Mandi Hawke was in the fifth grade writing “I love Stephen” in her notes, only to casually drop them off her desk for her classmates to find.
“He was the one person in the classroom that every girl liked,” she remembers. “I thought it was a safe name to write.” In a small private school classroom of about 24 kids, playground crushes grew and Hawke was suddenly accused of not dating anyone.
It wasn’t until her freshman year of high school that Hawke came out to her friends and family, only to be told it was a phase and a trend. But she didn’t know that then.
“I knew I was just being silly. Then I would get teased for liking him,” she says, “But I was okay with it. It was constant teasing and bullying.”
Years ago, she was a teenager fighting her true feelings to the point of having suicide thoughts. Today, Hawke is an event programmer at SunServe, an LGBT support agency in Broward, and author of Proud: EmPOWERment for LGBTQ Youth. She spends her days talking to kids and young adults, ages 13-24, who are going through the same things she did.
She shares her stories of being in a straight marriage for six years and turning to the arts for an escape from bullying and shame from her religious school.
“I'm a huge believer in ‘everything happens for a reason,’” her aunt Carrie Tappan told SFGN. “I feel like she would not be in the position that she's in and moving forward in her life if she didn't go through that.”
‘You know you’re gay, right?’
She was never invited to birthday parties.
One year Hawke remembers having two friends spend the night and staying up until 4 a.m. playing Tetris on Nintendo.
“It was always about wanting to make sure people would show up,” Hawke’s aunt said. “It was hard to watch her go through that.”
Amanda, as her mother calls her, went to a Lutheran private school until the 8th grade. “What I was taught is being gay is something you wouldn't want to be,” Hawke said. “I wouldn't tell my dad when I was living with him, no way.”
That’s something she tries to help high school students with when she speaks to local Gay Straight Alliances. She said she identifies as pansexual to let kids know they don’t have to be one thing or another.
When her parents split up, living with her dad in Florida wasn’t as easy as going to public high school there. She finally blended in, turned to painting, worked backstage theater and found her support circle.
“I met some amazing people that really pulled me out of the closet,” she said. “They were like, ‘You know you're gay, right?'”
Still she bounced between schools in Florida and Texas four times before she graduated. And while her mother was more accepting, kids at school weren’t.
“In Texas, the first thing I heard coming off the school bus in high school was ‘that's so gay,’” Hawke said.
On her first day, her mother remembers her wearing a Scottish kilt with safety pins down the sides, a purple bow in her hair with her little sister’s plastic tiara. Hawke finished up the outfit with ripped fishnets, green Doc Martens and black makeup — lots of black makeup.
“And apparently she made a lot of friends,” her mother said.
Hawke made friends with whom her aunt Tappan calls the early stages of Goths and outcasts, but to Hawke they were just other kids who were misunderstood. Although her family acted supportive after she came out, they still thought it was a fad based on her circle of friends.
“I think in her high school years it was at that point where it was trendy to be bi-sexual,” Tappan said. “At first we all thought it was a phase.”
But it wasn’t a phase for Hawke.
“It was something so difficult for me to get the courage to admit to,” she said, “and then the reaction was ‘It's the cool thing to do.’”
You’re going to do something great
Hawke’s first suicidal thought was in the fourth grade.
Her best friend, and the most popular girl in school, stopped talking to her after they took a sex education class filled with gay propaganda.
“I realize now that we probably had crushes on each other,” Hawke said.
Years later, after she came out to her family in Texas, she went back in the closet for years and channeled her emotions into painting, mostly with dark blue, purple, and black hues.
“She was so uncomfortable around many family members,” her mother said. “She kind of made her friends her family.”
While in high school, a few of her friends committed suicide. She remembers having more suicidal thoughts in Texas than Florida because of the constant bullying.
“Once I was known to be bi-sexual,” she said. “I was targeted by some kids who would spit on us and called us dykes. Later at lunch they paid us and tried to get us to kiss.”
It was a lot for a 16-year-old to handle.
“Unfortunately it was during the time when it was really popular to cut yourself and do the whole Goth thing,” her mother said. “It was sort of like a cultural pity party. I don't think it's as prevalent now as it was back then.”
Hawke said having a group of friends that were also struggling with being gay and depressed saved her.
“There was a voice that told me that no matter how hard it was, I needed to push through and that I had bigger things to do here,” she said. “It said 'you're going to do something great' and that was louder than the other voice.”
Making it work for the family
It took being married to a man for six years for Hawke to realize happiness wasn’t about where she lived or how much money she made.
When she married her ex husband, Jason, her family assumed her bi-sexual phase was over.
“I think that he had enough sensitivity for her that he made her feel very comfortable,” Tappan said. “And looking back on it now, I think she tried to make it work for the family.”
Her mother said Jason was very passive, accommodating and non-confrontational. Even then, the idea of being able to have a public relationship made Hawke happy.
“I could walk down the street holding his hand and no one would look,” she said. “We could kiss in public and no one would whisper.”
Even though she doesn’t regret her relationship with Jason, she said she missed out on things that gave her life purpose, like the community service she does with her current partner.
“We didn't have real true friendships, we didn't do anything passionate like charity work or volunteering,” she said. “We waited tables. We weren't up to anything powerful.”
After about five years, Hawke started reading motivational self-empowerment books, still searching for happiness. She decided that she needed to start being truthful to herself and not live a life of false friendships and uninspiring work.
While reading those books, she noticed there weren’t many self-empowerment books for the LGBT community, let alone the youth. About a year after divorcing her husband and working as a volunteer at Drag It Out, she started telling her life story at SunServe workshops and wrote her first novel: Proud: EmPOWERment for LGTBTQ Youth.
“I don't say my relationship with Jason was a mistake,” she said. “Would I date another guy again? Probably not. I was in love with him, but in a different way.”
My house is your house
The first time Hawke ever brought a partner over to meet her dad’s side of the family was last June.
“I was actually really nervous,” Ian Napp said. “We pulled into the driveway and I was shaking.”
Hawke kept their relationship secret from most of her dad’s side. But after more than half a year of being together, she finally stepped forward and was welcomed with open arms.
“My family was amazing it was a pleasant surprise,” Hawke said.
“It was total shock,” Napp said. “You know they were introducing me to everyone, my-house-is-your-house type thing.”
Hawke calls her relationship with Napp night and day compared to her six-year marriage. Hawke was working a Drag it Out, a program that puts on drag workshops, when she met Napp.
After Facebook messaging for a few weeks, Napp said she grew the courage to ask for Hawke’s number and they started dating on Nov. 11.
“We volunteer together and we don't fight at all," Hawke says. "We're amazing friends. Every day is something to look forward to.”