The Trauma that Comes from Being a Closeted Teen

For many, being teenager is often a really tricky time. We’re dealing with hormones, changing bodies, emotions we’ve never felt before, first loves, first experiences with sex, heartbreak — and all the other stuff that comes from being a teen. In fact, “.”

It can be especially tricky for those teens who are struggling to understand their own sexuality — especially if they identify with anything other than being a heterosexual. And what’s worse is this:

“LGB[TQ] youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.”

As a 33 year old bisexual man, who only came out a little more than 3 years ago, I don’t think I ever fully appreciated the level of trauma that I endured as a teenager, navigating what it meant to be anything other than “straight.”

As I do the work to truly feel self-love, it has been important to acknowledge the things that happened that made me who I am today. I share this story with you to help you understand the experience of LGBTQ youth, and hopefully help shape the experience of our future generations.

— — — — — — — — — —

I had just finished the 5th grade. My mom & new stepdad, Dave, were moving to a small town outside of Columbus, OH for his new job.

I was sad to leave Kansas City, where I’d spent my first 12 years, because it meant leaving my grandparents, cousins, and friends behind. It was all I knew. But naively, I was excited to get a fresh start and go to a new school.

I had dreams of starting over. This time, I was going to be one of the ‘cool’ kids. I’d be be popular. I’d be someone that got invited to birthday parties, and school dances, and all that other shit that seems so important when you’re a child in modern day school. And let’s be clear, I was still very much a child.

Looking back, I wasn’t particularly ‘uncool’ in elementary school, but I wasn’t one of the ‘cool’ kids, either. I had floppy hair. My mom & I had very little money, so cool clothes weren’t really an option for me. I also had a weird obsession with Titanic (the actual historical ship & subsequent event, not just the movie), and I made it very known. I’d store history books about that fateful night in 1912 in my desk, I’d draw pictures of the ship on my notebook, and I’d walk around the playground asking people if they knew how many people were on the ship when it sank. Come to think of it, maybe I was more ‘uncool’ than I thought. But honestly— that is last time I remember being blissfully unashamed of myself.

I remember having a massive crush on the same girl from the time I was in 2nd grade to the time I got in the car to head for Ohio. I was heartbroken it never worked out. She was my dream girl, and I had failed to make her like me. (I cried when she wrote “I’ll miss you” in my yearbook and signed her name with a heart. My heart fluttered, but then I remembered that long distance relationships aren’t a thing when you’re in middle school. Damnit life, you are so cruel.)

It wasn’t going to happen to me again! This time — I was going to reinvent myself. I’d dress better, be good at sports, I’d get in shape (my body issues started young), and I’d date the prettiest girl in school. That was the master plan. It was impenetrable.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the first time in my life that I really started to compare myself to others and feel shame about who I was vs. who I thought I should be.

We all have that moment. That moment we realize we think we might need to be something other than what we are. That moment when the world’s expectations land on our lap and we discover the gap between what we are and what we the world thinks we ought to be. That is the moment we all start to veer off the path that was meant for us and redirect ourselves into a life of “shoulds”.

Little did I know, that little town in Ohio would not be kind to me. At all. And ‘not kind’ is a kind way of putting it. It was cruel. Heartbreaking. Lonely. And most of all — scary.

All those hopes of being popular and cool and dating the prettiest girl in school — those hopes were eclipsed by new hopes of just surviving. No exaggeration here. I was terrified. For four years. And no one knew it.

No one.

It wasn’t until I arrived on the scene in 6th grade did I also realize that I was not only attracted to girls, but I liked boys, too. I had my suspicions, of course (if that’s even the right language for it). I noticed myself noticing boys much earlier than that, but it wasn’t until then that I realized that I was different and that being attracted to boys was not ‘normal’.

I’ll never forget the day when I first realized that my attraction to boys was not only not ‘normal’, but it wasn’t acceptable.

It was a sunny September day. There was another boy from my class named Ben. We were all walking back to our classroom from the playground and I had just picked up my lunch box. Apparently, the way I picked up my lunchbox caught Ben’s attention.

“Look how Patrick carries his lunchbox. He’s so gay!” Ben laughed.

Everyone else quickly looked at me and laughed, too. I still to this day do not know how I was holding my lunchbox that signaled to Ben & the others that I was ‘gay’. I must have just had the “mannerisms”.

I was in shock. No one had ever called me that, much less noticed who I was attracted to.

How did he know that? Did I look at him too long? Do I walk ‘like a girl’? Do I hold my lunchbox ‘like a girl’? Talk ‘like a girl’?

Ironically, the phrase ‘it takes one to know one’ proved to be true as I learned a few laters that Ben came out. It’s important to note that this doesn’t give me any satisfaction. If anything, it makes me sad for him and for me. He was clearly projecting his own insecurities onto me, which probably made him feel better for a short time. But what if we’d both learned as children that it was ok to feel the way we felt? What if we had the tools to work through it, without shame or guilt, and we could have been there for each other? What if we both could have skipped the shame and just moved into acceptance, for each other?

That was the first day I truly entered the closet, and I wouldn’t come out until almost 20 years later.

The teasing continued. Every single day. I had been outed, against my will, and I had no choice (in my head) other than to deny it.

I FELT HELPLESS.

And it went well beyond the 6th grade.

7th grade got just a little bit worse. Every day, we’d have to ‘dress out’ and change out clothes for gym class. I quickly learned that I was not welcome in the locker room. The news had spread, and I was known as the ‘gay kid’ by the other boys. I was tormented every time I’d attempt to change into my gym clothes for class.

That locker room was like entering a snake pit. There was no corner I could turn to where I was not hissed at with every derogatory slur against you can think of.

Gay. Faggot. Flamer. Fudge packer. Queer. Ladyboy.

My head was pushed into lockers. My clothes would get taken and then tossed over my head. Back & forth, back & forth. I couldn’t go to the bathroom because they would say I was trying to see their genitals. They’d hold the door if I’d go in the stall, and try to keep me in there until I begged them to let me out. On the days when I’d actually managed to get dressed and go into the gym, they’d whisper promises of a beating when class was over.

It is not an understatement to say I was terrified almost every day. I eventually just stopped going into the locker room. I’d walk straight into the gym, sit by the wall, and not participate in the class. Eventually, my teacher got frustrated and asked me why I refused to change my clothes for class. I would lie and say I forgot my clothes at home. Or I didn’t feel well. Or I just didn’t want to get sweaty. Eventually, it just became the norm and he stopped asking. I failed the class a few times.

I couldn’t tell him. I couldn’t tell my mom, even after she begged to understand how I failed something as easy as gym. Telling the people who were supposed to protect me also meant I’d have to answer the “Well, are you gay?” question in a time when I genuinely did not know. And I was terrified of disappointing my parents.

Again, I felt helpless.

I was attracted to boys. But I was also attracted to girls. I was deeply confused. Bisexuality is still a confusing topic, even today, for the most open of people — led alone a teenage boy in the middle of Ohio in the late 90’s. I didn’t have the language to explain my feelings.

Because I didn’t have the tools to do anything else, I listened to Ben. I listened to the boys in the locker room. I felt in my bones that they were right — there was something very wrong with me. The story I told myself, along with most kids who are LGBTQ+, was that my difference meant I was defective. That was the only explanation for enduring such hatred. Therefore, I must have deserved it.

And to be honest about my feelings meant potentially getting beaten to death — which felt then like a real possibility. So I kept them inside. I buried the feelings deeply in my soul, and told myself that it would never ever be ok to be honest. I also, unbeknownst to me at the time, etched a narrative of deep self-loathing & hatred for myself into my psyche. I inhaled the hate, and it took a very long time to exhale it (still working on getting it all out).

The torment would continue well into the 9th grade. Only this time, it was predominately on the school bus. Sometimes in the morning, but almost always on the way home.

There were two people, in particular, who had a special hatred for me and showed me no mercy: Daniel & Ashley. Both of them were seniors. They were sad people, inside and out. Hateful. Ruthless. Terrifying. Looking back, it is clear that they were struggling with their own stuff, and the only remedy to making their feelings go away (at least for a short time) was to make my life a living hell.

I will never forget the dread I felt every single day when the final bell rang. I’d pack up my stuff as quickly as I could and sprint to the bus to ensure I could sit in the seat behind the bus driver. It was the only place I felt safe.

It didn’t matter, though. Ashley and Daniel would sit behind me most days and make it their job to personally terrorize me. ‘Flamer’ was their slur of choice, and they made sure I heard it every single day as they got on the bus. It wasn’t enough to bully me — they’d bully most kids on the bus. And part of their plan was to ensure that everyone else only referred to me as ‘flamer’. Not my name. That was not an option. I was to be called ‘flamer’ and only that. Or suffer the consequences.

They’d chant it. They’d try to write it on my neck with marker. They’d put crumpled up notes in my bag with words: Fucking Flamer. I couldn’t escape it. If it wasn’t clear to me by then that my sexuality was never going to accepted, that was definitely the year that it was solidified in my brain.

I tried sticking up for myself, but it never made a difference. If anything, it would only make it worse.

The moment I truly felt in danger was when they started threatening to follow me home. The 3 of us all lived on the same street, and we all got off on the same stop. They’d tell me that they were going to follow me home, break into my house, and ‘beat the gay out’ of me. Looking back, of course, there’s very little chance that would have happened. But when you are 14, closeted, and on the tail end of enduring 4 traumatizing years at school — anything seems possible.

Thankfully, my mom got a new job in Atlanta and we moved after 9th grade. My new school was a much kinder place, and I am grateful I got out of there when I did. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d had stayed.

Remembering these stories is hard for me. It’s sad to remember the pain I was in every day, and how I didn’t feel safe to tell anyone. Not even my own mother. And it wasn’t because weren’t close. We were very close. But being bisexual was not something I could even understand, much less admit.

You have to understand that back then (how am I old enough to even use that phrase?), things weren’t the way they are now. Ellen was the first public figure to openly admit she was gay just a few years prior (1994) — and even she lost everything because of it. People don’t like to remember that part of the story. They don’t like to remember that she was largely ridiculed and nearly went broke because she decided to be herself. The message that being gay was not normal was still very pervasive in our culture moving into the late 1990’s.

Sure, there were gay people. And some of them managed to live somewhat normal lives. But not where I lived. Not in Pickerington fucking Ohio. How was I, a 14 year old who didn’t even know the word bisexual, supposed to ‘come out’?

I get asked all the time, amongst a series of other surprising questions, “What took you so long?”

I’ll tell you what took so long, and it’s trauma.

For children (and even adults), trauma happens when two things happen simultaneously:

  1. A traumatizing event happens that makes the child feel helpless.
  2. The child, for whatever reason, isn’t able to get support from a caretaker (parents, teachers, etc) after the traumatizing event to help the child cope, process, or seek justice.

When those two things occur, trauma is activated in the brain — leaving scars that can often last a lifetime.

I have been fortunate enough to have years of therapy to help me deal with my trauma. It is not gone — and most likely never will be. But I have the tools now to deal with it.

Unfortunately, it’s triggering when people romanticize my sexuality. “Oh you’re so lucky to be bisexual. You have twice the pool of people to choose from!”

No. That is not true. For many reasons.

But also — people make it sound like it’s fun. Getting to the place where I can openly admit to whoever reads this that I am bisexual was an extremely painful journey that took me a very, very long time to walk down. It took years of dealing with self-hatred, thousands of hours & dollars worth of therapy, endless tears, and so much more shit than I care to remember.

It was not fun.

Let me clear: I am not ashamed of myself, and it is with this trauma that I can honestly say I’m proud of who I am today. But I would not choose this path for anyone. Some people wear their queerness proudly and proclaim that they are glad the are LGBTQ+. I love that for them. But I am not there, yet. This shit was hard. Yes, I am stronger for it. But WHY would I choose it? I wouldn’t.

I often think back to that little boy, on his way to Ohio, unaware of the pain he was about to face. He was happy. He was hopeful. He was (mostly) unscathed. I will never be that little boy again. But, I am happy to say, I feel closer to that little boy on the way to Ohio than I ever have been.

I am hopeful. I have the tools to deal with my stuff & hateful shit heads. I know what it looks like to feel so ashamed of yourself that you’ll do anything to keep other people from seeing who you really are, and I will never let that happen to me again. I finally feel ‘normal’. I am normal because I am a human with a sexuality.

So I leave you with this:

  1. Make sure your kids aren’t bullying other kids. If they are, it’s your fault as their parent. Full stop. Don’t be an asshole and your kids won’t be assholes.
  2. Being LGBTQ+ is not something to romanticize. Are we more fun? Obviously. Do we dress better than you do? Duh. Have we also dealt with a ton of shit you don’t know about? 100%. (I’m joking.) Getting to the point where we feel free to be ourselves is a very long, hard journey (for most of us). Don’t skip that part of our story, please. It’s real, and it’s important you acknowledge it.
  3. I won’t pretend to be a parent. It’s a thankless job and the pressure is immense. My mom & stepdad did the best they possibly could and they still didn’t know this was happening to me. All I can say is that when I have kids, I won’t stop until they know that they are perfect just as they are; that there isn’t a single human on the earth that should feel ashamed of who they are; that if people make fun of you, that’s more about them then it is about you; and that if anyone does make you feel unsafe, I will do everything I can to protect them.
  4. Bisexuality isn’t a free for all. It isn’t a cool thing I picked off the shelf to give myself more choices. And contrary to popular belief, I don’t actually have more options in mates than you do. In fact, I have less.
  5. There is still so much more work to do. We need more visibility. We need more tolerance. We need more understanding. We need people to see our pain and acknowledge it. We need education. We need to talk about it. And this is just for LGBTQ+ people. Intersectionality is a topic that most people have not even heard of. People of color, especially within the trans community, are suffering the most. We have to fight for them. And that starts with stories, and exposure, and love, and understanding. It starts with all of us.

Much love. ❤

P.

work at facebook. live in new york. full of random stories & thoughts.

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