Coming of age in a rural, conservative-leaning town of 500 is in itself no easy feat. Growing up queer in such an environment is much harder. Supporting queer youth, regardless of one’s own political and religious beliefs, is crucial.
I was raised in a religious family, in a small town with minimal diversity, in terms of race, political affiliation, and, least of all, sexual orientation and gender identity. Most of my town consisted of straight, white, Christian, cisgender, working-class people, with the majority identifying as politically conservative. Queerness felt like a taboo, something rarely talked about aside from the occasional hushed rumors: “I heard so-and-so is gay!”
There were a small handful of “out” members of the LGBTQ+ community in my town and at my high school, but those who were open about their sexuality and gender identities were visibly excluded socially and, more often than not, judged for their divergence from the status quo. With minimal representation in my hometown and in the media, I grew up hiding my queerness and internalizing toxic misconceptions about gender and sexuality that, to this day, I am still unlearning.
Outwardly, I did my best to play the part of the good, straight, Christian girl that I was expected to be. But that same girl who got straight As, attended church every Sunday, and feigned interest in watching The Bachelorette at team bonding struggled with internalized homophobia, shame, and repression of her identity on a daily basis. Still, this aspect of my identity wasn’t easy to hide, even though I didn’t come to terms with my sexuality until the latter half of college. I later learned that some of my classmates in high school had bets not as to if but rather when I would come out. I suspect that fitting in socially in high school would have been much easier had I not been perceived as queer by the more popular crowds. Similarly, I’m beyond confident that the process of coming to terms with my sexuality would have been far less painful had my fitting in with my peers not felt so dependent on my conformity to heteronormative standards.
On late nights during high school, I remember searching the Internet for some sort of test that could “diagnose” whether I was gay, hoping to prove that what I feared wasn’t true. I grew up in a community where adults I looked up to would refer to queer people, people like me, with slurs, and where “gay” was used as an insult. Meanwhile, I was left fearing that my experiences of same-sex attraction would drive away the few female friends with whom I was close. People whose opinions I valued maligned me for being friends with someone who was trans, when little did they know that I resented my feminine body and having been born a woman. I watched as people I looked up to elected a president who actively denied people like myself basic human rights. While a fair amount of people from my hometown were at least civil and tolerant towards the LGBTQ+ community, the rampant hate from some fundamentalist Christian and radically conservative members of my hometown made the shame tied to my identity that much stronger.
And so, I convinced myself that queerness, of gender and sexuality alike, was a choice, that I could choose not to be queer. It was the only way I could cope with the precarity of being queer, of being different, in place where many people viewed the very queerness I sought to hide as wrong, a sin even, including some of the people closest to me in life. I tried so hard to be straight and cisgender, to conform to the expectations that society, my family, and my peers had laid out for me, to prevent the inevitable pain and isolation that comes with queerness, especially in an unaccepting environment like my own. After all, if queerness were a choice, why would I choose to be queer, when I admittedly did (sometimes) like men and I could present in a feminine way when I wanted to? Why couldn’t I just be normal?
The way we treat adolescents, especially those who do not fit neatly with society’s expectations, can have seriously detrimental impacts on the identities, sense of self, mental health, and future relationships of young queer people. The internalization of shame and hatred can follow queer youth well into their adult lives, contributing to a sense of low self-worth and feelings of isolation. Thoughtless microaggressions and slurs that seem inconsequential to those who say them can leave impressionable queer young people feeling invalidated in an immutable aspect of their identities. In a political climate in which queer and trans rights are constantly being regulated, it is up to loved ones, peers, and communities to accept, rather than ostracize, our queer youth. No matter who you are or what you believe, all people should be afforded respect and dignity, including queer youth. Even a small amount of basic human decency can make all the difference in such a critical period for the development of the identity and self-worth of young people.