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Greetings, queeriers! (That’s supposed to be a portmanteau of “queer” and “queriers,” like you have queries about queer stuff, but I’m worried it doesn’t quite come across. I’m open to constructive criticism.)
A note before we get started: A sizable portion of the questions I get are from young people—kids, really—in middle school or high school. This always gives me pause, and sometimes I wonder whether I should answer their questions or tell them to stop reading my column because it’s too adult (I do write about queer sex sometimes, after all). But if there’s anything we can take away from the amazing wave of student activism sweeping the United States in recent weeks, it’s that adults are not the best judges of what young people are ready for. If you’re old enough to ask, you’re old enough to deserve an honest answer. So this month’s column is devoted to questions from young readers, and I invite you all to keep sending them in. Please remember me when you run the world.
So I’m 12, and I really reaally like my pansexual best friend. I’m not sure if I should tell her because I don’t want to ruin our friendship, but should I? And better yet, I don’t know if I’m technically queer (of any kind) because I’m so young, and I don’t want to seem like I’m pretending to be special. Do you think I’m too young to be thinking about this stuff?
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You’re not too young to be thinking about this—you are thinking about it. You are old enough to have access to your own brain.
Adults like to pretend that we can cordon off whole areas of contemplation to protect kids from, oh, any number of things, but maybe especially from fear. We like to imagine that fear is the province of adults alone—and, for that matter, so are other heavy things like grief, shame, anxiety, remorse, and anger. We pretend we can keep young people from experiencing painful feelings by hiding the fact that there are things worth being afraid of. One thing we’d prefer you not have to deal with for a long time, if ever, is being mistreated or misunderstood because of whom you like or love. We want that to be our problem, not yours—which is why it’s so easy for adults to suggest that you’re too young to be asking these questions about your identity.
But you’re not. You live in the same world we do, and adult attempts to compartmentalize and restrict the ideas you have access to are totally futile. There is no age at which it becomes possible to define your identity. Some people know for certain that they’re queer before they start first grade. Others don’t articulate it until they have grandchildren. Neither of those experiences is more or less valid than any other.
You say you don’t know if you’re “technically queer,” but I have to tell you: That is not really a thing. You do not have to pass an inspection. It sounds like you’re hesitant to declare your feelings for your friend because they might be invalidated by your not having a pre-existing, defined queer identity, but really, a “queer identity” is just a way of shorthanding that a person sometimes has certain feelings—feelings like yours. The way your heart reaches for your best friend exists, regardless of the name you choose to put on it, or on yourself.
As to whether you should tell your best friend you have romantic feelings for her, that’s a decision only you can make. If you’re crazy about her and she doesn’t feel the same way, it might change your friendship. If she does feel the same way, and you decide to date each other, it will definitely change your friendship. Being girlfriends isn’t just like being BFFs, but plus kissing—you will have to learn to relate to each other in a new way, and it might be hard or scary or thrilling or awkward or joyful or any combination of a million other things. You probably won’t stay together forever, because almost no one stays with the first person they date in middle school, and after you break up you might not be friends anymore.
You can also hide the way you feel and try to keep your friendship the same as it’s always been while waiting for your crush to go away. Most crushes you don’t act on eventually will. But that’s not necessarily the easier or even the less-risky option. It’s difficult to hide your heart from someone you care about deeply, and secrecy can affect your friendship as well.
Basically, there is no guarantee of a pain-free outcome here, no matter what you do. Be brave, trust your heart, and remember that your feelings belong to you alone. No one else gets to tell you what they mean.
I love who I am, and being a girl is something I like about myself, but sometimes I wonder if being a straight boy would be so much easier. They seem to have way more friends, they can go out with girls without being gay, they are almost expected to do most of the things I wish I could do. But when I try, I get reprimanded for it instead, or told I can’t do that until I am older. If I were a boy, though, I would miss out on many of the things I love doing now, like painting my nails, or trying on dresses, or even shopping for clothes! Am I gay? Should I be trans? Queer? Bi? Please show me some guidance.
There is no “should” here! You might be trans or queer or bi or all of the above, but those things are determined by what’s in your heart, not by what I (or anyone else) can tell you. If you’re questioning your gender identity, there’s no diagnostic test that can clear things up for you. You just have to keep asking yourself in different ways until the answer you come up with feels right.
That said, it doesn’t sound like you’re a trans boy to me. Trans experience is vast and diverse, but it seems to be most often characterized by a sense that how you see yourself doesn’t match what the world tells you to be. One trans friend of mine describes their gender dysphoria as feeling like their shoes are on the wrong feet, all day. Another talks about thinking she was “bad at being a boy” until she realized that she wasn’t a boy at all. If you love who you are, and you love being a girl, but you feel constrained by the things people around you expect from girls, that sounds less like being trans than being surrounded by sexist (and possibly homophobic?) assholes.
Your gender isn’t what you wear or whom you date. Those things might be part of how you perform your gender—how you make it visible to the world—but they don’t determine who you are. You can be a cis girl who dates other girls; you can be a trans boy who wears dresses; you can be and do anything you want. None of the things you feel are off-limits because you’re a girl are objectively only for boys. Rather, they’re being held out of your reach by arbitrary and oppressive social norms.
You may or may not have the agency to flout those norms right now; it sounds like you’re quite young, and if you’re dependent on other people for a home and food and clothing, it may be in your best interests to go along with what they think a girl should do—for the time being. But please do two things for me.
First, tell yourself as often as necessary (write it down somewhere you’ll see it every day, set your calendar to give you reminders, say it to yourself in the mirror) that you are allowed to want the things you want. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a girl or a boy or all or none of the above; there is nothing unnatural about what you want to wear, whom you want to date, or how you want to spend your time.
Second, please start gathering your community now, online if you can’t do it in person. Join groups. Learn as much as you can. Read books by and about queer people; read books by and about trans people. Read blogs and essays and poems by LGBTQ folks. Find someone in your life—a friend, a teacher, a mentor, a cousin—in whom you can confide. Listen to music. Make art. Do whatever helps you feel like yourself.
If your true self isn’t a safe person to be in your current environment, it’s OK to hide the parts that might endanger you. But keep checking in on them to make sure they’re getting enough air and water and food and a little bit of sunlight now and then—don’t let them wither away. This part of your life might feel interminable right now, but it won’t last forever. The part on the other side is so much longer and so much brighter and so much more beautiful. Hang in there until you arrive in it.
Oh, and if either of the letter writers from this column want to send me a follow-up with your mailing address, I’ll send you a free copy of Ask a Queer Chick: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life for Girls who Dig Girls. Happy spring, everyone!
What’s YOUR problem? I want to help! Send your questions to [email protected]. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.