My counselor’s office had a sticker on the thick glass windows that faced our school’s first-floor hallway. Maybe the sticker had a pink triangle on it, or a rainbow—I can’t remember. Whatever it looked like, it displayed a symbol packed with meaning to struggling teens like me: LGBTQ people are welcome here.
That room was where we, a handful of LGBTQ kids in rural America, met to talk openly and safely at meetings of our school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, a student group facilitated by our counselor. GSAs, which became nationally popular in the early 2000s and are now called the Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network, aimed to improve relationships between gay and straight students and provide a supportive environment for LGBTQ youth. At ours, which met about once a week, there were only a handful of members: one gay male student, some queer girls, and me.
The GSA organized after-school events, like when we screened Hedwig and the Angry Inch in an empty classroom or observed the Day of Silence. One afternoon, we gathered to illustrate a large poster to decorate our school hallway. We drew LGBT imagery, queer figures, symbols, and words that celebrated our diversity by bringing us outside the safety of the counselor’s office. That wasn't something I could do on my own without fear. As a kid, I couldn’t conceal my femininity, so my peers threatened, hurt, and harassed me. Most of the time, I just tried to hide.
So the prospect of putting up a gay poster in the hall was a big deal to me then. I was out of the closet, but I didn’t know how it would feel to represent my identity with pride (which still feels untenable at 29, as an accomplished transgender woman with a fulfilling career and personal life). On my GSA’s poster, I drew a blond woman in a pink dress with magic marker. Underneath her, I wrote the name “Steve.” I didn’t think about it. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know that I was transgender.
In 2002, the world around me had never indicated to me that gender identity might exist apart from biological sex, so I didn’t have a clue that either of those things are malleable. I didn't have many cultural references to rely on, either: Hedwig and The Rocky Horror Picture Show helped me realize I connected with feminine male characters, but they were fantasy. Other, real stories of LGBTQ people life shaped my perception of gay life.
The same year I joined the GSA, I watched Boys Don’t Cry, a film based on Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was raped and murdered in Wyoming a few years prior. (I didn't grasp what trans meant at the time, in part because Teena was played by a cis woman.) I also performed in in a local production of The Laramie Project, a play about Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was brutally murdered in Wyoming in 2001. I remembered how people had to stand in a circle around Shepard’s funeral wearing large, white cloth angel wings to block out the anti-gay protesters who came to picket his funeral. “God hates fags,” and all that. That’s what I knew about being LGBTQ in the United States.
Looking back, the existence of the GSA itself feels foreboding: Hatred toward gender and sexual diversity in the US was so deeply embedded into everyday life that youth programs had to be organized in public schools in an effort to forge an alliance between those of us who were “different” and those that were straight. Maybe it would have been easier if my society didn’t tell me the same things my bullies did.
At my school’s GSA, there weren’t that many straight members. In fact, there weren’t many members at all, but we did our best to support each other, and the GSA was a valuable lifeline at a time in my life when I felt alienated and lost. We talked about some of the difficult things we were going through (boys shoulder-checked me in the halls, some threatened to kill me), and we talked about other things, things that made us happy. We learned about LGBTQ movies and books, slowly mapping out the American LGBTQ community’s piecemeal history of beauty, survival, oppression, resistance, and death. We made a poster, and, alone in the hall, we taped it to the wall outside the third-floor bathrooms.
Arriving at school the next day, I was excited. I never felt strong enough to stand up for myself when people were mean to me at school, so our GSA’s poster felt like a powerful, subversive way to fight back. My classmates would have to see and accept what we created, whether they liked it or not.
People talked about the need for “tolerance” a lot back then. Tolerance never seemed like a tall enough order to me, but even tolerance proved to be too much to ask for. When I got to the bathrooms, the poster was gone.
I went to my counselor’s office—that safe space indicated by a small sticker on the door. She hesitated, then told me that the poster had been taken down by the school administration. When I pressed her, asking why, she told me that the principal said my drawing of Steve was inappropriate. She apologized, but I didn’t push back. Sad and resigned, I gave up quickly. Inside, I must have been so angry, but that anger always turned inward, against myself.
When you’re young, everything is a lesson. Every conversation you have, every book you read, every attitude your community shares is an educational experience that teaches you about the world you live in, and its rules. I don’t think anyone could have saved me at that time in my life, but I think that a different perspective on a social level, at school and in the country as a whole, could have changed the way that I saw myself.
Instead, all that I knew about my identity was drawn in marker on construction paper. That day, I learned that—whatever that figure meant—it did not belong. Despite the efforts of good people, there are power structures above us that reinforce the face-to-face expressions of disapproval and prejudice that we live with every day. Learning that as an adolescent knocked me out. I gave up—for a long time. I believed I was a bad person by virtue of my identity, and I struggled to repress my femininity. It took me many more years before I was willing to risk sharing that part of myself with the world again.
I stayed in the GSA for as long as I could before changing schools, then dropping out of school at 17 to make a life for myself. I am grateful for the space that our GSA gave me when I was young. Drawing Steve, I saw in stark relief how negative the world can be for people like her—people like me. But our GSA made the effort despite how small we were, and despite the anti-LGBTQ tensions of that environment and era. That taught me about resilience—and resilience, more than pride, is how I’ve survived.