I first admitted I liked girls when I was 15. A few months later, I found myself in the exciting and terrifying throes of my first “relationship” with a girl. I was half in the closet, starting to come out to select friends but not yet out to my parents or society at large. My quasi-girlfriend was so deep in the closet, she practically smelled of mothballs. (In reality she smelled of honeysuckle and sweet tangerine and all the most wonderful scents in the world.)
We were secretive about our relationship, meeting in the basement stairwell at school to steal a kiss, or in a supply closet custodians forgot to lock. We cut classes to walk around a neighborhood far enough from school that we wouldn’t be spotted—we were more fearful of getting caught being gay than for playing hooky. She invited me to her house only when her parents weren’t home and shooed me out before they returned. I didn’t dare invite her to my house. I suppose the secrecy turned up the heat on our attraction. I mean, what’s hotter than sneaking out of math class to head to a clandestine location where you will make out with a cute girl? It was also the first time I was able to express my true desires and sense of self, and the emotions were overwhelming.
Still, I was quickly gaining confidence and recognizing that I wasn’t just fooling around. I was gay. It wasn’t the dark ages, but it was still the ’90s, before Ellen came out and before acceptance of LGBTQ identities had penetrated mainstream discourse. I started to grapple with what it would mean for the rest of my life and what type of gay person I wanted to be. Even though I was terrified, I knew I didn’t want to hide in the shadows. I didn’t know any other gay people, other than one butch lesbian in my school who I noticed because of her uncanny resemblance to Jason Biggs.
But my girlfriend wasn’t ready to be my girlfriend in public. She wasn’t sure she was gay. She was an immigrant with very strict, traditional parents. Each time a truck driver honked at us and yelled something nasty in the brief moments when we braved walking down the street with hands clasped, she seemed to retreat a little further into the closet, while I felt emboldened and wanted to come out.
The electricity I felt when she sneakily caressed my hair on the bus when no one was looking started to turn into a frustration that we couldn’t do that in the company of our friends. I knew that “being gay” in public could mean putting ourselves in harm’s way, and I was light years away from thoughts of bringing her home to Mom, but I knew I wanted more than to live in the shadows.
It all came to a head when she pulled away completely and decided to go back to her ex-boyfriend. It was crushing, but it freed me to pursue new gay friends and dates and to live the out-and-proud life that led me to where I am today.
Last week, I was commuting to work on the city bus in Queens. As I tuned out the noise of urban rush hour with my headphones and gazed around with the detachment that keeps me sane, I spotted two young high school girls. One was seated in the front row of the bus, and the other was standing in front of her, hovering awfully close. They could have been friends, but something about their energy told me otherwise. And then the girl who was standing leaned in and kissed her girlfriend square on the lips. Her hands rested on the other’s arms, and they playfully tugged on one another’s coats.
It was innocent and beautiful and incredibly shocking to me. I realized that I’ve always seen high school lovers entwined on the buses and trains, on park benches and city sidewalks. But I had never seen such a proud and blatant moment of same-sex love in such a public space. I felt a pang of emotion. It was incredibly empowering to see them feel so comfortable expressing their feelings, just as their straight counterparts had for so long. I also worried for their safety. And I yearned for the teenage years when I didn’t have the freedom of such public pronouncements of my love.
Above all, watching the two young women in the morning sunlight on the crowded city bus gave me a great sense of hope. All that we’ve fought for—especially the groundwork laid by those who came before me, who paid with their lives and their dignity, from Oscar Wilde to Sylvia Rivera and everyone in between—is truly coming to fruition. Perhaps those girls might be able to go home to their families and not be met with rejection, fear, or disappointment as they might have been in earlier years. They might be able to walk down the street holding hands without turned heads and harassment. They might be able to look to brighter futures when their love will be recognized under the law.