Towards the end of my teenage years, I really began to feel that my home was not an emotionally safe place for me. In actions reminiscent of "love the sinner, hate the sin"(although religion had nothing to do with it), my parents, despite thinking they were helping me, drove me into a closet. This was especially true in terms of my mother. Like a religious person who thinks the "sin" of homosexuality is merely a superficial behavior-- divorced from core personality and identity-- that needs to be corrected, my parents seemed to think that a lot of what were core aspects about my personality and identity were superficial behaviors. Not only that, they thought they were marks of immaturity and signs of being unable to understand the real world.
A Tomboy in the Closet
I've mentioned in several other blogposts that I've always used the word "tomboy" to identify myself and my slightly lopsided gender identity, rather than in a tongue-in-cheek way that people usually do ("Oh, she likes to do woodwork. She's such a tomboy!"). But it seemed that my parents-- again, Mom especially-- were inordinately focused on this aspect about me. The way I wore my hair-- for almost 4 years, almost always in a ponytail because it was thick and made me look like a "bombshell", which was not me at all-- was a constant topic of conversation. Phrases I repeatedly heard were "Why can't you wear it down?", "You're the only girl who doesn't like looking pretty!", and the sarcastic "Fine! Cut your hair like a boy!" And what hurt was that I secretly did want to cut my hair in a tomboyish way, but I wasn't allowed, so pulling my hair back was the next best thing. How in the world could I talk to my parents about how I felt if Mom said such dismissive things about my insistence on not wearing my "bombshell" hair down?
Then there was the one time when Dad asked me to wear my hair down for him as a Father's Day present. That was just humiliating. Of course I didn't do it.
Pushed into the closet.
And then there was the clothing issue. I hated wearing shirts that were even slightly girly. I wore polo shirts, flannels, sweatshirts, T-shirts, and military fatigues. But my parents constantly commented on this, telling me that I was too old to dress like that. It made no sense to me that being androgynous was a sign of immaturity to them. When I tried to tell them that in some ways I felt more like a boy than a girl, they just told me I didn't understand how the real world works. They didn't hear a statement about who I was, but rather a statement coming from naivety and immaturity.
I repeatedly had nightmares about being forced to dress in what I call "boob-neckline" (low-cut) shirts. When I had to dress up for family occasions, I felt extremely uncomfortable. I looked in the mirror and didn't see myself. I saw someone wearing an elaborate disguise. It was even worse when my parents put me on display for each other and commented about how I was dressed. It usually went like this:
Mom: Doesn't she look great in that?
Dad: Yeah, she looks like a girl."
If my brother were there, forget it. He'd throw gas on the fire and add, "For once" to one or both of those statements.
Instead of the comments having their intended effect and encouraging me to dress the way they wanted me to, all I heard was, "The way you dress is wrong. I don't approve of your being a tomboy. This is what we want to see, and you'd better learn to like it."
Pushed further into the closet.
In fact, there was one time when I was eating at a restaurant with my family and we ran into one of my mother's high school students. The girl had long blonde hair, was wearing makeup, earrings, a boob-neckline shirt, and short shorts, revealing perfectly shaven legs. I remember at that moment thinking, "This is the kind of daughter Mom wants, and I can't give her that because it's not who I am."
When my brother graduated from high school, my mother submitted "To thine own self be true" as a comment for his yearbook graduation photo. I remember thinking, "Yeah, she can say that to him because the way he is naturally fits in with her expectations."
Pushed even further into the closet.
I've mentioned in numerous blog posts that I rarely get crushes, but when they do they are very overwhelming and intense. Mercifully, my last one was seven years ago, and I've never been in a relationship (although I kissed one guy, and that was in summer 1999, age 18!). I got my first crush very late, just a few months before my fifteenth birthday. Prior to that, I would have embraced the word "asexual" had I heard of it. The problem was that I hadn't heard of it, and neither had Mom.
Figuring out my sexuality was another issue my mother seemed inordinately focused on. At the most random moments, Mom would ask me, often in a panicked voice that she unsuccessfully tried to disguise, "Do you have a crush? Have you ever had a crush? Do you like being around boys? Do you get a 'special feeling' around boys? Do you get crushes on girls?" Years later Mom told me that I was "insulted" when she asked me these questions, but really, I was just uncomfortable: she asked these questions frequently, at the most random moments, and in the most awkward ways. When I gave her an honest answer-- first "no" when I didn't have crushes, and then "yes" when I finally started getting them-- she just pressed further. It seemed that she was less interested in getting an honest answer than my telling her what she wanted to hear. If I were gay she would have been fine with it, but it also seemed she wouldn't rest until I told her what would have been lies. To get her to stop grilling me, I would have had to lie and say things like, "Yes, when I walk into a room full of boys (or girls), I'm overwhelmed at how cute all of them are." I wasn't like most girls. I didn't "get that special feeling" when I was around boys as a whole, but rather if there was one particular person whom I liked "in that way", which was rare.
I finally did open to Dad about my issue with obsessive crushes, right after I came back from my CIT summer at Camp Negev and had had my third obsessive crush. I remember very clearly telling him, "Don't tell Mom about this, because then she'll see it as yet another problem that I have that we have to focus on." Sadly, keeping that secret was my only option. And it probably spared me a lot of pain until the day eleven years later (more about that in Part 4), when Mom was finally ready to learn and accept the truth. How do I know? Around the same time I made the serious mistake of telling Mom that one of my friends was into Wicca. She freaked out. Years later, she told me that she doesn't remember this but had probably thought to herself, "Great, this is yet another problem that my daughter has."
In this regard, I was pushed further into the closet, at least in terms of Mom.
So who did affirm me? That is discussed in the next post.