I remember the conversation that started the whole mess. I was seven and we were at Wal-Mart. I was still small enough to sit in the kiddie section of the shopping cart. With legs dangling, I looked up at my mom and said, “I hope I marry a man when I grow up.” That’s all I said. I knew even at seven years old that I was attracted to the opposite sex, but I was still worried and confused. I didn’t realize at the time that being gay or straight or bisexual is something a person is born with, not something that just happens to them when they’re older.
Maybe I had this confusion because so often when I was a little girl people didn’t come out until they were older, often after long-term heterosexual relationships and even marriages. Maybe I was just confused about my own sexuality because I enjoyed looking at pretty women almost as much as I enjoyed looking at handsome men. I had a massive crush on both Denzel Washington and every single Disney Princess. And, yes, you can have a crush on a cartoon character.
I don’t really know what made me say what I said that day. I just knew, even then, that being gay would make my life harder. So I hoped I would grow up straight.
My family belonged to the congregation of a non-denominational church in a small, southern-Missouri, Ozark town. We were the type of family that was there every time the doors were open, and there were good things about that. I’m not particularly religious as an adult, but I feel like being raised in a religious home has made me the person I am today. Religion can be a beautiful thing, and in no way am I trying to bash it.
Having said that, like most kids I didn’t love sitting through hours of what I perceived to be an old man droning on and on about things I didn’t fully understand and still don’t. Also, there’s something truly horrifying about a large, adult male yelling scriptures at you from an elevated platform when you’re seven years old and about four feet tall.
Needless to say, my favorite part of church was when the music stopped and the pastor dismissed us for children’s church. It was the least frightening, most hilarious stampede ever. We were just this collective, joyous, charge of well-dressed, meticulously combed children all racing each other to the sweet freedom of the church’s outdoor playground.
I loved that playground. I’ve always loved being outside and every time my dress-shoed feet left sanctuary carpet for playground gravel I was ecstatic. Until the day I wasn’t.
It was a humid summer evening. Children’s church was over and we were all heading back inside. I was walking in the middle of the herd, giving one of the younger girls a piggy back ride, when I heard giggling behind me. I didn’t think much of it. Girls giggle. A LOT. Especially little girls. But the next thing I knew a friend of mine came up to me from the back of the herd and said, “They’re telling everyone you’re gay.” I looked back at the giggling girls then back at my friend. I’d never seen that look on her face before. A nervous, awkward smile. She felt weird around me now, and I could tell.
I was momentarily mute, my face was on fire, but I managed to play it cool. Those giggling gossips were my friends too. I was friends with everybody. Church was a huge part of my social life growing up so I kind of had to be. I bit my tongue and hoped it would all blow over.
It didn’t. That rumor spread from kid to kid and ultimately lead to about two weeks of social quarantine for me. I would get to church and all the girls that used to be my buddies would whisper and giggle whilst making sure to give me the widest berth possible. I don’t know if they thought I was contagious or if they were ashamed on some level, but it sucked. It was all so much worse too because I had no idea where the rumor came from. Most of us weren’t even in our double digits yet. We were all children from deeply religious families. We got embarrassed when we saw grown-ups kissing. We blushed when we saw illustrations of a nearly naked Adam and Eve. How did something like sexual orientation even get brought up?
I ended up telling my mom what was going on, and that’s how I found out where the rumor came from. She was hurt that I was being hurt, and even more hurt that this whole ordeal happened because she’d shared one of our mother-daughter conversations with a friend, and that friend had turned around and shared the information with her daughter (one of the aforementioned giggling gossips.)
Not long after I told my mom what was happening a couple of the girls presented me with an olive branch. An “I’m Sorry” card with a candy cane taped to the inside. It was good enough for me, and I was finally able to emerge from my social quarantine like nothing had happened.
Two weeks really isn’t that long, but I’ll never forget that experience. It gave me a tiny taste of how much harder life can be when you’re different from the majority. It taught me the importance of showing kindness and acceptance and respect no matter what.
I hope future generations won’t have to fear their own feelings, won’t have to fear being open about their sexuality, but I am so proud of everyone who has had the courage to love who they love even though it made their lives harder and scarier.