This reflection on my sexuality was written not long after my move from Ohio to Chicago in the fall of 2015. I’m sharing it now as I pass my first anniversary as a resident of the Windy City. [~3,000 words. Content Warning: adult situations, slurs.]
They tell me Chicago winters are cold–absolutely legendary. This is my first in the city and the snow is still just a tease. Most nights, it’s not too cold to keep me from walking the couples of blocks to Boystown, where I can get whiskey drinks for Ohio prices if I got to the right place. I can’t believe I live as close as I do to this stretch of bars, sex shops, and pet boutiques, which is effectively Chicago’s white LGBT neighborhood. A lot of the clubs advertise big name drag shows. Queens from all over are paid tribute here.
The streets are lined with golden obelisks topped in rainbows. On the sides of each of these monuments, LGBT icons and their inspiring stories are literally bronzed. My favorites are the ones I’ve never heard of before.
My favorite bar here is a little dive with dozens of Grateful Dead bumper stickers plastered all over the practically ancient wood paneling. I would feel young there except the crowd likes to sing along with the fresh bubblegum pop people find on the digital jukebox. I’m not normally one for sing-alongs, but I occasionally find myself enchanted by the pride of it all. It’s impossible for me not to feel some relief in being in a place where the flags fly a full spectrum of stripes instead of the red, white, and blue stars and bars I used to see where I grew up.
But they say it takes a village. I grew up on the outskirts of a settlement defined as a village by law. My family had no roots there: The location was a convenient way to split my parents’ commutes. It was a place composed of the hallmarks of small town life. Cousins abounded from the old families. The politics were conservative and, in certain circles, regressive. Rumors spread like spiders along a shadowy network of nosy neighbors and lookie-loos.
Kids there still get a week off of school for the country fair because enough of them need to stay at the fairgrounds to tend to their chattel. They come back sad because, for many, the death of livestock is one of their earliest tragedies. The only industry in town–a cardboard factory–still belches sulfur from right next to the dry bed of a canal that was barely finished by the time the railroads took over. That rotten egg scent mingled with diesel exhaust still smells like home to me.
It’s hard for me to go back now, and not just because I can count the bars, stoplights, or gas stations on one hand. Aside from wanting to keep my distance from the Neo-Nazis, Confederate sympathizers, and Christian extremists who used to threaten me, there’s the fact that it’s one of those places–and fuck me if they aren’t all over–where any kind of queerness is, at best, a sort of zoological spectacle and, at worst, an easy target. I think it’s the kind of thing you can feel about a place. Sometimes, I feel safer walking the dark streets of Chicago than I do pumping gas back home.
Growing up, I made my name as a bookworm, a liberal, a fledgling punk, an (alleged) atheist, and a Michigan Wolverines fan 45 minutes from Ohio State’s campus. Sporting maize and blue was one of the rare breaks I would take form wearing black. I’m pretty sure the Michigan thing was a way to externalize the fact that I knew I was a freak in a language that world would understand. Football teams are a pretty benign way to wave as your freak flag.
When I was in the eighth grade, a boy named M—— freaked after he accidentally outed himself to me on an instant messenger. (A uniquely 21st century problem, isn’t it?) Where we lived, coming out wasn’t an option–every one from middle school who I still see on Facebook waited until college. I thought M—– might be losing it because of his slip. To calm him down, I told him that I couldn’t figure out how to define my attractions either and that I shared his opinion that some boys were cute.
And I meant it, too. Not to say that it wasn’t hard to admit it to him. I was already fighting myself about my sexuality, and it was all still in my head. I’m sure I didn’t put it into pretty words. But whatever I said calmed M—– down. I thought it was because there was suddenly this secret between us, a bond of mutual fear and ideas. Now, I think he was mostly just calculating some form of Mutually Assured Destruction.
At the time, I was dating K—–, a roaring inferno of middle school drama that had burned multiple bridges. I think I was a way for her to rebel against her parents, who I never met. But I got the sense that I was a problem in their world. When we started dating, she was afraid to shop at Hot Topic. By the end, she was with me in wearing black t-shirts every day and fighting with her folks about it. When I look back, I wonder how we ever got together in the first place. It’s worth mentioning that K—– was a good friend of M—–‘s.
I never came out to K—– for a lot of reasons–her propensity for drama, her family that scared me, my fear and anxiety about how she would react (to name just a few). M—– was the first person I’d ever talked to about it, and I had stumbled into that out of some sense of obligation. I had no idea how to approach a woman I was supposed to be playing house with. Now, I know that grown men struggle with this problem and I don’t feel so bad about my cluelessness.
But, so–M—– told K—– about me. I guess it’s because she was my girlfriend and maybe also because he was no stranger to the flames of drama himself. I didn’t know she knew until, after a pre-teen break-up I can’t remember but gag to imagine, K—– told as many people as she could in about an hour. I started getting calls, texts on my Nokia brick phone. Nothing was ever really the same after that.
If I account for the bookishness, the leftism, the fledgling punkery, the (alleged) atheism, and the support of That Team Up North, it’s easy for me to see I wasn’t a welcome phenomenon to begin with. That’s why I’ve always hesitated to tie the abuse to queerphobia. But, looking back, the timeline is hard to ignore.
It was only after getting outed that the online harassment started, that it became hip to shout “faggot” when I walked by in the hallway, that someone tried to plant a toy gun in my locker. (Boy, was my dad happy to get that call.) Around the same time, all the guys I watched pro wrestling with told me they didn’t want to be friends anymore because they thought I was “too into it”. The whisperers used terms like “full gay” to speculate. In the last couple months of middle school, I’d added friendless bisexual to my already impressive social rap sheet.
So that was how I entered high school, ostracized and alienated on a level I couldn’t comprehend. What could I do but just soldier on? My grades didn’t drop. I didn’t start doing drugs. I was still active in a lot of extra-curriculars. I just wished for death every day.
That was adolescence for me: A potent mix of self-loathing and denial. In the five years from my middle school outing to my senior year, I filled a monstrous void inside me with internalized oppression. Life was misery, and I blamed myself for it. My daily deathwishes were a reflection of my own faults. I deserved them, I thought, just as I deserved death. Like many alienated teenagers, I desperately wanted to destroy the thing that made me alien.
Eventually, sometime around sophomore or junior year, I engaged in a coordinated campaign to force my way back into the closet. I started using “faggot” pejoratively after years of resistance. I announced loudly within earshot of the cool girls in the lunchroom that I’d thought about it, and boys weren’t cute to me; they never had been. Sure, my friends still gave me shit about “when I was bi”, but their constant stream of homophobic slurs was a great way to remind me that I was wrong and bad and evil. I still wore black pretty much every day.
About two months before graduation, one of my closest friends died of an aneurysm in his sleep. Yeah, he used to sling slurs, but he was resistant like me. He read the Qur’an. He wanted to be a lawyer for the EPA. He was further to the left than I thought you could be in America. We’d bonded in French class over being in shitty moods and having a lot of aimless rage and despair. We’d go to metal shows together.
But instead of both going off to college and having a pissing match of accomplishment every few years, I got my black graduation suit early and ended up being a 17-year-old pallbearer. Prom, graduation–they happened in the fallout of that psychic bomb. In my head, what was already a desert for joy became an emotional wasteland.
That radiation cloud hung over me as I started college, where I seized an opportunity to re-invent myself as a straight boy. College girls laughed at my jokes about books and didn’t attack my politics. This newfound relational success was reason enough for me to needlessly carry forward the oppression of my youth. I’d finally made it back into the closet and ended up spending a few dark years there because I thought I could be happy if I was a straight boy.
It’s easy to see all my collegiate one-night stands as attempts to prove something to myself. But once the heady rush of orgasm wore off–sometime even before that–I often felt some vague sense of wrongness gnawing at my psyche. Not because I wasn’t attracted to women; I still am. I think what was coming through in those moments was less a refutation of the self I was enacting and more a denial of some larger self: It was outright self-deception. I was trying to be the person who I thought I was supposed to be, not the person I was and am.
I thought leaving behind the small town rumor mill would give me a freedom to find my truer, straighter self. But that straight boy was never there, was never even real.
It wasn’t until my senior year of undergrad that I was able to crack the closet door again, to stop hitting myself with such senseless, self-inflicted trauma. I’m forever in debt to a few women who showed me that who I am isn’t something to be ashamed of or something to hide. They were the first people to show me new possibilities for my capital-S Self.
After spending an extra year working shit jobs in my college town, I moved to Columbus. Almost a decade after being outed by K—–, I turned “Men” on in Tinder’s discovery settings and mostly just looked, trying to come back to the desires I’d buried years before. I still dated women, but only women I could be open with from the start. (Queer girls are still my faves.) Tinder in Columbus was full of Buckeyes, anyway.
It seemed pretty innocuous when I first matched with C—. Just a cute, hip boy with a big mustache and lots of tattoos. Great bod, too. We got to chatting and discovered we both worked in different divisions of the same company. The fact that he worked in the slick downtown office and I in the rough-edged production facility only added to the wrong-side-of-the-tracks intrigue for me. I wasn’t looking for a knight in shining armor to carry me to a far-away castle, but I was up to fool around in the stables.
We never made plans to meet, but I wondered on my way over to one of the city’s better-known bars if he would be there for the company’s anniversary party. As the party progressed, I had more whiskey drinks on the company dime than I care to recount or re-count. I was nervous because I spent so long convinced I was too awkward to talk to girls that approaching a boy was a social exercise I felt not just inept at but also conceptually unprepared for.
I was getting one of those practically countless drinks when I first saw him. There, at the bar, it seemed that if I were to cast him in a capital-F Fantasy, he’d better fit the part of the stoic archer than the knight in shining armor. (But maybe that’s just my way of saying I thought he’d look good in leather.) He had great posture, stood maybe 5’6”, and was cut and inked like a different kind of fantasy. He wore a nice shirt with a little bit of tasteful jewelry–real heavy metal around his neck and through his septum.
Through the night, we sort of drifted in and out of each other’s orbit like two drunken galaxies, but eventually we got to talking. I tried to crack jokes but felt a kind of self-consciousness that seemed at once new and familiar. I liked that he rolled his eyes at my bad jokes. When he did laugh, his whiskers hid his smiles.
When we left the bar, it was dark and there was snow on the ground. The cold was bitter. People were making plans to move the party, so I stood around waiting to see if anything materialized. C— waited with me. After lingering long enough to see that no after-party was happening, we left and talked ourselves into going back to his apartment; I’m still not sure if there was any opposition.
His place was adorably Spartan, much like him. A Wii, Grimes on vinyl, some succulents, and a stack of weights that winked as if to keep the promise his shirtless selfies had made. He offered me more whiskey and I had some. We sat and chatted for a bit. I was nervous.
I’m no stranger to romantic anxiety, but I guess I felt this was different. Something compelled me to do a coming out of sorts. I needed to admit something simple and almost reeking of a strange innocence I don’t often smell on myself.
“I’ve never kissed a boy before,” I told him.
He was taken aback, maybe more by my breach of etiquette than anything else. I told him an abridged version of the story I’ve laid out here. He was an attentive listener. I never asked, but I wonder if he felt an internal dilemma. I regret now that I didn’t understand the step back into the closet required of the out and proud when it comes to those of us still behind the door.
Whatever went through his head, it didn’t derail the mood. After that brief intermission, the night’s final act was a showstopper. His tats were exquisite, but I didn’t spend much time studying the artwork. I was busy trying to rub what I was certain had to be airbrushed paint off his abs. But when even a gentle application of saliva didn’t alter the toning, I moved on. I’ll never forget the skylight above his bed. The cold night sky seemed so distant from the heat between his sheets…
…I hope I haven’t led you to expect a storybook ending. C— was a charming prince, but what we had was a fling. Afterwards, I struggled with the implications of our tryst and I never wanted to bog him down with my bullshit or baggage.
I came out to a few friends later that year, after fooling around with a boy who was a skinny drink of witchy water. A college friend told most of my immediate circle after I confided in him. At first, I was mortified. I felt a terrible flashback to the forced outing of my youth. But nobody cared the way my younger classmates had. People actually supported me, which I didn’t know how to handle at first. That’s mostly been the story of my move to Chicago as well.
Sure, it’s no queer utopia. I still want to die a lot of the time. I live every day knowing that there’s an asshole around every corner and an awful person up every street. I still feel like a freak or a monster here, but I take comfort in the idea that I’m not the freakiest or most monstrous thing people will see. Even when people tell me to be proud, sometimes they unconsciously reinforce my shame. Sometimes, it’s actually harder to be around my friends who don’t know than it is to be around strangers–strangers have lower expectations.
But this place I’ve ended up–it’s also an affirmation of how far I’ve come and the progress I’m still making. I’m still coming out. There’s still so much work for me to do. I still don’t understand why people sort their attractions into an arbitrary binary or why people are so cruel about any deviation from that norm, but I know I don’t want to do either of those things.
And I never miss that village in Ohio that almost convinced me that a lifetime in the closet was better than a day in the warm light of truth. I’m not sure what the future holds, but, for the first time in my life, I’m looking 30 to 40 years into the future instead of three to four. And, from time to time, the taste of whiskey evokes a phantom that reminds me of the tickle of whiskers on my lips.