It Gets Better

During my junior year of high school, I started seeing glimmers of my oncoming queerness, and the idea of it made me feel physically ill. This was before the insult of choice was “faggot.” Back then, the most frequent, toxic insult boys hurled at each other was to sneer, “You WOMAN.” Nice, huh? So, I threw myself into other activities, dated the sweetest young man in the world, put a lid on my queerness, topped it off with an anvil, and tried not to think about it. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, as the saying goes.

The following summer, my sweet young man moved across the country leaving no forwarding address or phone number. What better time to spend a month away from home at the Blair Summer School for Journalism (BSSJ), at Blair Academy, in Blairstown, NJ!

The journalism program at my high school in western Missouri was exceptional, and our teacher, Ron Clemons, was on the staff at BSSJ every summer. I had been selected as the editor of our school newspaper, and Mr. Clemons wrangled scholarships at BSSJ for our assistant editor, Cathy, and me. When the end of June rolled around, Cathy and I joined Mr. Clemons in his red Cadillac convertible with white leather seats for the road trip to New Jersey. It was the farthest I had ever travelled with people who weren’t my family, and the longest I’d ever been away from home.

It was exhilarating and agonizing, and it forever altered the fabric of my life.

When Mr. Clemons, Cathy, and I pulled up in front of Blair Academy in that fancy ride, I was nervous and excited for the next phase of this big adventure. An informal welcoming committee of newly arrived students had gathered on the front porch of the main building. I quickly grabbed the empty rocking chair next to a girl who had just let out a completely unselfconscious guffaw. Her name was Mira.

Over the next hour or so, Mira and I giggled, chortled, snorted, and horse laughed almost non-stop. We were like conjoined twin comedians who, having been separated at birth, had recently stumbled upon each other and celebrated the happy accident by ingesting large amounts of laughing gas.

By the end of the first week, Mira and I were self-admitted soul-mates. Did that concept exist in 1976? Whatever. Plain and simple, we understood each other at a deep level, way beyond words. We also cracked each other up in ways that I had never before experienced with someone who was not my younger brother.

By the end of the second week, I began to feel overwhelmed by intermittent bouts of despair, as I sensed that sickening queer thing pushing up against the lid I had thought was secure. One particular evening, we all had a huge paper due for English class. The dorm was abuzz with kids clacking away on their typewriters and occasional outbursts of “Augh, I’m NEVER going to FINISH this!!” My room was relatively silent, because all I could think about was Mira, who was somewhere else in the dorm working on her paper.

I paced around my room, tried to write, and looked for non-Mira friends to distract me from my queer-fear. It was all for naught. Eventually, I walked up to the top of the four-story dorm where most of us lived. I found an unlocked and empty dorm room. I grabbed a wire coat hanger out of the closet, and pried open one of the windows in the room. I climbed up on the windowsill and sat down with my legs dangling out the window.

The trees were sparkling with lightning bugs, the locusts were making that familiar and hypnotic woooo-ahhhhhhhh-ooooooo sound, and my heart was pounding out of my chest. I fumbled with the wire hanger while staring at the long drop to the pavement. I suspected that the fall wouldn’t kill me. I looked up to see if there was a higher window, but I was sitting with my legs hanging out of the highest window in the building.

I thought — a lot — about how I had never heard a single positive, or even neutral, thing about a queer person. Not one. I looked at the ground, some 40 feet below. The only way the fall would kill me, I guessed, was to dive head first. Who was I kidding? I couldn’t even bring myself to dive head first into water from a three-meter board at my swimming pool back home. I fumbled some more with the hanger. I thought about the wedding, the husband, and the children I would never have. I listened to the locusts. I watched the insistent twinkling of the fireflies. I felt my heart thudding in my throat.

A much fancier wire hand than the one I made

I don’t know how long I sat there. 15 minutes? 30? An hour? At some point, the reality of the paper I had to write, and the fact that I had an amazing new friend who could make me laugh as much as or more than my younger brother, these intruded on the deep vortex of my despair. I climbed back into the room and closed the window. I looked down and saw that sometime during my fog of despondency and loneliness, I had twisted the wire hanger into the shape of a hand. My own hand.

On my way back to my room, I found Mira in her room, typing furiously. I picked her brain for ideas to move my paper along, and then abruptly held out the wire hand to her. “I made this,” I blurted. “You can have it.” Mira beamed, and took it. “Oh, cool! Thanks!”

Whew, I thought as I walked back to my room. That went about as well as I could have hoped, namely because she seemed oblivious to how completely besotted I was.

Small round crystal

The next week, Mira and I went back to her room to look for something and I saw that she had hung my wire-hanger-hand from a lamp. Dangling in the middle of the hand was a crystal that she had tied to one of the fingers with some fishing line. Little rainbows streamed across the room as the light hit the crystal.

That small rainbow-making crystal, dangling in the middle of an empty hand made from coat hanger wire was my first clue that It Gets Better.

Along the way, it sometimes got worse. It’s hardly news that life is like that. But every time it got worse, I thought of how my best friend, whose name means “wonderful, peace, and prosperous” had hung a crystal in the middle of the outline of my open hand. That crystal was sometimes a window, sometimes a magnifying glass, sometimes a mirror, and sometimes just a little rainbow-shooting crystal, not much bigger than a quarter.

Next summer, Mira and I will celebrate our 35th year of friendship, more than 2/3 of our lives. She has carried that wire hand with her across several continents. We live on opposite coasts. Her daughter carries my name and my daughter carries her name. We are both married, she to a man, and I to a woman. We still make each other laugh, often without even talking.

It Gets Better, ultimately, because love is stronger than death or despair. No matter how alone and isolated I ever felt, I found ways to feel loved, through music, poetry, writing, swimming, or running through the woods.

It Gets Better because I learned that we can make our world bigger, by going to college, by starting over somewhere new, and/or by finding support from people who are struggling, or have struggled, with the same fears and despair.

It Gets Better because I found that every time I revealed my truest self to someone who was important to me, they generally responded with love, sometimes tinged with confusion and worry. My parents started out confused and worried, urging me not to tell anyone, and they grew and moved much in the same way I did. If you’ve read their comments on this blog, you’ll know that they are as open and out as I am. We got there together.

It Gets Better because a little, or a lot of, laughter can go a long way to help mend a broken heart. Mira and I were never a couple, but we have always been a pair. We have loved each other fiercely and unrelentingly, through bumps, scrapes, and bruises, some of which we inadvertently inflicted on each other. We end almost every conversation in laughter.

It Gets Better because, some day, maybe when you least expect it, you will open your hand, and there, in the middle of your outstretched palm, you will find a crystal. Hold it up to the light, and watch how the crystal sends little rainbows swarming across the walls, ceilings, floors, into the darkest corners of wherever you are.

Required viewing:

Required listening – Dar Williams’ song “The One Who Knows” is written from the perspective of a parent to a child, but I think it could just as easily be an anthem for the It Gets Better project.

Resources:

The Trevor Project – suicide prevention for queer teens

Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project – videos by people from all walks of life telling queer teens all sorts of ways that It Gets Better

Finally, if you’ve been particularly wounded for being queer by religious people, just write to me at joyhowie at gmail dot com. I’m gathering a list of resources for queer people who want to find a way to be religious without being bludgeoned for who we are. If you know of such a resource, please write to me so I can share it.

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25 responses to “It Gets Better

  1. Beautiful!!!

  2. Wow. I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out how to comment because this was important and lovely to read, but you’ve rendered me more or less speechless.

  3. I am glad you came in off that ledge.

    As a non-queer (I hate the word ‘straight’ because it infers that anything other than that is…not normal, somehow) person who has seen how her queer friends have suffered for simply being themselves, I applaud your efforts to show others how it will get better.

  4. Susie Martin-Wilson

    Joy, I loved what you wrote. I have a question,who was your sweet boyfriend? I work with a gal at my work. And we are also separated from birth. (Jokingly) We think the same way. We like the same things. I am alot more out spoken than Lori. (Imagine that) It is so nice to have that special bond. We call each other soul sisters. Joy, I can’t even imagine what you went through during your years of struggling of who you are. Like I have told you. You are an awesome person. I have always thought that. I am so glad that we have re-connected with facebook. Keep up the wonderful writing that you do. Love Ya, Susie

  5. Joy, you never cease to amaze me. I cannot imagine life without you in our family.

  6. Yes, it gets better, Joy. The harder we all work to transform the dream into reality, the better life will be for tens of thousands of persons–victims and oppressors alike. You, dear one, are our brightst star of hope in a galaxy of light illuminating a brand new landscape of justice, love, and peace!

  7. when a person writes something that as heart-breaking as it is empowering, that person is a writer of the highest caliber. you consistently blow me away. thanks so much for your blog.

  8. What Renée said.

  9. Joy,
    What a poignant and honest and wonderful expression of your wonderful self. This is yet another pebble in the pond– it’s turning into an absolute hailstorm (not to mix a metaphor!)

  10. Teri Marsh Cundall

    Joy,
    It’s funny that today I was looking thru some pictures from high school and found one of you sitting at your desk in the journalism room. I always knew you were destined to be someone wonderful, and you are. Do you still wear mismatched socks? That’s one of my favorite memories of you!!

  11. Beautiful story Joy.

  12. Yolanda Cervantes-Carrillo

    Joy,
    I remember you from school. I was a copy-editor on that same high school newspaper. Your story was beautiful and touched my heart. I am the mother of two sons, both gay. They are two of the sweetest, funniest and most special people I know. I dream the same dreams for them as any other parent. I pray they have love in their lives, find lifetime partners and experience the joys of parenthood. Thank for your story.

  13. I cannot recreate my past time of ignorance. You taught me what it means to be open, loving and forgiving. If we had our first conversation again, I would never use the words, “Don’t tell…..” I would say what I say often now, “I am so proud of my lesbian daughter, Joy, her wife, her children. I am so blessed that they are part of our lives, and I promise to be an advocate so that others may never know the pain of denial or persecution.” Thank you for your compassion, your honesty, your faith, your love.

  14. This blog-entry, of all of your blog-entries so far, is a pure mitzvah (good deed); it helps people of all ages, even those of us who are in the it-got-better-and-is-better stage. Thank you for your continual hearty-hardy wisdom.

  15. What a wonderful sharing. What a courageous, honorable and warmhearted person you are. I admire your openness and honesty and weep for those who feel that they cannot be who they truly are.

  16. You just made my life Get Better, Joy. The best and most important and memorable of many fine posts! Thank you.

    What Steve Phillips said: “What Renee said!

  17. One of my favorite moments of College Dorm Life With Joy involved a late night and the mutually painful production of an English essay that we moaned about to each other at regular 2-hour intervals. Still stuck at 4AM, I walked upstairs to your room. I’m not sure I even knocked on the door. I found you standing on your desk, staring down at the typewriter. Not unreasonably, I asked you what you were doing. “Trying to get a different perspective!” you said with some asperity. Duh. That was just the first of many times you’ve provided me with useful instructions on how to see things differently. Stay away from the window, but keep standing on the desk, my dear! It’s good for all of us.

  18. This is the most beautiful post I’ve read here. It is has unspeakable impact, not only to those who love you, but those who are new to your blog. Brilliant writing.

  19. Absolutely beautiful piece Joy. I will hold onto the image of the empty hand and the crystal.

  20. dang it Joy, I shouldn’t have read this at work. got me all teared up. that was really beautiful.

  21. Joy, I am at a loss for words and awash with so many thoughts, images, and feelings after reading your moving and heart-wrenching post. Your piece is important far beyond my own response. However, I am unable to read it without it becoming profoundly personal. Our families have deep and irrevocable connections over decades. “I knew her then,” I kept saying to myself as I read.

    But one of the things that you have brought to mind is that we never really know another person, no matter how long and deep our connection may be.
    I knew some of the things you wrote about; others I had no clue. You have written beautifully and powerfully and that has caused me to look inside myself and wonder. Was I sensitive? Did I ever unknowingly do or say something hurtful? Have I listened to these words of yours and been sufficiently open to allow them not just to touch me, but to change me?

    You have caused me to ponder and to engage in a dialogue within myself. Whenever one does that to another human being, whether intentionally or indirectly, they have given a gift. For that gift, my dear friend Joy, and for so many others not yet spoken, perhaps not even yet understood, I thank you. You are loved.

  22. Dear Joy,
    Though it’s your Mom and Dad that I know best, knowing them is also to behold the loving sphere in which you (and your brothers) and your family (and your brothers’) move, suspended as you are in the ever-knowing and ever-loving web of beauty, grace, and freedom to be and become. I’m so grateful to learn another part – such a profound part – of your story and for your generous sharing of it with me (including the additional media). I, too, am awash in feelings that urge to be a better version of myself – more aware and sensitive, more willing and courageous and , more committed to pursue justice with compassion and zeal. Thank you for prompting such an impulse. May you continue to have and make things better in all your days.
    Terry Read

  23. Beth Thrutchley

    Dearest Joy,

    Today I was lovingly directed to your blog by your mother, one of my life mentors. Several weeks ago, I posted the Joel Burns video on my Facebook page because I was so moved by it. My sister’s road to being open about her “queerness” was probably much like yours with my minister father and my mother who just wanted our family to be “normal.” I was perhaps the first to know about my sister. As children we shared a room and each night she would kiss the photo of Julie Andrews she had taped on the wall by her bed. I did not have a word for it, but I knew that Vicki and I were somehow different.

    As she became more comfortable with her undeniable attraction to women, she became more open with her relationships. Although her 23 yr. relationship ended in 2008, her partner continues to be the favorite aunt of my children. Vicki continues to be active in the Community of Christ–in a conservative congregation. She is the person who debunks the myth that God’s love cannot exist in the midst of confusion and ignorance, even disagreement. She is the gay person that no one thought they knew, and because of the integrity and compassion of her life, she has transformed the hearts of previously intolerant people. Her friends have enhanced and enlarged our family as our daughters have more “aunts” than could ever be biologically possible.

    Your writing touched me deeply as I reflect on her/our journey. Your “It Gets Better” message also resonates with me on other issues that are currently pointedly relevant in the life of our family. Let me first express my profound gratitude for the spiritual/emotional/and financial support and sustanence that we have received by many who love us.

    My husband is now preparing to leave the company that he once partially owned. Believing the tenet of “follow your passion and the money will come” we spent all that we had in pursuit of that goal. Now it seems that he will have to exchange his noble vocational passion for mere economic survival. Grief lingers. Finances are a constant challenge/burden. Will It Get Better?

    Our beloved 24 yr. old daughter has a significant seizure disorder which leaves her needing 24/7 supervision. Always delayed in her development, she has now seemingly entered adolescence. Her desire for independence is
    volatile, understandable, and yet heartbreaking as the option for that reality is literally life-threatening. Her dreams remain unrealized as her frustration increases. Will It Get Better?

    Our older daughter, a therapist, a marvel of strength and maturity finds herself bewildered/angered by and anxious about our decisions and challenges. Recently disclosed, the weight of being “the normal child” is significant. As she continues to build her own life and balance it with the current status of our lives, I feel certain she wonders, “Will It Get Better?”

    Accurately diagnosed as bipolar, my mental health feels as though it is teetering on the brink of irrevocable darkness as these stresses continue. Will It Get Better?

    We are not a family of self-pity. Throughout most of this time, we have continued to live out our values of sincere gratitude, positive momentum, faith in God, and compassionate presence in the lives of others. Love is expressed and acknowledged. We laugh everyday. Still, I am weary and find myself on the slippery slope of “When will it get better?” to “Will It Get Better?”

    A song says, “There can be miracles, if you believe. Though hope is frail, it’s hard to kill.” My hope is frail. Then Chilean miners are miraculously resurrected from the darkness. Esperanza lives. Your mom senses my need, and directs me to the writing of one of her miracles who has faced despair and now boldly declares, “It Gets Better.” My hope and faith timidly assert themselves once again. I will try to open my clinched fist to find the crystal of rainbows, reminding me of the reflections of light waiting for me there. Thank you.

    • Beth, your essay (it’s so much more than a comment) was humbling and inspiring. I wrote about it in today’s post. Thank you so much for sharing your hopes, stories, and questions with me. I’m honored to have the opportunity to help carry them with you.

  24. Joy, Even parents of nonqueer folk come round. In 1970, when I was going to marry my first husband, we decided in advance of nuptials to move in together. I called my mother to tell her the good news, and she said, “That’s nice, dear. Do I have to tell all my friends?” Years later, after divorce and singlehood, I started seeing the man who eventually (after 25 years of unwed bliss) became my second husband. When I called to wish my mother a happy mother’s day, as we were going to be out of town on the weekend, my father answered the phone. I told him about our weekend plans for a trip to NYC. He said, kind of out of the blue, “Why are you paying for two apartments? Wouldn’t it make more sense to live together?” I held the phone away from my ear, wondering if I’d heard him right? They can and do learn from how we live our lives. Let’s hope we’re learning from the next generation as well, all in an effort to keep making it better. XOX, JO

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