YOU WERE ALWAYS THE WOLF
Old Rule: Stay on the path.
New Rule: Create your own path.
Like most children who grew up when I did, I was taught to keep my head down, stay on the path, and get my job done. I was freaking Little Red Riding Hood.
You know the fairy tale—it’s just one version of the stories kids are told the world over. Little Red Riding Hood heads off through the woods having been given strict instructions: Stay on the path. Don’t talk to anybody. Keep your head down and hidden beneath your protective red cape.
And she follows the rules … at first. But then she dares to get a little curious and she ventures off the path. That’s, of course, when she encounters the Big Bad Wolf and the tale takes a sharp turn for the worse.
The message of these stories is clear:
Follow the rules.
Don’t be curious.
Don’t say too much.
Don’t expect more.
Otherwise, bad things will happen.
But when I look out into the world, as well as back on my life, it becomes clear to me that those stories aren’t true. Every good thing that has come to me—and to the people I respect—has happened when we dared to venture off the path.
* * *
When I was young, I was told: “Good girls wear dresses.”
I hated wearing dresses.
I’d look at myself in the mirror when I was wearing a dress and the pit in my stomach would rise to my throat. I’d stare at myself and think: I don’t like how this looks or how this feels. This is not me.
I felt the need to hold my breath from the second that dress went on until the second I pulled it off. It felt like I was in costume, hiding who I really was in order to fit in, to be good.
The question of my childhood was: Why can’t I wear what I want to wear?
When I got to my all-girls high school, the rules seemed to change.
I remember sitting in classrooms witnessing the complete character shifts of some of my friends. Girls who were quiet with our guy friends became chatty and opinionated in our all-girls environment. Girls who rarely ate a thing around the boys started chowing down during our lunch periods. And it wasn’t just the way we acted and ate that changed without boys around. How we dressed changed, too. At our school, we dressed for comfort, not attention. I learned that people do not have to dress to impress. We can dress for ourselves. We can wear on the outside how we feel on the inside. We can choose our own comfort even if it makes other people uncomfortable.
* * *
I dated boys in high school, because my religious upbringing and culture taught me that this was what girls were supposed to do. Boys were fine, I guess. It wasn’t until I felt that spark of deep affection with a girl that I realized love is supposed to be more than just fine. Out of fear of losing my family, I decided that being openly gay wasn’t an option for me. I was sure they wouldn’t approve. This broke my heart.
The question of my teenage years was: Why can’t I love who I want to love?
I tried to keep this part of myself buried for as long as I could. Then, during my senior year in high school, I experienced real love for the first time. This love felt as important and necessary as air, as food, as shelter. I began my first gay relationship like many gay people did back then—in secret. The secrecy felt equal parts enraging and exciting. I couldn’t tell anyone, so I felt afraid and isolated from my family and friends. But I also learned that real love is a human need and that if I denied myself of it, some part of me would die. Trembling—and secretly for a long while—I chose love. I chose myself.
* * *
Text copyright © 2020 by Abby Wambach