Another Word for Happy by Brooke Hespeler

You are fourteen years old and you spend all your time trying to get Bethany as your scene partner in drama. She is a natural-born actress, and you find yourself holding your breath every time she walks onstage. She looks like Audrey Hepburn and carries herself like Grace Kelly. Everything about her brings a smile to your face: her eyes, her laugh, her walk. Your friends become annoyed with how much you like to talk about her.

You are fifteen years old and Lauren calls you a dyke because you and your best friend Emilie are inseparable. You don’t know what the word means, but you can tell it’s nasty because Lauren is the one saying it. You shoot back a sassy “takes one to know one!” This only encourages her; she spreads the rumor that you and Emilie are sleeping together. This rumor is fortunately short-lived, because Emilie starts dating Stephen. You are relieved that her getting a boyfriend turned out to be the solution to the problem. It never occurred to you to get a boyfriend of your own.

You are seventeen, and you’re starting to not believe mom when she says you’re just a late bloomer. You’re sure that you’re just not trying hard enough. You accept Nick’s invitation to the winter formal but come home from it in tears because he confessed his undying love for you on the dancefloor.

You are eighteen and don’t believe the “late bloomer” bullshit anymore. You are still in denial, but every time your roommate affectionately refers to her friends as “faggots” you feel like she is sticking a knife in your back.

You spend most of your time in bed curled around your laptop watching hours of tv. You watch anything and everything, but you especially love fantasy and sci-fi; anything that takes you far away from the cold cinderblock prison you are forced to inhabit.

One night, as your homophobic roommate sleeps just a few feet away from you, Christina Hendricks comes up on your screen. You stare at her for several minutes examining the gentle curves of her cheekbones as well as her, ahem, other curves.

Everything clicks into place. Your entire life flashes before your eyes, and for a moment you think you’re dying.

You’re almost disappointed when you don’t.

Your first reaction is to look over to your roommate. Miraculously she sleeps on, completely oblivious to the fact that the whole world has been flipped upside-down.

You are angry. What sort of kind and loving God would create a quiet and bookish girl with buckteeth, frizzy hair, glasses, a penchant for musical theatre, AND Sapphic tendencies? It was like He was trying to make you into some sort of cosmic joke by sticking a giant divine “kick me” sign on your back.

You are confused. You had a cafeteria Catholic upbringing, so while your parents had always had a much more liberal stance on things than the church you had certainly heard the sermons and read the scripture. Did this mean you were going to Hell? How was that fair? You finally find out what it was that made you feel so different from others and it turns out to be an auto-damnation? Now that you know, there’s no way you could feign ignorance. How on earth could you be given such an awful choice – misery and angst “playing straight” for the next seventy years of your life or the possibility of eternal Hellfire? You’re eighteen and had enough trouble deciding between Anthropology and Astronomy for your General Education science requirement.

You are frightened. You know that despite the headway that’s been made for gay rights over the years, a significant portion of the country still hates LGBT people. You know that a hugely underreported type of assault is men raping lesbians “to try and turn them back.”

You are curious. You’ve never really known any gay people, and the stories you’ve seen on tv made it seem like they all knew right off the bat. Why were you so slow on the uptake?

You are…relieved.  In this light so much of your teenage angst and unhappiness and loneliness makes sense. You had been a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.

You are nineteen. You have started to identify yourself as “bisexual” to your closest friends as a means to test the waters. Bisexuality seems safer and like less of a definitive abnormality. It’s like a passport to explore a new world. It’s tightrope walking with a net.

Emilie says she knew all along and is just happy that you finally figured it out.
Shelby volunteers to be your wingwoman at parties.
Your new roommate Julia shrugs and says “okay. Don’t forget to do your dishes.”

You attend the local PRIDE by yourself and are completely blown away. The love in the air is almost tangible. The town square is awash in rainbow patterns and pulsing with upbeat dance music. Everyone is laughing and hugging and proudly wearing cheeky stickers that denote their sexuality. More than once you duck into the bathroom to cry because you are so overwhelmed by it all.

 After about the third crying jag you step out into the sunlight and walk purposefully to the booth in the front that has the sexuality stickers. You scan through them looking for one you’d be comfortable wearing. Most of them don’t seem to fit you (Butch and Femme) and some even make you blush (Top and Bottom) until you finally spy a sheet of stickers in the corner that bear the word “Versatile.” Yes, that’s it. Versatile seems safe enough while still taking you outside your comfort zone. You proudly peel one off and place it on the front of your shirt. You are drunk on the excitement of the festival, and you stand a little taller every time someone looks from your face to the sticker on your chest and back to your face. You come home flushed with excitement and lovingly place the sticker on your bedroom mirror.

 A few weeks later you learn that “versatile” is an identifier in the gay community for a man who is comfortable being a “top” or a “bottom” during his sexual encounters. Mortified, you take the sticker off your mirror at once. You still don’t have the heart to throw it away, so you tape it to the bottom of your dresser drawer.

You vow to learn every bit of LGBT slang you can so that you can avoid any future embarrassment. Within a few weeks you log hours on different web pages memorizing bits and pieces of phraseology.

“Now you’re bilingual as well as bisexual,” Julia jokes.
You take a deep breath. “Yeah, here’s the thing: I’m definitely a lesbian.”
She shrugs. “I figured. But seriously, do your dishes.”

One night when you’re feeling particularly low you stumble upon the Westboro Baptist Church’s website. You figure it’ll be a laugh. It is at first, but after a while you feel a sourness in the pit of your stomach. Though your common sense is screaming at you that these are the ramblings of terribly misguided people, you can’t help but keep scrolling through the pages. What if they’re right?


These words are seemingly burned into your retinas. You can’t sleep that night; you toss and turn for hours as these words run through your mind like a mantra. That night you try several times to pray for guidance, but every attempted prayer ends in a bitter sob. You feel ill and hope that somehow this has all been a bad dream and that tomorrow you will wake up completely “normal.”

You attend a Halloween party dressed as Donna Reed. The room is unbearably hot and you feel your meticulously-pinned curls wilting in the humid air. You figure you have to stick it out another twenty minutes before it’s acceptable for you to feign a headache and catch a cab home.

You’re sitting on the couch counting down the minutes when you spot her. She’s standing across the room talking to a girl dressed as Hermione Granger. She’s wearing an angel costume which seems fitting because you don’t think you’ve ever seen a girl as lovely as her. She has dark wavy hair that seems completely unaffected by the room’s unbearable humidity and her eyes remind you of the pralines you got in your Christmas stocking one year. You catch her candy-colored eye and she smiles at you. Your face flushes crimson and your ears burn. She says something to her friend and starts to walk in your direction. Your stomach does a few Olympic-worthy somersaults as you watch your angel move through the crowd. It seems to take an eternity for her to glide across the room, and yet before you know it she flops down next to you on the sofa.

“You look bored,” she says with a smile.
You swallow and try for something that looks like a smile.
“Want a drink?” she asks, handing you her Klean Kanteen.

In that moment you would have gladly accepted a steaming mug of hemlock if she had been the one to offer it. You take a sip of the drink which is sweet and heady. You thank her and hand it back.

“So you’re dressed as a pin-up girl right?”

“Yeah,” you lie. “How’d you know?”
She smiles and winks. “I just know these things. I also collect pin-up girl stuff.”

She talks about her obsession with pin-up girl paraphernalia and you listen, enjoying the sound of her voice. You wish you had a book of poetry on you so that she could recite some for you.

All too soon Hermione comes back over and tugs on Angel’s sleeve.

Angel wrinkles her perfect little nose. “We’ve got to go. But you keep on keeping on.”

She leans over and brushes her lips against yours and for one singular shining moment everything is okay.

She disappears into the crowd, and you are left wondering if she was in fact an actual angel.

You are twenty years old. You’ve decided it’s time to tell your parents.

You throw up twice that morning out of nerves.

You tell mom in the car on the way to the mall. This had seemed like a good idea at first; it would be just the two of you being able to talk completely uninterrupted for a half hour. You realize it would have been smarter to have her drive because you’re hands are shaking so badly you nearly veer off the road more than once.

“Really?” she asks.


“Oh. Well…okay.”

She remains silent for the rest of the drive and you feel even sicker. You weren’t expecting her to disown you, but it wouldn’t have hurt her to give you a hug or something. You do not feel light in your loafers. You feel the exact opposite – heavy in your hushpuppies.

You know you have no right to feel this way because technically everything is fine. Despite changing attitudes the horror stories still happen, even in your own new circle of friends. Suzy’s parents pretend that her coming out never happened and they still try and push their friend’s sons on her. Michael’s parents divorced after he came out because his mother completely supported him and his father couldn’t stand to be under the same roof as him. Stephanie was beaten within an inch of her life and promptly kicked out of the house after she made the mistake of telling them. You really have no right to feel sorry for yourself.  Knowing this only makes you feel worse though, you begin to feel a sort of survivors guilt.

Still, you bring it up a week later and mom is shocked that you felt dismissed. She apologizes profusely to you and tells you how much she and your father love you (she broke the news to him the day after you had told her), which somehow makes you feel worse. You don’t even say anything about her telling dad without asking you first. (To this day you haven’t spoken to each other about it. You can tell he’s uncomfortable but probably somewhat relieved that now there’s no chance he’ll have to be the shotgun-bearer at your wedding.)

You know mom’s particularly sensitive about this because of her brother Jim. She’d told you the story years before, about how he had been gay and all of their siblings had intuitively known. Their parents, your grandparents, had been staunch Irish Catholics so he was terrified to come out. He lived a double life, a confirmed old bachelor schoolteacher by day and a promiscuous unmentionable of the Oscar Wilde variety by night. His parents didn’t know he was gay until he came home to tell them he was sick.

They were still calling it “gay cancer” back then.

She begins to go out of her way to make you feel accepted, forwarding you articles about new gay rights legislation being passed and asking you with too-wide smiles if there are any girls in your life. It kills you not only because you’ve made her feel like an inadequate mother, but also because not all of this outpouring of love is for you. Somewhere in there she’s trying to make amends for her brother’s death and to make sure you don’t befall the same tragedy. She’s trying to save you. You grapple with this for a few months before finally deciding you don’t need to be saved.

You come home from a checkup at the doctor’s office and she asks you how it went.

“Fine,” you say.

There is a pause.



You take a deep breath.“IaskedhimandhesaidtherearenoknowncasesoflesbiansgivingeachotherHIV”  you said in one breath.

“Come again?” she asks.

You take another deep breath. “I asked him and he said there are no known cases of lesbians giving each other HIV.”

She looks at you for a moment before realizing that you are holding an olive branch before her.
She takes it from your hands gently. “Oh. That’s–that’s good to know.”

There is a pause.

“So you know, unless I decide to take up heroin as a new hobby,” you joke lamely.
She rolls her eyes and asks you to help her dry the dishes.

You are twenty-one and have just broken up with your first serious girlfriend. You loved each other very much, but you were on two separate pages. She wanted to hold hands every time the two of you went out in public; you got hives at the very idea of this. She wanted to spend every waking moment with you; you needed your alone time. Finally she told you she wanted the pair of you to run away to New York and get married. You didn’t know what you wanted, but you knew you didn’t want that. Yet. You end things in a flurry of tears and hugs then top it all off with the age-old lie of continued friendship. You step back out into the world slightly worse for the wear but with a better sense of what you want.

From time to time you still visit the Westboro Baptist Church’s website, on nights when you’re feeling a little drunk and more than a little self-loathing. Their words don’t ring as potentially true as they once did though, and the rational portion of your brain usually prevails after a few minutes of browsing. You’ve started to make pilgrimages to GLIDE church in San Francisco any Sunday that you can. Their sermons center around love and are specifically targeted for an LGBT audience. The sermons never fail to make you cry and you learn that there’s no better feeling in the world than being hugged to the false bosom of a drag queen and having her tell you “peace be with you.”

It’s becoming easier to tell people now. You’re surprised sometimes how easy it is – it just slips out in conversation with acquaintances from time to time.

“That’s funny, my ex-girlfriend was absolutely obsessed with that show! Guess I should check it out.”

There’s a flicker of recognition, but very rarely do they make a comment about it. The conversation moves forward, as if nothing had happened. In a way, nothing did. In a way, everything did.

1 Comment

  1. ann

    brave story beautifully told.


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