The Girl I Was by Ashley Herring Blake
There was this girl I knew.
She lived in Georgia—a born and raised peach, she was—and had an amazing group of close girlfriends. She was active in her church and sang with the choir and got good grades and dreamed of being a singer and a marine biologist and a teacher. She had parents who loved her and never went hungry and had everything she could ever want.
When she was thirteen, she kissed a girl. A friend. It was just an experiment though. At that age, she never felt like she fit right in her own body—there were all these new thoughts and feelings and fears and joys. She was just curious, this girl. And so was the girl she kissed.
Walk through the rest of her teen years with me—she went on to kiss a lot of boys. She had a few boyfriends. She was alternated between sneaking out of her house with her friends during a sleepover to meet boys and repenting for her wild behavior on Sundays. She never kissed another girl. She never even thought about it. No way. That wasn’t her. She didn’t like girls like that, because she knew she was supposed to like boys. She was a church girl, you see. A southern church girl at that.
Sure, during those sexy scenes in movies, when she and all of her friends would hold their breath and stare wide-eyed at that alluring world coming to life on the screen, her eyes were often on the girl more than the guy.
Sure, she found herself looking at certain girls at school, wondering at their beauty, their laugh, their smile. But that was simple envy. Awe. She wanted to be those girls, not be with them.
After all, none of the other girls around her liked girls. (Or if they did, they certainly didn’t talk about it.) None of those sexy, romantic scenes in movies featured two girls. None of the books she read were about two girls falling in love. The songs of the radio, she knew, were all about boys and girls, girls and boys. So she swept the feelings away, the wonder, the awe, the longing, and became who she thought she was supposed to be.
Fast-forward through the years. She chased true love and boys, a faith she could never quite make fit, dreams of songs and fame. She ran obediently after the perfection her world demanded of women, berated herself when she couldn’t achieve it.
Years flew by. She found happiness, excitement, a purpose. Still, she hid certain parts of herself away. She didn’t understand them, didn’t know how they fit into her world. She hoped these parts would simply recede until they disappeared altogether.
Skip ahead to age 32. She’s a mother of two. She’s just starting to write seriously. She’s reading a book that features a bisexual protagonist for the first time. Something stirs. Something long-buried. A spark of light in the dark. A skipped heartbeat.
She waits. After all, there has to be a reason she’s feeling so much about the book. It’s just a well-written book (it was), and that’s the only reason her heart beat faster and faster until tears bloomed into her eyes (it wasn’t the only reason).
A few months pass. She joins an online community. She meets people different from her and her view broadens and stretches more and more. One day she reads a post by a fellow author.
A post that talks about being bisexual.
A post that talks about how this author knew, what it means to this author, and what it doesn’t mean.
The girl—a woman now, of course—cries. She goes on a walk. A part of her heart she ignored—forgot about, tamped down out of fear—lights up. She sees it. She hears it. She presses her hand against its solid thrum-thrum and lets it beat on and on and on.
As you probably know already, that girl is me. I didn’t fully realize or embrace being bisexual until I was 32.
Of course, this happens. I fully believe that sexuality is fluid, can change over time, can shift and undulate like the ocean’s tides. My own sexual identity journey, however, was hindered. Delayed. Stuck. I didn’t let myself entertain the possibility that I might not be straight. It simply wasn’t an option. No one around me ever talked about being queer. I had zero models for these kinds of feelings and thoughts.
So I rewrote the story in my head, turning all of my attention to girls into envy. I just think she’s pretty because I want to pretty. I think this is a very real thing, to be honest. As girls, our culture pushes us into this comparison game in which we are constantly measuring ourselves against the girl next to us. However, that was not the only reason my eyes and thoughts caught on other girls. It was attraction. I was attracted to girls, both physically and romantically. It took me a long, long time to realize that, to take all of these tiny puzzle pieces in my mind and heart and put them all together until they formed the complete picture: Me
And so I wonder.
What if I had had a book like The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James as a tween? What if I had had a book like Starcrossed or Drum Roll, Please or P.S. I Miss You or George or Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World? What if, in that fraught, tender time when my body and mind were becoming, I’d had a book that featured a girl figuring out she liked girls?
What if I’d read a story where she embraced it?
What if I’d read a story where those around her loved her, not despite the fact that she liked girls, but because that was simply who she was? Liking girls was a part of her and they loved all of her.
What would high school have looked like for that girl, the girl who had access to these books?
What would college have looked like?
Well, I’ll tell you. Having access to books like these would’ve been life changing. And I’m not talking about the events in my life necessarily. I’m not talking about where I actually ended up. Identity is much bigger than that. I’m talking about a bone-deep understanding of self. I’m talking about thinking and feeling certain things and understanding them. Loving them. Curling around them gladly because those thoughts and feelings are me.
This is why I write books like Ivy Aberdeen and Sunny St. James.
I write them for the confused girl I was.
I write them for the confused woman I became.
I write them with the tender hope that they might be a comfort, a relief, a realization for a kid who’s just starting to figure out their mind and body.
A kid who needs to see themselves, just as desperately as I did, and help them love what they see.
Ashley Herring Blake is a reader, writer, and mom to two boisterous boys. She holds a Master’s degree in teaching and loves coffee, arranging her books by color, and cold weather. She is the author of the young adult novels Suffer Love, How to Make a Wish, and Girl Made of Stars (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), as well as the middle grade novels Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World and The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James (Little, Brown). You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @ashleyhblake and on the web at www.ashleyherringblake.com.