A photo/essay project for LGBTQ adults (of all genders) to submit childhood pictures and stories (roughly ages 2 to 12), reflecting the memories and early beginnings of their innate selves. See how nurture allows what nature endows - and it's their nature, their truth!
My mother tells me the staff at the Sears portrait studio were so impressed with this photo of me, that they wanted to hang it on their wall in the lobby.
"What does the T stand for? Is it Tammy?" they said. "No," my mother corrected. "More like Tommy." This was my first reported instance of an occasion that would become a regular theme in my life.
I was 2-years old and people were already doing double-takes while apologizing under their breath for misidentifying my gender. "He’s pretty - for a boy” was the first of the backhanded compliments I was poised to receive as I got older.
As a kid, it used to bother me that I was often mistaken for a girl, and my easily mortified teenage self suffered accordingly. Because people didn’t quite know how to categorize me by sight, I learned to transcend polarization.
I understood early that gender was a social construction that was completely malleable. I felt the need to refrain from conforming to the gender biases of popular culture and to create my own.
If I liked a shirt in the girl’s department and it fit me, I wasn’t stymied by the fact that it buttoned up the opposite side. I learned how to bridge the gap between my yin and yang.
I trace the early understanding of gender politics I had to this photo.
T was for Tommy but it was also for trans - as in transcending transgender.
Growing up, Halloween was always my favorite holiday. This hasn't changed much since I was young, but now I look back on my love for the holiday in a much different light. I think it was the attraction of stepping into the skin of someone who wasn't me that spawned my interest. This lead to me dressing as multiple women during my childhood.
Having been reared on nearly every Disney movie, I was immediately drawn to the female villains. These women were not merely evil (something that I was not), but they were supremely confident in who they were (something I also was not). But above all else, they were interesting.
You can leave your princesses behind, and give me an evil queen any day!
I lived for the time of year when I felt confident enough to dress up as one of these powerful women. In hindsight, I give tremendous appreciation to my parents for allowing me to dress in this way year after year.
We live in a time when something like this can go viral on the internet if given enough traction. I can only imagine it was much more taboo in the mid 1990's.
However, my parents never batted an eye at it, and I think the pictures show that my mother had a fun time herself putting the ensembles together.
It wouldn't be until over a decade later that I managed to find the courage within myself to come out of the closet. Yet I can't help but wonder how surprised my parents must have been, if they were surprised at all.
Although it took time, I feel as if I've finally managed to grasp the confidence and power that made these women so interesting to me.
And for now, we can leave all the curses and spells behind...
As a child, I was generally very quiet and introverted. I always found solace and tranquility in writing rather than involving myself in social activities. But I was active in theater in my early teens and on my high school’s cross country team in my freshman year.
I first came out to my mother at the age of 15. It was pretty rewarding, and my family has always accepted me as a person regardless of differences that may exist between us. As a teenager, I was active in the local LGBT community center, and I have been fortunate that I never have been harassed or singled out for being gay.
During college though, I went back in the closet and I eventually became very religious. As a result of social pressures, I eventually married a woman.
After the birth of our first child, our marriage slowly fell apart. Around the time of our second child, I met a man whom I had brief contact with.
I soon realized I needed to confront my true identity instead of hiding behind a veil of falsehood.
I revealed to my wife the secret that I had been hiding from her for years. She told me she always had known and was willing to accept the fact that I was gay. We came to the understanding that we would have to separate.
I began to turn to close friends and even rabbis for moral support as I began this new phase in my life. Thankfully, I have found nothing but love and support from everybody with whom I have shared this intimate detail of my life.
As a religious Jew, I hid the secret of my sexual orientation from everybody.
But today I know that Judaism embraces the gay identity, even with certain prohibitions in regard to particular acts.
The essence of being a gay Jew, however, is acceptable in the eyes of God.
I did not know this for a long time, and had I known it, my adult life would have been much easier.
But I am happy now and look forward to a beautiful future in which I can celebrate the internal synthesis of all the different aspects of my life.
I was lucky enough to have been born to a mother who had the innate ability to tell I was gay when I was very young. To be honest, since I was so focused with my studies all the way to about 11th grade in high school, I hadn't really paid much attention to my sexuality.
It wasn't until I turned 16 that I finally came out to myself, and at 17 I came out to my mom.
I wrote a letter wanting to explain everything, since I knew doing it on the fly would result in just a total breakdown.
However, I forgot to put the letter away after I wrote it - it was 4am when I finished! - and my mom found it that morning.
And I'll never forget what she said to me: "The only man I was ever angry about being gay was Elton John, because that was when I knew I wouldn't be able to marry him!"
I know I'm lucky to have grown up in such an accepting household. It saddens me that LGBT youth are harassed and bullied, simply for being who they are.
All I can say is, be proud, stay strong, and never forget that it is you who are in control of your life. As hard as the road may seem, it is your own strength and resolve alone that will carry you through your toughest trials in life.
This picture of me and my (also gay) twin brother Andy was taken at our grandmother's house. We would always fight over who got to wear the silky shirt. I'm on the right in the shirt, and Andy is on the left in the heels.
This picture and time of my life brings back great memories, because my grandparents didn't care about our differences. They just wanted us to be happy and to be ourselves.
We were both big fans of Care Bears and My Little Pony.
My sister had an ET doll and Godzilla figure that would shoot its hand off. But Andy and I pretty much stuck to our stuffed animals and Rainbow Brite dolls.
Speaking of stuffed animals, I came out to my teddybear at age 5.
But our older sister actually came out before we did, so she helped break our parents in.
I like to say we all helped drag our parents kicking and screaming into the 21st century! LOL!
For younger gay kids reading this, I would like to tell them that I thank God every day I was born a homosexual. It has helped me to grow as an individual and learn so much more about myself at an early age.
Mark, age 6 Centralia, Washington (1968) My first grade teacher Mrs. Carlson wrote on my report card: "Mark is a very sensitive child, wants attention, and needs reassurance. He expresses himself very well through his artwork, is quite creative, and has quite a flair for play-acting. He really puts himself into it and does quite a good job." Great insight on her part, as I have become a professional entertainer.
Mrs. Carlson could also see I was gay, and 'Sensitive' was another 1960's American code word for homosexual. She also knew that I had no friends in a neighborhood full of children. It was hard to miss them chanting 'Finley Faggot' during recess, or from over her fence on an occasional weekend afternoon visit. She opened my world to the fine arts by way of the local library. The works she put in front of me all had much the same theme - the misunderstood overcoming their adversity to shine greater than ever before. Not having friends, I lost myself in reading, listening to records, and stamp collecting. Then my maternal grandfather gave me two amazing gifts: a spinet piano and a 12-inch black & white television. Thanks to him I poured myself into practicing my piano and recreating scenes from the movies I watched at night. I couldn't catch a ball of any kind, but I could do a great Mae West and W.C. Fields routine complete with a chorus of "Willie Of The Valley." Soon it was quite clear to my parents that my 'creative flair' was not simply a phase.
I'd love to say that it was all sunshine and lollipops after that, but I'd be lying. The rest of my childhood was nothing short of a living hell. But at age 10 I was in my first play (a community theatre production of an old English melodrama), and I stole the show. I had finally found the one place I was happy and content. Not to mention safe from the constant torment that was the rest of my adolescence. Some would say that I escaped into my own private world with theatre. But I would say it gave me the chance to escape and join the world! As an adult, my performing has taken me all around the world on many wonderful adventures. It was not easy growing up 'different' in a small town in rural Washington. But I am forever thankful that Mrs. Carlson gave me hope that happiness was possible!
I remember in kindergarten I'd bring my "Star Wars" toys to school and trade them with the girls for their Barbies. This is definitely not to say that I didn't love "Star Wars." In fact, I loved it so much that I received duplicates of almost every toy available for birthday/Christmas gifts. And that made it possible for me to have a Mermaid Barbie with color-changing hair AND a Star Wars Disk Shooter!
When I'd spend a night at my grandma's house, she'd always let me safety pin a towel around my waist. Or wear one of my grandpa's t-shirts with a belt, as I liked the way it felt to spin in circles and have the fabric billow out below me.
My grandma was, in fact, the first person to inform me that gay people even existed.
One time, we were looking through a People Magazine and she told me the women in a photo were Rosie O'Donnell and her girlfriend.
I asked, 'Girlfriend? Like they're in love?' and grandma said "Yes" with a smile. That short conversation gave me the courage to get through high school and come out to my family soon after I graduated.
Honesty is the best policy, I say.
Today, I don’t hide myself anymore and people love me for it.
I still love to wear XL t-shirts around my apartment, because it reminds me of the ball gowns and red-carpet evening-wear I used to work at my grandma’s house.
Here's my brother Rick dressed as Davy Crockett's wife Polly and I'm dressed as his husband Davy. He carefully draped cloth over his head to make lovely hair and wore a bath robe for her beautiful dress. He placed a piece of white cloth on my head (which is supposed to be a coonskin hat) so I could be his husband.
I decided Davy needed a nice dress also, so I tied a belt around a brightly colored pillow and placed it in front of me as a skirt. Then we added Ricky's prized "Tiny Tears" doll as our darling child to complete the picture.
When Daddy saw us, he was not interested in taking a picture, so Ricky sent me to do it. I was the baby and still Daddy's favorite, so talked him in to it. I waited until my mother had had a few cocktails and then went in to convince her to get Daddy to take these pictures.
He was willing to take my picture but did not want to take Ricky's. "But you have to," I told him. "He is my wife. Davy loves Polly very much."
Daddy thought this was very funny and took these pictures.
Later we saw a faux coon skin at the store and I was asked if I wanted to try it on. I did, but when I felt the tail I freaked out and started crying. When they asked what was wrong, I said: "He killed that cat!"
In 5th grade I broke with Davy Crockett for good when I wrote a school report about the U.S. government's policy of exterminating buffalo to destroy Native American culture. I also discovered that Davy was an alcoholic murderer and racist who killed a black man and got away with it, claiming he was too drunk to know what he was doing. I titled it "DAVY CROCKETT WAS A MURDERER!"
My teacher was a bit nervous about this.
She gave me a good grade but made me change the title.
“Mom, what is gay?” That’s what left my lips one day when I returned home from kindergarten. After having been called it over and over, I kinda wanted to know what it meant. Mom did what she’s done my entire life - she told me the truth. No judgment. No shame. Just truth.
Even though I had no idea what sexual orientation was,
I knew this much: I wasn’t going to be something people saw as different, even if I was.
And I spent the next 20 years living up to my misguided commitment.
Through all of the bullying, teasing, hurt, and loneliness, I fooled myself into believing if I didn’t acknowledge being gay, it wasn’t real. I remember looking at Ricky Schroeder on "Silver Spoons"and thinking:
"I think I ‘like’ him. But only gay boys ‘like’ other boys, so I’ll just not like him."
And I never watched "Silver Spoons" again. It was all too real.
The only one I was fooling was myself. As was evidenced when I began my coming out at age 25. That process was both wonderful and frustrating. I didn’t have one negative reaction to my coming out, which was such a relief.
What I found frustrating was this: when you finally make the agonizing decision to come out, you want a certain kind of “TA-DAH!” moment. Well, no one was surprised. It was more like a “Well, duh!” moment. Over. And over. And over.
It was better than the alternative, but it took me some time to get comfortable in this “new” skin, the skin everyone was aware of but me. I had to get to know myself all over again.
I’m still in the middle of that process. During the past 15 years, I’ve been the most destroyed and most overjoyed I’ve ever been. I consider my high-highs and low-lows evidence that I’m living a full life. I’ve loved. I’ve lost. I’ve grown. I’ve learned.
My true passion is photography, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have really beautiful subjects in front of my lens, both inanimate and human alike. I’m so proud of who I am, who I'm surrounded by, and the man I continue to become.
As I look at this picture now, I see exactly what I want to see: A carefree, flamboyant young boy just living in the moment.
If I could go back and talk to my 4 year-old self, I’d say nothing more than:
“Just be yourself, kiddo. It’s going to be a fabulous ride.”
I’ve always known I was different. My first flashes of strange feelings started to appear when I was 4 years old and continued to grow inside of me each year.
At school I realized I wasn't discussing boys like the other girls.
I tried to convince myself I liked men or boys (at least in movies and music bands), but it was all false.
Then I saw "her" for the first time when I was around age 8.
She was a teacher who came to take my classmate from school. And I was standing there, shocked and speechless for about 30 minutes.
Her beauty captured me.
Next year, she came in the classroom to say she would be our math teacher for the next 7 years!
I was terribly in love with her for that entire time, but I didn’t know there was something wrong feeling that way. She saw what was happening to me, but obviously she couldn’t do anything to help me get over it.
Many years have passed since then. Like the majority of people in our country, she hates me and thinks I’m a weird lesbian who was trying to seduce her.
But I wasn’t.
At that time, I didn’t even know it was actually possible to love another woman.
Today I’m 26, and I have a girlfriend and we have two children.
Hopefully, one day, we’ll have a chance to marry. I believe in it.