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I, like most kids who land anywhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, was bullied severely throughout middle school. Not because I look stereotypically, “gay,” but because the other kids could intrinsically sense that there was something “different” about me, and when you grow up “different” in any way, shape or form, you’re a target. You’re bully-bait.
I was harassed about a lot of things in my youth: my “sluttiness.” My “weird style.” But mostly I was harassed about my “hairy Jew arms.”
“Zara is the hairiest Jew in the whole school,” I overheard the honey-blonde queen bee, Britney, loudly sneer in the cafeteria, running her graceful piano fingers down the smooth white-blonde layer of “peach fuzz” that cascaded down her tennis-toned arms.
“APE!” the adolescent mean-boys would scream as I walked down the hormone-ridden hallways, head facing downward, eyes fixated on the littered carpet. I wanted nothing more than to disappear. I wanted to live an unseen life. I wanted to exist as a tiny shadow that was so slight, nobody even noticed it was there.
I was terrified of school during those awkward pre-teen years. I was certain that the rest of my life would be spent dodging bullies because when you’re a pimply closeted 12-year-old with excessive body hair, you have no idea that there is a life beyond the hell that is middle school in suburbia.
Truth: It wasn’t the “hairy Jew” comments that made we want to disappear. Yes, being known as an ape, instead of a girl, stung. Yes, I stole my mother’s razor and shaved the entirety of my 12-year-old-body after school one day. And yes, I’m still seeping in self-consciousness about my body hair and still slide a razor across every morsel of flesh on my 31-year-old body every day of my life (only now I use my own razor).
I knew that the thick tufts of black hair scattered across my scrawny arms weren’t the real reason I was being bullied. They were bullying me because they could smell my sexuality, they could energetically feel that I was not like them, and I could energetically feel that I was not like them, either. And would never be like them. No matter how hard I tried. No amount of Juicy Couture tracksuits, no amount of full body waxes, and no amount of shrinking into the classroom chairs hoping that if only I scrunched my body into a small enough ball I would be invisible was ever going cover up the glaring truth. I Was Different.
I was destined to be the misplaced ape in a room full of human beings ’til the end of time. I longed to be a person, like the rest of them. Apes were not people.
Nor were lesbians. The ape was a giant metaphor for my freaky lesbian-ness. It confirmed what I had feared to be true since I was nine: I was a lesbian. Even in the cloudy, hormone-laden fog of adolescence, I knew I liked girls and only girls.
I didn’t feel like a person for a very long time. I felt like a lesbian. Like an ape. Like a lesbian ape.
Then, after two decades of feeling like a displaced lesbian ape, something really beautiful happened. Something that would finally humanize me. Something that would make me, after years of wanting to be invisible, want to be seen. Not only be seen—but unabashedly flaunt my individuality, my sexuality, my most real, raw self.
I discovered the gay community. The queer community. The LGBTQ+ community.
Call it whatever you want to call it. I’ve always called it the “gay community” because I grew up in the era of bitchy teens rolling their eyes saying, “Eww, that’s so gay.” Anything effeminate, sparkly, wild, unique, or weird was, “Eww, so gay.” As a hyper-effeminate woman, who is sparkly, wild, unique, and extremely weird, it felt really good to reclaim “gay,” to refer to my beloved new community as gay. It was gratifying, like I had snatched the word out of the mouths of the haters and given it back to those it truly belonged to.
I first discovered the gay community in the gay nightlife scene. The gay club quickly became my home. Suddenly everything that bothered me about myself, all the characteristics that had led me into the darkest depths of depression, self-destruction, and addiction, all the desires I had attempted to numb with handfuls of pills and a dangerous eating disorder, were celebrated in the gay club.
I began to realize that the energy I possessed in middle school, the energy that made me stand out in a crowd and feel like a freakish outsider, was my gay energy! And that energy was now referred to in my new world as having “swag.” And swag was hot.
Everyone, whether they identified as trans, gay, queer, lesbian, dyke, genderfluid, gender-neutral, a drag queen, a drag king, a fag, a stone butch, a stone femme, or a stud, had swag. Even if we didn’t know what to do with it yet, we had it.
I’ve always identified as a lesbian, and that never seemed to bother anyone in those days. It’s the word that described exactly how I felt and still feel: attracted to women, and women only.
In fact, we didn’t pay much attention to labels, nor did we critique or politicize anyone’s chosen identity.
I’ll never forget the badass girl with jet-black hair and large, aqua-colored eyes I had a debilitating crush on. “Don’t call me a lesbian,” she once said to me, lighting up a Marlboro Red. “I’m a dyke.” She wasn’t angry that I had called her a lesbian. She was simply telling me what she wanted to be called. And I was more than happy to call her whatever the hell she wanted to be called. Dyke it was.
Even though there tended to be a general attitude of acceptance, we ruthlessly teased each other in the community. Sometimes the gay boys would make fun of me and say lewd things like, “Zara smells like fish!” But their words and were not rooted in one ounce of hate or divisiveness.
I would always bite back with a sassy remark and then we would all laugh until we choked on our vodka sodas. Sometimes the members of the community would heatedly disagree on politics or get competitive about what promoter threw the best party. Sometimes it got nasty inside the club. Somebody would steal someone else’s lover and a screaming match would break out on the dance floor. Drag queens would pull apart two exes and force them to make up, using snarky wit and comped tequila shots as their weapon of choice.
Most of the time it was a haphazard version of heaven. Imperfect bliss. It was a place where I could dress like myself and express my opinions and feelings freely. Because I was with my gay family. And even if you incessantly fight with your family and sometimes it can get dark and dysfunctional inside the four walls you call home, you are still family. Family sticks together. Most of all, family protects and defends each other to the outside world.
Then something happened—my tiny gay bar community got bigger. As the Internet became more and more popular and having a social media following became a thing, it was even more wonderful. At first.
It was another way for us to connect with our community. To expand our beloved queer family, far outside the realm of our local club. I was suddenly exposed to so many queer people I had never met in person, people who lived in Kansas, people who lived in Europe, people who lived in places I couldn’t pronounce—all who shared their struggles with the community, in heartbreakingly raw video diaries via YouTube. In bold personal essays. In grammatically-incorrect but deeply brilliant blog posts. I felt empowered by the content published daily, by queer people! I never saw gays in the glossy magazines, but, hell, we took up space on the internet.
When terrible things happened in the world, I leaned hard on my community. The Pulse massacre. Endless police violence. The new presidency. Terrorism.
We all carry the weight of disaster differently depending on our unique circumstances. The color of our skin, our age, our class, our mental health conditions, our traumas, our gender identities all play a role in how we digest and react to the darkness of the political climate. But we all always had one thing in common: we were in pain. I remember during the most difficult times our community faced, there was always an outpouring of support, of love. Yes, there was anger, but it was rarely directed at one another. I wanted to stay inside the safe gay bubble forever.
Something has shifted in the past few months. I’ve been feeling the shift slowly start to happen, for several years now, but I’ve done everything in my power to ignore it. That oh-so-subtle shift in energy, that had been quietly tugging at my sensitive soul, has suddenly erupted into a volcano. It’s become impossible to ignore.
It feels like the LGBTQ+ community, our diverse, loving, and supportive community has metamorphosed into a community of bullies, seemingly overnight. We are becoming the bullies that terrorized us for being “different” in middle school. It feels like we are turning on one another. We have become a culture that tears one another apart online, scares our peers into silence using vicious intimidation tactics, and without flinching an eye destroys each other’s reputations.
I know people in the community who live in fear of the hyper-educated elitists, who casually throw around trendy buzzwords (that a lot of people who aren’t Millennials or don’t have a Master’s Degree from a liberal arts college have never heard of) in order to alienate others. I have watched, time and time again, members of the community shame our elders, people who have spent their entire lives dedicated to the fight for equality, for not knowing what these hot-button buzzwords mean.
What used to be a community that united people of different backgrounds and cultures and ages is now a community that all too often excommunicates a person for not being privy to the trends of the internet elite. We furiously type out articles that attack, attack, attack each other’s wrongdoings without offering any solution or support. We yell at each other, furiously typing out jargon instead of having real conversations with each other, in real life.
I have been told countless times that I am “controversial” because I call myself a lesbian. After wrestling with the terrifying demons of my sexual identity my entire life, after praying to God that I could enjoy sleeping with men, after finally mustering up the courage to express my femininity, accept my sexuality, and claim my identity, I’ve been told I am wrong for calling myself a lesbian.
And it’s not just me. I’ve had bisexual friends whose authenticity was challenged by gay people who couldn’t wrap their brain around the concept that some people attain the ability to fall in love with multiple genders. I have trans friends who have been told “they’re not welcome” in lesbian internet-groups because they aren’t “real women” even when they identify as lesbians. I have queer friends who are told that their queer identity is “rooted in misogyny.”
How we to choose to identify is our choice to make, and our choice only. Actually, I truly believe that our sexuality and gender identity is not something we have direct control over. It’s the rawest, most primal part of who we are, and when you try to define it for someone else and take control of it, you’re directly attacking the core of a person. Being told that the core of who you are is wrong, by the very community that once helped you embrace your most authentic self, is a very specific kind of pain.
Why can’t we just let the members of our community think and feel for themselves? Why are we micromanaging each other’s opinions, emotional reactions and identities?
I understand that sometimes the stories I share about my life are not relatable to every member of the community. I understand that as a writer, editor and community activist blessed with a platform, I need to do better. I understand we all need to do better. I understand that we as a community are not perfect. We’ve been problematic for a long time.
But if we turn into a culture of bullies, a culture that makes so many members of the community feel as if they have to once again hide in the voiceless shadows, how will we do better?
I don’t know how you feel, but I feel like before we blast our own kind on the internet because we didn’t enjoy the vibe at their art show, or we didn’t connect to the song they wrote or the article they published, we need to take a deep breath. We are living in a deeply sensitive moment in history. We need to remember that there is a real, feeling human being lingering behind the computer screen.
Every single day an article is published on the internet with a title along the lines of, “Why We Still Need Safe Spaces in the LGBTQ Community.” It gets pitched to me daily. I’ve published a version of this article approximately 9,000 times and have written it myself approximately 12,000 times. People keep on pitching it because “safe spaces” are indeed very important right now.
But do you know where the largest LGBTQ community in the entire world lives? On the Internet. Like it or hate it, it’s where we spend most of our time these days. And I don’t know about you, but it hasn’t felt like a safe space to me, in a long time.
Little by little I’ve seen the most eccentric, brightly-shining members of our community’s light get dimmer and dimmer. How long before they fade into darkness?
We’ve all been handed very different cards in life. Some of us were been born with white skin, which comes with privilege I would never, ever, in my wildest dreams dare to deny. Some of us were born with tons of money and had easy access to higher education and had supportive parents who loved us “no matter what.” Some of us didn’t have any of that. Some of us fought tooth and nail for that education. Some of us didn’t get it at all. Some of us have experienced intense physical and emotional abuse, so maybe it feels hard to empathize with a kid who is upset because one person one time called them a mean name in the schoolyard.
But since when did the intensity of our pain become the thing that divides us?
Have so many years spent typing onto a keyboard and gazing into a lifeless screen made us forget that our venomous words attain the ability to hurt each other? Have so many years of not being able to look at the pain in someone else’s eyes, as we undermine their experiences, destroyed our ability to empathize?
I’ve thought about walking away.
But I will never walk away.
I didn’t let the bullies stop me from surviving middle school and I’m sure as hell not going to let them stop me from pouring my heart out on the Internet now.
So for those of you in the community who have been afraid to speak up, or have been victims of cyberbullying, public humiliation, and incessant chastising via the Internet, I ask you to plug into the love with me. I’m committed to plugging back into the love.
Because every time I get a letter from a closeted kid or catch a glimpse of positive YouTube comments, I’m reminded that beneath the stony layer of hate is a soft layer of soil, with roots deeper and stronger than we could ever imagine.
Love is the foundation of the gay community, and I believe in the deepest pit of my gut it is still our mission to promote love. We came together as a community because we can’t control who we love. We all know each other not because we grew up together or hail from the same city, but because we are all committed to defying societal norms of who we can be and who we can love. We are here because of love. Don’t ever forget that.
The hate might be taking up a lot of space right now, but I think love has the ability to take up a lot more space if only we tend to it. Love isn’t weak.
Hate is weak. Love is strong, and only the strong can survive.
I know we still have a long way to go, as a community. My deepest hope is that we will learn and grow together. With love, empathy, and understanding.