A Purple Tutu by Leo Gibson

Did you know that I was an incredibly gay kid when I was 4 years old? I don’t mean that I knew that I liked men at that age, but I definitely was such a stereotypical caricature of a gay man. I never loved Disney princes, only princesses. My favorite colors were pink and purple, and I always wanted to wear those massive rainbow beads. However, there was one thing that was the cream of the crop of my four year old flamboyance. This shiny, purple tutu with ruffles. We have video footage of me prancing around outside with a glittering tutu whilst my parents make snide, but non-offensive comments that I couldn’t understand because I lacked any sort of cognitive ability.

My defiance of societal gender roles only continued into elementary school. One time in the fourth grade, my shirt happened to slip down on my shoulder and as I was walking back into class, a boy in my class stopped me and said “you only do that because you wanna be a girl.” This boy was not very popular, he wasn’t always answering the teacher’s questions, and he certainly wasn’t my friend. I barely even knew him. He was your ordinary, run of the mill, 8 year old boy. The only reason that people knew him was because his father always made some brownies for the bake sales. At the time I simply brushed him off. I told him “whatever” and went on my merry way. However, later that night, laying in my tiny twin sized bed, it never even crossed my mind. I was thinking about it recently and couldn’t understand the leap in logic. Obviously a third grader can’t comprehend gender identity, but that was a really big leap to make!  I don’t understand how wearing clothes a certain way dictates gender. I didn’t even comprehend the concept of gender identity! I still think about that event sometimes because it was so incredibly funny to me. Just unprovoked, this 8 year old boy said that I wanted to be a girl because I was showing my shoulder. That’s high school dress code level of stupidity.

To go along with my journey of gender roles there was also a journey of sexuality. I officially came out in ninth grade, (a special shoutout to my sister for coming out before me so I knew it was safe to do so) and I first came out as bisexual. I still remember the terrifying feeling of coming out to my parents. The clammy, sweating hands, the constant wiping of hands on the pants, the nausea, and the shaking voice. I spent hours upon hours psyching myself up before telling them. I just stayed in my room, sitting on the edge of my bed, bouncing my leg, wringing my hands, and telling myself that it would be okay. My sister had already come out, so why would they treat me any different? When I knew my mom would be reading in her bed, I shakily walked to her door, knocked softly, and opened the door before telling her. It was silent for a moment and she said something so encouraging and so kind, that I will never forget it. She said “we just want you to be happy.” That really stuck with me because isn’t that what all parents should want for their children?

A few years later I came out as non-binary. It wasn’t any easier. My palms still got sweaty, I still felt like I was going to vomit, and my voice still wavered. Once again however, my parents put their hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said that they accepted me. When I pictured myself coming out, I thought I would be driving a massive stake into the ground and proclaiming with a powerful voice that “this is who I am.” Instead, all I got was wobbly knees, and a weak and shaky intonation. I had a very idealized idea of how coming out to my parents was going to go. Of course, looking back I know I had nothing to be afraid of. Both my parents were extremely accepting and kind, but that all changes when you’re in the moment. You start to think of all the worst case scenarios and your mind just becomes an echo chamber where every negative thought you’ve ever had about yourself just gets louder and louder until it sounds like there’s a jet turbine in your brain and it drowns out all attempts at reason. You feel like you are beginning to float away and you can’t even hear yourself talk. You feel although you’re looking down on yourself and there is a disconnect. Your heart begins to thump in your ears, you get all hot, and you suddenly feel so lightheaded that you might faint. You’re spiraling. There’s nothing you can do but wait it out and hope it subsides. Hope that someday, you’ll be able to fight these voices. Once you finally find your way out to the other side, there aren’t trumpets and confetti. It feels like a breath of fresh air, like a massive weight has been lifted off of your shoulders. You exhale a long breath that you didn’t even know you were holding. After you come out, there’s a really strange period of time that is prevalent in almost every single queer person who has come out. We all experience a high level of euphoria and you begin to exclaim your sexuality or gender from the rooftops. I bought rainbow jackets, pins, clothing, and scrawled the pride flag all over my schoolwork. Everything has to be gay. Researchers say it is usually because you’ve spent a large amount of time hiding who you are, so when you don’t have to do that anymore the feeling is very overwhelming. Then after the honeymoon phase of coming out ends, you just realize that you are just a normal person and who you want to kiss isn’t any indicator of your personality or actions. I settled down and became just me, much more free, and a whole lot more relaxed about my sexuality.

 I definitely experienced that and when I look back it is normal and completely understandable, but I still cringe at the memory of myself. After coming out I began to understand a lot more of how people treat gay people. In my experience, there wasn’t any outright bullying or verbal abuse, Just a lot of murmurs and talking behind my back. When I wasn’t around, people would say I was “too gay” or would call me faggot. One time when I was just eating lunch with my friend, she stopped me and said “Hey, just so you know. I was in my guitar class and some guys were talking about you and they said you were too gay and called you faggot.” That really amused me, I wasn’t bothered by it because it wasn’t said to my face. I didn’t care because it didn’t affect me at all. If they want to talk about me when I’m not there, good for you. There are more things that happened to me when I finally came out. When I was walking down the hall there were people doing a double take when I passed them, or I got that itchy feeling down the bottom of my neck when I felt like I was being watched. Thankfully I had friends around me at all times, so I was never alone. I never felt threatened or judged, I was just getting stared at. These friends were people I found in theatre, so naturally they were all unhinged. We would always walk to class together, leave school together, meet at the same spot at the start of school so that i was never alone. My friend Claire and I would meet in the same spot everyday directly after school and we would walk to my mom’s car together. I consider myself incredibly fortunate because I lived in a very accepting and liberal area, I never experienced any kind of physical, in your face bullying, or anything like that.

After coming out, I really regressed in my confidence with my clothing. Back when I was four, I really just trolloped around in a purple tutu feeling no shame. Now, I have to go through psychological warfare with myself just to wear a flower crown to school. I never had any doubts, worries, or insecurities when I was 4. It is a slow process, where over time, small comments slowly build up and societal expectations prevent me from making choices that I would want to make. As a child, I was told (not by my parents) that pink was a girl color, that boys should like cars, and that boys shouldn’t listen to Taylor Swift. Aspects of my personality have been compartmentalized into what was deemed acceptable, and what wasn’t.

It is only in the last 5 years of my life that I have been able to deconstruct that idea and really get to the root of why I was preventing myself from doing things that I wanted to do. The catalyst of that revelation was really the transition from middle school to high school. In middle school I was constantly surrounded with homophobia and I didn’t feel like it was a safe environment to be my authentic self. Going to high school, the environment changed drastically and I saw people wearing more daring clothes and doing what they wanted and it really inspired me. First though, I had to realize that I was carrying around all this shame, all this baggage that I didn’t even know I had until high school. A lot of this shame and baggage actually had to do with being a man. I am not going to pretend that being a man is hard. We are born with such a large advantage and there are so many things that we do not have to worry about that women do. However, I grew up with the internet culture of so many tweets and videos all saying that men are trash. “If you’re a man, you’re worthless!” I was surrounded with that kind of negativity. So much so that I believed it to be true and I really started to dislike the gender I indentified as. I never even spoke about it to anyone, I completely internalized it. I first started to hear those jokes in middle school where some of my friends would say “men…” and then make a vomit sound. I was probably in the seventh grade, so I was 12 years old. After hearing that sentiment so many times both in real life and online, I started to search for a way out. A desperate attempt to escape from my own hatred of myself. I convinced myself that I was non-binary because I felt ashamed to be a man. I went by a different name for about a month in eighth grade, I went by they/them pronouns and my friends did their best to accept this change. They used the correct pronouns, they used the name I had came up with and they treated it as if it was no big deal. Obviously this didn’t last and the fact of the matter is that I was simply trying in any way possible to avoid the shame I felt being a man. I even contributed to the negativity by saying things like “imagine being a man, I’d be so embarrassed.”

Now, I am proud to be a man and know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a man, and in fact, I adore men in general. This obviously seems very stupid and irrelevant now, and I feel incredibly idiotic trying to make the conversation of feminism and equal rights about myself, but I’m simply explaining how that rhetoric regarding men affected me. I am very ashamed that I let this affect me in such a large way and that I took away from the actual struggles that non-binary people face. Now, I can’t stop thinking about that purple tutu. Obviously I was just a stupid 4 year old prancing around without a care in the world, but I still think about it all the time. I wasn’t aware of the gender roles I was breaking! My brain just told me “shiny colorful things are pretty! You gotta put it on!”

I wonder how different it would have been if I had different parents. If my father had yelled at me to take it off immediately, that boys don’t wear tutu’s or that boys don’t wear purple, how would that have affected my future? My parents supported me by not making a big deal out of it! They took me out to dinner, and we just had a nice night, and there wasn’t a single hard conversation! They let me wear what I wanted to wear most of the time, (apparently pajamas in public are off the table) and they were not concerned about it in the slightest. When I wanted to wear a crop top, my mom helped me cut it out! They really went above and beyond for my comfort and I feel so incredibly fortunate. Childhood development plays a huge role in future personality development, mental health, and self-esteem. It makes me think of all the kids out there who weren’t as fortunate as I was. I had a friend in middle school, who was incredibly scared to come out to his parents. He didn’t think that they would kick him out, but they would simply deny his sexuality. Even in the eighth grade he would always talk about how he couldn’t wait for college. He would buy things that would light up in a spectrum of rainbow when you pressed a button so it would appear innocuous to his parents. Somewhere in the world right now, there is another person frantically attempting to scrub makeup off on his way back from pride, someone being forced to pack a bag after being outed to their parents. Maybe someone did wear a very similar tutu as I did, and it ended with the shrill sound of crying and the ripping of fabric. Why? Why was I given this incredible gift of acceptance and others spend hours crying in their rooms?

According to a recent study, only 66% of americans are accepting of lesbian and gay people. That number drops to 45% when it comes to trans and non-binary individuals. Allow me to put that in perspective for cisgender and straight people. Imagine that out of 100 people in a room, only 45-66 of them are okay with you existing, being happy, just being yourself. When you take that into consideration, that number becomes incredibly discouraging. Thankfully, I grew up in a very liberal area, so the number was most definitely higher in my area, but that is the statistical mean for America. Sometimes I tend to envy the lives of straight people. (Don’t worry, that feeling never lasts long) They’ve never had their palms sweat before coming out, never had to disguise their crushes, never had to feel the eyes of people burning a hole into your back.

However, in the end, there are a lot of incredibly fun things about being gay. We aren’t pressured into having children, there’s an instant sense of community, and you have the absolute privilege to be a part of a community that is just so fun! Pride parades, nightclubs, LGBTQ+ exclusive hangouts, and let’s be honest, the rainbow is a beautiful aesthetic. Unfortunately I’ve never been to any pride parades because of my anxiety, but now that I have a refillable prescription for Zoloft, I do plan on attending one very soon! However, I do plan on going to one incredibly soon! Coincidentally as of right now, just like that tutu that I pranced around in, my favorite color is purple. Call it fate, destiny, or whatever you will, but that little boy is very much alive within me. After all I’ve been through, and all that I’ve grown, I’ve never really changed.

That’s a very important distinction to make. Through all the experiences that you and I have been through, they’ve shaped us, and they’ve been teachers, but they haven’t changed us. Studies have shown that a person’s personality is solidified at the age of 5. The person you are can be modified, and that’s being human. There are times when you have to suppress parts of yourself just for the sole aspect of fitting in with other people, or maybe you just have to conceal parts of yourself for your own safety! Taylor Swift even wrote about that in Mirrorball! The point is, the things that we conceal or try to submerge in our subconscious are not gone. They’re still a part of us, and maybe some people will never be able to completely unearth them. It’s easier for some than others to do so. Sometimes I still wonder if there’s even more to me that I have no idea even exists. Maybe locked away in some repressed memory in my hippocampus, or maybe it’s something that I simply refuse to acknowledge. We are incredibly multifaceted and to reduce ourselves to just one thing, would be incredibly short-sighted. Yes I am gay, but I am so much more than that! I am kind, compassionate, funny, talented, witty, and so many other things. It’s the intricate intertwining of circumstances, personality, and experiences that makes us completely us!

Leo Gibson is a honors undergraduate freshman studying theatre performance at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is also minoring in environmental studies and broadcast. He enjoys singing, going out with friends, and watching movies! He hopes to one day work in film, TV, and news! This is his first ever publication.