Peter Pendergrass (Oakland, CA)
My first girlfriend’s name was Brittany. Well, to be precise, she was my first friend – and my first best friend – and she was a girl. We were backyard neighbors, our mothers were pregnant together, and we were delivered on each other’s due dates. We spent the first years of our lives more or less doing everything together. We played together, ate together, bathed together, slept together. We ran through sprinklers in the yard, had screaming contests, put on princess dresses and did karaoke to “Achy Breaky Heart,” made pretend for hours with Hot Wheels, dolls, action figures, and whatever else we had on hand. Her mom was a hairstylist, and she gave me just about all of my haircuts until they moved a few towns away. I can’t remember how old we were when that happened, but I remember being sad. By that time I had a little brother, but my best friend, the person who was my same age and with whom I had a more in common in terms of life experience than anyone else, was all of a sudden very far away.
In pre-school, I met my second girlfriend. Her name was Omega, and our relationship mostly consisted of chasing each other around on the playground. I had another girlfriend at church. Her name was Chelsea, and our relationship mostly consisted of us re-enacting scenes from Aladdin on the steps of the stage in the gymnasium, where little kids got to hang out before they were old enough be forced to sit still in mass. I also made a new best friend, Cameron, my first boy best friend. I can’t remember exactly why we became best friends, but we were in the same class from pre-K through second grade, we were in Cub Scouts together, and I think we were in the same recreational soccer league for a while. After Cameron changed schools, we stayed best friends through Scouts, eventually starting Boy Scouts together, but Boy Scouts sucked, so I quit, and as a result we stopped seeing each other very often, and eventually stopped being best friends.
In the meantime (kindergarten through second grade), I was still long-distance best friends with Brittany and church best friends with Chelsea, and I had a good number of neighborhood friends, plus school friends who weren’t my best friends. But things started to change in third grade. Since Cameron had left, I was best friend-less. Of course, I had classmates who I got along with better than others – in third grade it was Kareem, Justin, and Melissa – and we played together at recess, went to each other’s birthday parties, etc. The next year, I was in a combined classroom with all the fourth and fifth graders together with one teacher. I still had most of my third grade friends, and I befriended a group of fifth grade girls – Caitlin, Lindsey, and Rian. Lindsey and Caitlin had been best friends for a while, and when they adopted Rian and I, we became a little clique.
We were obsessed with the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys, which was pretty standard for a group of elementary school girls at that time; less so for a boy, but I wasn’t really aware of that. I just loved music. My father was a professional radio DJ for much of my childhood, so I grew up in a house full of records, tapes, and CDs. Every weekend my parents would wake up early and put on music in the living room. My mom’s favorite back then was Basia, and my dad’s was (and still is) Bruce Springsteen. I would wake up to Earth Wind & Fire, Weather Report, and all kinds of other music blasting out of the stereo downstairs. My dad would bring promotional tapes and CDs home for me. I remember getting the “Whoomp! (There It Went)” Disney remix single, Taylor Dayne, Jon Secada, and Exposé, just to name a few. The first album that I specifically asked my dad to get for me was “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in 1998. I had a booklet of CDs that I took to school with my Discman when I was allowed to, and I would listen to Lauryn Hill on repeat while gliding back and forth on the swingset with my headphones on. In short, music taste was not something I understood to be gendered, and the fact that the people who liked some of the same music as me were girls did not strike me as even remotely important.
For a variety of reasons, but mostly because Caitlin, Lindsey, and Rian went to middle school and I switched schools for fifth grade, our little clique dissolved. I started going to the school at my family’s church, St. Pius X. As you may have already figured out, it’s a Catholic church. I was not very happy about switching schools, and I was especially upset about switching to a school with mandatory uniforms. By fourth grade, I had already tired of Sunday school, which I had been attending since kindergarten, and I was certainly not looking forward to what was, at least as far as I could tell, Sunday school times infinity. But when you are ten years old you don’t have control over those kinds of decisions, so I went. My mother, on my first day of school, encouraged me, telling me that it would be good for me to, “take a swim in a bigger pond.” She also told me it would be a good opportunity to, “make some new friends who aren’t girls.” This caught me completely off guard. I had always been friends with girls. What was the big deal? But I didn’t get to voice this confusion. Instead I got out of the car, sighed with resignation, and reluctantly started my first day of fifth grade.
One good thing about St. Pius was that I already had a friend there, the Jasmine to my Aladdin, Chelsea. But, of course, we were not in the same class. This was a bigger school, so there were two of each grade. Still, now that we were at the same school our friendship got stronger, and I eventually became friends with two of her friends, Kas (who was in 5A with Chelsea) and Luis (who was in 5B with me). Chelsea, Kas, Luis, and I were best friends for all of fifth and sixth grade. I would never have made it through those two years of Catholic school without them. Also, the fact that I was best friends with Luis in addition to Chelsea and Kas seemed to assuage my mother’s concerns about the sex ratio of my friends. We were a tight-knit crew, and we called ourselves The FrEeKs, a title we emblazoned on the group notebook that we shared only with each other, which was full of our notes to each other, drawings, and poems. No one else called us freaks, we picked it for ourselves, happy to be outsiders. None of us were the most popular kid in the class, we were the only kids we knew who liked animé and Monty Python, and we were obsessed with N’Sync and Brittany Spears (which was one thing we shared with some of our classmates, the girls at least).
Even though we were happy in our little world, fifth grade was different from third grade (i.e. more cruel), and even though it didn’t seem like a big deal to me – after all, it was just music – Luis and I were made fun of for liking pop divas and boy bands. That said, we were made fun of more for the boy bands than the pop divas, because it was somewhat acceptable for us to love Brittany, Destiny’s Child, Christina, Brandy, Mandy, TLC, Monica, etc. as long as we made it clear that it was because of how beautiful they were. Still, because we continued to like boy bands, there was no escaping being called gay. I think the term that was used most often was “fruity,” which didn’t and still doesn’t make any sense to me. Prior to fifth grade, I’d had no reason to consider my sexuality, but all of a sudden it was being called into question because of my taste in music, and because I was best friends with girls.
One thing led to another, and in order to prove that I wasn’t “fruity,” I had to spill the beans, I had to tell the biggest secret a fifth grader can tell, I had to say what girl in my grade I Liked. This was different from my girl best friends, who I obviously liked very much. To Like a girl with a capital L was to say that I wanted to date her, that I wanted her to be my girlfriend. I’d had girlfriends before – best friend girlfriends, playground girlfriends, pretend Disney girlfriends – but not a girlfriend who I Liked. Under the overwhelming weight of peer pressure, I picked a girl who sat a couple of desks away from me, Lauren. She was nice to me, she had pretty hair, and I couldn’t think of anyone else. All of a sudden, she knew I Liked her, as did the rest of the girls and some of the boys in our grade. I went through the motions of Liking a girl. I wrote ♥Lauren♥ in decorative letters on my book covers, I asked her to go to dances “with” me (i.e. we were loosely obligated to find each other for slow dances), and I put a heart around her picture in my yearbook. This continued through sixth grade, when, finally, my parents let me switch schools. This time I was downright excited. Since I wasn’t going to be in Catholic school anymore, I had to start going to youth group (the middle school version of Sunday school), but I was happy to make that concession.
I started seventh grade at Guilford-SABIS Charter School grateful for the clean slate. Not only was it a new school for me, it was a new school for everyone, because it was the school’s first year of enrollment. Like all charter schools, the curriculum was different from a normal public school, and there was no district limitation, so there were students from all over the county. I made friends with the kids in my class, and for the most part it seemed like everyone was pretty cool with everyone else. As opposed to St. Pius, which had a social hierarchy in place before I arrived, at SABIS everyone was more or less on the same level. Unfortunately, the same expectations for Liking girls were in place, and I had to quickly decide whom I was going to woo. Before I could make a move, a girl in my class claimed me, another Brittany. She told me that she Liked me, and I told her that I guess I Liked her too, and then she was my girlfriend. She told me that I needed to make sure my parents were okay with the fact that she was black, which had not even crossed my mind as something I would need to do, but I promised I would. She was my girlfriend, after all.
Our relationship didn’t last very long. We held hands and exchanged notes, but then she got bored of me and moved on. By that time I had become good friends with a bunch of the eight grade girls, three in particular – Susie, Emily, and Mae. Susie was my best friend, and Emily and Mae were friends with both of us. Even though we were in different grades, we got to hang out at lunch, at recess, and after school while waiting in the pick-up line and during extra curricular activities. Susie and Emily loved punk music, or whatever bastardization of punk music was popular in the early aughts. I remember Green Day and Evanescence being popular, and even though it wasn’t really my thing, I started listening to it because I wanted them to like me, and anyway I was always interested in listening to new music.
Of course, since Brittany had tired of me, I was again at risk of having my sexuality called into question, so I declared my affection for a different Brittany, the one who was in eighth grade. This was an especially bold move, since I was a grade younger than her, and it worked out, because Brittany had a boyfriend, so there was no obligation to follow through. Then, yet again, I was claimed, this time by Mandy, another eighth grade girl and the Brittany who I Liked’s best friend. She told me she Liked me, and I told her that I guess I Liked her too, and then she was my girlfriend. Mandy was, to put it lightly, experienced. She was also very busty for an eighth grader, and very country. It was during this relationship that I realized I did not want a girlfriend. I’m pretty sure that the precise moment I realized this was when she put her tongue in my mouth while we were at the movies, on a double date with my former crush Brittany and whoever she Liked at the time. I pulled away, blaming my braces for not wanting to continue this bizarre version of kissing. Soon after, and much to my relief, things fell apart.
Since I didn’t have or want a socially mandated crush or girlfriend, for the first time I had to seriously think about my sexuality and desires. Since sometime in fifth grade, I had been thinking about boys around me in differently than when I was younger. In each of my classes I would decide which boys were most attractive, which meant that I thought boys were attractive, but I didn’t figure that out until sometime in seventh grade, after Mandy and I stopped Liking each other. Once I did figure that out, it was only logical for me to conclude that I didn’t like girls, I liked boys. Luckily, my best friend – the only person I trusted enough to tell – was completely supportive. Susie told me that I was totally obvious, and she made good-natured jokes about how she was waiting for me to come out. Soon after coming out to my other close friends at school, I came out to my other best friends, the FrEeKs, who I had kept in touch with after leaving St. Pius. They were more surprised at the news. By that time, I was closest with Kas, and when I came out to her she revealed that she’d had a crush on me since fifth grade and couldn’t understand why I didn’t like her back. It made so much sense!
The liberation I felt was coupled with a new and constant anxiety. I only told a few people at first, but as time went on, other people found out. It seemed like my primary concern on a daily basis was keeping my new identity a secret. I was one foot out of the closet, with a firm grip on the door handle just in case I needed to jump back in for whatever reason. Besides, in sixth grade, largely catalyzed by my experience in Catholic school, I’d shunned organized religion, and in seventh grade, in addition to realizing I liked boys, I became a vegetarian. I was developing into quite the alternative youngster, and I didn’t want to push it. Luckily, things were mostly under control at school, since by eighth grade all of my best friends were either in high school or at other middle schools. I lost touch with all of the eighth grade girls except for Susie. We talked on the phone almost every night and hung out in person as often as possible. Outside of school, I was much more free with myself, and slowly but surely I realized that if I was going to be myself, if I was going to be happy, I was going to have to come out for good, to everyone, including my family, and I resolved to do so before high school.
The story of me coming out to my parents is complex and dramatic, so suffice it to say that I did it, and I lived, and then I started my freshman year. I had wanted to join Susie at Grimsley High, but much to my dismay I was districted for the rival high school, Page High. I made every argument I could think of to convince my parents to petition the county for me to go to Grimsley so I could participate in the IB program, something that Page did not offer, but it was not to be. On the bright side, Kas, who I had stayed in good touch with, was also going to Page, so I did not have to start completely from scratch. That said, on my first day at Page it immediately became clear to me that high school was not going to be easy.
I don’t know what life would have been like if I had not been out before starting high school, but I’m pretty sure it would have sucked even more than it did. Even though I was well liked and had friends in lots of different social circles, I was constantly bombarded by people who I was not friends with and/or didn’t know telling me I was gay or asking me to confirm whether or not the gayness that they heard about from someone else was the truth. I got called just about every word there is for a gay male in American vernacular. But the thing is, no matter how many times it happened, it never truly hurt me, because I would just respond with a yes. Yes, I’m gay. Yes, I like dudes. Yes, I’m for real. This happened almost daily throughout my time at Page, and there were definitely times that I was upset and exhausted from constantly having to be The Gay Boy for my peers to poke and prod and attempt to comprehend, but then I recognized the pattern. Each time, a fellow student thought they had something on me, something that would make me mad, maybe even make me cry. And each time, the power that they thought they had over me disappeared with my frank admission. There’s no thrill in calling someone names if you don’t get a rise out of them. In some instances, I think it also helped that I was 6+ feet tall, but the majority of the time, the most powerful tool I had was honesty.
Looking back, even though I maintain that high school totally sucked, it wasn’t all bad. I had lots of friends, I was very active in the theatre and art clubs, I helped start a GSA, and I maintained impressive grades while having what was definitely an inappropriate amount of fun. My best friends continued to be mostly girls, most of whom are still my close friends, and that pattern continued through college and into “the real world.” To this day, I have never had a boyfriend who I loved anywhere near as much as any of my girlfriends – not the ones I Liked, the real ones. Ladies, my heart belongs to you.
Dedicated to Brittany, Omega, Chelsea, Caitlin, Lindsey, Rian, Kas, Susie, Katie, Hunter, Christina, Linz, Erin, Emma, Amanda, Dianna, Aleks, Murdoch, Alex, Lena, Fiona, Steph, Alice, Clare, Breniecia, Victoria, Cam, Ara, and all of the other beautiful and amazing women who have been a part my life. Thank you for your love.