Does this photo make me look gay? Do I make this photo look gay? And what’s with the hair? It looks very Presidential, only fuller, don’t you think?
This was me around the time I realized that I liked boys and the power of Sun-In and a hairdryer. I’ve been thinking about the person in this picture as I recently watched a TV show that you probably did not. ABC’s When We Rise condensed the sweeping arc of gay-rights over the past 50 years into a four-night, eight-hour miniseries. A big commitment, I know—and I don’t just mean from viewers. That a major TV network devoted a week of prime time to telling queer stories is a major sign of progress.
Yet this was no Roots. Ratings sucked, which some might say also signifies progress. Today, the notion that gay people are, you know, people isn’t as wackadoo as it used to be. And so a history lesson depicting the heartaches, struggles, and triumphs of the gay movement can’t capture attention the way that the heartaches, struggles, and triumphs of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills can these days.
Still, I liked the show. It spoke to me, maybe because I was born in 1976 and pushed open the closet door when I was 13. Not many middle-school boys back then openly proclaimed their love for Madonna or knew the entire “Vogue” routine. Even fewer kids supported those who did; gay-straight-student alliances were not yet a thing.
As I watched When We Rise, I obviously reflected on how today so many people take for granted the reality of being gay now vs then. In the early ’90s:
- I remember being taken to a psychologist not to change my orientation but to confirm that I might be passing through a phase. (Confirmed! I’m still going through it!)
- I remember stealing gay books from Waldenbooks because I was too scared to be seen buying them.
- I remember being called a faggot one day in high school. I remember being called a faggot the next day, too. And many days after that.
- I remember a guidance counselor who stood in the hallway like a deer in headlights after hearing such barbs hurled at me.
- I remember a theater of moviegoers reacting in (likely feigned) disgust when two male dancers kissed in Madonna’s Truth or Dare. I also remember being one of them, pretending to be grossed out since I wasn’t fully out.
- I remember wearing kooky clothes to school and feeling relieved that people were making fun of me for something other than being gay.
- I remember wishing that I were fat, because I thought one F-word wasn’t as insulting as the other.
- I remember another student coming out and admonishing me for being a disgrace to all gay people (it was either the bathrobe or phone cords I wore to school).
- I remember a friend telling me to walk in front of her because she didn’t want to be seen with me. A friend.
- I remember being fired from a summer job as a supermarket cashier seemingly for being gay, and letting them get away with it because I didn’t want to be that guy who played the minority card. (You can read about it here.)
- I remember deciding to pursue a career in fashion design (my eventual college major), because gay people belong in the arts. I’m gay. I liked clothes. See the logic? A glamorous job in HR never occurred to me. To this day, I’m frustrated that I made a major life decision based on the wrong reasons, or the right reasons at the time, or without much reasoning to begin with.
I remember a lot more, and probably forgot even more. And though I enjoyed the TV show, it made me queasy to relive such memories. I bet the show unnerved lots of homosexuals. Homosexuals! To even hear that word used on TV was weird. Like I’ve always said: Never trust anyone who refers to gays as homosexuals.
Anyway, my point isn’t to garner sympathy. Nor is it for anyone to tell me that I’ve matured into a stronger person as a result of my past. (I’m not a better adult because I was bullied. Cut that bullshit out.) And frankly, the anecdotes I mentioned are hardly unique to gays and lesbians; we’ve all had some messed-up things happen to us. Actually, I had it comparatively good. I wasn’t tied to a fence and left to die.
Nonetheless, we all carry around our youth in ways that continue to mold us. That, there, is my point. Even though time progresses, our former selves are part of our present selves, still influencing who we are as friends, relatives, and coworkers. I don’t know any gay people, especially of a certain age, whose past experiences around sexual orientation do not impact the way they live and work. Every. Single. Day.
I think it’s important to recognize this. As Katrina Kibben wrote, we need to do a better job of seeing each other. Too often, we seem to look through rather than inside one another. Now, that doesn’t mean you need to know my entire background, and I don’t necessarily want to know yours. I just want us to accept that we both have histories extending beyond the obvious. We must all learn to empathize not just by recognizing our similarities but…just because.