“KISS! KISS! KISS! KISS!”
The sound echoed down the hallway. My kindergarten class was in the bathroom. I had let them go by themselves for the first time ever, figuring that, in the three months that I’d been an English teacher in Taiwan, they had successfully gone to the bathroom about four hundred times with my supervision. I desperately needed to wolf down an energy bar. They would be fine in the bathroom for two minutes alone, right?
I raced from my classroom. I tore open the restroom door. There, in the middle of 20 tiny toilets, were all 10 of the boys in my class. They were standing in a circle with their pants down around their ankles and holding their tiny little-boy penises, trying to touch each tip to the other, shrieking, “KISS! KISS!”
The penises were kissing. The girls were standing in a circle around the boys (it was a unisex bathroom), gleefully clapping their hands. “TIGER CLASS!” I shouted. That was their class name. They turned and looked at me. It went quiet. “Tiger boys,” I said, very calmly. “We don’t touch our penis to our friend’s penis.”
Louis,* the undisputed ringleader, looked up at me, his jeans and underpants in a heap around his ankles. “Why?” he asked. “Because, um, because,” I said. “That’s rude. We don’t ever do that.” “Oh,” he responded, and pulled up his pants. The rest of the boys followed suit. We all trooped back to the classroom together. Using puppets, I started a lesson on the sound the letter R makes, and my kids promptly forgot about their adventure in the bathroom.
But I didn’t. I was wracked with guilt. I was a horrible teacher. I had obviously fucked these kids up for LIFE. I had taught them that it wasn’t OK to experiment with their bodies, that curiosity should be stifled! In 10 seconds, I had instilled in them fear and negative feelings regarding their bodies, and I would never, ever forgive myself for it. NEVER. Tearfully, I told another one of the teachers at my school, a middle-aged lady, what had happened. She laughed: “Kids will be kids, honey. They’ll be fine.”
But would they?
I couldn’t stop beating myself up. At 23, I had had a typical, knee-jerk adult reaction to something that all kids do: experiment with one another. I took something natural and treated it as though it were distasteful, and I had put a stop to it without ever giving them a reason why. I hadn’t even been able to think of a reason! Who was I, my mom???
It was a helping-kids-grow-up-in-an-open-minded-supportive-environment-where-they-love-their-bodies FAIL. I still feel crappy about it. And maybe my kindergarteners won’t remember the incident at all. Maybe the moment when all the penises were kissing will get lost in the hazy cloud of childhood, overshadowed by pillow forts and parents who fight and sugary cereal and dead hamsters.
I mean, I know lots of childhood experiments like this got lost in my memory. It was only later, in my 20s, that I looked back at some of the experiences I had and went, “Oh wow, I can’t believe I did that.”
For instance, when I was six, I can remember taking all of my clothes off with my friend Emily* to prove to her that she was so wrong, that Barbie couldn’t possibly pee, because “Barbie doesn’t have a pee-hole, and I do.”
Y’all, as little kids, lots of us played with our friends and neighbors in a way that our parents would have found profoundly disturbing. Jeez. IF ONLY THEY KNEW what went on when some of us had friends over. We played doctor. We examined one another. Some kids do that. It’s part of growing up.
Human beings are sensual creatures, and never more so than when we aren’t old enough to attach meaning to these experiments and explorations of each others’ bodies. Years later, in our teens, experimentation continues, but it’s, um, more advanced.
In the eighth grade, a friend of mine yanked off her swimsuit bottom in the locker room to show off her newly grown pubic hair to the rest of us. There was a crowd of about five girls looking at her crotch. I was shocked. I couldn’t look away.
Freshman year of high school, my best friend decided that we should compare our boob growth by keeping a chart. Every week we either earned a smiley-face sticker or a frowny-face one. This involved a lot of us standing in front of her mirror, topless, with measuring tape.
Uh…I really liked it. I really liked looking at her boobs. They were really nice.
At 15, I was kissing boys. Oh my god, I liked that, too. I liked kissing boys a lot. At 17, I had my first girl-kiss, and I loved it, but it took me years of kissing and sleeping with boys and girls to understand that I maybe liked girls better. These days, I’m a happy homo, but you know what? None of the experimenting I did as a kid or as a teenager “made” me that way.
What’s an experiment? It’s a trial without an answer. We’re venturing into the unknown. We can’t be certain of the outcome—that’s why we’re experimenting in the first place. Nothing can “make you” gay or bisexual or straight or trans. You don’t get “turned” by incidences in your life. These exploratory adventures help you figure it out, but they don’t determine your sexual identity.
You could be a girl who says she wants to marry her girl friend at the age of four, who fools around with the neighbor boy at eight, who practices kissing her best friend at 12, who kisses boys at 14, and who develops a totally consuming crush on a cool girl at school at 15, and what are you?
Anybody walking in on you at any one of these moments might jump to conclusions and make a snap judgment about your sexuality, but they’d be wrong. Liking boys now doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be straight forever (although it might). Jesus, I identified as totally straight until I was 20.
On the other hand, liking girls now doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be bi or a lesbian. A friend of mine had only girlfriends for 32 years of her life, and then she dated and married a guy this winter, surprising everyone.
Only you know what you like. Only you decide if you’re straight or bi or gay or queer or asexual—or whether you want to label yourself at all. Some people know what they are right away. Some people take years to figure out what they like. Some people are 65-years-old and still figuring it out. It can change. You can spend your life learning about your preferences.
Nothing that you do now locks you into a label.
All right? All right. ♦
* These names are not real! But the people are.