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.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.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 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.
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.