Age of the Twink: When sexuality steals your youth

Over the summer I celebrated my best friend’s 21st birthday with him and some others from high school. We drank beer, sat around a fire pit, and shared memories. They chatted about camping trips and summer vacations, senior weeks and afterschool activities, yet I sat in silence. I had nothing to add. I realized that, regardless of how I ruminated over my teenage years, I had no memories in which I found a fondness for nostalgia. It felt almost as if my life from adolescence to early adulthood didn’t exist. My life, although a quarter past, didn’t start until college, and I understood then that much of it wasn’t my fault. I am gay, and like so many queer people, I was stripped of a chance at normalcy because of it.

I recall myself as talkative and lively in junior high. Though I can’t recollect anything specific, I remember smiling. I remember friends. I remember an exuberance for the future. Then came high school. All niceties aside, high school was hell. I fell into myself, sequestering myself in a shell, hiding in a hole into which no light leaked. I was depressed. I lost touch with everyone. In retrospect much of this related to early childhood trauma. However, another factor took precedence: my sexuality.

I realized my attraction towards men around age 12. Before puberty, I didn’t have an inkling of sexuality—prepubescent boys said crude things about our female classmates, and I couldn’t comprehend from where their remarks emerged. My hometown in central Pennsylvania—small and conservative—did not and will never feel like home to people like me. Every day it exposed me to iniquity and meanness, to violence and bigotry.

At age 14 I thought my life changed because I met a fellow queer person for the first time. I found a safe space and a confidant in them. I revealed to them everything that troubled me: my identity crisis, my burgeoning sexuality, my suicidality. Although I don’t hold it against them now, they used my secrets against me and held them over my head. They mocked my confusion, shaming my uncertainty as if it were a betrayal to my friends, my family. They labeled me—telling me I was this or that—before I even learned the terms. They outed me to their friends without my knowledge or consent. Frankly, they gaslighted me, and it made everything that much worse.

Even in the most liberal places, those questioning themselves experience pushback and confusion. But I did not grow up in a liberal place. Despite being unaware of my own sexuality—I was closeted until college—everyone assumed it for me. Daily my high school peers called me “faggot.” They pushed me into lockers. In the cafeteria, one boy would chew his food, spit it out, and throw it at me. This became such an everyday occurrence that I ate alone in a classroom. Another boy, waiting in line for lunch, grabbed my ass, laughed, and slurred at me. At a time when I was overweight, a group of boys cornered me and jabbed their fingers into my stomach. Teased and taunted in locker rooms, I changed clothes by myself in a corner, far from everyone. No one chose me for teams in gym class, nor did anyone ask me to hang out. Teachers and counselors witnessed all this and did nothing.

I had no one. Each day the borders of my town felt tighter and smaller until, eventually, they would cave me into smithereens. I had nobody to turn to, nobody to trust. I befriended a nice boy who I thought would remain in my life forever, but even he came to betray me. My deteriorating mental health and sexual confusion created a feeling of oppressive sadness. Even now, when I visit my hometown, an immense fear seizes me that something terrible will occur and force me to stay there.

It’s because of this that when I first watched the 2018 film Love, Simon, I laughed and said to a friend, “This is obviously fiction.”

“Why?” he asked.

I told him: “Because the closeted gay kid has friends.”

Life only began for me when I moved to Boston. Here I could fully be myself. Here I have a place. Here I found a reason for being. People were kinder, more compassionate, more open-minded. I found friends, ambition, and passion. Even though Boston isn’t immune to its own anguishes and hardships, I learned the meaning of growth. The liberation that came with city life allowed me to speak openly about my sexuality, and I could engage in discourse, conversation, and political debate. Those with whom I spoke, while educated and intellectually driven, accepted me. I wasn’t an elephant in the room or some alien creature. It felt as if some weight that built throughout my adolescence in Pennsylvania suddenly eased and, with that, I could finally be human.

Despite this, I can’t help but yearn for what I lacked. I missed out on so many staples in my life because of my sexuality: I never attended prom, homecoming, or football games. I never had a wild teenage romance. I never participated in athletics. I never hung out late into the night with friends. Each day I fell victim to straight people, happy and smiling, surrounding me, and I wondered why I couldn’t have that. I only recently realized the hole in my life where all this should be. Back then I convinced myself none of it would matter once I got away from Pennsylvania. But it did then, and it does now. My sexuality stole my youth from me.

Naïvely, I believed I could remedy all this in college. I was of the opinion that I could rectify the experiences I missed. But nothing is that simple. I arrived at college traumatized and emotionally stunted, and that feeling followed me everywhere rather than vanishing when I left Pennsylvania.

My friend’s birthday, while a small happening, represented something much bigger. I didn’t forget my high school years as I previously believed. I repressed them. Those days lurk somewhere in the back of my brain, waiting to attack. While I hardly think of them now, they’re forever a part of me.

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