I can still remember my very first crush.
Sunflower hair, ice blue eyes, her laughter was the peal of a bell. Hannah Bell. In kindergarten I gave her all my snacks. I purposely got pudding – vanilla, not chocolate – just for her. I carried her books and played with her hair and sometimes did her homework. She was the loveliest thing I'd ever seen.
The only problem was that I too had long, pretty hair and laughter that pealed. I was a girl, just like her.
After I tried to hold her hand while playing house, Hannah and I lost contact. I started to realize that something about me was a little…off. While the rest of the girls fawned over boys, I wished that the same spark when they said their names would enter their eyes when they saw me. So, like anyone else, I pretended. I set my sights on Jordan, the head cheerleader's main crush. We got married in the playground by his best friend and I made sure everyone knew I had a boyfriend. I did not like girls.
As I grew older the situation did not change. I would daydream about my best friends, holding their hands or kissing them under the monkey bars, showing them off like the friendship bracelets we made on my wrists.
When I hit puberty, my feelings for other girls only grew stronger. I was taught to hate myself at church, I was going to hell and this was a choice I was making, but I could change it – I would change it! But no matter how many hours I prayed or times I opened up my skin or went without eating, nothing changed. I kissed boys and broke their hearts to make myself feel better. I posted obnoxious statuses on Facebook about the disgust I felt towards homosexuality while I imagined getting in bed with the girls I knew at school.
During my freshman year, the eating disorder I developed over the years grew into a full fledged monster, consuming my every thought and action, keeping me up at night until I burned off those extra 50 calories to keep my deficit. I failed the ninth grade. Rather than repeating it at the same school, I transferred, and that's where I met Stephanie.
Stephanie, like Hannah, had pale hair and blue eyes, a smile that could break your heart and an infectious laugh. Sophomore year we had third period right next to each other and I made a point to wait outside my classroom until she had gone inside hers, just to get that one last glimpse of her. Near the end of the school year, she saw me staring at her, as I often did, and walked over to me. I expected her to confront me, ask me what my problem was, but instead she asked me if I liked snails. When I replied with "sure," out from behind her came an origami snail.
Stephanie was gay.
I had my reservations. I wasn't ready to accept myself. I had worked so hard for so many years to suppress my sin, but with just a few seconds of eye contact, I forgot all of my hurt, all of the judgment I had faced, and let myself daydream once again.
We had our first date two weeks later. To say I was nervous would be the understatement of the century. My body shook and my voice went on vacation. It only lasted for half an hour, but it was worth the hour and a half I spent getting ready. I studied every movement, made confetti out of my paper coffee cup, stole glances whenever I deemed it safe.
This was the beginning of my first love story.
The week after our first date, Stephanie asked me to be her girlfriend, and without hesitation I said yes. Afterwards, however, the fear of judgment consumed me and I had to decide if this was worth being an outcast.
I decided it was.
When my mom asked me over text message if Steph and I were dating, I nervously answered yes and waited for an angry phone call. It never came. The relief was a more powerful high than any drug could give.
Over the next year and a half, Stephanie and I became inseparable. We lived at each other's houses, spent hours on the phone and took thousands of pictures. She made my world spin and my heart flutter. Hundreds of pages were used up trying to describe the way I felt when she smiled at me.
Still, though, I had not told the most important person about my relationship.
Last year, on Christmas Day, my father officially found out. The initial reaction, disappointment, crushed me. I chain smoked cigarettes and cried for days.
Soon after Christmas, he asked if Stephanie would be here for New Year's. When I told him yes, he nodded and sipped his drink. Those few little actions were all I needed. He didn't have to say a single word. I knew it was okay.
I wish I could say this was the case with all of my family. I have uncles and aunts who have disowned me and argued with me about my sexuality, pulling out the fire and brimstone to scare me back to the straight and narrow. Some of my family members still don't know, and if they do, they haven't let on.
I've had it easy compared to many of my brothers and sisters in the community. I haven't had the screaming, hate mongering parents, I haven't couch surfed or stayed the night in a youth shelter. Stories like those break my heart, and they are a reality that must be brought to light. We must stand up for each other and provide support for one another, regardless of state lines or cultural differences. I had something most people don't have. I had supportive parents, an aunt who's been with her partner for longer than I've been alive, and a girl of my own to support me through the whole process.
Sure, there have been bumps in the road. There have been hills that seemed impossible to climb, and valleys so low I thought I'd never see anything else. But I have. I've seen so much love and acceptance from my friends and family, but in the same turn, I've been subject to harassment, hate and disgust.
These are the circumstances we all face. The terms "fag" and "dyke" are used on a daily basis, and "that's so gay" is synonym for the uncomfortable and negative. But we're working to change this. Every day, another mind is opened and a new love is found. We can make a lasting impact on the world, but only if we come together.
So start. Make a difference. Be the support, and be the change.