An Ugly Word: A Reflection of Origin
By Hannah McFadden
7 Years Old.
I didn’t know what that word meant, it was the first time that I had heard it. All I knew about it was that hearing someone say it about me made me feel ashamed. It was an ugly word, and having it apply to you meant there was something wrong with you. I didn’t like her, I didn’t like anyone, I was seven. Once I realized that that word meant I liked other girls, and that liking other girls was bad according to the other seven-year-olds, I began to hide my shame of that one encounter. Everyone forgot it even happened once I told the girls that I liked one of the boys in our grade. His name was Henry, I didn’t really know him. He played kickball with the other boys during recess, and he had the air of someone who would grow into profound masculinity. He had no idea who I was most of the time. Ashley never found out about it, we stayed friends until I moved. I never forgot how bad that ugly word made me feel.
11 Years Old.
I hadn’t thought about that ugly word in years. I had moved away, made new friends, I learned to tiptoe my way around the cold-hearted presumptions of girls my age. You say anything slightly suggestive, and suddenly you’re faced with “What are you, a lesbian?”, even if the comment you made was entirely chaste.
The next time that word appeared in my life I was on the bus going home. I was in sixth grade, and I had the privilege to sit with one of the eighth grade girls. We had met through a mutual friend in my grade, her name was Sophia. She wasn’t on the bus that day, I don’t remember why. Suddenly, the girl next to me starts talking in a hushed tone.
“My mom doesn’t think I should hang out with Sophia anymore.”
“Because she thinks she might be a lesbian.”
There was that word again. And even though it wasn’t being used to describe me, hearing it being used about someone I was close to made me feel ashamed. Did that mean I should stop spending time with her? Would people start to use that word to describe me if I kept hanging out with her?
I never stopped spending time with Sophia, but the anxieties remained.
13 Years Old.
I started wearing skirts again. I hadn’t done this since before I moved, but once I noticed all the pretty girls in my grade wore skirts, and they all had boyfriends, the connection was made. I wasn’t wearing skirts and trying to learn to walk in high heels because I wanted a boyfriend. It felt more like an obligation, a way to prove your worth. You had to get a boyfriend in order to prove to the other girls that you could, in fact, be liked. That’s how I felt, at least.
My constant struggle to escape that word had now become a constant struggle to escape all words. If somebody talked about you, it had to be bad. All words twisted my guts and made me hate myself.
I got a boyfriend. Although, looking back I can’t say we had any more than the title of our relationship going for us. We never held hands, we never touched, and we certainly never kissed. When we spent time together it was usually on opposite sides of the room playing video games he would inevitably beat me at. We had been friends before this, but that was ruined. Ruined by the expectations of a few thirteen-year-old girls that you couldn’t be friends with a boy otherwise you would eventually get a crush on him.
I used to imagine being able to be like relationships you saw between boys and girls on television, but then I would apply that to the two of us and suddenly the thought was less appealing. It wasn’t that he was unappealing, it was more or less the concept of physicality that I found unappealing. I attributed my lack of desire to being nervous about never having a boyfriend before. I was certain I would grow out of it.
Once he told me he thought I was pretty, then I told him I thought his freckles were cute. But cute doesn’t mean you want to date someone, unfortunately.
14 Years Old.
I was still dating the boy from middle school. It had been nine months of frigid conversation and playing video games while sitting on separate couches. We had gone to different high schools, so the two of us were no longer under the hypercritical eye of our pre-pubescent peers. He got sick, so we saw each other less. It wasn’t a classic sickness, none of us knew how to describe it. What I remember of it is that it gave him headaches so bad he could hardly open his eyes, let alone go to school or send me a text message. We went weeks without speaking or seeing each other. I broke up with him. I cried, but looking back I can’t remember if it was because of him or because I was sinking back into the pool of undesirability.
That winter I had gotten to know a girl from two towns over through theatre. She did backstage work and had a blonde pixie cut. We liked all the same books and television shows, so we talked frequently over the phone. I eventually had to come to grips with the fact that I most certainly had a crush on her, and acting upon my feelings meant admitting to people who I’d heard use that ugly word that to an extent I related to it.
I started dating her, and I told the world I liked both boys and girls. It was affirmed in my mind that I also liked boys.
16 Years Old.
I had, at this point, been single again for quite a while. There was a boy in my grade who started to talk to me that summer. He was incredibly boring. But not only was he boring, he was creepy. Creepy in a way that it made me uncomfortable just to be around him. He gave the impression that he was interested in me, and I, still telling the world I was attracted to boys, tried in vain to reciprocate the affection. I hung out with him at his house once, he sat next to me without personal space while we watched Captain America and made lots of prolonged eye contact when neither one of us had even been speaking. At no point did he try to do anything remotely romantic; everything he did just made my skin crawl. And even before he started acting creepy something about that non-platonic closeness felt viscerally wrong. To me, it felt forced, unnatural.
That was the last time I would see him. He would move away to a city two hours from here and I would stop talking to him, and it was after that awkward day at his house that I truly started to question why my subconscious rejected every boy who was interested in me, creepy or not.
The answer should have been obvious, but I was in denial. To be that ugly word was like being every other ugly word out there. It was bad to be that way, people wouldn’t like you if that’s what you were. No one I had ever heard use that word was using it in a way that wasn’t insulting. Even the hushed whispers of “I think so-and-so might be a lesbian” sounded bad. It would be a rumor to destroy some poor girl’s confidence, wildly spun out of control by the twenty-four hour news cycle that was teenage gossip.
Eventually, one person at a time, I slowly made it known that I was, in fact, not interested in boys and girls, just girls. The transition was surprisingly painless, only awkward. Sure, a handful of people (namely older, non-politically-correct adults) would tell me it was a phase, but they were easy to ignore.
After claiming the ugly word, another ugly word emerged to replace it. Only this time it didn’t make me feel ashamed — it made me feel angry.
I was standing in the lobby, waiting to be picked up alongside a gaggle of younger high school girls, the ones everybody liked. Outside, a girl with a lip piercing and a bad attitude was walking past the doors, minding her own business, and for no good reason one of the girls inside opened the door, stuck her head outside, and yelled:
Her friends gasped and giggled as the girl quickly shut the door to avoid the girl with the lip piercing. They thought it was funny in an outrageous way.
“Oh my god, Cassidy! Why would you say that?” One asked.
The girl shrugged with a smug smirk plastered on her face.
“I’m in a bad mood.”
Hearing this made my blood boil, I wanted nothing more than to walk over and give that girl a piece of my mind. Being myself, and having a fear of confrontation, I didn’t do that. But that did make my experience with being the only girl that likes other girls for at least twenty miles all the more polarizing. Who I am was an insult to those who weren’t like me.
17 Years Old.
I’ve learned to own my sexuality. I have friends who I know would love me whether I liked girls or not. Who I am isn’t strange to them, and it isn’t to me.
I still hear people use the ugly word as a joke to insult their friends, and to a certain degree it does irritate me. But once you’re a senior in high school, you really stop caring about the people around you and what they think. Plus, it’s really funny to hear someone use it as an insult and then see the mortified look on their face when you tell them that’s what you actually are. They stutter an apology once they realize their grave mistake, but you never say to them that it’s okay. You simply walk away and let them think about it for a few minutes.
Sure, it’s an ugly word, but it’s my word.
Hannah McFadden (she/her/hers) is a 19 year old bisexual female studying English and Theatre at Wagner College in Staten Island, New York. Hannah has been writing both academically and recreationally for many years and this is her first published work. This piece is a reflection on society’s standards for sexuality, it’s perception of the gay experience for women, and the simple restriction that comes from living in a small town. Hannah grew up in southern New Hampshire with a blended family. Follow Hannah on Instagram @hl_mcfadden