Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Another cost of bigotry, classism, bullying, homophobia, and heterosexism

I spent the weekend in Molalla, OR, at the Mid-Winter Gathering for Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns. And I've been thinking about something that came up the last day in my worship-sharing group.

I recently became Facebook friends with someone I'd been friends with in high school. I sought her out and "friended" her; she accepted, with a note that she'd been wondering when I'd turn up, since it seemed like just about everyone else had.

This gave me pause.

I've kept in touch with almost no one I went to high school with. The two notable exceptions are my best friend from those days -- who is also on Facebook -- and someone else I barely knew, who'd gone to the same college but whom I'd easily avoided there, but whom I discovered many years later is also a lesbian and a also feminist Jew.

I hated high school. I was a charity kid at an all-girls' private college-prep day and boarding school. I got an excellent education and had a terrible time. I had a panic attack the first time I went back on campus after graduation.

There were so many ways I didn't fit in. The most obvious was class. Everybody knew I was one of the charity kids. I wore the wrong clothes. My parents drove me back and forth to school every day in the wrong kind of car -- a beat-up old jalopy, not a shiny BMW or Mercedes. We didn't vacation in the right places (we didn't go on vacation at all). I'd never been out of the US, or even on an airplane. I'd never ridden a horse, except for ponies at the occasional fair, and one summer when I got financial aid to the archdiocesan day camp, both of which definitely didn't count. I was also two or three years younger than most of my classmates, most of whom had been together through middle school, some since elementary school, although there was always an influx of new girls in 9th grade. Being "the smart one" was no help.

I developed a small group of friends -- 6 of us from different grades who hung out together and, for the most part, kept each other sane.

In 9th or 10th grade, the guidance counselor called my then-mother to alert her that she was going to call me in for a conference. Because some of the other girls had come to her saying that I was a lesbian and that my best friend and I were lovers.

I didn't entirely understand this when I was told about it, but I knew it was a terrible thing. I didn't even know what lesbians were. When I asked, I was told they were women who liked to sleep with other women, and I was really puzzled: Why? And besides, I wasn't having sex with anybody. And besides again, what could two girls do in bed together? (I have to snicker at this one, because by senior year, I knew -- thanks to my boyfriend -- just how much sex, and fun, two consenting teenagers can have without ever technically meeting the definition of "sex" I held back then.)

What it boiled down to was this: my best friend and I were too physically affectionnate with each other, and it had to stop. And our friendship was too intense, too, so we'd better scale that back.

Except it's not like the harassment stopped.

I couldn't win.

I realized the confrontation with the school counselor -- and a right nasty confrontation it was, with me in hysterical tears -- was related to a whole bunch of outright harassment from a particular group of girls, and more covert harassment from others. And that harassment only got worse. I was so tired of being afraid to be alone with my classmates.

Fast forward fifteen or so years. I was reading my college's alumnae magazine, and in the news about the class who'd been seniors my first year, read about someone spending the millenium in Paris with her girlfriend. And then I realized, this was someone who'd also gone to my high school. I wasn't the only one. I'd known that statistically I probably wasn't... but now I knew. And it was even someone I'd liked, even if I'd barely known her. When I "friended" her on our college alumnae networking site a few years later, I thanked her for sending that in, and she talked about how she'd made the decision.

Fast forward more years. My best friend from high school and I had been to each other's weddings, we'd gotten together briefly when I was in CA recently for a work trip with Beloved Wife, we'd "friended" each other on Facebook. My high school best friend was Facebook friends with a couple of other girls from high school, but I wasn't interested: we weren't friends then, we're not friends now.

And then something made me search for one of the other upperclasswomen from our little group, and send her a friend request.

But when I realized she's Facebook friends with other women I went to high school with, I realized didn't want to post anything they could see that would identify me as a lesbian.


I was mulling on this in worship-sharing this weekend at FLGBTQC Mid-Winter. In a recent retreat at my Meeting here in Seattle, we had identified shame as a marker of not being centered in the Divine, of not being in right relation. In worship-sharing this weekend, I thought, I am out in almost every aspect of my life. Why would I be ashamed if women who knew me in high school know I'm a lesbian?

Well, because I was still stuck feeling like a terrified and ashamed fourteen-year-old who wasn't safe at school or at home.

What if I turned it around?

What if it was no longer, Oh, yeah, Stasa turned out to be a lesbian (*snicker*)?

What if no one remembered? What if nobody actually remembered the harassment, me nearly getting pulled out of school, my being afraid to be alone with my classmates; what if no one remembered they'd thought I might be a lesbian? After all, I'd had a boyfriend and been all but engaged when I graduated, and the best friend whom I was supposedly being a lesbian with is happily married to a man, so it's possible.

That possibility opened up some space inside my head. Opened up twenty-plus years' worth of space in my head.

What if the story now was:

My high school was a horribly homophobic place where I didn't feel safe. The bullying of my schoolmates, and the lack of protection from the faculty, made my life and my coming out that much harder, increased my risk of suicide, and increased the danger I faced in dating violence as a young adult.

What if I am no longer ashamed -- no longer afraid -- but am now, rightly so, angry?

What if I say to my former schoolmates, "I am a lesbian, there's no excuse for the homophobic bullying that happened to me in high school"?

Well, that's what I'm saying now: I am a lesbian, and there was no excuse for the homophobic bullying that I went through in high school.


Michelle said...

It sounds like some really good reflection came out of the retreat. I really like your writing. I have had similar shame around not wanting to have people from high school know I am a lesbian. I never had a experience like that with a counselor though. That sounds extremely stressful. Thanks for the sharing.

staśa said...

Hi, Michelle -- Thanks for your comment. Both retreats (the Meeting one, and FLGBTQC Mid-Winter) were good, it's true.

I have no fear about anyone from college -- just one year later -- knowing I'm a lesbian. Obviously, I've made the decision to be out in general, or my first name and last name wouldn't be on this blog. So it's kind of startled me how much that fear is still there for people from high school. Thanks for letting me know I'm not alone.

I wonder, sometimes, if the confrontation with the high school counselor might have been more a meeting and less a confrontation if my ex-mother hadn't been involved... but who knows. The faculty still didn't protect me from bullying from other girls.

Thank you for sharing, too.

Martyros said...

(G from SCD in Ann Arbor here)
Stasha, thanks for sharing that. I'm really sorry you had such an awful experience in HS. A lot of people have really bad experiences in HS (although it sounds like you've had worse than most). The fact is that high school is a really strange, unnatural environment that brings out the worst in people. Never in your life ever again are you in a situation where you are spending all your time with people of exactly your same age, in the same place not because of any common interest or pursuit, but by chance, and all of whom have almost no choice to change venue. When people get into the "real world" (and despite the BNL song, there is a real world that's a lot different -- thank God) things are different, and a lot of people have to change their attitudes. That's been my experience with meeting people from high school.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that most of those girls have probably grown up; and those who haven't really deserve of your pity, not your fear.

staśa said...

G, thank you. (And lovely to "see" you here.) What you say makes a lot of sense. I think my high school may have been even more of an artificial hothouse than many. But like any young teenager has the perspective to know how to deal with that?

Like you, I'm so thankful the real world is different!

And perhaps now is a good chance to find out that some of those girls have grown up... An opportunity I hadn't thought of.