Twenty Years Gone

Mar 1, 2024 | 2024 Spring - Letters to Myself

By Chelsea Bock

And though the course may change sometimes
Rivers always reach the sea
—Led Zeppelin, “Ten Years Gone”

Dear Chelsea (16),

The other day I was talking to my therapist (you have a therapist in the future; isn’t that wonderful?) and she asked me to think about you. “What would you say to your teenage self?” she asked. “What would you do to comfort her?”

I would tell you—I will tell you—that in life there are lots of things you must do, especially if you want certain outcomes. You know this now. If you want to pass your classes, you do your homework. If you want to become a better musician, you go to clarinet lessons. But there are also certain things that you must do because the world is frequently inhospitable to anyone who isn’t straight or cisgender. If that feels unfair, well, it is.

But I will also tell you that you won’t have to do these things forever.

You won’t have to hide.

You hide a lot in 2004. You talk about that girl in band who makes you blush and stammer only with your best friend—who has his own same-gender crushes—in the privacy of his basement. You hide from the football player who is very angry about your female prom date. When you officially have a girlfriend, you wear the purple beaded bracelet she made for you but dodge questions about its origin.

I’ll be honest. The hiding continues for a while. High school graduation means more freedom, of course, and in college you’ll meet other queer people and seek out campus clubs like the GSA. But you’ll have to get a job soon, and thanks to a recession (you’ll learn what that is in a few years), opportunities will be limited. You will take a job at a private evangelical Christian school and learn quickly to go along to get along. You don’t go to church anymore, so you’ll have to pretend that you’re still in the process of looking for a new one. You’re not engaged or married, so you’ll have to pretend that you’re very interested in men and only men.

You will find more queer people in your area, more than you thought existed, including girls who reciprocate your interest! It’s all so exciting, but your job security is fragile. It’s okay. You won’t have this job forever. On the other side there are employers committed to non-discriminatory hiring practices. Some of them even have LGBTQ+ staff organizations, which you will join. Oh, and don’t worry if you don’t know what that acronym means yet. Naming ourselves is just one way that we refuse to hide anymore.

You won’t have to choose.

In 2004, when you think you’ve figured out your sexual orientation, something shifts under your feet. I know that right now, at 16, you’re chastising yourself for not being able to check a box with absolute certainty. You tried on the words “gay” and “lesbian,” but they didn’t quite fit, and in a fit of frustration you left them balled up in the fitting room.

This is where you and I take a deep breath together. Be gentle with yourself. Nobody has it all figured out at 16, even if they think they do. You will go on to have jobs, relationships, experiences that you never imagined. Did you ever think you’d go to Europe? Get married? Become a published author? Surprise! You will.

Please understand that your feelings of doubt and hesitation are all part of the process. Compulsory heterosexuality is a cruel mistress, and if by chance you do see queer representation on TV or at the movies, characters are almost always described as “gay” or “lesbian.” No wonder you tried on these words first! It’s what you know.

Keep in mind that life doesn’t deal in absolutes. Right now, for example, you really like coffee. But you’ll also develop a taste for tea. Some people like only coffee, and it’s what they faithfully drink every morning. Others are strictly tea drinkers. Eventually, you will find that your enjoyment of coffee doesn’t negate your enjoyment of tea, and vice versa. And even though you may not know it now, a lot of other people feel the same way you do. Do you see where I’m going with this?

So, when you develop crushes on boys and the crushes on girls don’t go away, and when your friend grows his hair out and you look at him differently than you used to, don’t think of these feelings as hurdles. They are not interrupting the development of your identity. They are moving it forward. Soon you’ll try on words like “queer” and “bisexual” and admire yourself in them. And when others try to put different words on you (this will happen for the rest of your life), the only thing you’ll choose is your truth, every time.

You won’t be unsupported.

Right now, your head is buzzing with insensitive, even queerphobic things people have said to you and said to others in your chosen family. That’s right— as you get older, you will strengthen the relationships with the very first friends you trusted. It will be beautiful.

Some of the most painful things you hear have been, and will be, from people you love very much. They are often trying to say the right thing, but in 2004, this can be hard. I’ll let you in on a secret: it’s hard in 2024 too. What matters most is that they are trying, and that they love and respect you enough to commit to improving.

You’ve already dated a few people at this point. You will date so many more, and they’ll be as varied as the rainbow you belong to. As you become more secure in your identity, practice coming out to them. Don’t get tangled up in the guessing game of when and how to do it, the fear that they’ll stereotype you, and the impulse to lie for convenience. It’s all background noise. And when you tell others about your love life, when you feel safe to do so, resist using vague references to gender. Others’ discomfort is not your problem. End your preoccupation with kicking up the least amount of fuss. One day you will realize that the way you love is not a fuss at all.

When you are older you will make friends who are straight and who won’t interrogate you about your sexuality or insist they know it better than you do. You will have dinner with one of them, 20 years your senior, and she will say, “You can be partnered with a man and also be queer. Both things are true.” Bask in the affirmation of those sentences. Carry them home with you. Lay them out for tomorrow. With all the hate and misunderstanding in the world, you deserve a joyful mantra. 

Among these friends, you will meet your spouse. A person who is your person. Watch how he doesn’t flinch when, after a few cocktails, you spill who you are during the Super Bowl postgame show. Notice that he doesn’t argue, malign, or tease. He supports and loves. Can you do the same for him? For yourself?

I know you can.

I love you.

—Chelsea (36)

Chelsea Bock is a community college educator currently working on her Ed.D. at Rockhurst University. She lives with her husband and their cat, Lucy, in Annapolis, Maryland.

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