Dear 16-year-old self,
Well well well. Hello there. How the hell are ya? Before I say anything, let me first give a nod to the elephant in the room; yes, it’s been 20 years since we spoke last. Are you mad? I could make up an excuse about how busy this whole being-an-adult thing is, but I won’t. I’m a shit and that’s all there is to it.
I did, however, want to wish you a happy Pride. I know you never went to Pride or had anyone wish you a happy one, but hey, better late than never, right?
Lots has changed in the past 20 years, too. In fact, 2016 is the year of the first ever “official” Pride Month. I say “official” with scare quotes because it’s always been a month-long thing for us, but now the powers that be have made it official. Sure it’s just a gesture, but sometimes gestures make all the difference, you know?
You might be wondering why I’m writing now, 20 years later. You’re probably thinking, “Here we go with the listen-to-me-I’m-an-adult advice” from all the way up on my adult’s pedestal. But no, that’s not why. (However, if I may suggest one thing? Please read a book or two on personal finance, I’d really appreciate it.)
I’m also going to spare you the It Gets Better speech because, knowing you, you’ll shake your head and wonder how a completely unknown future is supposed to help someone painfully stuck in the present.
But no, the reason I’m writing is because I need to tell you something that’s long, long overdue.
I need to tell you that I’m sorry.
But before I tell you why I’m sorry, I need to bring you up to speed. You see, some bad shit went down this month; there was an awful attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando. A very long list of people died for no reason. It’s shaken up the world. It’s added a painful reality to Pride that I haven’t felt since being a part of the celebration. I know you never went to Pride, but I’m sure you can imagine what I mean.
Remember how you used to look in the mirror and hate what you saw? Well, it’s as if the event at Orlando has held an ugly, figurative, hate-filled mirror up to all of our faces. Everyone is seeing something different in that mirror. For some people it’s a racist mirror, others a mirror of political corruption, others another reason to blame religion for everything, others a mirror that screams homophobic insults, others a mixture of all that.
There has been an outpouring of responses to the act of hate in the media. We’re writing articles, opinion pieces, confessionals; creating videos, infographics, hashtags, memes (though you won’t know what a hashtag or meme is, I’m sure); building memorials, holding vigils, writing the names of the victims on the streets; we’re fighting over who is responsible for creating this pain, and who this pain “belongs” to more.
But in spite of all the different responses we’re having, there is only one thing that all of us have agreed on: this was a terrible act of hate.
And you know what’s strange? When I look in the mirror I don’t see religion or politics or race or sexuality or finger-pointing or #LoveIsLove or an infographic or a candlelit vigil or any of that.
I see you. I see my 16-year-old self.
I see you staring back at me with your awkward body, bad posture, unfortunate hair, and acne-laden skin. I see a white teenager who grew up in a small town populated by 99% white people where the worst possible thing you could be was LGBTQ. I see the mortal fear hiding behind your eyes: fear for the day when you would be discovered, humiliated, beaten up and ostracized from your friends, family and community.
And when I see you, I feel ashamed. I’m sorry but it’s true; at times over the years I’ve hated you. I’ve hated how you resurface inside me as fear when I go to take my partner’s hand on the street. Or when I meet new people and I hold myself back until I know that it’s safe to come out of hiding. Or when I leave the city to go home and visit my family, I feel I’m losing myself and becoming you.
As the calm, collected, confident person I’ve become, I blame you for the times when I lose the sense of self I’ve worked so hard to establish.
But it occurs to me during this simultaneously painful and celebratory Pride Month that I’m wrong to blame you. After all, it was you who kept walking forward: down the street, into classrooms, into family gatherings, through crowds of people calling you violent names, whispering violence when your back was turned. It was you who endured the hate and violence of homophobia everyday.
I’m writing to tell you I’m sorry because while hate is something that’s out there, it’s also something that lives inside each of us. Hate and shame and fear are violent emotions that rob us of our sense of self, our pride. The world taught me to hate you and I listened to them. I’ve tried for all these years to distance myself from you, and I’m here now to say that I’m sorry.
For Pride 2016, I’m inviting you – my 16-year-old self – to join me in the celebration.
I want you here with me to remind me that I’m strong enough to keep forging ahead when shit doesn’t make sense. You are not the weakness inside me; you are the strength. You are not the absence of my sense of self, my pride; you are the cornerstone of it.
Happy Pride 2016 to you, my 16-year-old self. I’ll meet you out there on the streets where we can laugh together, feel a true sense of a community, and revel in that all-important thing that Pride gives back to us:
Our sense of self.