I spent my formative years in a small town in central Florida. While I technically lived in Lutz, my school was in Land O’ Lakes. That’s right. I grew up in LOL, Florida. The most Florida, Florida could get. My friends and I would ride our bikes to the neighborhood retention pond to watch alligators. A sinkhole swallowed a house. My neighbor used one of his many pistols to shoot an eight-foot rattlesnake at my bus stop. A friend’s mom was an amateur body builder who worked out with Hulk Hogan.
Yes. Take a minute to think about that.
That was my setting. From two-years-old to 13-years-old.
When we finally got a Wal-Mart (to *much* fanfare), we had to add time to every shopping trip, because we knew every single person in the store.
LOL, Florida. Population 5,555.
For the most part, it was pretty idyllic. Weekend trips to the beach, kickball in the cul-de-sac, nearly every friend having a swimming pool and/or a pet parakeet, dance recitals requiring silver spray painted shoes to match silver sequined headbands, an orange grove across the street literally dropping ripe oranges into our hands, I mean, I could go on and on.
I was a happy kid. Until I was a happy kid with a secret. And then I was a happy but worried kid with a secret. And then I was a pretending-to-be-happy kid with obsessive-compulsive behaviors because I was working so hard to contain my secret. Then, for a few months, I tried to be a boy (with less than stellar results). Then I was a teenager and we moved to Texas, leaving my friends and fresh oranges behind, but carrying with me this secret that threatened to swallow me whole, just like a central Florida sinkhole.
I think back on those days and I don’t even really know how or why I knew my secret should be a secret. I knew only that I kept a picture of Princess Leia under my bed so I could look at her face before I fell asleep every night, and that when I traded Princess Leia’s picture for my dance teacher’s picture, it felt… exhilarating and terrifying.
But what made me instinctively ashamed? Was it because I saw my friends crushing on Duran Duran and when I looked at the posters I felt only a kind of blank confusion? “Oh, his ears seem normal sized, yes, I guess he’s cute?” I went from being a kid who was mad I never got to play Superman in the backyard (“Kari Anne, you be Superman’s mom.” “What?! No!”) to being a pre-teen with this crater-sized emptiness inside her because looking at the dudes in Duran Duran triggered only this queasy feeling that I’d much rather have a poster of my dance teacher in my room. My friends were giggly and “boy crazy” while I waited blankly for some switch to get flipped so I could be boy crazy, too.
Reader, the switch never flipped. The switch was not even there.
I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. Maybe I should try harder to kiss my elbow. That would turn me into a boy, right? Wouldn’t things be easier if I were a boy? If I were a boy, it would be perfectly normal to have a debilitating crush on my dance teacher. Right? I started hiding my hair in baseball caps, and wearing jeans and baggy t-shirts. I loved it when old ladies at church called me “young man.” Except… I didn’t really love it. I didn’t actually want to be a boy. I just wanted the cool things boys got to have. They could be Superman. They had better haircuts. They got have crushes on girls.
And so, while I don’t remember anyone ever telling me it wasn’t ok to be gay, I also don’t remember even knowing what gay was until school bus slurs defined it for me. Kids insulted other kids by calling them gay, but even that was relegated to boys. I had no place to exist, even in the world of taunts.
Sure there were tomboys I clung to like a rope thrown in a sinkhole (hello, Jo in The Facts of Life), but there were no queer women at all in my rural Weltanschauung. No books, no television characters, no cartoons, no public figures, no strangers holding hands on the street, nothing. (It would be twelve years – my entire lifetime lived again – before Ellen came out on TV.) There just wasn’t any representation. Lesbians were not a thing. Anywhere. Particularly in LOL, Florida.
I look back and see that so many of my heroines were queer, but they weren’t free to talk about it in any kind of form where a 12-year-old girl would see it. Sally Ride. Lily Tomlin. Louise Fitzhugh. If I had seen Sally Ride kiss her wife just before she climbed into the Space Shuttle… THAT would have been something. But I didn’t even know I could imagine such a thing.
Of course, the world has changed a lot since the days I painfully, confusingly daydreamed about my dance teacher. Lesbians are on TV now, they’re in movies, they make music, they teach school, they’re in the military, they run for public office, and yet… where are they in children’s literature? Where are the girls crushing on other girls in books on middle school library shelves? Where is the representation young women crave when they feel confused and alone? Where are the stories normalizing girls with girlfriends? There’s definitely more out there now than when I was young, but compared to books about gay boys? About bi characters? About trans kids? About anyone *except* young gay women? Not much has changed since the 80s. Lesbians are still not really a thing for middle school kids. The void is bigger than any sinkhole in Florida.
And yet, representation matters more than ever.
Seeing yourself in a book is just.so.validating. And this is something you can’t really understand if you’ve always had books that reflect who you are. It’s also something you don’t understand until you finally read the first book that has someone like you in it. Your world expands and collapses all at the same time. You’re stunned and thrilled and fulfilled and then… you’re sad and angry and hungry. You want to sweep your arm across all the other shelves, and demand more, more, more. You want to kick in the TV for killing the one minor-character lesbian you clung to. Why is it so difficult to find yourself represented?
It shouldn’t be. Everyone deserves representation. And just as important… everyone else deserves books and movies and TV shows where gay ladies are part of every day life, too. We are not minor characters in real life. We aren’t always witty sidekicks. We aren’t killed for ratings. We are people who live in this world, alongside other people. Our visibility should not be less than his or yours. This is true when we’re 40. This is true when we’re 12.
I couldn’t go to my school library and find a book with me in it. That’s a sad truth. But what’s even sadder, what’s even more tragic, is that right now, today, in 2018, it is almost just as hard for a queer 12-year-old girl to go to her school library and find a book with herself in it.
Next year, though, at the beginning of the school year, she will have a book she can see herself in. And maybe it won’t be an exact reflection, and maybe she’s still figuring things out, and maybe the story is different than her own, but all of that is ok because she will be able to pick up a book, see two girls struggling together (and alone) to make sense of the world, and those girls will be holding hands. They aren’t killed for ratings. They aren’t minor characters. They aren’t an abomination. They aren’t adult content. They are young women living their lives. They are representative of millions of real girls who are not abominations or adult content or minor characters, either. They are the characters in a book I desperately needed, but did not have, when I was a young woman.
It’s pretty obvious that I have no control over Florida sinkholes, but I can do my best to close the void that tried to swallow me when I was a kid. I can write stories that say, “Hey. I see you. I get it.” And I can whisper to my pre-teen self, “One day you’ll be out and proud. You won’t be an astronaut, but you will be able to kiss your wife whenever and wherever you want.”
Next September, when Redwood & Ponytail comes out (ba dum bum), I hope it reaches the girls who need it. I hope it makes its way to every LOL, Florida-equivalent community. I hope it helps young women feel seen. And I hope everyone else realizes that a book about girls is a book anyone can enjoy. Our lives are just as universal as yours, our feelings just as shared, our jokes just as funny.
Even and especially when you’re a girl holding hands with another girl.