At the beginning of this school year if someone asked me what was wrong or why I was unhappy, I could not have told them; I’ve always been this way. It was not until off a whim I signed up for a class on gender identity and sexual orientation that I realized how much my sexuality has impacted on my life.
I recognized the negative impact that others homophobia (and my own personal internalized homophobia) have had on my mental health. I remember as a little kid first hearing about the concept of mental illness. I learned that people could get hurt by mean things that other people said to them if they believed their mean words. I imagined that this only occurred in extreme situations where someone did something really cruel.
In reality these situations happen daily in subtle forms of hostile behavior called “micro-aggressions.”
I first became aware of my sexual orientation when I was in the sixth grade. It seemed like everyone around me began questioning my sexual identity before I had given it much thought. I remember a particular experience in sixth grade writing class; I was aware that I wasn’t naturally attracted to men all that much. So I falsely claimed I had a crush on Prince Harry to fit in with the other girls who all had celebrity crushes on guys.
I put pictures of him on my binder, his name all over my folders, and the occasional remark about what he must be capable of behind closed doors. It was practically true love. However, despite my desperate attempts to fit it, I didn’t fool anyone. One day, my good friend Mary cut me off mid-sentence while discussing my plans to marry Prince Harry by blurting out, “Isabelle, you’re a dyke.”
My body tensed up, this made me so uncomfortable. She sat grinning at me with an accusing look of pleasure, “You know it’s true.” I quickly laughed it off, assuring her this was the first time I had heard such a thing. She didn’t buy it and rolled her eyes, saving her remarks for another day.
Was I insulted? Yes.
What did this mean? How did she know? What if she told?
Oh my gosh… I thought to myself about all the sleepover invitations that would surely disappear. This was the first time it ever occurred to me that other people thought about, noticed, and made assumptions about my sexuality. I previously thought my sexual identity was something that belonged solely to me. But that’s the thing about inequality, it strips you of your humanness. It takes away a part of you that should be sacred when it’s exploited as “wrong.”
Middle school was very rough for me. I received a great deal of mixed messages about homosexuality. My conclusion was that it was okay for gay people to be gay, but for me: that clearly does not apply. I am not a gay person, I am a straight person who is only secretly wondering if I am gay.
Somehow there is a difference, and it made sense to me. I’m clearly straight; that is the norm. I’d never in my life strayed too far away from the norm.
In the eighth grade I had a new friend group built off my friendship with Mary. My old friends finally ditched me for the following reasons: I was annoying, immature, obsessive, overweight, and rumored to be a lesbian. Definitely not cool. I still thought I had a chance at defending the lesbian the title though. I couldn’t possibly be gay, I haven’t even experienced a relationship with a boy, or even a girl for that matter. I was still in middle school, so the pressure wasn’t on until high school.
With all the new found freedom that arose from having not as many friends, I found myself very bored with my life. My mom would ask me why I didn’t want to hang out with my old friends and I wanted to cry. I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t want to think about why nobody wanted to hang out with me anymore. So I started spending a lot more time alone.
So began the first cycle of concealing the identity; it became the perfect storm: suppress my feelings all day long at school and arrive home to an empty house to find myself aching with an insatiable hunger. And so I began to eat, and eat, and eat. I was coming close to eating my family out of house and home.
I would sit myself down in front of the TV and flipped to the LGBTQ station, LOGO. I came across this channel when my parents purchased a satellite dish. I only ever watched it when I was home alone, or whenever everyone was asleep. Oh man, do I remember the rush! The remote grasped firmly in my left hand with my thumb pressed against the “back” button; ready to take action in case someone happened to walk in and catch me watching.
My right hand deep into a bag or bowl of something unnecessary, stuffing myself with the same emotional intensity I was feeling in the heat of that moment. And so began my binges while immersing myself in the televised LGBTQ community.
I loved watching anything that had lesbian characters in it, and surely those options were limitless: documentaries, TV shows, and movies which all kept me engaged for hours on the days that my parents worked late.
The following year when I was a freshmen in high school I decided to cut all my hair off because I felt it was the lesbian thing to do. I was also inspired by my idol at the time, Dolores O’Riordan, which is what I told my friends and family was the reasoning behind my decision. I just wasn’t ready to tell anyone about my lesbian feelings, but I desperately needed some sort of expression. Which is also why I told them that Dolores was my “idol.” She was more like girl of my dreams.
Unfortunately with this decision, I completely overlooked the fact that I didn’t have any sense of style, dressed sort of masculine, and was a bit overweight. Leaving me easily mistakable for a boy, far from what I was aiming for.
Ski practice had just ended and my team and I were waiting for the bus to pick us up from the mountain. I stood there, minding my own business, when out of the corner of my eye I saw two boys looking at me, then I heard, “Dude, boy or girl?” followed by laughter. I wanted to die. I needed to. That moment right there… I felt like I had been stabbed by their words, and I was bleeding out in insecurity. I hated myself. This wouldn’t have happened if I weren’t so stupid, fat and ugly.
I never wanted to be called out like that again. I felt like a freak and everyone could see it.
I arrived home later that night and kept my feelings to myself, as per usual. My mom called me down from my room to join the family for dinner. I glanced away from the mirror and yelled down, “I’m coming!” My glance retreated to the mirror as I stared at my body with only my underwear and bra on.
I’m so big and gross.
I turned to the side and tried to suck my stomach in. It barely made a difference. I didn’t want to eat dinner.
I am fat enough. I wished I was sick so that I would have an excuse to not eat dinner.
It was Christmas Eve. I lay in my bed as I reset the message on the home screen of my phone to an abstract number “1446.” The rough estimate of days until I graduate from high school. Laying in bed all alone I realize how much I hate myself and how much I want a girlfriend and how much I wish I could come out as gay. When I graduate from high school I will come out, I reassure myself. I honestly don’t know if I can make it that many days, but it’s helpful to have a visual concept of how many days that is.
Three months later, roughly 5 pounds heavier, April vacation was looming. I was going to South Carolina with mom, sister, and a friend of each of our choice. I pretended like I was excited to be around college guys in bathing suits on spring break. My friend and I discussed the possibilities of them talking to us. With this thought in mind, later that evening I decided to try on my bathing suit to see what I had to offer. I slipped into our guestroom where I could get a better perspective in our 6 foot by 4 foot mirror. I switched on the light and saw a glimpse of myself from 15 feet away. I didn’t recognize my reflection. I wanted to cry. I was so sad to see my body. “I am so fat,” I announced to myself with great distress.
I am so horribly fat, I want to die. I look like a man. I am so big I look like a man in a woman’s bathing suit.
Suddenly, déjà vu: my mom is calling me down for dinner “I’ll be down in a minute!” I call down.
I stare at my reflection with fear and disappointment.
Something is different tonight. I eat my dinner with the same gusto as usual and then retreat to my room, stopping to grab a Tupperware container while everyone else is occupied in conversation. I lay on my bed and I feel so full. My stomach protrudes further usual.
I’m going to throw this up.
Just like that I bobby pinned my bangs back and emptied the majority of my stomach into the Tupperware container. I felt fantastic. Despite the high impulsivity correlated with bulimia, the decision was actually not as impulsive as it appears. In reality I had been planning it out for years. Starting the summer before seventh grade; the first time I made myself throw up. Since then, I rarely engaged in this behavior However, internally the eating disorder had been brewing beneath the surface, just waiting for the perfect moment to attack.
I had been comforting myself with this idea. In case of an emergency: I can make myself throw up. This night seemed like enough of an emergency; my weight was at an ultimate high and in a very short amount of time I was going to be seen in a bathing suit. Later that night as I fell asleep I started thinking about my food intake for the next day. I liked doing this.
I’m not going to eat breakfast and I will try as hard as possible not to eat lunch, but if I do I guess that is okay for now. And then once dinner comes around I will definitely purge that.
I was always told that I couldn’t be certain of my sexual preference until I had experienced both sexes. So I decided to take on this challenge. The only problem was that at the time it was difficult for me to find a guy who was attracted to me. By freshman year I had only been the love interest of two people: a boy in the kindergarten who told me I was pretty, and a boy in the sixth grade who I “dated” for three days. Other than that no guy had ever shown interest in me, and likewise I had never really shown interest in them.
I figured “Ok Isabelle it’s your time now, clean up your act and start attracting guys!” I told myself that once I had experienced guys then I could decide if I was gay. Oddly, it didn’t even cross my mind that I should test out if I was lesbian. I just sort of knew or assumed that sex and a relationship with a woman would be amazing and so much more wonderful. (I was right.)
I devised the ultimate plan to attract guys: lose weight and dress more feminine. And in the process, maybe I could become attractive enough that I would be able to accept myself and come out as gay (It made sense at the time). I sort of mentally aligned my weight restriction with my gender identity restriction.
One summer, I lost 25 pounds and allowed myself to cut my hair even shorter into a pixie cut, and then my goal became: lose 25 pounds more, and then I could shave my head.
My plan to loose weight came to a halt six months later when I was diagnosed with bulimia nervosa.
I now stand here three and half years later recovered from bulimia but still wondering if it was okay that I ate breakfast this morning.
I tell these stories of a distant past because the toll of these experiences lives on. My goal is to show everyone what even the subtlest forms of homophobia can do. Even the smallest comment- like questioning a person’s gender- has the potential to set a person’s life off course if directed at them. These small acts of hatred are carried over to the victim where they seep into the soul at any available entrance. A few minutes of hateful comments led me to years of self-hatred.
Isabelle is a student at Lasell College studying psychology.