It was 1980-something, I was 12-years-old. We live in Simsbury, Connecticut—a very heterosexual, WASPY town in New England. My parents always told me to never tell your religion to anybody, not even to talk about the subject of religion.
It is Sunday and I am in Granby, the next town over, at a friend’s house. I don’t know this friend well. We are playing with dolls and then her mom tells us it is time for them to go to church. I am supposed to go with them since they are responsible for me for the day. We pile in the car with her brother and sister and on the way we go. I have never been to a church. Her mom makes conversation with the kids in the back seat. “Do you go to church?” she asks me. “I answer “No.” I remember what my parents taught me. “What religion are you?” she asked innocently. Just then, I saw Nazis marching my family to the death camp, hysterical laughing German soldiers shooting the people I loved in the face in my head all for answering this woman in the affirmative. So, I said, “I don’t know.” Good old, I don’t know. The answer you say when you want to hide who you are and not make an issue of it. The best answer off of someone’s anti-Semetic crack pipe. I don’t know. It would never open minds and hearts, it would never help the world embrace all the diverse religions and races and ethnicities. I said, “I don’t know.” “How do you not know your religion,” she asked quizzically. “I just don’t,” I said. And, at that, the conversation led someplace else. I breathed a sigh of relief. I dodged another one. But did I dodge it well? I missed an opportunity to educate and open minds, take people out of their comfort zones.
I am in high school in the mid-nineties. I attended an alternative private day school a few towns over in Hartford. We are in gym class, hanging all over the weight lifting equipment. Lisa, a girl a year older than me, starts asking kids what their sexual orientation is. All are answering her straight. When she comes to me, I am not sure how to answer. I really don’t understand her question. Whatever I said would permanently label me throughout my school years and perhaps my life. I quickly searched my mental file for some answer. I shrugged at her and said, “I don’t know.” I expected her to laugh at me and ridicule me. But all she said was “That’s okay, you have plenty of time to find out.” I let out a sigh of relief. But from that moment on it brought out the question why is sexuality so important to people. It forced me to research different sexual orientations and realize the prejudice there is out there on the GLBT community. Looking back on that gym class afternoon, I realized that many of the students whom she asked could have answered one way because they were hiding who they really were. While I experimented with both sexes in high school and college, today I am happily heterosexual.
I bring up these examples because as a mental health advocate I am forced every day on whether to hide who I am with people or to use conversations as teachable moments. When I tell people what I do, that I am a writer of a blog on mental health issues and a mental health advocate, it always scares me because the stigma is greater. But a few weeks ago, I came to the conclusion that the phrase “I don’t know” no longer applies to me. My battle with mental illness has shaped who I am as does my rich Jewish heritage and my early experimentation of my sexuality has allowed me to accept the diversity of all people. To me, erasing stigma is about changing how we have conversations with people and opening the door for teachable moments. My business cards have my blog’s logo on it and from now on I will talk about my past proudly because I can change minds.