Gay means happy, and other synonyms people don’t talk about


By Jennifer Dryden
Written: March 6, 2016

I can remember sitting in the audience at dance dress rehearsals watching girls dance on the stage in full makeup, tights and sparkles. I remember being in full makeup, tights and sparkles myself waiting for my class’s number to be called to go line up backstage. It was all such a rush at four, five, six up to 15 years old. When I reached adolescence, my mom and I started calling this week “Hell Week” because juggling rehearsals and school was hell. Probably literally for her.

But I remember always being excited for this one girl’s routine and it was because she was beautiful, and she was so good at dancing, front and center every time. I remember watching all the routines and cheering with whoops and hollers because innocently I loved dance class. And I lived for the recitals because we all were a big dancing family. My dance class became my friend group in my single digit years and as I grew up and away from many of those same girls in school, we would always stay on pretty even ground because of our childhood dancing together.

I never thought I was gay because I admired the girl on the front and center mark in the dance routine, nor did I think the fact that I always singled her and a couple other girls out was an sign of being gay. I figured I just admired them, I wanted to be like them; I wanted to be their friend. But looking back, these were some of my first crushes.

Innocent crushes like the ones you’d laugh at about your son and the little girl next door who ride bikes together after school. “They’ll get married some day,” parents like to say over a glass of probably well-deserved wine on a playdate.

I remember the heat in my chest and the giggles I’d let slip when she did an even more amazing job than before. I remember my smile, how wide it was. I remember running into her backstage or seeing her in the audience. I remember taking a picture with her and then keeping it in a safe place, showing all my friends my new friend I met at my dance recital. “Look, she’s my friend!”

Why wasn’t this a sign I was gay? And if I felt this way, why didn’t I come out early on?

Because in the 90s, I didn’t know what gay was. I didn’t know it was a thing. I didn’t know people could like the same gender, nobody talked about it. And certainly it wasn’t talked about in health or relationships class because we were a small, hugely Catholic community. Public school or not, it wasn’t something anyone talked about and thus, I didn’t know what it was until high school and a classmate came out as gay. By then I was committed to a boyfriend. That was enough evidence to prove I wasn’t gay because “I’m dating a guy”.

I said that to myself a lot.

I remember the Disney Channel movie “Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century”. Zenon was my first celebrity crush. And it was a deep crush: her florescent clothes, her hair, her fierceness to be herself, the way her voice sounded. I mean she was definition of hot major. I remember singing, “zoom zoom zoom, make my heart go boom boom, my supernova girl!” about her. But I didn’t think anything of it because, again, I was too young to know what gay was.

The only thing I knew about the word gay was a lyric in a Christmas song and when I asked, like every other kid, what gay meant, my parents said, “It means happy”. Cool. Alright, gay means happy. Got it.

Even though adults knew damn well “gay” had other synonyms, they weren’t shared with me. Kids back then were sheltered to this, and maybe you can make an argument that kids these days need to be more sheltered from the horrible Internet or technology, but if someone would have explained to me “gay also means liking the same gender” maybe I would have been able to ask questions. Or, maybe I would have said, “Okay!” giggled and ran off to play again. I mean, kids are kids… but I was a thoughtful kid. I wish I would have had an opportunity to ask questions.

I never put two and two together about Zenon Carr, AKA Kirsten Storms, until I watched it recently, and I found myself still in awe of her, and I flashed back as a preteen crushing on her. I remembered my heart doing the same flip it did back at dance recitals – it burned and I smiled and giggled a little too much when Zenon put on a new outfit or sang, “Zoom zoom zoom…” I remembered thinking how lucky those pop stars were in the movie to get to dance with her, yet probably every other girl was crushing on Proto Zoa.

I was gay then.

It baffles me still. Even as a 28-year-old adult – who is still trying to learn how to exactly adult – I find myself aware of times in my past I could have spotted my gay. But again, I didn’t know what gay was for a long time. And as an adult who came out a lot later than she should have, it makes me mad. Kids aren’t dumb, and thankfully nowadays, especially in urban communities, “gay” is a buzzword and there’s a community for support and encouragement. There are Gay-Straight Alliances in schools as early as middle school to help kids know what being gay is and that being gay is okay. I advise North’s GSA and the kids are stronger and more comfortable than I ever have been in my gay. They give me excitement for being gay. And that’s pretty important for society as a whole.

Eventually, I knew that gay didn’t only mean happy because I was older and aware, and because a couple friends came out.

I remember when a good friend told me she needed to tell me something after a daycare training on Universal Precautions. She sat in my car and looked nervous, then said, “Jenn, I’m gay.” I had no idea she was gay, and now it makes me laugh because shoot, I could spot a lesbian from across a room these days. But back then my “gaydar” was blind, even on myself. I was dating a guy for well over a year and she just came out to me, just like that. I was mad at myself for not knowing, and she laughed and said it was okay, but also joked “how didn’t you know?” because apparently “it is so obvious”. When she came out to me, I questioned myself immediately. Then quickly repeated “I’m dating a guy” in my head, repealing the thought.

She told me about this girl she was dating and how it wasn’t going great and I pictured them together, holding hands, being gay. I asked about her highly Catholic family and their reactions. I asked questions and we became closer. She confided in me something that not many people talked about in our community. Looking back, that was when she became a safe zone for me asking questions about my own sexuality later on.

I remember texting her about crushing on one of my girl friends. “So I think I might be gay…” and then I would wait for a reply in blush, and my heart would beat fast and I’d start sweating because whoosh, I just threw it out there like that… What if my friends saw this text? She replied with “Why do you think that?” and I told her the truth. “I kind of really want to just kiss her. Like when she talks to me I just look at her lips and I want to kiss her. I picture myself walking up to her and just kissing her.”

I was gay then too. Super gay because it took real patience to be her friend and to hold such a secret at the same time. We’re actually really good friends now and hilariously, I bet all of my girl friends are wondering if it’s them, which is pretty funny to me right now. I don’t know if I’ll ever tell her. Meh, maybe.

But the thing with that is I’ve crushed on a few friends. And never acted on them because we were friends and just… no. They were clearly straight and as I’ve found out, one doesn’t just have a fling with a straight girl. It’s a whole wad of crazy waiting to blow up in your face and shatter your heart. And plus, they were all too important to me to bring something up that I knew wouldn’t happen and might hinder our friendship. Their friendship mattered more.

These were adult crushes, like post-college crushes. I knew that I was at least bi by then. And being bi was a comfort zone that let me like girls and yet not commit to being gay. Still, no one knew. I started to come out to close friends as bi. Even my mom. And I’m ashamed because I should have been more honest with myself from the get-go and came out as gay, but I was testing the waters with people I could not imagine leaving me. These were essential people; those people you wouldn’t be yourself without.

Then I met Her.

And we kissed. And we were a type of thing for a while. And after meeting Her, I started calling everyone to come out as gay. “I’m gay,” I remember saying out loud on the ride home from meeting Her out of nowhere. I hadn’t said it out loud yet. I was 27.

Let that sink in. Twenty-seven. I’d been living in the dark either from not knowing what gay was or from my nerves in labeling myself for a long time.

Even though she wasn’t “the one”, she was a type of one. She was the girl I came out for. And she doesn’t even know this. Even though we aren’t a couple and things didn’t work out, she played a vital role in my life. She was the girl that convinced me I was gay and in no way bi. She was the one I had the guts for, to start telling my friends, family and coworkers. She helped me become more of myself. And I think that has something to do with how important she remains to me today. She probably doesn’t know that either…

I had been praying for a long time, months, for a sign to declare myself gay or not. (And in hindsight, if I was doing that, I was pretty gay.) I remember every night before I’d go to bed, I’d pray these words, “God, I know you love me because you made me, so please please lead me to someone who will make me know for sure. I think I’m gay, but I’m scared. Just give me a sign.” I met Her and knew. She was my sign.

I was gay then. Not bi. Not hiding. Not questioning. I was gay.

I am gay.

So I just stopped being not gay. I stopped caring if I slipped a ‘she’ pronoun when talking about a date or someone I liked. I stopped caring about what people thought of me. I stopped using the non-gendered pronoun “they” with my students, coworkers, friends of friends, etc. I am gay, and more myself than any other time in my life.

I don’t whisper the word gay when I need to use it, I am honest with my students about their questions, and support GSA because I wish I had something like that when I was in high school. I wish I had a safe adult I could have turned to and asked questions. I wish I had a nonjudgmental place to go as a preteen or teen. I wish I had a community to be safe in. I wish I had known what gay was. I really wish that last one.

So, I am gay. I was gay at those dance recitals. I was gay backstage when taking a picture with the dancer. I was gay while watching a 90s Disney Channel movie and declaring Zenon Carr my supernova girl. I was gay in college and in New York. I was gay during text conversations, trying to figure out my sexuality. I was gay when I told people I was bi. I was gay while praying. I was gay when I met Her, the one who confirmed it all. I’ve always been gay.

And ya know, my mom was right. Gay does mean happy because I’ve never before felt freer, more myself or happier. But gay does mean liking the same gender too, and I hope you’re not afraid to tell the kids in your life that, if they ever ask you. It’s honest, and sometimes being honest allows people to be more of themselves.


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