I met them when we were in high school, on Dia de los Muertos. I was sitting on the grassy patch of the small slope in the middle of our urban Los Angeles, locked campus reviewing notes for an afternoon chemistry class. I zipped up my leather jacket against the fall breeze and untangled my hair from the ACT UP Silence = Death stickers plastered to its back.
“Cool jacket,” I heard, as two bodies moved to face me.
“Thanks,” I said, looking up to see who was talking. Both were Chicana: The petite one had short curly hair, marigolds pinned behind her ear, and wore bright red lipstick. The other, heavier and muscular, wore her long hair pulled back in a low ponytail. Her hand rested on the femme’s lower back. A couple. A butch/femme couple in my high school. I hadn’t seen them in any of my classes— not uncommon on our campus of more than 3,000. We smiled at one another, and they sat down.
The next few weeks we got to know one another, sharing stories over lunch. Emma (the femme) and Carla (the butch) had grown up together, their families attending the same church. Their mothers were friends. They had been a couple since middle school, since Emma seduced Carla. (“She only thinks that’s how it went down,” says Carla. “Whatever you need to believe, honey,” laughs Emma.) But their families didn’t know. They thought the Emma was a good influence on Carla, and that story made everyone happy.
“Well, she is a good influence on me,” Carla had said to me, cradling Emma’s cheek in her hand.
Emma wanted to be a doctor. And though she was quiet and a little shy, she laughed easily at the jokes and teasing of her girlfriend.
Carla was fierce, smart, and not very interested in a public education system that didn’t reflect her. Emma had made her promise to stay in school, promising in return that they would get out together after graduation.
“That’s a long time from now,” Carla would sigh and shake her head. “I just want to be with you.”
Emma would smile back, “we will, I promise. We’ll get away as soon as we graduate.”
“You’ll go to college,” Carla always told her. “I’ll support you, don’t worry.”
Some days they brought their friend Angel. The three had had grown up together keeping one another’s secrets—like hiding Angel’s dresses in Emma’s closet. He got to wear them, along with Emma’s bright red lipstick, when her parents were at work. Angel knew he was trans but was afraid of what would happen if he came out. All of their parents thought that he and Emma were dating, that Carla was their awkward friend.
I asked Angel if he wanted me to use female pronouns when I talked to him. He smiled, somewhat sadly. “No,” he sighed. “I don’t want to get used to it yet. I don’t want anyone to slip in front of anyone who knows my family. When I graduate and leave home, then yeah. But not now.”
That fall, the first Gulf War was brewing, and I was spending weekends and evenings at anti-war demonstrations with my ACT UP and Queer Nation friends. Very long days and nights of meetings, demonstrations, parties, and hospital bedside vigils. Emma, Carla, and Angel wanted to know all about it, but didn’t dare join me—afraid their families would find out, afraid their picture would end up in the LA Times, the way mine had.
After telling them about an especially long ACT UP Women’s Caucus meeting the night before, Emma peppered me with questions about the politics of healthcare access for HIV-infected women and children.
“Maybe that’s what I want to do if I become a doctor.”
“You will become a doctor. I’ll make sure of it,” said Carla.
“Can we come to a meeting?” Emma asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Carla, looking uneasy.
“There’s no media at committee meetings—nothing that exciting happens,” I reassured her.
“No, it isn’t that. I don’t know. The Women’s Caucus?” Carla shifted from side to side, nervous. “I just don’t…you know, always feel like a woman.”
“Well I do!” Angel was emphatic. “Can I come, too?”
“It’s so simple for you,” said Carla. “You always knew, didn’t you—that you’re really a girl?”
“Of course,” he said, shrugging.
“Not of course,” said Carla. “I just don’t know.”
Emma took her hand.
A week later, Emma found Angel and me at lunch. She was trembling. A thick, raw welt scarred her cheek. Her mother had come home from work early the day before and caught her in bed with Carla. Her mother had screamed, kicked Carla of the house, and then called her mother. Emma had fought with her mother, and her mother had slapped her, leaving the welt. Emma, forbidden to leave the house or use the phone, had spent the sleepless night worrying about Carla, frantic and afraid for her.
As Emma told us the story, Carla arrived. Her right eye was black and blue, her lips swollen and cut, and her neck was ringed with deep purple bruises. Her father had beaten and repeatedly choked her when he found out. She fought her way out of the house.
Angel was shaking.
“Did they call my parents?”
“I don’t know,” said Emma, looking at him. “I think so. I’m so sorry.”
“Let’s leave now,” Carla pleaded with her. “Right now.”
I never saw them again.
I kept returning to our old spot during lunch, hoping to see them. And then I just got busy: A friend from ACT UP died, someone else was sick. I don’t remember when I stopped thinking about the three of them. That year we were fighting against HIV immigration laws that 20 years later we’re still fighting. And 20 years later, my queer friends are still dying.
Why am I telling you this? Because it does get better, but not the better you’re expected to believe.
For those of us not born into the privilege of money or white skin, normative gender presentation, or other signifiers of passing and affluence, what are the possibilies of better?
The social and political movement that you see waiting for you may not reflect you, may not reflect what you dream of. The movement talks about marriage, raising families, and serving your country—while you’re trying to make it through another day alive.
Maybe you’ve never been able to hold a date’s hand or go on a date. Or maybe you live your life out loud and fabulous making art, dating, fighting for public space, and propelling your proud and visible self through your world alone or with the help of well-chosen or surprising allies.
The visible movement says you should fight for the right to join the military because soon there will be no funded public education, and you’ll be able to travel overseas to kill people who look like you.
The most visible representatives of the movement are usually the most socially normative and acceptable of us. It was always that way. 20 years ago the visible movement didn’t reflect us either—the trannies, sex workers, HIV+, poor, queers of color, or radicals. But we were visible to each other.
This letter is an apology to them—my lost high school friends. And a promise to you.
This week in my psychotherapy practice, I sat with a young transperson who did get out, who told me about the “bullying” that they had suffered during high school. Pushed into lockers, shoved, and tripped during track training, anonymous threats of sexual violence left in their locker.
Also this week I sat with a mother of a toddler talking about the bullying that toddler experienced on the playground from another toddler who didn’t want to share toys.
Maybe when we talk about the experiences of LGBTQ young people, bullying is the wrong word. Do we infantilize you by using the same terminology we use when we talk about toddlers not sharing toys? Would people pay closer attention if we used the same language we use for adults having these experiences outside school walls? Hate crimes, hate speech, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in the context of a cultural climate that disavows your humanity. Our humanity.
I felt like I had barely escaped from my high school; I was so happy to get out that I didn’t look back. That’s the danger now, isn’t it—what I must atone for. We get so excited when we see our path to escape that we forget we do not survive alone, that our survival is tied to the rest of the tribe.
What happened to the couple I went to high school with? What happened to our trans friend? I like to think that they, too, escaped. That they finished school, that Emma is somewhere a doctor, and Carla genderqueer revolutionary. That Angel is living somewhere as the woman she wanted to grow up to be. I know better than to believe this, but I’d like to.
Better may not look like the American Dream. You may not want it to. Better is complicated. Better looks like this:
My friends from ACT UP and Queer Nation who modeled honorable, just, and loving queer livelihood are my community now, and we try to take care of one another still. We’ve lost many of our chosen family to AIDS, cancer, and addiction. We’ve nursed one another through police brutality, illness, and overwhelm. We build altars. We pick marigolds on Dia de los Muertos, take the streets on Transgender Day of Remembrance, and light candles on World AIDS Day. We fight for the living. Some of us are married, and some of us refuse all signifiers that would have us blend in with the normative cultural center. We build urban gardens, make art, and believe that revolutionary change is both internal and external.
Every year students in my queer psychology classes remind me that whatever I think I can know or guess about them, I’m only partially correct because the context of their lives and the histories of their bodies moving through this world are never what I expect or imagine. They remind me to ask. When I am lucky, they tell me.
Last month a press release was issued from Equality California that a noose was left on the organization’s office door and that the police officer they tried to report it to said, “Sometimes you just have to live with being a victim.”
And yes, the slightly lowered numbers of hate crimes reported in 2009 from 2008 most likely represents not a drop in actual hate crimes, but a decrease in the capacity of organizations to respond to and document them.
But finally, legislation has recently passed in California allowing minors 12 and older to seek mental health treatment without parental consent. My colleagues and I will finally be able to hold space in our agencies and private practices to provide support and mentorship to LGBTQ and other youth at risk of abandonment by the current political and social systems of power.
And, though some people I know still argue that we can’t reach into all of the corners of the country where you might be isolated and seeking, videos take flight over the Web with images of you fighting back, standing up for your own fierce selves, and the rights of other LGBTQ community members to whom you lend your voice. You teach us what it means to live out loud now. We are trying to listen.
Better looks like this:
We keep fighting. We find each other still.
There is a revolution rumbling in your name. We are looking for you.