Armor by Kayleia Southard

December 2nd, 1992 San Mateo County saw one of the largest rainstorms of the year. It was also the day that I joined the world, with much fan fair of thunder and lightning. I like to think of the storm as an omen of my life to come. The interpretation of that storm has varied through my life.

The weeks leading up to my birth were filled with doctors’ appointments, threats from my mother to quell my father’s unending puns and walks through the redwoods. There was a sense of urgency with me joining the world. Only a day later and I wouldn’t have been able to go to school until my fifth birthday. Judging by my two previous siblings, it was going to be needed to get me into school as early as possible. It might have been this sense of urgency or just to make a comical story, that cause me to be born in the doorway of the bathroom. Thankfully my dad’s calls of “Someone come catch!” were answered by a nurse and I greeted the world instead of the tile.

It’s been the family saying that we got to pick the family we were born into. I like to think I picked a pretty good one. My mother is my inspiration as a woman for most things. While having three kids she completed a college degree instead of going on disability and now is electrical engineer, one of the few females in her field she has met. Maintaining a 4.0 while having little ones I know wasn’t easy. Despite my childhood seeing her more with textbooks than cookbooks, my mother was there to keep me and my sister from murdering each other, just out of proximity. 

My father is a creature who is fascinated by the world and all the wonders it holds. I could sit for hours and listen to him babble on about sea turtles and art. He was and still is, a bit of a super hero. How one person can keep such a rolodex of knowledge can sometimes be beyond my comprehension. My sister and I would spend every weekend sitting on the bow of the boat eating cheese from all over the world and looking at cloud patterns, while my dad told stories of particle acceleration and great composers. Some of my fondest memories are sitting in the car with my dad listening to Japanese hip-hop at two am. He taught me how to recognize every instrument by only a few bars of a song. He taught me how to embrace and cultivate the inner weird kid in me and be unabashedly proud of it. Why would you ever want to fit in?

We moved out of the bay area when I was three for a variety of reasons. First, the schools that we were going into were more likely to teach a successful drug deal than a successful paper. Secondly, my great grandparents were starting to show ailing health and we needed to be closer. Finally, my mother we beginning her college and we needed to be near a campus that was going to be able to help her reach her goals. After much deliberation and talking to family in California, we settled on Clovis, the outskirts of Clovis to be exact.

I started kindergarten at Cedarwood when I was four, joined by my friends from preschool, only to find in this larger pool of individuals that the weirdness that my family had praised was a tad too weird. I was a freckled outspoken kid who wanted to understand things, not just be told them. My peers were not always in favor. Part of it stemmed from my family’s unwillingness to fundraise for the brand new school to buy brand new books for the library. We were willing to donate books but not simply cash. The other part was simply that I wasn’t too concerned about keeping up appearances. It was a small victory if my socks matched at all. 

There was what I started calling the “Cool Kid” tree. This was a tree on the playground where I would stand all recess since every time I tried to play with the other kids, I would be told to go back to the tree. At first it seemed like a game, but as I advanced through grades, I became more and more aware that the friendships others had, I didn’t. Instead, I had a tree. The best friend I had through preschool ended up telling me she could no longer hang out with me because her friends said it wasn’t ok anymore. She took to sneaking me over to her house a weekend or two out of the year, but my sole lifeline was fading away. My parents tried everything to help me build a core friend group. I was in cheer, cross country, track, band, choir and even was trying out for basketball. Nothing helped bring people to me. It was social suicide to interact with me other than on a short basis. I didn’t understand what depression was until I was older, but I was in such a deep depression until we moved.

Halfway through my fifth grade year, my mom had a steady job and my father had recently left his due to it unrelenting grip on his life. We decided to switch schools and move into town. I started going to Weldon and this is where I first realized at 11 that I was a lesbian. There was a particular girl that I would change with before track that I would stare at. It was more I was fascinated by her. I didn’t understand it at the time that I had a crush on her. I wanted so badly to be her friend but as I became her friend I wanted more. The boys that had noticed that puberty had hit me especially hard I had no interest in other than to find out if they played Pokémon. I had friends whom I took out to the lake and had conversations with every day and I was happy, still waiting for my tree to return but happy.

In middle school at Clark, I cemented my sexuality. I had fallen in with the kids who wore much too much eyeliner and pants so tight I was unsure how they even got them on. They started talking more and more about sexuality. Most claimed to by bisexual and one day one of the girls put her arm around me and asked “So are you bi too?” I answered “Well I like girls” and everyone replied by being so happy that I was bi too. They missed the part when I didn’t confess my love for men as well and I didn’t correct them. I didn’t want to lose this group of allies simply because I was “too gay”. A day later that same girl gave me her tie and called me her girlfriend.

I rushed home glowing with the fact that I had a girlfriend and when asked when the tie came from, I boldly told my sister “It’s from my girlfriend”. She had no reaction. We were four years apart in school so she hadn’t heard the rumors that I was hanging out with the “queers”. A few hours later she came back and said “You mean like a friend that’s a girl”. I corrected her causing a quick dash upstairs for her to tell mom and dad. The fear I had in telling my parents now bubbled up to the surface. I hadn’t felt like I was doing anything wrong until that moment. We weren’t a family that talked about how awful the gays were. We simply never addressed it.

My mom came downstairs and asked the same question my sister had and I had the same answer “It’s from my girlfriend”. She again asked to clarify and I cleared it up that it wasn’t a girl that was my friend. Her answer has stuck with me since “Well, you still have to go to water polo practice”. It’s such a plainly accepting statement that made me feel so incredibly loved that I never have felt turmoil about my sexuality. In talks later my mom has regretted not telling me that I couldn’t have a girlfriend. I was plainly too young and it should have been handled like my sister’s young flings. She was scared to tell me no for fear of me feeling rejected.

My relationship with my first middle school girlfriend lasted only a week until my mom put down her foot that I simply could not date girl who burned books. My next girlfriend came a year later from my water polo team and we kissed after a game. It was magical and I thought we’d be together forever, until her mother found out when we had a sleep over and ended it. She wasn’t about to have her daughter be gay. I came home and cried over the injustice of it all, especially her getting a boyfriend the next day. This continued on through my middle school years. Dating, getting dumped for guys. Dating again, being told that the family of my girlfriend didn’t approve and thus getting dumped. It was a magical time for my self-esteem.

The one thing that remained constant was the girl who would soon become my first “real” girlfriend. We talked every day online about life, everything from favorite foods to what was going on in my life. There were hours spent online just being connected to her and a small circle of friends we had. She had strong views and was bi herself so I felt so connected. We had talked about her failed relationships and how if we both were closer together we would probably end up dating and living happily ever after. The only problem was that she was in Washington and I was still in California. We quickly started talking on the phone to speed up our fast paced exchanges.

The summer between my high school and middle school years she spent her summer in California and we made a quick plan to meet up. After all, her cat couldn’t stay at her aunt’s house and I could keep her kitty safe. Halfway through the summer I convinced my dad to drive to go pick up her and the cat. She came and stayed with us for a week that summer to let the cat settle in. I was overjoyed to have someone near me that I could fully be at ease with and who understood and knew all of my secrets as I knew hers. I didn’t understand until she left that she had come with a different motive.

The first night we spent watching anime and talking about things we had written. When I was particularly gushing over an episode of Outlaw Star she leaned in and kissed me. I protested with that we weren’t dating and her answer was “Well, that’s so closed minded. I guess you aren’t really gay.” Not wanting to lose her favor and be not “Gay enough” I went along with the kissing. The third day she was there she escalated the situation. Kissing moved to touching and again I protested this next step. We weren’t dating. I was a Virgin. All my excuses were met with a quick question of my identity and who I was. I firmly said that I didn’t want to and was greeted with a fist to my ribs.

The air flew out of my lungs and my head spun. She babbled on about how I caused her to do that since I had lead her on and she was only acting how I wanted her to. “Maybe we couldn’t be friends anymore” she causally said. Not wanting to lose her entirely I cried and apologized for not letting her touch me. This started her trademark statement “Don’t worry, I can teach you how to be better”. 

That week was filled with pushing me beyond my boundaries and trying to enforce them met with physical retaliation. My sister, growing suspicious kept trying to have us hang out in the living room rather than my room since she said she wanted to get to know her better. All of my family was having side conversations at the time about how she was a bad influence but hadn’t known the true extent of her growing influence. By the end of that week, my world had shifted.

Once she got back home to her aunts, I was left with bruises under my clothes and her cat snuggled up next to me. She cemented right away that we were now dating. We kept talking every day but the smallest of steps out of line were greeted with extreme reactions. I wanted to cut my hair and she disagreed. She threatened to end it if I cut my hair in any way other than what she approved of. We met up one last time to exchange the cat before she left for Washington. She gave me a ring and told me to wear it daily so that we would still be together even though we were apart.

When she returned to Washington her conversations shifted to how depressed she was that I wasn’t there and how not being with her ruined her life. The daily conversations were about how she was depressed and how I must be as well since I wasn’t with her. Slowly but surely the friends I had she started disapproving of. They weren’t my true friends because they didn’t notice I was so depressed. They couldn’t possibly understand what we had. I became more and more combative to the people around me. Anyone who tried to talk to me I’d brush off and be rude to. After all, I just had to get through the school day so I could go home and talk to her until my phone died. She was the center of my world.

My grades suffered and I started to get worried about completing school. She had a simple answer, save up my allowance and run away to Washington to be with her. So I started keeping my allowance every week and hiding it. The hugely expensive for my 13 year old self bus ticket was such an ordeal I worried about getting caught. She had another simple answer. If I couldn’t get the money together soon, we should both kill ourselves and then we can be together. 

I was lucky that something inside me balked at the idea of ending it all and wouldn’t allow it. I spent every night bawling outside my parent’s door for the two months leading up to the planned date. I would hear any movement and dart away to not be caught, but still return. The night before the date she had planned out, I didn’t move and my dad opened the door to find me bawling in front of it. Asking why I was crying, I could only say a single response “It would be too easy”. Because of the nature of how busy our family lives were, it would have been too easy for me to simply slip away with no one to interfere. Understanding from similar battles he hugged me and cried. 

The next day he picked me up from school directly and we met with a councilor. I started weekly sessions where I talked through everything that had happened in my life thus far. Much to my girlfriends disapproval I still had to go. It was non-negotiable. My councilor had the rule that as long as I wasn’t in current danger to myself and had never self harmed, she was able to help me and not share what I said with my parents. It was freeing to talk about how I was so worried about disappointing them and how my girlfriend at times scared me.

I started pulling my grades up and passed my Freshman year of high school. On our one year anniversary I made an excuse about how I must have sent her the text to say happy anniversary and it hadn’t gone through. Truly, these important dates had faded for me. I was starting to turn into my own person again. I took off my ring a week later when she started a continuation school where she didn’t have cell phone access. The more distance I had the more I was stable and free. The summer I spent taking a class so that I could fit in another period of art into my schedule. 

As much as I wanted to slip back into the fabric of High School, I had gone through so much that was beyond my age that I went through the next three years in a bit of a daze. I didn’t connect deeply with anyone. Having anyone too close had proved dangerous. I have few memories of high school and almost no friends from high school that I can truly say I was close to. She and I had done such a thorough job of burning bridges that some people whom I had, would simply never be able to forget the person whom had wronged them. 

I was out all of high school as a Lesbian and even gave a speech about it as the GSA President. The sneers and comments by my peers about how they were afraid I’d stare at them in the shower were always met with an eye roll and comment about how they weren’t my type. I didn’t end up dating again during high school anyway. The students, who in their teenage angst threatened suicide, I simply shook my head at. It was an attention ploy that was used often by the group that allowed me to be with them during lunch, even if I almost never contributed to the conversation. All I wanted was out of High school and thankfully, I hadn’t done enough damage to not be able to graduate. In 2010 I gained my high school diploma and was able to be accepted to college.

College was an exceptional time since I could truly be myself. Lesbian, Delightfully weird and opinionated was all encourage on a college campus. I joined the campus LGBT club immediately and gained a group of friends I saw weekly and the love for community service again. I now have some lifelong friends that came out of that club and it gave me access to volunteer at the Fresno LGBT Community Center

The community center has been the next chapter in my life where I have met a family of LGBT people who I truly belong to. From being connected with the Fresno Pride Lions and becoming Center Manager, I found people who believed in me for who I was. Now serving on the board of Gay Central Valley I’m much more than a whole person, I’m happy.

I still struggle with letting people close to me. The overly cautious armor I developed from being abused still does its job at times too well. From relationships to friendships it takes time to chip down my guard. I have been lucky to have people around me who are patient and kind enough to understand. I am incredibly thankful that my life has gone on and I have been able to experience everything that I have in the past 22 years of life, both the good and the bad. It has shaped me into a better person, while giving me a perspective that can’t be taught other than by life experience.