My Queer History Reconsidered
+ The Beautiful Shock of Long-Term Friendship
Last night I got to chat with my dear friend Shauna (who just made it another year around the sun!!! As I type out that phrase I realize it might not actually be the phrase people use to quantify someone’s birthday but anyways…). I feel as though a lot of things are changing in our lives—the lives of my friends and I, the people we are becoming and growing into.
I told her about my recent realization that sexuality is not something I have conquered in any way…I still don’t really know what it means to be gay, or what role that question has played in my life. Surely I know what it means to be “me” right now, I feel holistically confident and joyful in my ability to live and share life, but my sexuality is still not really a part of that, and I am beginning to consider that that may not be some reflection of what I actually believe in (extreme independence, complex individualism that renounces any definitive label—A.K.A. “I am more than just a gay person”, or not adhering to a single idea of being gay or queer) but rather: I may just not know how to navigate my sexuality or who I am in regards to it, because I have ignored this part of myself for so long.
I recounted how at first I was obsessed with the idea of having no part of myself change when “coming out,” ensuring myself that I was the exact same person I had always been as I told my friends that I was queer, first verbally accepting and stating my sexuality. I believed, almost desperately, in the idea that I had suddenly stumbled upon this part of myself, as if it were some iPhone upgrade I had just acquired—as if I had not gone through any difficulties as a kid, wondering about this or hiding it, as though I had not suffered any sustained injury our society seems to anticipate whenever anyone first says the words “I’m gay.”
A year and some ago I wrote an essay that I never shared publicly, the morning after my first sexual experience with another man as an adult. As I re-read it it seems so clear that I was trying to compensate for some anticipated hurt I believed others may have tried to paint me with, as someone who did not “come out” until he was 22 or 23 years old. Through several paragraphs of explaining how great my life had been since I was a kid, I abolished the idea of a sob story for myself. I complained about the type of person who responds to their friend’s announcements of queer sexuality with sympathy instead of celebration. I made the argument that my discovery in queer sexuality should be as casually processed and easily celebrated as if I were suddenly switching career paths. Conversational commotion between friends of mine, asking why I had not told them before or occasionally receiving out-of-the blue texts from people I hadn’t talked to in months: “Are you okay?” upset me. I wrote in the essay:
The automatic assumption that you need to say something or be there for someone you recently learned identifies as LGBTQ can seemingly stem from a selfish motive, and may reflect the disposition our society assumes towards people who identify as LGBTQ, further discouraging people from coming out or exploring this part of themselves in the first place: “What can I do?”…”Why didn’t they tell me?”…“What should I say.” Stop! It is not about YOU.
With each paragraph it becomes more apparent that I wanted to escape whatever sob story others might assume I had been carrying all those years. I did not want it. I did not believe it. I did not want to confront whatever it was it may have required me to see.
Some of that essay I do still believe in, mainly my acknowledgement of the fact that I am grateful for everything I have lived—I had incredibly positive experiences in high school and college overall. I grew up in an extremely supportive, liberal family and state. Undeniably, as a California-born, 4th generation Asian-American now living in New York City, I grew up and continue to live with an amount of privilege I never want to lose sight of. There is legitimate reason for why I feel as though I was gifted the life of the freest gay man a gay man could possibly be. But a part of me cringes as I read that essay I wrote, seeing hidden in between all of my explanations for why my life was so great a clear and necessary obsession to present it so, to escape whatever it was I might have been dealing with. To renounce any potential sob story, sympathy, or new shade of sobriety that might be assumed when perceiving the life of a closeted queer person of 22 years.
At the end of the day, regardless of the millions of memories that make me smile, for those 22 years I did not allow myself to express myself in ways I obviously wished to. Of course there were difficult times. Crying over other men. Making up stories about why I was not dating, fabricating sexual experiences with women, feeling slightly uneasy and uncomfortable in groups of straight men I did not know well, and not knowing what to say in situations where men talked about women (or women talked about men), perhaps the saddest part of all of these situations being the idea that I may have actually believed in the stories I made up…The invention of several women, sometimes a love interest back in a place I had travelled to (a place whoever I was talking to would surely never go), to simply escape the conversation around why I wasn’t sleeping around…The philosophies around hooking up and dependency I created to justify being perpetually single (I just didn’t buy into the entire hook up culture, I never felt the need or desire to be in a relationship)…All of these stories sounded nice to me: Clean, easy, acceptable. And perhaps these things are true to some extent—I find myself saying some of these things today, even: I am just an independent person, I would enjoy a relationship if it found me but I don’t actively want one. But part of me wonders: What came first? The excuse or the belief? Did these things become true by default?
A lot of this is confusing to me because I cannot identify what is real and what is not. I cannot really understand the ways in which I may have tricked myself into temporary straightness or certain beliefs around independence, romance, and sexuality. Evidently, the social environments I thrived in did not seem as though they would take something like a friend coming out as “no big deal” (while I do not believe I would have been met with much negativity, discrimination, or surprise had I come out earlier in life, or anything close to the adversity queer people face in other countries, states, or cultures, I do believe I would have been treated differently, and what I feared most was exactly that). While a young person’s biggest dream may be to stand out from the rest of the crowd for reasons they want, it is also their biggest fear to stand out for reasons they don’t.
All I really know right now, what I have come to terms with and am beginning to understand, is that it is okay, and most likely valuable, to face the things we are so ready to remit, often for the simple sake of not having to consider their worth or realness. It is okay to have faced adversity, to have something in your life not be totally right or positive or blissful. This may seem completely obvious and an absurd realization to write about, but I am a stubbornly positive person. My worst fear is overlooking my privileges or wasting my days in negativity. But I am beginning to understand that although I may have enjoyed my life and intentionally worked every single day to build it in a positive light, to make beautiful memories out of moments and paint my experiences with gratitude, of course there were difficult times. I now believe that there is little value in ignoring that and immeasurable value in acknowledging it.
I realize that just because something is rough or difficult does not mean it is designed to bring us down. Accepting a reality that is darker than the ideals we believe in does not mean that suddenly everything is painted with an alternative hue of sadness or strife. Realizing anything tough, like the fact that we might be battling depression, or we may still be hanging onto someone we lost, or perhaps we oppressed a part of ourselves since childhood, does not have to weigh us down. Rather, it can set us free. We can begin to explore and liberate our lives to an extent we otherwise would not have had the chance to. We can grow and expand in positive ways by discovering more about the parts of ourselves we instinctively hide away, sometimes even after telling others that we were no longer hiding them. I came out two years ago but I still have a ton of learning to do. A person’s declaration of queerness does not necessarily equate knowing anything about that queerness, or rather, suddenly knowing more about themselves than they used to. It has taken me a while to understand that opening the door and walking out of the closet, while indeed liberating and in some sense instantly rewarding, is in of itself only a single step. Beyond that step there is an entire journey to trek, one that requires thoughtful navigation and a persistent sense of self-awareness. And although at times it may be tiring, seem inconvenient or unfair, I am thrilled to finally see the path forward.
I told my dear friend Shauna that I felt excited, optimistic, and eager to work on this part of myself, no matter how confusing or messy it might be to understand it, investigate it, and allow it to unfold for whatever it is. Sitting on the floor of my apartment in Brooklyn, I listened to Shauna relay her own life updates, realizations of her own mental battles and current realities. By the end of our conversation I felt full-hearted, a feeling that I can only really describe in this moment as beautiful shock, noticing how easy it was to share our lives with each other and considering all of the years we have spent doing so before. She is one of my best friends and no doubt one of the most inspiring people I know. We have always shared long, in-depth, open conversations together, but relationships and strife were never really a topic we ventured into on personal terms. I essentially never talked about things like this with anyone when I was younger: sexuality and mental health, at least never in a conversation that was core to my own experience. My very best friends who lived next door to me in the same neighborhood, the people I saw every single day—I would never speak a word of it. How time transforms our lives, our minds, and our shared stories is beautifully shocking.
At the end of our call all I could conclude with was how immeasurably proud I was of her. Not only for her achievements in life and academia, her career, but more-so (in fact completely, what I am really saying when I say I am proud of her:) how much she has grown as an individual person. It kind of makes me want to happy-cry, considering how much we have both grown since being sixteen years old in high school. It makes me want to laugh and, honestly for a second, time travel back to those moments we spent alongside each other—in a car driving almost everywhere, in a tent drinking out of a $3 bottle of wine in Zion, walking around UCSB’s sun-bathed campus—talking about whatever it was we were talking about, and not talking about the things we talk about now.