Kids know how to keep it real. The greatest thing about them is that when kids feel something, they say it. I was reminded about this recently. I ran into some old neighbors of mine – a mother and her two boys – from the building that I used to live in. The friendly chats in the elevator that we commonly had have been replaced with chance sightings along the sidewalk. The mom and I were catching up when the eldest boy –Grant – urgently interrupted our conversation by declaring, “I was really sad when you moved out, and I would be really really sad if you ever left Chicago.”
At some point in every adult’s life, we lose this quality of absolute honesty. When kids say these sorts of things, grown-ups find the innocence of unbridled truth to be cute. It amuses us. The first step to adulthood is not puberty, but rather having an experience where you are emotionally reprimanded simply for being honest about your feelings. This is the point in which most people begin to lose the innocence of childhood, and hide their emotions in order to cope through life.
The story of Peter Pan was written based on this premise. Wendy chooses to deny her feelings for Peter, and she leaves Never Never Land to return to her path to adulthood. It is hard not to think that, although Peter doesn’t follow her, that he too grows up a bit when he loses Wendy. Since he is still technically a child, I’ll say it for him: what a heartless bitch that Wendy is!
Experiencing that very real emotion while living in a culture that places the lives of gay people as secondary – if not outright denying their right to human expression – is why being in the closet is such a stressful experience for gay people everywhere. It feels as though you have no voice to speak with, and there is no one around to hear your scream.
As a bisexual woman – who until this exact sentence has not been fully open about my own sexuality – it has been easier to avoid my identity than to explore it. At the same time, while I haven’t been open about myself up until now, I suspect that most people who know me have had their questions about me, but have never said anything to me. In fact, this is where the Peter Pan analogy lies in its most perfect gay ambiguity. In the play, the part of Peter Pan is almost universally played by a woman. This, in theory, must make Peter and Wendy the first closeted lesbian couple in our cultural history. Yet, the fact that the love story is played by two women is obvious to anyone in the audience.
There are no clear lines to define who I am. I do not identify with lesbians or straight women entirely. Actually, the closest “group” that I do identify with is gay men. In other words: Help! I am a gay man stuck inside a bisexual woman! Are you confused yet? The good news is that we are not alone. Lady Gaga, I am looking at you, my dear poster child monster.
My own story is yet unfolding. Being gay is not something that I ever recognized in myself until much later in life. Part of this is because, as I said, I do not identify myself with stereotypical lesbians. I ignorantly thought that that is what it meant to be gay. I like high heels, having long hair, martinis and wearing big flashy earrings, but I detest facial piercings. I also like the company of men every now and again. The second part is probably the more important point.
Like many people, I entered my teen years feeling as though I did not belong anywhere and was not accepted by anyone. Most of my social network was made up of acquaintances. The few that went beyond that, I quickly lost contact with after I graduated from high school. My saving grace was that I was very athletic, and I used sports – basketball and softball – as my outlet for my social frustrations. While my teammates were balancing school, athletics, and social lives, I balanced school, athletics and extra batting practice.
I absolutely was not interested in sports because of being bisexual. As I said, I didn’t even recognize that I was until much later in life. In fact, I had my heart broken by probably the most played out cliché in American nostalgia; it was broken by one of the star football players (American football). Of course, being the social reject that I was, we did not date, but he did take the opportunity to humiliate me in front of our entire class in his own special way. Thanks for the memories.
I am not entirely sure why I had so much trouble with friends, but I imagine it was a combination of many things including the physical awkwardness that is common of teenage years. I do think, though, that there was a little something extra about me that my peers could sense. Or perhaps I could sense that about myself. It is hard to say for certain. When I went to college on a softball scholarship, I have a distinct memory of the parting words I had with a good friend. Before our goodbyes, she said to me, “Sara, don’t turn gay.”
Pleasure, pain, euphoria and – yes – even crushing disappointment is all part of participating in this human experience called life. Coming out is frightening, and people stay in the closet for the same reason that people conceal their true feelings from the people they love.
Beethoven famously had written love letters to a woman, but never sent them. They were found in his desk after he died. It is heartbreaking to learn that he never allowed himself – a man of creative expression – to communicate his love to her. History doesn’t even know her name. He was like many people who choose to not reveal their emotions because of the chance that their loved one might not accept it. That rejection, it is feared, is enough to break a soul. Take that feeling and multiply it by all of your friends, family and acquaintances. Imagine that. Only then can you begin to understand the weight upon the shoulders of closeted gays, in all of their forms.
Maurice Sendak, the famed children’s book author of Where the Wild Things Are, was a closeted gay for most of his life. He died last month, but didn’t publicly come out until 2008 at the age of 80 years old, and almost a year and a half after his partner of 50 years passed away. He never told his parents that he was gay because, as he said, “I wanted to be straight so my parents could be happy.”
A great irony in all of this is that kids can feel overwhelmed with the need to protect their parents. Mr. Sendak was a legendary writer because he understood the complexities of children, and he was able to express that with his art. He knew that their pure and hopeful vision of the future allows them to bear the brunt of the darkest experiences that life can offer. They can survive these realities by cutting through frivolous details, the ones that most adults fixate on. These are the details that restrict us from pursuing courage. Truth is what is most important to children.
Peter loved Wendy, and then she abandoned him. Why? Because she had to be honest about what she knew herself to be. Ultimately, in its most basic form, this is the reality that everyone – gay or straight – must realize; to unapologetically accept yourself for who you are, and let everything else lay by the wayside. In describing the last book he wrote, Maurice Sendak summarized his life and his work by saying, “There is something that I am finding out as I am aging… I am in love with the world… Bumble Ardy (his final book) was a combination of the deepest pain and the wondrous feeling of coming into my own. And it took a long time. It took a very long time. And it is genuine.”