I have been called a lot of names in my life. Being gay and from the South, it just comes with the territory.
Faggot. Queer. Butt pirate. “Funny.”
And I have to admit, “queer” was always my favorite, the way it kind of rolled around the mouth of the person saying it, like it had a mind of its own despite how it was being used. I liked how it sounded and I liked what it meant: different; strange; abnormal. Who doesn’t want to be different? I always did, so I wore “queer” like a name tag or a badge. I still refer to myself as queer to this day. I’m here, I’m queer, and if you haven’t gotten used to it by now, well… my identity should be the least of your worries.
Kids at school and neighborhood kids called me these names. Kids call each other names. It’s what kids excel at, really, and for the most part it didn’t really bother me because I, also a kid, called people names. I rarely went to teachers for help because I knew what the response would be (the child psychology version of “Ignore it, because you now how kids are–today it’s you, tomorrow it’ll be someone else.”). Once, in the sixth grade, two older boys decided I was their target du jour and I guess I was having an off day, because I grabbed a folding chair and swung it blindly, connecting with them both, chipping one guy’s tooth and fattening the other guy’s lip, and earning all three of us a trip to the principal’s office. Nothing happened, but they stopped bothering me after that, so… hashtag winning, I guess.
But, yeah, being called “queer” never really bothered me, and while “faggot” is probably the worst thing you can call a gay man, that one never bothered me all that much, either. What complete strangers, or even mild acquaintances, thought of me never really mattered that much. Actually, it still doesn’t.
But there is one word that, to me, is worse than all those other insults combined: sissy.
“Sissy” is the gay insult equivalent to someone saying “Bless your heart,” which everyone knows can mean anything from an actual plea for divine intervention on your behalf to “God, you’re a fucking idiot, please don’t breed.”
“Sissy,” though, is not kind. “Sissy” is hissed at and about you, like a curse. It is what people who are otherwise nice–the preacher’s wife, the schoolteacher, the librarian– will call the man who works at the flower shop, or the guy who cuts hair, or the boy who would rather color than play football or work on cars. “Oh, him. You know he’s a sissy,” they say, their voices a syrupy hiss, but they’re smiling and they’re at church every time the doors are open, so they don’t mean anything hateful by it. Love the sinner, hate the sin and all.
“Sissy” is what your family will call you because they can’t really call you “faggot” or “fudge packer” or “dick sucker,” even though it is pretty clear that some of them would like to. And it’s the thought that counts, right?
My family, both sides, preferred “sissy” when they wanted to insult me, and it worked. I hate the word to this day. I call myself a queer, and I might even call myself a fag from time to time, but you will never, ever hear me call myself a sissy because I don’t hate myself as much as the people who called me that growing up. “Sissy” is the most fervent hatred wrapped in a veneer of charm and it triggers me like no other word in the English language.
“Don’t be such a sissy and go outside and throw the football with your cousins.”
“Why do you always want to stay inside, like a sissy?”
Anyway, my point–and I do have one, as Ellen DeGeneres used to say–is National Coming Out Day, which is today, and how far we’ve come since the days where I was being called “sissy” by the people who were supposed to care for me the most. I hear and read stories of parents who are proud of the little boys who, thirty and forty years ago, would have been labeled “sissy” and I am moved. There is a popular meme that even Lynda Carter herself has shared, stating that not all little boys want to grow up and be Superman; some want to grow up and be Wonder Woman. She means me. Well, okay, I didn’t want to grow up and be Wonder Woman, but I wanted to be Wonder Woman-esque. I certainly didn’t want to be Superman or Spiderman or Aquaman. Robin…? Maybe. Anyway, I digress…
National Coming Out Day. We didn’t have it when I was a kid. Or maybe we had it and no one told me about it, or we lived so far away from any organized gay life that even if it did exist, we weren’t entitled to it.
I don’t remember coming out. By that I mean I can’t point to a specific date where I decided to tell everyone I was gay. I think they all knew, anyway, otherwise why the fuck were they all calling me those names? So, no. I never sat everyone down and told them. Later, when I had moved away and found other queer people, when I informed friends that I was gay, I was always laughed at and told “Yeah, dude. I knew.” So, I guess I didn’t have to come out, and I feel lucky. I didn’t then, but I do now, because despite where I was (East Tennessee and Alabama) people knew and apparently accepted that I was gay and I was never beaten or threatened, so… yeah, I would say I was lucky.
But there are others who weren’t, and even now, eighteen years into the 21st century, we still have people who can’t be themselves because of family or community or, sad to say, government. So National Coming Out Day is still very necessary, and if someone wants to tell you that they’re LGBTQ, listen and just know that for them to trust you enough to tell you and not someone else is huge. Thank them and acknowledge them and let them cry on your shoulder, because they’re probably going to want to cry. And maybe you’ll cry, too. We’ll all cry.
Ask them what they want to be called, and I’m not talking pronouns here (that is another discussion altogether), I’m talking how do they identify. Gay? Queer? I doubt anyone will tell you they identify as “Sissy,” but if they tell you they do, accept it and accept them. Help them find some resources to point them in the right direction because coming out is not a destination–it’s actually just the first step in an even bigger journey than the one they took to get to that point. Tell them it will be fun and it won’t be fun. It will be just as easy as it is hard, and there will be days and weeks and months and even years where they’ll wonder what the whole point is. Then tell them that’s part of it. And then let them know that it gets better. And then it gets worse again. And then it gets better again. Tell them that it’s like a musical a lot of the time, only without the singing and dancing, although there will be singing and there will be dancing. Let them know it’s like a soap opera, too, and is both infuriating and a great way to deal with it. And let them know that all of us old queers did everything we would to make it easier for them than we had it, and that was why we did what we did and put up with the things we did, but that we couldn’t fix everything, and we’re sorry.
And help them have a great Coming Out Day.