I knew something was different about me as early as age 5. I didn't know what to call it, but I felt it. Then, in second grade, I saw her: Miss Webb.
She had smooth, chocolate skin, long legs that seemed to go on forever, and she always smelled so good. I would pretend that I didn't know how to write the letter "Q" during penmanship. Of course, my mother had had me writing my letters and numbers since age 3, but Miss Webb didn't know that. She would stand behind me, put her had over mine and help me trace the letter on my lined paper. I remember being upset if another student raised their hand for help. When she left for maternity leave in the middle of the school year, I was devastated. I wonder if my separation anxiety stems from that experience.
In junior high other girls were developing breasts, getting their periods, dressing for the opposite sex and starting to experiment with boys. I hadn't started my cycle yet, and my idea of dressing up was wearing my favorite jeans and putting on my "good" pair of sneakers. There was nothing romantically appealing about boys, but I did enjoy playing with them during recess. I played with them because they weren't worried about breaking a nail or messing up their clothes. But I really wanted to kiss the girls. I couldn't talk to anyone about how I felt. I was alone. I was isolated, and on top of that, I was a nerd. I wore thick, Coke-bottle glasses and uncool clothes, and I was skinnier than a straw. But I was athletic, which helped when I was fighting my bullies. I was also very intelligent, and I was proud of my glasses. I definitely had a love/hate relationship with myself.
As I got older I would go to the library and read all the books I could get my hands on, both fiction and nonfiction, regarding lesbians. I didn't dare check the books out and bring them home with me. There was one author in the so-called "lesbian" section, Rita Mae Brown. Rubyfruit Jungle was my first introduction to the lesbian life. But forget about finding anything written by or for black lesbians, at least at my library in Brooklyn. There weren't a lot of those books in the late '70s and early '80s.
It was at the library that I stumbled upon information about the Hetrick-Martin Institute. The Hetrick-Martin Institute was and is an alternative high school for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. If they were being bullied by their classmates or made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome by teachers and staff, they could enroll at the Hetrick-Martin Institute and receive a high school diploma. Not a GED, not credit toward a diploma, but a bona fide high school diploma. It was also an after-school drop-in center that offered free counseling, snacks, discussion groups, homework assistance, books, referrals to physicians, and a place to make friends. At that time, in the '80s, there were very few places for LGBT youth.
I was about 17 when I visited for the first time. It was a loud, raucous, exciting, lovable environment. The kids there were talking a million miles an hour. I swear I heard the words "Miss Thang" and "fierce" hundreds of times within the first hour. It was all so new to me. I was very overwhelmed. There were kids of all races, economic backgrounds and domestic situations. Some had been kicked out of their homes because of their sexuality. I could hear counselors on the phone, frantically trying to find a gay-friendly organization to house them for the night. Others had been partying all night. Some had no money to get home, so they were getting tokens for the subway.
Whenever I hung out there, I felt at ease. I didn't offend anyone's sensibilities by being too masculine. It was a safe space where some of the boys vogued and the girls talked about girls. I quickly realized that when we left that place at 6 p.m., we were back in the real world, a world where we were shunned, bullied and even murdered. I made many friends there. Some of them I never saw again because of the violence inflicted on them by their own parents, hate crimes by strangers or suicide. I mourned a lot during those first four years.
The Hetrick-Martin Institute marked a pivotal time in my young life. It was during that time that I had my first kiss. The first time I stayed out all night. The first time I had sex. My first girlfriend. The first time I became comfortable with who I was as a masculine-identified woman.
Most of the kids that the Hetrick-Martin Institute served were kids of color. We black, Puerto Rican, Asian, Indian and biracial kids were finding a way out of no way, creating impromptu families because our real families hated us or no longer claimed us as their own. We began calling each other "cousin" or "little sis" or "Mama," creating these houses of families to look out for one another and looking toward each other for reassurance and validation. We were exactly what we needed to be. But we all had one thing in common: The Hetrick-Martin Institute. Our safe space. Our home.
Now, at 43 years of age, I look back fondly on those years. I remember going to my first ball. I remember being "read" by a gay dude for the first time. I remember celebrating Christmas at the center. Today there are many LGBT organizations for youth and adults. I always wonder where I would have been had it not been for the counselors and staff at the Hetrick-Martin Institute. They inspired me. They refused to let me shrink into darkness. They continually encouraged me. The Hetrick-Martin Institute saved a lot of kids from the streets, from drugs, from disease, and mostly from ourselves.
Every once in a while I'll see someone I remember from my Hetrick-Martin days. Many of them are now teachers, philanthropists, actors, business owners and psychiatrists. All of them felt compelled to give back to the LGBT community. I don't know if there will ever be enough words to thank Hetrick-Martin and the counselors who worked there for helping me during such a impressionable and tormenting time in my life. To all those counselors, past and present, thank you!