They see Ellen and Adam Lambert and Neil Patrick Harris. They’re good folks and important public figures, but those are gay celebrities. What are the odds of becoming a celebrity? What kids have a hard time picturing is a rewarding, good, average life for themselves. Becoming Ellen is like winning the lottery. But there are a lot of happy and content lesbians who we don’t see or hear from ever. Those are the people teens need to hear from right now. When a 15-year-old kills himself, he’s saying he can’t picture a future that is decent enough and happy enough to stick around for. Gay adults can show our present lives and help them picture a future.
It gets better. I freely admit as a straight white middle class chick I don’t know jack about the battles LGBT teens face, except from the outside, where I feel profoundly sorry and angry we aren’t making a better world in which they can grow up. I don’t know what it was like being a gay teenager. But I know what it was like being a teenager, period, and a solitary, socially awkward teenager, and I can’t imagine a better message for anybody who feels alone than that.
I saw this girl in the airport two years ago. I’ve never forgotten her face. She was standing beside her parents and two younger boys I assumed were her brothers. They were engaged in a screaming fight over some toy in a bright green box. Her parents were doing that marital guerrilla warfare thing where Dad snaps things like, “No, RITA, you put it there, YOU go get it,” and Mom looks weary. The girl was holding a video game device of some kind, wearing ill-fitting jeans and a pink sweater, her complexion was pockmarked, and she fidgeted with everything, like she was trying to crawl out of her skin or deeper inside it. Her hair was stringy and her expression was one of total misery.
It’s not that she was the first alienated-looking teenager I’d seen in public. I work near a high school and I see them every day in the sandwich place, sitting by themselves, maybe with a book or a laptop or a notebook. But something about her thousand-yard stare, her whole body saying GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE, the picture of completely ordinary dejection she presented made me want to go up to her and hug her and say, “It will get better.”
It will get better. You’ll grow up. Your skin will even out. Your body will become what it’s meant to be. You’ll either figure out clothes or not care that you haven’t figured out clothes. You’ll learn to deal with your Difficult Hair. You’ll have someone teach you makeup, or teach it to yourself, or not give a damn anymore. You’ll be beautiful, in some way you haven’t figured out yet, the way everybody’s beautiful in ways they don’t always know, always.
You’ll find work you love, work that lifts you up and makes you more than you are and you’ll throw yourself into that work and you’ll be good at it. You may not be as successful as you once dreamed, but you’ll be good at it and that will be enough. You’ll find things to fill your extra time, art or music, reading, sports, volunteer work. You’ll get a cat or two or a dog or a fish or a robot hamster or a plant. You’ll go out. You’ll stay in. You’ll find love, and lose it, and find it again. Your days will take a shape you can’t see right now, and they’ll be good days and bad days, like everybody else’s. They won’t be perfect, but you won’t feel they’re wasted.
You’ll go to your high school reunion, and laugh because all those horrible kids who were so mean to you are just people now, and you don’t have to be afraid of them and you don’t have to care what they thought of you then or what they think of you now. One of them will corner you, drunk, in the bathroom, and slur at you that you’ve really changed. You’ll smile and go on your way, not because you’ve forgiven them for their cruelty but because you don’t care anymore. Hating them and feeling sorry for your old self and sorting out who was really to blame for what is so much work, and you’ve got so many other things to do.
You’ll think to yourself, I would not be fifteen again if you put a gun to my head. You’ll think people who say youth is wasted on the young are idiots. You’ll dance on your 30th and 40th birthdays. You’ll glory in your adulthood, in turning the key in the lock of your own apartment or house, in coming home from a job you’ll be doing with your own hands earning money you get to spend however you like. You’ll survive something else tough, a job loss, an illness, a death, and you’ll think about how much stronger you are than you ever thought you’d be. You’ll get knocked down, a lot, because it’s how you learn caution, but you’ll never forget what it felt like to be reckless and you’ll try to live like that as much as anyone possibly can.
Your squabbling siblings? They’ll be people who get the jokes no one else gets, who find things funny that to anyone else sound horrifying. They’ll hold your hand at family funerals. They’ll be your constants in a changing world. Your parents, snapping at each other? You’ll see your father looking at your mother one day and the love in his eyes will take your breath away. You and your family may not ever truly get each other, bone-deep and blood-simple, but you will work through what you don’t get, because shared history has a power best heeded, absent all other impediments.
And speaking of shared history, you’ll have friends you haven’t met yet. God, will you have friends. Friends whose faith will give you faith, whose strength will awe and inspire you, whose company you’ll glory in. You’ll be courageous with them beside you. You’ll laugh so hard your sides hurt. You’ll go to baseball games and football games and plays and farmer’s markets and out to dinner and brunch and to movies and plays together. They’ll come to your parties. You’ll go to theirs. They’ll e-mail you four times a day and you’ll drop everything to answer. You’ll babysit their kids and love that their kids know your names. You’ll pick them up from the airport and they’ll cook for you when you’re sick. They’ll follow your life like a soap opera and you’ll follow theirs. You’ll go for months without speaking but think of them every day. You’ll think, every day, how lucky you are to have found them. You’ll wonder, every day, why they put up with you and sometimes you’ll get down and feel broken and unworthy, and they’ll come around, and they’ll lift you up again.
You’ll fill your house with them whenever you can, and as you’re in the other room getting drinks you’ll hear them laughing and talking. The paint might be peeling and you didn’t get a promotion and nobody’s making enough money, and everybody in the room is fighting some kind of battle every day and so are you, but you’ll hear these people talking and laughingin your home and the love you feel will almost choke you. You’ll feel ten feet tall. You’ll think to yourself, “I have the life I wanted.” And your greatest fear will not be that you’ll never get there but that it will all be taken away.
I don’t know anything about that girl in the airport. Maybe she was a brilliant kid, class president and head cheerleader, having a crappy day. Maybe she just didn’t feel like smiling. Maybe she was some kind of pyro sociopath and was the cause of all her family’s fighting. Maybe she was absolutely fine and that’s just how her face looked. But if I could go back to that day, to that girl, I’d go up to her and tell her exactly what I needed to hear, all those years ago. What everybody needs to hear, when they’re someplace they can’t get out of, when they’re stuck somewhere miserable and can’t see the end of it. When they’ve been knocked down so hard they can’t imagine getting up.
It will get better.
It will get so much better.