Ever since the age of three, I have lived in Gorham, a small, rustic college town with a population of about seventeen-thousand. To most people, Gorham is a dainty, dreamy, idyllic suburbia. It’s vintage. It’s beautiful.
With its old buildings, wonderfully designed college campus, and its tall pine trees that just creep up to the highest parts of the sky, Gorham is the picturesque Maine town that every tourist loves. It’s the kind of town that would grace the cover of a tour-guide pamphlet. Unfortunately, the tight-knitted closeness and backwards attitudes of some of Gorham’s residents completely contradicted the town’s picture-perfect image.
When I was a pre-teen, I would have to learn this the hard way. After telling some trusted friends that I had feelings for girls, I was outed. It went from a few people knowing to almost the entire town knowing in a matter of days. My trust had been violated at such a young age, all because “word travels fast in a small town.” It was a traumatic and heartbreaking experience that I still wish I could erase.
As if this weren’t enough, my classmates soon began to harass me in multiple different ways. I was constantly teased and told to change myself. I was told that I wouldn’t be normal or successful if I wasn’t straight. I was pressured into asking people out just so people could laugh at and make fun of me. I was called names and whispered about. Some of my most traumatic memories include being asked if I had AIDS in front of an entire classroom, as well as being asked to have sex with one of my male classmates.
All the teasing made me feel lonely, anxious, and depressed. I soon became so anxious, I had to see therapists and doctors. I had to start taking a moderately strong antidepressant called sertraline. I hated my small town, and how easy it was for people to access some of my most personal information. I wanted so badly for the social ostracism to stop. I just wanted to fit in; to be normal, to be acceptable.
Slowly but surely, I started to crawl back into the closet. I told my friends that it was a phase; that I wasn’t really that sure of myself anyway. To maintain and uphold my charade, I even dated boys my age. I knew what I was doing was wrong. Every time I told a boy I loved him, every time I let one of them hold me and give me a quick, innocent kiss, I lied. I betrayed myself so that other people would like me. Every day, I would go home and feel the guilt weigh down on my shoulders.
Thankfully, I had a coping mechanism. I completely threw myself into my schoolwork. I’d spend countless hours perfecting a single assignment. I met with teachers about extra-credit opportunities. I participated in class, and often provided my thoughts about what we were learning. My teachers certainly appreciated my hard work, and my grades reflected it. What my teachers didn’t know is the reason for my dedication. When I was so focused on school, I didn’t have time to think about my emotions or my struggle with my own identity. I certainly wouldn’t have the time to worry about whether people saw through me if I had hours of studying to do. It was the best way I had to block everything else out.
Eventually, my emotions would once again come to surface. I realized that no matter how heavily I focused in my classes, no matter how detailed my notes were or how many hours of studying I could manage to do, I still worried about what others thought of me. But this time, it was a heavier anxiety. I thought people weren’t buying my “it’s a phase” excuse. I thought I’d be found out and traumatized all over again. I thought everyone who saw me, everyone I came into contact with, hated me. I worried that people wanted to hurt me if they would have known the truth. This fear made me extremely withdrawn and shy. I only talked to a few close friends, most of whom were not in my grade or even at my school. I developed trust issues, and they would bring me home crying.
In addition to this, I lost my sense of identity. I kept doubting whether I was a closeted lesbian. Maybe, I was just bi. Maybe I was straight, or maybe I was just trying to emulate some form of masculinity. I questioned constantly, trying on new sorts of internal identities. It took me until my freshman year of high school to truly feel secure in my identity as a lesbian.
That was when I officially “came out.” I felt better and more confident in myself, but I still had issues I needed to resolve. I was still teased by my classmates. In fact, one of them told me through an online comment that I was a “dyke” and that I should kill myself. The worst part is, when I reported it to administration, they deemed it wasn’t worth looking into (even though they had looked into a different, less severe hate comment coming from a separate IP address). They did nothing to solve the problem. All they did was confirm that the IP address was connected to a school computer. They even defended that this student was entitled to free speech. I still don’t know who left the comment or why they did. I am now a senior in high school.
Growing up gay in a small town had a tremendously bad impact on the quality of my life. The small-town culture could’ve allowed for messages of radical acceptance and tolerance to spread. People could’ve easily and quickly stopped the harassment and downright homophobia that I was going through, but they actively chose not to. Instead, they chose to use the small volume of people to spread more hatred and ignorance. My adolescence in a small town could have been vastly different. It didn’t have to be painful or traumatic.
At least these experiences taught me to keep my integrity. Through all these painful experiences, I learned to treat other people well. I learned that living in a small, connected community was never an excuse to mistreat others. Most importantly, I learned that people need to be held accountable for spreading hateful attitudes where they spread the most quickly.
Evangelia Suleiman is a regular contributor to Raise Your Voice and a student at Gorham High School. She had editing assistance on this article from Dr. Wendy Chapkis, Matthew Edney, and R. Schmidt of the University of Southern Maine.