On My 50th Birthday, a Letter to Myself at 17


I see you at 17 -- feathered hair, parachute pants, asymmetrical smile. You have just graduated from high school. Despite your outward ebullience, I see that, beneath the jocular façade, you are so very sad. Of this you are (mostly) unaware.

I see the reason for your sadness: twelve years of institutionalized bullying -- pervasive, relentless. I am touched by the exquisite coping skills you've cultivated, the exaggerated belief in your own exceptionalism that you use like armor to guard against painful things, made to measure to compensate for what is being denied you or taken away.

I see the cruelty of children: They throw food at you, but you keep walking; they punch you in the back, but you keep singing. When you did a jazz dance to Pat Benatar's "Hell Is for Children" wearing a burgundy leotard, the entire school laughed as one, but you kept dancing. You confronted the principal's office like Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich when some creep lit your locker on fire; I'm laughing at your indignant reaction when the principal told you the school bore no responsibility because the conflagration could have been the result of "spontaneous combustion." Despite feeling humiliated, you looked him in the eye -- well, glared at him -- and, holding your melted acrylic winter coat, you hissed, "We both know full well my locker 'spontaneously' combusted when someone threw a lit match in it! I demand this administration's accountability, and I will see that I get it."

Sanctioned abuse is what it was -- and you stood your ground with your own unique brand of defiance. So many who were less flinty became terribly introverted or disappeared entirely. When I see you at 17, I am filled with admiration. You may be a shame-filled Show Tune Sally, but you are no less a warrior for the legwarmers.

Take a breath, because the next few years are going to be a different sort of test: There is an epidemic coming that will exact stunning losses. You will come of age in an environment of complete hysteria, you will be terrified to have sex, and then you will be diagnosed yourself at age 34 -- the immaculate seroconversion, as it were. With detached compassion, your doctor will give you nine years to live. By the time you realize you didn't die, you will be middle-aged, and you will also realize you haven't lived. You will be irritated when it begins to occur to you that life is an aggregation of adjustments and dashed expectations. At this you will bridle and then -- finally -- begin to bend.

It is risky business to stake your happiness on what is essentially an enormous revenge fantasy. Your first therapist, Dr. Fader, will tell you one day in the not-too-distant future that you are "pathologically ambitious." At this you will spin on your heels and storm out of his office like Bette Davis in All About Eve. Placing such capital on the necessity of having global impact is a strategy that involves far more luck than you can currently bear to consider.

But trust me that the more you let go of the need to conquer the world, the more alive you will feel. Don't exhaust yourself needing to "show them," because the truth is that there is no "them." Though you will never be able to forget the pain of growing up gay and the brutality of those early years, eventually that pain will lessen, and you will, at last, begin to treat yourself as compassionately as you treat most everyone else.


Photo by Dylan Patrick

An earlier version of this piece appeared on stargayzing.com.