I Found the Queer Role Model I Always Needed in My Long-Lost Cousin
I wish I’d known Molly years ago. I wish I had known her when I was twelve years old, wondering who in my life would still love me if they knew my secret.
my partner, Jenny, and I . . .
Everyone nodded in agreement. ButI remember feeling nothing, and then, feeling broken.
I knew for sure at twelve years old. I was confronted with a scene that has come to define my generation: An alarm blaring in the middle of the school day. Running out of my classroom and down a long, narrow road. Police with bomb-sniffing dogs and sirens heading towards the building from which we ran, into our classrooms where most of our book bags still lay. It was one day after the Boston Bombing and someone had penned a note saying they’d kill everyone in the school, then taped it to the boys’ bathroom wall.
A thousand of us were rushed out of our school building and bussed to the neighboring middle school across town. The whole school crammed into the gymnasium and I sat next to my friend Chelsea.
Chelsea and I had Spanish class together. Because I was twelve, I showed that I liked her by flinging paper at her during class. Chelsea hated that. When she’d snap at me and tell me so, it would devastate me. I didn’t yet have the words to describe how she made me feel. I barely had the words to describe myself.
During the bomb threat, Chelsea and I talked for hours. We swapped rumors about what we thought was happening and talked about how great it was that we got to miss our vocabulary test. As nearly 1,000 students crammed into the room, we were pushed closer and closer together until I was squeezed up against her. A group of frantic teachers began yelling over the crowd. Everyone, if you can hear me, clap once. If you can hear me, clap twice. Everyone, stop talking, now! This is serious.
Then, a long silence. Waiting.
Of course, there were still whispers. Someone told me that a shooting threat had been phoned in to the school we had evacuated to. None of us had phones to check the news or text our parents, as they’d been left in our locker per our school’s strict no-phones policy. We were growing concerned. With a thousand of us in that room, there was nowhere to run or hide. I felt a pit in the bottom of my stomach. What if someone shoots us all right now?
I turned to Chelsea to ask if she thought it was real or not. I guess she turned to me at the same time, because the next thing I knew I was inches away from her face, staring at her big, grey eyes. Neither of us said anything. My heart stopped. I felt my face blush. I looked away. In that moment and all its cringey twelve-year-old grade school crush glory, I couldn’t help but wonder, sitting there in the silence of a lockdown, the second death threat of the day: Does she like me back?
That’s when I knew for sure I liked Chelsea. And that moment, looking at her, packed tight as sardines, is when I felt all the things in the movies and books that everyone made such a commotion about. I understood what my friends meant when they talked about the boys who gave them butterflies. I hadn’t realized it until then, but I had felt that way before.
After Molly’s mother died, she moved to Rochambeau Avenue in the Bronx with her mother’s sister, her Aunt Penny. The apartment had just one bed for the two of them to sleep in. It was the fifth time she had moved in her young life.
Every day, Molly and her friends would come home from school, pry off their school-approved skirts and put on dungarees. Then they would walk to the local playground, Molly an image of denim and bright red lipstick striding through the city streets.
The girls found something in each other, though they hadn’t known what to call it. It was Molly who went to the library and stumbled upon a book to give it a name, or at least a face. It was called The Well of Loneliness, and it was about a woman named Stephen who ran off with her beloved Mary. Finally, Molly knew that she and her friends were not alone in the world.
As they aged, so did their pastimes. At fifteen or sixteen years old, Molly and her friends would take a taxi downtown to Greenwich Village. They dined and drank Champ Ale at a hole-in-the-wall lesbian bar called Mona’s, which is now a 7-Eleven. Back then, however, this tiny room with some drinks and a jukebox was Molly’s own little revolution. She knew how bars like these were raided in the night. But it was worth it because, as Molly put it, she hadn’t known women could look or be like that: masculine, powerful, confident and free. To her, this was home.
It was around this time her friend Susan introduced her to a girl most people called “Jones.” Everyone in Molly’s little group was in love with her. She had short brownish-red hair, dimples, and a muscular yet feminine build. She could beat any boy in a game of baseball. She could make you feel like the most special person in the world.
She was also bossy, vindictive, and manipulative. She would bounce around from girl to girl, leading one on then pursuing another. At one point, she tried to convince Molly to burn her arm with a cigarette to prove her loyalty, but Molly refused.
One day Jones told Molly to meet up back at her apartment when Aunt Penny wasn’t home. Molly sat and waited, and waited, and waited. She waited late into the night. But the only person to come to her door was Aunt Penny.
When I was thirteen, I asked my friend Gracie if she knew when the next Spanish assignment was due. She passed me her agenda pad so I could check the date. As I flipped through the pages, I stumbled upon one with my name on it, hearts scribbled around it.
I confronted Gracie about it but she avoided the question. We knew four other “Sarahs” in that class alone. Even when she finally admitted the doodles were about me, I didn’t fully believe her until I asked her to be my girlfriend and she said yes.
We didn’t want to hide it, so we didn’t. But we were the only same-sex couple that we or anyone else knew of at our school. Some of my friends grew scared and distant, and the boys harassed me with lewd comments in the halls. I got anonymous online messages calling me a faggot (or “fgt”, because it was 2013).
At one point, Gracie’s ex-boyfriend, a walking slab of deli meat who grew a full beard in the sixth grade and sold switchblades in the park after school, messaged her under a spoofed phone number pretending to be me and asked her for nudes. After deducing the imposter, I publicly confronted him and sent screenshots to his new girlfriend.
But our cheesy eighth grade romance was more than enduring mutual trauma. Gracie taught me to suck the nectar from the honeysuckles behind our school. I’d stay at her house late into the night watching The Nightmare Before Christmas, listening to the wheezing of the AC unit which did nothing to cool the room but made the movie almost entirely inaudible.
Wearing a Blood on the Dance Floor t-shirt that draped down to her knees, Gracie fell onto my lap and said, “Come here, you!” She grabbed me and stuck her face onto my face. And I thought, This is so squishy. I felt the butterflies and knew I was not broken or devoid of feeling.
But I still stuttered when I said my girlfriend. I still could not imagine a future where I grew up and had a wife; this was not the picture the world had painted for me. Same-sex marriage would not be legalized nationwide for another two years.
After she stopped talking to Jones, Molly was hurt. She wasn’t sure she wanted to talk to any of her gay friends again, many of whom were still enthralled by Jones. What happened next was not the action of a stubborn, heartbroken teen, rather, a lonely and traumatized child.
Molly never had the one thing she truly wanted: a family. She desperately wanted that warmth and wanted to have children Back then, this would be the price she had to pay to live her truth. It was too much.
And so, still reeling from the loss of her parents, at age fifteen, she met a clean-cut aspiring actor named Harley, and she said yes when he asked her to the cinema. He didn’t make her feel like Jones did. He didn’t make her feel excited and alive. But he was nice. After dating on and off for six years, they married at a local synagogue. As Molly said her vows, draped in a short, beige dress, she felt like every cell and every hair and every inch of her body was screaming NO, NO, NO!
She’d end up giving the money her father had saved for her education to Harley so he could pursue acting. He was in and out of her home, and it was up to Molly to feed and tend to her children. Molly gave up her once-loved community because Harley didn’t want her having gay friends. The kids grew up. Molly grew tired. Then one night, sharing the bed with a friend she had fallen for, she knew she had to get out.
In 1989, Molly told Harley she no longer loved him. She was fifty-eight years old. Within the year, she stumbled upon an ad for a gay women’s Passover seder in Queens. It was there, for the first time since she was a teenager, in a dimly-lit room breaking matzah, that Molly felt like she had gone home. Then, she met a woman.
It wasn’t the woman she would spend the rest of her life with. But it was a liberation after decades in the closet. Eventually, she would meet Jenny, a sculptor and inventor with thick-rimmed glasses and curly hair. They are partners to this day, ages eighty-eight and seventy-six, respectively.
In coming out, Molly did not lose family—she gained it. She gained a community, and Jenny, and me—a million worlds away, connected by blood, but more so by a sense of understanding and a familiar ache. We know what it’s like to live in fear. We know what it’s like to have to fight for your own happiness.
“I’m doing things for me now,” Molly says. “I am happy because I enjoy my house and where we live. I have bookcases all around, a bag for my writing circle. I love my life.”
“I love Jenny,” she continues, “but I think the person I love the most is myself. Now I won’t make compromises about who I love or what I love to make others feel better. I am exactly who I am.”
I wish I’d known Molly years ago. I wish I had known her when I was twelve years old, wondering who in my life would still love me if they knew my secret, when I daydreamed people to look up to, built role models from dark windows and locked doors and overgrown grass.
We bridge this gap on a hot summer day. I’m in the kitchen, cutting avocados from that translucent blue bowl. The one that’s been in my kitchen all my life, one of those little trinkets in your childhood home ingrained in your memory in a certain spot, a certain room, indefinitely. The one my parents got for their wedding.
“It’s so funny,” my mom says. “I don’t really remember it, but Molly was at our wedding. That bowl from the Met—where we put the avocados—she gave us that.”
I imagine what it might have been like for me to know that when I was younger, what it might have been like to have such tangible proof I wasn’t alone in the world and in what I was going through. I wouldn’t have had to look to a vacant house to imagine the life I could lead. I could have looked inwards at my home. I could have seen this affirmation in real time: The kids like us have always existed. We have always loved.
Some names have been changed to protect the identities of those in this story.
Sarah is journalist, storyteller and teenager who believes words and stories can change the world. Past bylines include The New York Times, Teen Vogue and The Huffington Post. Find her on Twitter: @SarahEmilyBaum