I think about this incident every so often and cringe at how clueless I was – about how friendships worked outside of the frum community, about my own sexuality, about a lot of things. And it makes me reflect on my adolescence, too – so here’s the incident and some afterthoughts:
I was a sophomore in college. Since I had declared my major fairly early and had started taking upper-level literature classes as soon as I could, I had met a number of serious English majors who were in a number of classes with me.
I saw myself as on the fringe of their group. I only found out later that they had met me the same time they met each other, and that I was as much a part of the group as anyone else.
But of course, with my mother’s words ringing in my ears – “make sure they know you’re friends with them in school but not outside of school” – I maintained a sense of separateness despite the fun we had together in and out of class. I didn’t join them on their trips out for lunch or dinner, though, so I did wind up on the fringe after a while, as they got closer to each other and I stayed at a distance.
One day after class, we stood around in the hall chatting. We got a bit silly, and we were all laughing and enjoying ourselves. After a while, one girl had to leave to get to her next class. She said goodbye, with some more big smiles and laughs, and as she turned the corner, I turned to the others and, still smiling from her last joke, said, “oh, I love her.”
The others’ expressions kind of froze. And then they ignored what I had said and went on chatting. I knew immediately that I had said something weird.
What I had meant at the time, what was going through my head, was “her energy is amazing and she’s so cool and I love hanging out with her.”
What I realized later, what it must have sounded like to my friends because that’s what my subconscious meant, was that I liked her.
But even at that point, I had so little framework to know what attraction to a girl felt or looked like. So when I got a silly grin when I thought about her, or when I got a good feeling inside when I was near her and listening to her laugh – I just thought I admired her.
The realization of what had actually been happening, once I had the framework of queer attraction with which to think about the incident, made me think back to high school, to the girls I had acted weird around, whose attention I had wanted.
I thought about how I once commented to a classmate I was close to about how graceful she was and how beautifully she moved, and how she got a little uncomfortable with that.
Often, people from outside the frum community scoff at my claims that many Bais Yaakov girls don’t know what sex is until they’re engaged, that they don’t know what attraction is. They say “but you were all teenagers, you must have had hormones and all that stuff going on, it’s normal and natural and you all must have experimented at least a little bit.”
Looking back, I know that I did feel many of those hormonal things as a teenager. But when you don’t have the framework or the schema within which to understand those feelings and urges, and when you would have to go search for the opportunity to explore and experiment with desire – no, you don’t know what it is.
But in a weird way, it comforts me to recognize that I did feel all that as a teenager, and that I did make a fool of myself because of those feelings – even as a college student who should have known better by then…