Strength From The Pain: What It Was Like Growing Up Queer In Oklahoma

by Liz Rowley

I never had a name for it, but I knew every time I saw my fifth grade teacher, something about me was different.

I would sweat a lot; I'd get nervous. She would wear these low-cut shirts and dresses, and I always found myself staring down into her cleavage.

I liked her, the same way all the other girls liked the boys in my class.

While they were busy passing notes to their crushes with boxes to check yes or no, I would be having the most adult conversations with not only my teacher, but all of the other teachers at recess as well.

I knew I had it bad and I also knew it was wrong, or so I was told.

Going backward five years before I was in fifth grade, I was in kindergarten, and that's when my heart first beat for anyone.

I couldn't tell you her name, but I can tell you she had blonde hair, blue eyes and these Coke bottle frames her tiny little face hid behind.

I would chase her around on the playground, push boys onto the ground when they tried talking to her and we would follow each other underneath the roundtables in our classroom.

She was the first person I ever had a crush on, and that all came to an innocent end when our teacher, Ms. Biggs, brought our moms in for a meeting to discuss our closeness and how our mothers needed to teach us that our behavior was wrong.

After that day, my own mother sat me down and told me what I was feeling and what I was doing was wrong.

I bottled up those feelings and put them on a shelf. I stopped having crushes and just played the good girl role with Barbies in hand.

Then fifth grade came along. Not only did I like Mrs. Hipshere, I finally learned that there was a word for what I was feeling. Gay!

That was the same year, Ellen DeGeneres announced on her show that she liked women. Finally, I knew that's what it was. I also knew I couldn't tell anyone how I felt.

Ellen was someone unreachable, a celebrity, and she could do whatever she wanted. Me, I was just a small child with confused feelings I had to keep to myself.

I never mentioned it until I was in high school. I was 15 and once again, I didn't like boys.

I would drool over the cheerleaders at the pep rally, and I found myself playing seven minutes in heaven with girls at parties.

I knew it was time for me to come out. The first girl I decided to bring around my family, we will just say she broke the ice, and my sister broke her car, by taking a baseball bat to it.

My family did not like her. She was butch, 17 and already out of school.

She wore matching outfits: a snapback that matched her jersey and Nike shoes that were always the same color, completing her very "gay" outfit.

I was a little goth girl who dyed her hair all different spectrums of the rainbow. We were not a good fit, but I knew that if I came out with her, my family would have to accept who I was.

I was so sure, and also I was so wrong. Even though my parents were divorced, my mom convinced my dad that I should be going to therapy, and what better way to get free therapy than by taking your kid to your Southern Baptist pastor whose idea of counseling you is leading you to believe you're going to hell.

That really didn't appeal to me, but neither did not being honest with who I was. So, I ran away with the snapback girlfriend.

I lived with household of drag queens on meth, a story for another time, I took a taxi to school and had friends drive me to the mall for work afterward.

It was not an ideal life, but I knew I hated God, what religion meant and my family for trying to make me become someone I wasn't. I wasn't going back unless things were different.

The one thing I will forever be grateful for with that girlfriend is that she brought me to a gay youth group. It was called YGLA, the Young Gay Lesbian Alliance.

It was a non-profit run by a local health clinic that did HIV testing on the mile-long strip in Oklahoma City that was gay.

Sean and Mike ran the group, and it was ultimately not only my life savior, but what shaped me into who I am today.

YGLA was a safe place for anyone who was 14 to 25 to hang out, watch a movie and talk about their issues.

We did outreach work for the community by handing out condoms and lube; we made flyers that invited kids to our meetings and we all handed them out secretly at school.

Being gay in Oklahoma was more than just not okay; once you came out to your family, you were on the streets, and it was up to YGLA to try to find you a home.

The alternative was tricking yourself out to older gay men for a bite or maybe just a shower.

Every year for gay pride, YGLA would have a banner or a float, and we would march two miles shouting, "We here, we're queer, get used to it."

Standing on the sidelines, there were more than just our supporters. Mixed in were "fag haters," holding their signs.

And, on our day of celebration, we would be screamed at. We were called faggots, lesbians, carpet munchers and sinners. You name it, we were called it, but we didn't care, we still marched proudly.

Even when we had garbage and other items thrown at us, we kept marching.

I left YGLA once I graduated high school and moved out of Oklahoma for college.

Between 16 and 18, I had my first love. My family started accepting me more, but I still wasn't a fan of God.

I found out my second year of college that YGLA lost all of its funding and no longer existed.

It made me so sad to know that gay youth coming out in Oklahoma no longer had a platform to come out or to be safe, but I had to move on with my life.

Slowly I have come to terms with my own beliefs by finding a church that is very accepting and open to everyone, the way all religions should be.

I have my own relationship with God, and I know for all that I've gone through, I believe I had some sort of energy watching over me.

It always saddens me when people say being gay is a choice; I would have never chosen my family to disown me, and I have friends who were also kicked out as early at 13 — they would have also never chosen to be gay.

Life isn't easier being a minority. For the most part, everyone wants to just blend in; no one wants to be the person who everyone stares at or is pulled out of a crowd for being a little too glittery or wearing a little too much flannel.

We all just want to be normal, and it's only right that we have the normal, same rights as everyone else.

We all deserve happiness, and our happiness shouldn't be based on a heterosexual agenda, just like a man shouldn't be able to tell a woman what to do with her body.

We have the right to make up our own minds, and love who we love.

America was built on the ability for everyone to have equality, yet we are behind the times in so many areas, where other countries are thriving.

We don't even have women on our currency, and that tells you the kind of equality America believes in.

We all deserve the ability to be just as miserable as all of the other couples that have been together for 30 years.

Since discovering YGLA, I became an advocate for Equality! Marching on the front steps of the Capital of Oklahoma, protesting in the streets in San Francisco and Los Angeles Battling Prop 8, standing outside voting polls, canvassing door to door for Equality California.

It was one of the hardest Civil Rights wars I have fought thus far, and I was beyond sad when those rights were taken away.

The month of Pride is a great time to be able to celebrate diversity; it's something the whole country can be part of! The LGBTQ people have prevailed and fought so hard.

Happy Pride, everyone.