Sunday Sit-Down #8: If Only I Knew

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Come join me each week. It’s also Day 7 of the Slice of Life challenge.

Some Sundays I reflect on my upbringing and its effect on my attitudes towards race, culture and gender. Others, I think on turning points in my racial autobiography. And some Sundays, it’s..harder.

This is one of those Sundays, where I’m left with more questions than answers.

Growing up, especially in high school, there was racism and homophobia all around me. I certainly was around a whole host of offensive comments, jokes and gestures. I’m certainly guilty of laughing and playing along. So…how on earth did I let myself not notice the effect it had on those around me?

I could have been so much better.
I wish I could have been better.
I wish the times could have been better.

I especially wonder about the homophobia our world was steeped in.
I think about now, with my sons in high school and college, with so much more openness about identity. I wonder how different high school would have been, had it been now.

I can think of at least a dozen or so kids I hung out with who are now “out” in one way or another. We’d spent Saturday nights together, relaxed in the student lounge in off periods, chatted for hours on the phone – heck, I even went out and to dances with some.

I remember in particular one late-night call with a guy friend of mine. He was struggling, nearly crying, confessing to me that he had a great weight on his shoulders, that he was carrying around something that he wanted, wished he could tell me, but he couldn’t. He told me that if he said it, he didn’t know what would happen, or what he would do.

Forty-five minutes passed. An hour. At the time, I thought maybe he had been contemplating suicide. So very long I spent on the phone, trying to convince him that whatever he could say to me was OK. That I was his friend, and I could support him no matter what. He even got close a few times before breaking down again and saying he couldn’t tell me.

Turns out, he’s gay.
He just couldn’t come out.

It’s hard not to put modern sensibilities on that conversation. How on earth did that possibility not come to me? Why wouldn’t I have figured that out? What would have happened if I just asked him, point blank?

I could completely blame myself for my blindness. But the truth is, at the time I was in high school, NOBODY was talking about it. At least, nobody straight. My guess is that some folks were out to one another, but that they intensely guarded the circle in the name of self-preservation.

Now, I wonder. How different would high school have been if my friends were allowed to live full, open lives as teenagers? If they had been able to talk openly about their latest crushes, or go to dances with who they actually liked, or just simply…be themselves?

I’ll never know.
I can spend my life wistful, wondering.
Or I can support the people in my life…now.

Published by Lainie Levin

Mom of two, full-time teacher, wife, daughter, sister, friend, and holder of a very full plate

22 thoughts on “Sunday Sit-Down #8: If Only I Knew

  1. Hey there, thank you so much for sharing this. I’m gay, and in high school, which looks to be about the same era as for you, I could not and did not come out, and from what I know from my own experience, we weren’t even coming out to one another. It was the same as for you – we heard about it afterwards, when people went off to college, etc. There was no Internet/social media then, so it was truly very isolating. It’s really interesting to hear a straight person have the same “exact” perception/reflection on what was happening. I have asked myself these questions about myself so often – how my life would have been different if I could have been fully “me.” I feel like I’m spending most of my life trying to make up for it. Thanks again for sharing.

    1. Wow. I think I’m the one who needs to thank YOU for sharing. I wish I had the words to express how much I appreciate your heartfelt response. I’ve carried friends like you around in my heart for a long time, wondering how difficult those teenage years must have been. I suppose I’m glad you have been able to unfurl into more of you are, who you have always been meant to be. Just know that there are lots of us who would have brought you in with open arms and open hearts.

  2. 20/20 hindsight. I think many of us went along with the crowd back then because we wanted to fit in and be part of the group. Was it the best way to act? No. Back in the 50’s and 60’s when I was growing up things just were not talked about, one’s sexuality being one and children out of wedlock being another. We can’t change our then selves, but we can change who we are now.

    1. Exactly. It also makes me wonder – what choice am I making now, and what ideas that I hold now, will I look back on in 5, 10, 20 years and scratch my head at? Although. THAT makes me realize that I’d rather have things I look back at and regret. It means I’m growing. So, I guess I’ll take it!

  3. I love everything about this post, from your sketch it’s to your reflections about high school, to what you must do now. I wish I could retrace those high school days and be a better person. I wish there were no homophobia in the world. Your post helps chip away the hate.

    1. Thank you so much! I’m guessing there are lots of us who wish we could retrace our steps and be better. As for chipping away the hate? To be honest, I’m not quite sure how very much these posts actually do in the world. For me, I guess I’m just hoping that bringing myself to a deeper sense of clarity will make me a better human going forward. So…I guess that counts for something…?

  4. This is an excellent idea for weekly reflection and growth, tough as it may be. I was just talking with some friends this week about how much i regret accepting or joining homophobic ideas back in high school as well. I hope that my identity can be connected to accepting and loving instead of judging or ridiculing. thanks for your honest thoughtfulness.

    1. Thank you so much for your encouragement. These posts started with an assignment I had for a committee – to create a “racial autobiography.” There was no way I could put words to it in the time I had, so I drew. And as I drew, I learned that I had a LOT to unpack. So, week by week, that’s what I’m going for. Like you, I also have a whole host of regrets and guilt over my choices. I have a feeling that my toughest weeks are the ones that force me into long-due reckonings. Simply put, I know I’ve done damage. And there is WORK to do.

  5. This post contains an important and powerful reflection on the ways that we revisit our own histories, which stories are told and which are suppressed. This is why I wrote today but you have framed this missing part of my post- we revise the stories being told to include the marginalized. I love the line: “but that they intensely guarded the circle in the name of self-preservation.” That is why our texts should liberate. Thank you for this.

    1. Thanks, Melanie. And yes. There is ALWAYS the question of whose story gets told, who gets their say, who has the space to move and breathe and speak and BE. This is TOUGH WORK we are doing, and it is never done.

  6. I’m so glad I caught this post. And what a rich undertaking in the sit down Sundays. I really appreciate the idea and the commitment. Homophobia and sexuality silence were also a given when I was growing up.
    There’s so much that I am learning now about gender and sexuality that was kept under wraps when I was younger and that I chose later to remain uninformed. It’s the awareness of those earlier choices that stings now. And it’s true when I explore other aspects of identity as well. Your example of steadily unraveling your own identity autobiography feels inspiring. Thank you for this thought-provoking post.

  7. Really powerful. As I was reading I was thinking about how much casual homophobia was expressed in so many of the tv shows and movies we watched as kids. It was easy to grow up and not even see it because if was everywhere. While I’m heartened by my students’ attitudes toward sexuality, I’m saddened that there are still so many places where kids, people still can’t be their full selves.

    P.S. I was in the Ignite Engagement institute with Ellin and Diane and I always loved hearing your thoughts as well as see you nodding along. =)

    1. Whoa! Vivien. I’m so very grateful that our paths are crossing here. How wonderful is THAT!? I don’t know about you, but just being in those seminars with Ellin and Diane? Well. It’s a balm for my teacher soul., And…yes. You hit the nail on the head about how casual all of the hateful language and actions were. And even now, I only wish were were fully at a place where people felt comfortable in their skin of ANY shape, size or direction.

  8. So much to say in connection to your deep reflection, Lainie – how different our world would be if everyone stopped to consider words and actions that reduce and harm others. No one has the right to do so, yet we’ve all been guilty at some point. Whether intentionally or not. Change begins with awareness, mindfulness, realizing. And truth – which is hard. In my long-ago high school/first round of college days, I was a theater arts major. Homosexuality was accepted; people supported one another – inside the “circle.” It didn’t always parlay beyond. I had a cousin who talked to me openly about what he went through, coming out – I learned much from him, and I loved him; he died young. I think of him often. As I said, so much to say…but yes. In thinking of your last lines: Wistfulness doesn’t usher change; it just threads itself around the heart. We can snip those tendrils and support people in our lives now.

    1. YES. And…I’m not sure I want to snip those tendrils quite yet, but I do know I can’t let them hold the reins. As for being in the theater arts, that’s the weird thing. That IS where I was in high school. You’d think there would have been more openness, more acceptence. But not. A. SOUL. At least, not until college. In the meantime, I’ll be thinking on
      your cousin, and the wisdom and perspective he brought you. And maybe I’ll be sending some love.

  9. These are hard things to face up to, and speaking for myself, I’m not sure it’s possible to fully process and work through them enough to put them behind us. As a straight, white, protestant kid in the 70s I didn’t struggle with anything (I’m happy (for lack of a better word) that at least I wasn’t often an antagonist), but I now know the privilege and security I enjoyed. I/we know better, now, and I/we try to do better. As you said in your last lines, I’m now trying to actively support those around me, regardless of their situation. All I can give is myself. Thank you so much for sharing this!

    1. it’s tricky. One one hand, there’s the “I know better so I can do better” mentality, but it doesn’t quite take away the shame I feel for not being the best self I could be. So…yes. I will continue to actively support those around me. It’s the very least to do…

      1. To the best of my ability, I think I understand. I’m trying to not allow the past–my own and others–to overwhelm what I can do in the future. Thanks for all you do, Lainie.

  10. “I’m certainly guilty of laughing and playing along.” I think it was so much easier to do that because of two reasons. It was more accepted. Second-you saw how much of an outcast they made their classmates feel. I think our fear was if we disagreed and spoke up in that other person’s defense we would be facing their wrath and teasing too. It was much easier to laugh (as uncomfortable as it was at times) than to stand up. But we have grown up so much since then & have become much more aware that in these situations we should speak up. As you ended this you said you are trying to actively support those around me. And that’s all we can do to be quite honest.

    1. Yes it was. And honestly? It’s really hard to admit to myself (not to mention others) that I played a role, that I allowed myself to be complicit in this culture. That’s baggage that I have to carry with me, but you are right. There are so many factors at work, and we can be honest with ourselves moving forward. ❤

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