Sunday, November 29, 2015

Letter to my Gay Teenage Self

If you could write a letter to your gay teenage self, what would it say?


This is the genesis of this post.  But I feel I need to explain what I hope you'll take the time to read below, especially if you're young and wondering how you'll ever get through the probability you're gay.

Nearly two years ago, I read The Letter Q, and it moved me deeply.  The honesty with which well-known gay writers wrote to, in some cases, their much younger selves floored me.  The promise they gave their younger selves, that they'd grow out of the misery they were going through–and, most importantly, wouldn't take their own lives, and stick around, and see what the future held for them–made me think about my own situation.  I found myself back in the same mindset I was back in the 1970s, when life couldn't have looked any worse.  And yet, somehow, I made it through, and I felt, like the writers in The Letter Q did, that I owed that young man I was a glimpse of what his future would look like.

Just hang in there, was the message.  It really does get better.

And so, as I sat on the bus in February 2014, on my way to the Interior of B. C., to attend the memorial of my beloved maternal grandmother, I took out my iPad, and, in one hell of a blizzard through the mountains–when I didn't know if we'd survive the trip–I wrote a letter to my younger self.  This is that letter.

Why did I take so long to share it with you?  Because I'd forgotten about it.  Until I bought a new iPad, and the one I used then went to my partner.  Today, as I deleted all the documents I'd written on it, I found the letter below.  And I thought there was something in it that just might help someone today, facing some of the same things I did decades ago.

You're not as old as I am now; you don't have the perspective on your life that I do on mine. That's why I hope you'll read this, and see for yourself how much I would have missed if I'd taken my life, if I hadn't somehow found the courage to stick around.  


Dear Ricky,

I know at your age how much you hate that name, the one your parents didn't think far enough ahead when they gave it to you to know how it would embarrass you.  Even to the point of using it as a subject in one of twelve writing assignments Mrs. Cassidy gave you in her grade twelve creative writing class.  I still remember the title of the essay:  "Why I Hate My First Name," or something like that.  Poor Mrs. Cassidy.  Not only did she have to waste her precious time reading your tirade, but also she had to sit down with you, one-on-one, and review what you wrote in detail, prose and content.  She must have thought you were a real tool.  What the hell?  Why does this guy hate his first name?  Who hates his first name?

Eventually, when you get much older, you'll tell people your parents must have named you after the famous '50s singer Ricky Nelson, who was one cute guy and made a whole successful career, in part, calling himself that.  But, to this day, you don't know if that's really true.  It just sounds good.  Still, there must be something to it, considering how many Rickys you grew up with.  Did they all hate their names as much as you did?  Probably not.  To my knowledge, none of them was gay, which was the real reason why you hated your name so much–because you thought it pointed yet another finger at you being gay.  

Although there was Ricky Jackson at Dr. Knox Junior Senior Secondary.  Remember the day you walked home in the freshly fallen snow after school, and you realized someone was throwing snowballs at you from behind?  When you turned around, you saw it was Ricky Jackson, who, as it turned out, was as inept as you in PE class, but who was also kind of cute, in his own sort of geeky way.  And, admit it, you were interested in him, at least as a friend. But you didn't dare let him know, and you certainly didn't throw snowballs back at him.  To this day, you think he was just trying to get your attention, because he knew you were a lot alike, and he wanted to get to know you.  But you didn't know that for sure.  If you had chucked a snowball at him, who knows where you'd be today.  He might have even turned out to be your life partner.  But that wasn't meant to be.    

So back to your name.  

It really symbolized everything you thought was wrong with you, didn't it?  Or, I should say, everything you thought other people thought was wrong with you.  It sounded so effeminate, which was one of the points you made in Mrs. Cassidy's writing assignment.  Your argument was that, no matter how the name Ricky was spoken, it would never sound masculine, which is exactly what you wanted your name to be, as though a more masculine sounding name might wipe out everything about you that you knew was anything but masculine.  Slim chance of that, huh?  Many decades later, when you're me at my age, you'll realize what a silly notion that was.  How you were just grasping for salvation.  Even if your parents, who had no foresight, had called you Butch, or Bruno, or Bruce, you still wouldn't have been any less effeminate.  You might have stood out even more than you already did–an effeminate boy with a masculine name.  The laughing might have been even louder.

It will take you a lot of years to overcome the hatred of your name.  At first, hatred will turn to denial.  You'll insist on calling yourself Rick, one of those butch names that still doesn't make you butch, and everyone will come to know you as that.  But it still won't make things any easier.  You'll still wish you had another name altogether.  (Christopher was always one of your favorites.  You could see yourself being called that.  But not Chris, because Chris has a female equivalent–Christine.  And if people caught on to that, you'd still be in the same place.). 

The problem is, when you had to show someone your driver's license or birth certificate, there it was, big and bold as ever:  Ricky.  A constant reminder.  There was really no way to get around it.  (And you'll find this again, in your mid-50s–yes, you’ll be that old one day, and you'll wonder how that was even possible–when your financial advisor tells you that all your bank records, in the name of Rick for decades, while you worked for a bank (yes, you thought you'd be an English teacher or a writer, but that didn't happen...well, we'll get to that) have to be re-registered in your birth name for security reasons.  By then, you'll balk, and you'll ask your advisor about it–you’ll even blame her for it, thinking she has something against you (there goes that paranoia again)–but, mostly, you'll just forget about it, because what can you do?  And who really cares?  Everyone still knows you as Rick, a name you're still ill at ease with, and that will be good enough.  Yes, believe it or not, it really will be.  By your mid-50s, you'll give up the conflict around your name, because who the fuck really cares what you're called?  You'll have separated your name from what you are, which brings us to our next subject.)

Did you know your hatred of your name was really your hatred of yourself?  Yup.  You had a lot of hate in you, for things that were way beyond your control.  Like all the kids at school who teased you.  Like your PE teachers for embarrassing you by assuming you were good at sports, let alone liked them (and for telling the class they were playing murder ball, then leaving for the staff room to smoke–Julian Neal, I'm talking to you–giving all the boys the chance to murder who they really wanted to die: David, the fat, awkward boy, and you, the faggot).  

For years after graduating from high school, you hated yourself, because you weren't what other people expected (like your parents), and you weren't what you expected of yourself.  But you had no idea it was self-loathing.  And you had no idea what the source of it was.  You'd been filled with self-loathing for so long, you didn't know anything else.  It's just the way you were.  And you went on your way loathing yourself, until probably sometime in your early- to mid-thirties, when you got just the faintest inkling of what you were doing.  That's when the real work started.  That's when, day by day, you learned there was a whole other way of being you in the world, and it had nothing to do with apologizing for what you are, for being attracted to other men, for even wanting to love another man and be his partner.  Yup.  Your thirties and early forties were an amazing time, and a pivotal one too.  You won't believe how far you'll come.   

Today, at fifty-four, you are finally a writer, and you're not ashamed to say that to people, because you're putting in the work (and it's enormously hard, but satisfying, work).  You know how you were able to get there?  Because a miracle happened.  You met an incredible man when you were thirty two, and he was twenty-three–a boy in some respects, but very much a man in others.  And you went through a very rough first ten years or so, when he wouldn't tell you that he loved you–words you were desperate to hear because no one else had ever said them to you–but who showed you he did in every single thing he did.  You just didn't recognize it as love.  And in 2007–yes, you and this fellow were together then, as you remain today–you were able to leave your job of nearly thirty years with a bank, because of some great real estate decisions you made (and the crazy real estate market in the Lower Mainland and Victoria–yes, you live in Victoria, one of your favorite cities in the world, for nearly a decade) and focus on your writing career.  Your partner said it was your turn to pursue your dream of being a writer, and he supports the two of you so you can do that.  Now, if that isn't love, I don't know what is.

You write three things:  a daily journal, which you'll read countless times over the years is a necessity for anyone who wants to be a writer.  You've kept your journal, at an average of just one 8.5 x 11 piece of paper per day, since late 1993, filling over fifty volumes (where in the hell are you going to put them all?), and you eagerly tell anyone who listens that it's one of the best things you've ever done.  It is.  You and your journal have made you a stronger, more disciplined writer, and have gotten you through some tough stuff, like depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.  You might not still be here if you hadn't kept a journal.  Never stop writing it, okay?  

You also write a blog–something the world knows nothing about at your age (hell, the world knows nothing about computers at your age, either, or the Internet, but both will revolutionize life on earth, trust me).  A blog is like an online journal, and you won't believe what the subject of your blog is: building self-esteem in gay and lesbian people.  Who'd have thought a young, gay kid, consumed with self-loathing, would learn to love himself enough that he could write about it and help, as it turns out, young gay and lesbian people from around the world.  This will be one of the most fulfilling things you'll ever do.  And, every time you hear from someone in Estonia, Indonesia, Brazil, Iran, England, Canada, and the United States, to name a few, you will love that you went through all the pain over the years, so you could help other human beings in one of the most fulfilling ways possible–to love themselves, and to get on with the business of living their best lives.  It's a privilege to do this, not one you take for granted.

And, finally, you're going to write a novel, something you've wanted to do for perhaps your entire life.  It will be one of the most difficult things you've ever done.  And, just when you think you might have an inkling of what you're doing, you'll discover you don't.  Writing a novel will help to teach you what you most need to learn–patience–something your partner has an abundance of and who inspires you with it every single day.    

And what is your novel about?  It's about a period of your life, just after you moved to Vancouver, and met, through an ad in the newspaper, one of the most colorful, amazing, funny, trustworthy, and tragic people you'll ever know.  You will essentially write about yourself, as the protagonist, through the filter of your good friend.  And, in the process, you'll hope to pick up the theme of your blog and help gay and lesbian people, who need help learning to understand, accept, and love themselves.

And, finally, you'll never guess what your partner’s name is.  I'll tell you.  It's Christopher.  Chris for short.  He will be the love of your life.  Your one and only.  And, in typical fashion, you'll think nearly every day about what would happen if you ever lost him–a possibility you can't even fathom.  It would be the greatest loss of your life, from which you might never recover.

But let's not think about that, okay?  Right now, everything is as good as it's ever been.  You have so much ahead of you, so many amazing and incredible things.  

You're suffering big time now, and you wonder if you'll ever get through it. But I promise, you will.  

And one final message.  You are special.  You are special beyond words.  You can't imagine that now, but you will, eventually.  Believe me when I tell you.  Believe it for me, okay?  

In the end, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being gay.  In fact, in 2005, Canada will make gay marriage legal.  Incredible, huh?  Who would have thought?  It's pretty special to be a gay man now.  You have a lot of crap to go through between then and now, but all of it will lead to something  It really will.  You will not be who you are in 2014–doesn’t that sound futuristic?–if you don’t go through what you are now.  Everything happens for a reason. Something else to believe.   

I love you, Ricky.  I really do.

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