I’m From Bethlehem, PA.

by Stefan H.

Satellite overhead image of Pennsylvania from Google Earth 2022

I grew up in the city-suburb of Bethlehem, PA, in the heart of the Lehigh Valley, to Greek-American immigrants. Bethlehem is just like every other podunk Pennsylvanian town, except it’s always Christmas and there’s a now-defunct steel mill that the town is still in the shadows of. Everyone in town has some connection to “The Steel.”

Growing up, the word “lesbian” was thrown around with words like “demonic,” “anomaly” and “filthy” and I’ve never really liked the word too much because of that association. My father to this day is extremely homophobic and has made many threats of what would become of my younger brother and me if we were to “turn gay.”

My first recollection that I may be “different” was around second grade. You see, my parents had only been in America for about five years when I started school, so they thought that students get enrolled in the school closest to their home. That happened to be a neighborhood private Catholic school. Not being raised Catholic served my first challenge as a student, and coupled with no English language spoken in the home; I was cast out from my classmates immediately. I did manage to make some friends, though, and they were all boys to the discouragement of my teachers and the nuns. During recess, the school segregated boys and girls by gender — the boys got the side of the school with the basketball courts, and the girls were encouraged to play hand games or play with dolls and pray next to the convent. I would frequently “cross the line” to go play basketball with my friends. This would result in the nuns calling home and my father whipping me with his belt very often. My mother, like the “obedient Greek woman” she was at the time, blindly followed my abusive father. Yet I continued to “cross the line” and was confused as to why I was not allowed to and why my father would hit me for it if he’d find out. This ended with being punished with losing recess for the rest of the year, and the suggestion that I’d be enrolled in cheerleading to “stop any more abnormal behavior” from developing. The nuns suggested that I would end up “a homosexual” if I were not socialized with the other girls. I became extremely anti-social and refused to talk to anyone during this time and was reprimanded constantly for not having any friends. Cheerleading further confirmed my young belief that I was “different” and somehow “not normal.”

I was transferred to public school a year later. My father, taking on the advice of the nuns in my former school, dressed me in pink skirts and dresses every single day. I was never comfortable with this and the other kids would tease and bully me for it. This was just torture, yet I managed to make one friend this entire time, and my father refused me contact with him. He even had me switched to a different classroom. The bullying didn’t stop and turned to being called a “dyke” and a “slut” almost daily. I felt like I was a horrible person and deserved the harsh words.

Later on in grade school and middle school, when kids started to notice attraction and develop a sexual identity, I felt isolated again. Some of my male friends started noticing girls, and many of the girls were boy-crazy. I did not understand the fuss about boys, so I kept silent. I knew that I did not “like” boys in the same way those girls did. Boys were my friends. I enjoyed skateboarding and getting dirty with them. The pressure, from mostly my father, to like boys took a toll on me. I’ve been a competitive swimmer my entire life, and I developed an eating disorder. I started burning myself with my father’s lighter. I started smoking at age 12. All I wanted to do is forget about the feelings I was having for the girls on my team. In my mind, I thought it would be better to be “caught” doing all the other terrible things I was doing than to have anyone know that I did not like boys as anything more than friends.

I was hospitalized with a failed suicide attempt in the summer before 8th grade, yet I still refused to speak. I was terrified of my father ending my life. We then moved to Greece for about three months after President Bush was elected. My father, being the irrational human being that he is, believed this was the best course of action.

My first month of high school, 9/11 happened and tore the country apart. I was also dealing with a thick Greek accent that got me teased constantly, and that old “skeleton” of not liking boys. Soon after, tragedy struck. I had been sneaking out to a new LGBT youth group that had just formed and had made a few friends there, yet I never came out to any of them. One night, we snuck into a gay nightclub in a neighboring city with a slightly older straight ally friend who was going off to a prestigious New York music school. He was gunned down and killed because someone assumed that he was gay minutes after our group had split to go home. The police never charged the men that took this young life. After this, I went back into the closet out of fear that I could be the next victim. His killers are still free. It scares me, even if attitudes have changed for the better in the Lehigh Valley just over ten years later.

My friend’s death destroyed me, and I tried to change what I knew about myself. I tried being the most straight-acting person I wanted to believe I was. I wanted nothing more than to “be straight” and would constantly battle myself when I thought about girls “that way.” I got heavily involved on my campus and decided early on that I wanted to go to music school. I did everything I could to avoid thinking about being “different” and to avoid my father’s house. I’d leave at 4.30am to swim and would not return until after 10pm after my last rehearsal. This was exhausting, but temporarily relieved what I was feeling.

I had my first kiss on a band trip to London during my junior year. She and I are still friends. I hated myself even more after that.

One day, during my final year of high school, I could not take my act any more. I had just been accepted into both of my top choice music schools, and saw the end of my torture in sight. Yet, I was still smoking, doing entirely too many drugs and drinking uncontrollably. I was terrified. So I told a teacher that I trusted while I was practicing for college. To my surprise, he reassured me that I’m okay, and that I’m not an anomaly. He saved my life. This educator helped me get my life back in line before heading off to music school. But most importantly, he listened and did not judge. I had never had that in my life for all 17 years of it. I was never told that I’m a “normal human being” before, just that I’m defective. He’s still a huge supporter of me as a musician and as a person.

I slowly came out to some friends, and lost many of them.

Thankfully, college treated me well. I came out as transgender about two years in, and my group of friends continue to love and respect me. I have a beautiful girlfriend of over three years who I currently live with.

I made it out of Bethlehem alive. There’s no doubt that I’m stronger because of my rough childhood. But I’m proud to say that I’m alive and happy. I’m a college graduate with a great future in front of me. I’m free from substance abuse and I have my health. I play with an LGBT and Ally band in Philadelphia regularly, who have become the family I always wanted. Funny how powerful saying the words “I’m gay” openly and freely can be.

My parents do not know. My mother has since begun to challenge my father’s terrible ways, and has taken on a very liberal “love everyone” lifestyle, even going against him to his face. She has LGBT co-workers and friends that my father does not approve of, but she insists that he can’t do anything about it because she’s “an American woman.” They both assume that my partner is “just a friend.” I assume my mother would be fine if I came out to her, but I continue to fear my father. So I keep my mouth shut. My partner is fine with this. Her family has greeted me—us—with open arms. I’m the second child they always wished they’d had. They love and respect me.

I’m lucky.

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