I always knew I was gay. There was never a question that my life would look different when I grew up. I would look at families in my community and think to myself, “I think I want that but I know for sure my family will look different.” But there really weren’t any gay or queer families that I knew of so it seemed far-fetched that I could actually ever live my truth. Though I had an understanding of my sexual orientation, I didn’t realize that I was also dealing with gender identity issues. Even though I wasn’t consciously aware of this piece of my identity, it definitely played a part in how I interacted with the world around me.
As I grew up, society taught me what was right and what was wrong, and I was terrified of going against the grain.
One of the ways I decided to try and fit in was by joining a local BBYO (B’nai Brith Youth Organization) chapter. The structure of BBYO was simple: there were boys chapters and girls chapters. Being forced to be in the girls’ chapter always felt weird to me, but I didn’t really understand why. Besides this ever-present feeling of uncomfortability, I loved feeling like I was part of something Jewish. I made really great friends and a had blast every Tuesday at the JCC with my pals. We planned fundraisers, social events, went to get ice cream, and had sleepovers.
Along with the peers my age, our chapter had adult advisors that came to every meeting. I was friends with all of them, but there was one person in particular who I connected with the most.
Nili Talis was this really cool and fun college student who spent her Tuesday nights away from campus and with us high schoolers. There was something about Nili that I gravitated towards.
Throughout the year, BBYO chapters had the opportunity to attend conventions to meet other students in our region. It was a time to get out of town, branch out, network, make new friends, and build really strong relationships with other BBYOers.
For me, these conventions were a time full of anxiety, but for some reason I still attended. I think that I was hoping it’d get easier or that this time it’d be different; it never was. I felt frozen and terrified that these new people from other cities would find out I was gay and not want to be my friend. I wasn’t connecting with myself so it was hard to connect with others. Looking back as a trans/genderqueer person, the gendered setup of BBYO was what mainly triggered my anxiety.
I found myself spending the entire convention with my friend and advisor, Nili. She became my Safe Zone. I felt the most myself around her and free from judgement. We had an unspoken understanding that perhaps we were more alike than either of us were saying at the time. She made getting through those conventions bearable. A Safe Zone (or safe person) doesn’t need to know all the answers; they just need to be there to support their friend and that’s exactly what she did.
Fifteen years later Nili is still my friend. I feel so lucky that I had Nili by my side as my Safe Zone then and now.