There’s nothing quite like being a teenager with a big, scary secret. As a youth, I spent the vast majority of my high school years on a never-ending loop of pretending I was fine when I really wasn’t. There was some major wear-and-tear on my emotional and physical well being, but no one caught on to anything being seriously wrong because I was an expert at acting like my problems didn’t exist.
But even experts break down under enough pressure.
While my peers assumed I was just your average skinny girl with a penchant for high achievement, they had no idea that I was quietly battling an eating disorder, self-harm, an addiction to diet pills, and ongoing abuse at home. They also didn’t know that I was hiding an even bigger secret that felt much more painful to keep on lockdown than all of the rest. I’ve known that I am bisexual since middle school, and no one around me had a clue about it.
For some reason, this single truth hurt more to push down than any others during my childhood. As a young person, I worked hard to control my behaviors, words, and even emotions as a way of avoiding violent outbursts from my mom at home or the loss of friends at school. I obsessively managed my appearance, constantly monitored my body size, punished myself when I incurred undeserved trauma, and did everything to seem as traditionally feminine as possible. But crushing on girls? That was out of my control. And it fucking terrified me.
It’s no surprise that I felt anxious and fearful as a queer youth. We live in a society that teaches our kids to avoid embracing authenticity, especially when it comes to their sexuality and identity. The heteronormative standards set in place send a dangerous message that existing outside of them makes a child unworthy and even somehow damaged, and this lie chips away at the mental health of our LGBTQ+ youth. Mine was certainly demolished for many years, and it’s taken a long time to experience true and lasting repair.
It’s also not lost on me that my decision to finally come out was due to a bunch of privilege and support that many kids and adults live without. And no one has summed up this stark truth more powerfully than Matt Bernstein, otherwise known as mattxiv on Instagram.
This queer NYC-based makeup artist and photographer has created a game-changing platform filled with striking images and quotes that shed light on LGBTQ+ issues and struggles. The most memorable post for me was a photo last month that showcased a myriad of painted letters on the side of his face with words that read, “If you won’t accept a queer child, don’t have kids.”
With that single statement, Bernstein managed to encapsulate the isolating experience of being a child exploring their sexuality in home environments that shame them for discovering that they live and love outside of hetero and cisgendered norms. No kid deserves to feel unsafe being themselves, and no parent should dictate the course of a child’s identity as it relates to their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. And yet, as Bernstein regularly communicates in his work, so many of our world’s queer youth struggle and suffer greatly for simply existing as they are.
According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ kids contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of hetero youth and are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide. For transgender adults, 40% have tried ending their life, and a whopping 92% of those are under the age of 25. These children and young people are struggling mentally primarily because they are living in atmospheres that not only don’t support them, but regularly remind them that their existence offends, upsets, and even hurts others. Instead of encountering encouragement, love, and acceptance during some of the most vulnerable moments in their young lives, our queer youth are being led to incorrectly believe that they’d be better off not taking up space in this world at all.
“When you ask an LGBTQ+ person about their struggles with their identity, most will tell you not that they’ve always hated themselves, but that homophobic and transphobic pressure created by unsupportive environments, family, friends, and religious groups made loving and accepting themselves an impossible task,” Bernstein writes in a post on Instagram. “The issue is not who we are, but how we have been taught to feel about who we are.”
At nineteen years old, I became hopeful that coming out to my younger siblings would help me feel more comfortable with embracing my sexuality. During a trip back home from college, I revealed to them that I felt attracted to women in addition to men. They were understandably a bit taken aback but otherwise supportive, and if the day had ended with this interaction, I would have chalked it up to a queer-friendly win. But my mom heard us talking in the kitchen and stormed in to stop us in our tracks. According to her, affirming my bisexuality meant that I was a damaging, inappropriate influence on her younger children, and she made this abundantly clear as she ridiculed, yelled at, and threatened me.
That same day, I moved out of my childhood home to go live with my father, a man from whom I had been emotionally disconnected for much of my childhood. It would take sixteen long years after that to finally muster up the courage to officially come out to the world as a bisexual woman.
Now that I’m a mom to two kids under five and a stepmom to a teen, a lot has changed. I’ve put myself through years of therapy, am currently in the process of healing a recent complex PTSD diagnosis, and have created an environment of acceptance, unconditional love, and trust for my children. When it comes to their evolving identities, I’ve made a promise to them and to myself that I will keep for the rest of our lives together. I will never place unjust expectations on who my kids are or how they need to be. Being a parent does not give me any right to force a way of living onto my children. My job is to uplift them and allow them to discover who they were always meant to be.
The bottom line is, my children can love whoever they choose, express themselves in whatever ways feel good, and communicate their needs to me safely and openly. As I present them with a household that welcomes all sexualities and identities, I will also give them what I did not receive myself but so desperately needed as a child. I will be generous with my time, energy, and attention as they each grow into unique human beings in this world. And I will do all of this to honor teenage Lindsay, along with all of the LGBTQ+ youth who grow up in undue fear and shame. Because we all deserve to be here.