friends, Stella and Allie, came to see me perform. Before the show I sat at the bar with them, knocking back shots, chatting it up. They asked if I was nervous to be onstage a whole five minutes—that was the segment length at this open mic. I responded, nah…usually comedians want as much time as they can get to say their piece!
The open mic hosts, Martin and Simone, sidled up to the bar for beers, and I introduced them to my two friends. Everyone was having a great time; I felt drunker than usual. An hour later, it came my turn to perform. Martin introduced me, and I stumbled up to the mic. Though I felt lightheaded and carefree, I had performed this set a hundred times. I wouldn’t have any trouble delivering it.
Five minutes came and went.
Sometimes if a crowd is loving a comedian/enne’s performance, the hosts will let the comedian/enne stay up there an extra minute or two. But after minute seven ticked by, I knew something was off. I had spent the last two minutes telling jokes that I normally saved for eight and ten minute sets. As I kept riffing, I leaned over a little to peer at the bar.
Martin and Simone were not at the bar. Neither were my two friends. I leaned over a little further and saw them all the way at the back. Martin and Simone leaned against the bathroom doors opposite one another, each making out with one of my friends. Behind Martin’s back, Stella made the thumbs-up sign at me.
Hell, I’ll take it. I started using some of my more experimental jokes. I got more animated. I stood on a chair in the front row. I confronted a heckler. The set was getting better and better. Then I heard a thud in the back. Simone stormed out with one of his shirttails fluttering where he had buttoned it up unevenly, obviously in haste.
I had been onstage for eleven minutes, now I was in trouble. Simone, you see, had given me a lecture on my the night of my virgin performance a few months back: no one likes a comedian who goes over their set time, he had said. And even though no one had stopped my set, he probably would have wanted me to end it myself. And I hadn’t. And now I had about six seconds before he got to me.
I was far too drunk to come up with a clever wrap-up in six seconds. Just as Simone hopped onstage and reached out to snag my jacket, I stopped mid-sentence and shouted “BYE!” before leaping offstage.
And then came Helen’s voice from the back, slurred but loud:
“DAMMIT, KIKI, YOU ARE NOT BI!”
I bet Helen would be pretty smug if she knew I were telling you this right now. I came out as gay about eleven months after this happened.
I have noticed that the gay community, particularly in large, progressive cities, has a troubling tendency to look down on people who come out in phases.*
*The gay community has a troubling tendency to look down on a lot of things. See: gold star lesbian, No Fats No Femmes, What Lesbians think about Bisexuals, I could put links here all day. Inevitably when I do, I get some kind of ‘not all gay people’ response. It’s true that not all gay people think this way, but rather than claim that we’re not in that part of the community, we ought to work to make our community less judgmental as a whole.
Over the years, it has occurred to me that that judgment comes from a place of privilege.
Let’s go back to the coming-out-in-phases example. For those who had the privilege of growing up in a place where their identity was not described as an affliction, a pestilence, or a compulsion, it seems so easy to come out outright. It seems easy to be brave—because what is there to fear, really? Because they don’t know someone who was disowned or subjected to physical violence on the basis of sexual orientation. Because they didn’t grow up in classrooms where people recoiled with fear and disgust to learn that a classmate who shared their gender might be ‘one of them homos.’ They’re not looking for ways to be judgmental. They just think they can judge someone else’s choices because they had the privilege of not dealing with the same circumstances.
Of course, this is all very easy for me to say. I can claim that people who denigrate my behavior just don’t understand my life. I can look at my circumstances and make excuses for myself. But it’s a hell of a lot harder to do that on behalf of someone else. When I witness someone else’s behavior, it does not always occur to me to consider their circumstances before drawing my own conclusions about that person.
The other day, I caught myself judging someone for something that had nothing to do with gay anything, and this hit me like a bolt of lightning.
What right do I have? Chances are I have never been in the exact same circumstances as that person. How do I know that I’ve genuinely identified inferior behavior to mine in someone else, as opposed to just not understanding their circumstances? Since privilege specifically describes un-earned advantages that I may not even realize I have, there’s actually no possible way for me to know the difference between ‘correct judgment’ and ‘making assumptions from a place of privilege.’
And that makes me think critically about myself each time I catch myself judging someone. Which I totally do, way more often than I realized.
I struggle with it the most when I catch myself judging someone for judging someone. First of all, I have to confront the fact that, by judging this person, I am committing the exact same oversight that I consider myself superior to them for having committed. But then if I don’t judge them, am I being a bystander while the target of their judgment needs my help? One one end, I’m hypocritical. On the other end, I’m apathetic. So what the hell, then, is a girl to do?
The answer that has worked for me lately materialized from somewhere inside the bowels of the internet.
It’s a quote that apparently appeared first somewhere on Tumblr, then ended up on Pinterest and, finally, Reddit. Supposedly some commenter’s mom said it. I swear I tried to track down who said this, but the closest I got was ‘somebody’s mom.’ So, without further ado, Somebody’s Mom says:
When I run across a bigot, for example, I try to consider the fact that they might come from circumstances where they were conditioned to think bigoted things. I suspect that’s how otherwise ‘good people’ end up saying terrible things: that’s why Grandma is racist, for example, despite being a sweet old lady. It’s a conditioned response couched in confirmation bias, or maybe couched in zero facts or experiences whatsoever. This makes it easier (not easy, just easier) for me not to view that person as fundamentally inferior. And if I can do that, then maybe I have a chance at helping that person get the the next thought, the thought that allows them to fight their conditioning—the one who defines who they are, or who they can be, if they want to.
Believe me, I haven’t done this very many times yet. I’m still practicing. I get some opportunities to have these conversations with people at work, and I put my foot in my mouth a lot. But, as you know, I have a tendency to suck at things when I first start doing them, and I get better with practice. I’m hoping this will be the same way :).