Growing up as the awkward gay kid in a small town in 1960s Nebraska, the unverbalized message from family and peers was, “Don’t be yourself, don’t be proud of who you are.” Kids are especially conscious of what other people’s opinions of them are. Acceptance by other people is especially important to young people. Childhood and adolescence are when we understand more deeply who we are, who likes us, and who dislikes us. That stage of our lives is when we most want to “fit in”.
Young people are most sensitive to not being accepted by their peers. We form our social masks when we’re young. At least, that’s what I learned as a kid. In order to survive the harsh social conditions of childhood and adolescence the social mask was a vitally important tool. I had to pretend to be someone else. It was also necessary to “lay low” and adopt the persona of a wallflower. When I say necessary, I mean that it was actually the case. In the 1960s the gay pride movement was in its infancy and certainly had not reached the boondocks of Nebraska.
It wasn’t until the college years when I first found out that to have a good life, a person had to accept her or himself. My new colleagues came from different regions of the country and some were born and raised in different countries. The first year of college was a time of great awakening.
In 1971, while selecting my textbooks at the college book store, I stumbled across a copy of the Tao te Ching. It was a slim book and had a “used” sticker on the cover so it was cheap. One day after finishing homework assignments, I picked up the little book. There was a passage that really hit home. “The snow goose need not bathe to make itself white. Neither need you do anything but be yourself.” This drop of wisdom opened the emotional floodgates in the quest to learn more about authenticity.
Something else took place that really demonstrated the power of being oneself. I got my first boyfriend. More accurately, he convinced me to become his boyfriend. Tom was one of the unabashedly out of the closet gay guys on campus. It was unnerving and somewhat intimidating when Tom approached and asked me to be his movie date. He was persistent. You could say he stalked me, but in a really good way.
Near the end of the second semester, I finally relented. I fell for the crazy hippie and his down to brass tacks logic. It happened while he pleaded his case. Tom said something like, “You’ve got to be yourself. You can be stupid. You can be brainy. You can be queer if that’s who you really are.”
We not only dated, we became “an item”. Not everyone was happy that Tom and I were together. There was plenty of harassment. But we were there for each other. Both of us grew and became more free. I wouldn’t have it any other way from then on.
The relationship ended at the end of our sophomore year when Tom transferred to Stanford University. I eventually got over the loss, but the lessons about being authentic and myself remained. Since then, there have been other relationships, good and bad. I do my best to always be myself and speak my mind whenever it is necessary.
While going through my book of quotations in order to locate an ending snippet for this blog post I came across a good cautionary quote. The play-write J.B. Priestley said, “‘Be yourself’ is about the worst advice you can give to some people.” This was followed by some advice from writer/comedian Joss Whedon. “Remember to always be yourself… unless you suck.” In other words, we should be ourselves, but don’t let it get to our heads.