When I was in grade school, I knew that I was different—in a bad way, in my brain. I didn’t know the terms gay or lesbian back then, but I was a boyish girl and, somewhere on an unconscious level, I knew that it was more than just being a tomboy. Even years later, when I began having lovely relationships with other women, I felt shame about being so unlike practically everyone I saw in the world. I even went through a brief period in my 20s when I thought I could just not be gay, but of course this would not prove to be particularly successful—thankfully. But in every other way I could, I tried to be like the “normal” people. In other words, I tried to assimilate.
All throughout this time, as I was being educated in the classrooms of public schools, I was learning about America and how we are a melting pot. To a 4th grader, or even an 8th or 9th grader—particularly in the early 1960s, this sounded kind of cool. To a person who would have paid money to feel like everyone else, it sounded ideal. Plus, those crazy textbook authors of the 50s and 60s painted whatever picture they wanted to paint. In my mind, assimilation seemed like a good thing.
I even went through a brief period in my 20s when I thought I could just not be gay, but of course this would not prove to be particularly successful—thankfully.
Fortunately, I understand many more things now that I have lived so much of my life. Most gratefully, I am in full grasp of the fact that I am fine as I am. To my work, my friendships, and my writing, I bring what is uniquely me. I don’t have to look and be like my heterosexual friends, and I don’t really even have to be like other gay people. As my favorite childhood cartoon character Popeye used to say, “I yam what I yam.”
Still, I am acutely aware that the idea of assimilation was ingrained in me at such an early age that I grew up seeing that as a goal for each of us. Looking back on many years of teaching, I am sure that I pushed the students in my comp classes to write like the dominant culture, and those in my communications classes to dress and speak like the dominant culture when they got up to do their presentations. It reminds me of something my mother told me when I was in my 30s and she was in her 70s. Her own insecurities about not “fitting in” prompted her to tell me and my brothers all of the ways that we should be so that we would feel acceptable. Even she realized by the time she was old that she had actually made us feel worse about who we were—not better.
As I think about these ideas, what stands out most profoundly is how boring it is when people are all the same. Imagine the level of confidence and passion we would feel if they were all encouraged to become more of who we already are. We really don’t need everyone to be the same—because we aren’t. We each have our own stories, or own histories, and our own energy that we bring to the room.
I have lived a blessed and privileged life, mostly because I had the freedom to be who I was—even though it took me a long time to discover it. But even at that, I still find myself encouraging people to follow the rules, to stay within the lines, to not draw too much attention to themselves. As young people (and old people) around me stand up and say no to this notion of blind conformity, I feel inspired and proud. I turned 67 a bit ago. One of my strongest feelings is that it is not too late to urge each other to be who we are, no matter how unlike “the norm” that might be. I can’t think of a richer, more loving gift to give anyone.