This past month my parents put my childhood house up for sale. So, I had to tidy up my room and clear the clutter for the streams of suburbanites that would be perusing my bedroom, envisioning the many ways in which to redecorate – no doubt my hot pink shag rug would be the first thing tossed, that and my Dave Matthews Band poster. But, as I was sifting through my desk for easy toss-aways (as if such a thing existed! I still have my stash of Lisa Frank stickers: 25 going on 9? Whatever, neon zebras rule), I discovered letters I had written to myself as a teenager. One of the activities we used to do at sleep-away camp was write letters to ourselves, and then our counselors would mail us them years later. The purpose was to capture a moment in our pubescent lives, to set hopeful goals for our post-pubescent lives, and to just write freely about how we were feeling then, so as to compare with the lived experiences of our future selves. Sure, in hindsight I can say those were and are the goals of such reflective activities. But re-reading the letters that I wrote to the future Stephanie, as the past Stephanie, I found myself laughing hysterically, embarrassed, tearful, joyful, and mostly so glad that I am no longer 15.
Of course, 15 is the height of most teenage girls’ self-righteousness, so it is unsurprising that my tone reeked of “woe is me” rhetoric, each word soaked with hyperbolic melodrama and “no one understands me” elocutions. However, while I was clearly pms-ing for most of my teenage years, my letters were quite deep. I’ve always considered myself articulate and communicative; so, while the letters were full of problems that only retrospectively I realize are trivial, they still capture exactly how I was feeling in that given moment. To my eyes now, they are silly, full of schoolyard banter, and existential crises; yet, ironically enough, they evoked a bizarre nostalgia for me. They brought back emotions that I hadn’t felt in some time, but more so, they really did capture exactly how I was feeling then, and I know those feelings were real. I suppose that is the point of these “letters to self”, to remember that you are a human being and that your feelings are valid, no matter your age, (im)maturity, or whatever big or small obstacles are in your life. I try not to cry over girl fights and annoying teachers anymore, but I do remember what it was like to feel sad over such things. I read about boys that I used to love -or like like-, and found how interesting it is to say that some of these boys, arguably now men (depending on which individuals I’m referring to, let’s be real, half I’d still consider boys), are still in my life in one capacity or another. Some I still have crushes on, probably always will (what is up with that shit anyways?). Without divulging too much about my teenage days (as if they were exciting, I was in marching band and student council), these letters were, suffice it to say, revelatory.
A book was recently published called “The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to their Younger Selves”, in which 63 LGBTQ authors write letters to their younger selves. It is the opposite version of the aforementioned, but these letters are unabashedly honest, funny, and snarky. They cover the gamut of “I wish I knew that then” and the usual list of “if only’s” that run through the minds of every teen that is coming-of-age, and every adult that is looking back through their yearbook of horrors. They share stories that are cringe-worthy (what story of being a teenager isn’t), empowering, and profoundly personal. These types of notes are full of genius one-liners and quipped with endless witticism. For example, David Levithan writes to himself, “I have no idea if there’s such a thing as retroactive gaydar, but I’m pretty sure now that Mr. Jones is not in fact gay. And you, indeed, are. I’m still not entirely sure whether I use the word irony correctly, but I believe there’s something exquisitely ironic about making fun of your non-gay teacher for being gay, and then going home and listening to Barbra Streisand’s Broadway Album over and over again.”
Or as Sarah Moon writes, “Just between you and me, we both know that the weirdest thing about coming out on your first day of high school in this tiny cow-town is that you haven’t even kissed a girl, yet. All you’re going on is that feeling in your stomach when you see those pictures of the Spice Girls. It feels a little strange to go around proclaiming that you’re a lesbian when you’re not even sure that, you know, you’ll like it.”
But, as one can imagine, these notes are also about the difficulties in being closeted, in coming out, in being bullied, or confused. These imaginative journeys to the past are poignant and powerful, and perhaps most importantly, are needed. In a time where LGBTQ rights are limited and contested, these stories provide beacons of hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for those teens who may be looking for guidance, and even more so, for humor and for light-heartedness, especially from people who GET it. This book also helps fill the lacuna in literature that is so in need for strong, smart gay voices. SO! Read this book. Laugh at yourself, laugh at your adolescence, laugh at what you did wrong and what you did right and how such decisions got you to where you are now. Learn from yourself, both from the past and in the present. I think you’ll find from reading old diaries, or letters, or the “The Letter Q”, that despite how many scrunchies you used to wear, or despite having horrendous braces and boyfriends/girlfriends, that we did just fine for ourselves, particularly when the ’80s and ’90s were such ludicrous, nay heinous, decades to begin with.