I read the following essay last night at the Queer Memoir salon at the LGBT Center in New York City and I couldn't wait to share it here as well. I love this story; I'm pretty happy with this essay. It's especially nice for me to sharing on National Coming Out Day because it's largely about a friendship from my freshman year of college that gave me the courage to be honest about who I am. It's also about making connections in an increasingly web-based world, but that's not too deeply explored. Maybe in another draft.
Anyway, I hope you read and enjoy the essay. If you have feedback--good, bad, constructive, indifferent--please feel free to share!
Will You Accept This Friend Request?
In my day there were no queers.
Seriously. They did not exist. Don’t ask me why; I was just a kid. But I’m sure of it--there were no gays, no lesbians, no transgendered folks, no little blue pegs riding side-by-side in the Game of Life. No queers.
There was a cousin, actually, on my father’s side, who was in some way “other”. We didn’t really associate with that side of the family--indeed, I can’t actually remember meeting him--but I knew enough to know that he was different in some vaguely negative way.
Here’s what I do remember about him. The story goes that he would occasionally wake up on a Sunday morning and decide to renounce his “otherness”. He’d go charging down the aisle of the church and throw all his drag clothes on the altar, shouting to Jesus to wash his sins away.
Doesn’t this sound like some crazy mess a queen would do?
I didn’t really understand what this meant when I first overheard it at the age of 7, but I remember considering it an awful waste. I picture this portly man with a Jeri-curl, lugging 8-foot bedazzled headdresses and size 12 heels through the pews. And it just broke my little heart.
But besides my unseen cousin there were no queers. For years. In the interest of full disclosure there was this boy in high school. We kissed once in the back of the theater because we were typical. But we decided I was only gay for him and he was only gay for Ricky Martin so we were safe.
The next year I went to college in New York because that’s what budding homosexuals with artistic aspirations from mid-sized East Coast cities do. And there I met all the homosexuals that had been hidden from me for the previous 18 years. They were literally manufacturing them assembly-line style up here. It blew my fucking mind. They were everywhere and some of them looked normal, just like you and me. Not so “other” at all. And very few of them, I found, made a regular practice of renouncing their sexuality.
And I was terrified. Presented with this see of eager otherness of which I was supposed to become a part, from which I was supposed to learn, with whom I was supposed to be friends, I froze. I retreated to my dorm room and proceeded to download Ani DiFranco songs on Napster. Which, make no mistake, was a pretty happening evening. This was 1999; I had just gone from a 56k modem in my parents’ basement to campus-wide Ethernet. The world was immediately, intensely and literally digitized, which is to say: at my fingertips.
Eventually, I had to log off and go to class. And so it was that I met my very first gay person. He appeared, fully formed, at 9:10 a.m. on the first day of the semester in Masterpieces of Western Literature. He was clad in various shades of charcoal, all of them by Banana Republic. I remember some sort of enormous understated neckwear, a scarf that filled the room, and black, square glasses. He had olive skin, bushy eyebrows, and mathematically precise features, like this tiny mouth that swiveled with secret amusement above his chin.
I was in love.
For some reason, after a few classes, he decided he wanted to be my friend. And I let him. Without question. Without hesitation. Yes.
He took me under his wing. A Staten Island native, he didn’t approach the city with the same bug-eyed nausea that I did. He took me to a store in the village called Bang Bang that carried club gear and cutting edge clothes that fit far better than the trunk of bulky JCPenny’s flannel that I had brought with me to school. And he didn’t even say anything when I chose to buy all manner of misbegotten items, like a pair of silver vinyl pants as if I was auditioning for a walk-on role in Party Monster.
He introduced me to Kurfew, a club in the warehouse district that had an all-ages night. I remember we went there once really early--like around 11 pm--and the dancefloor was still empty and I glided across in my silver pants as if carried by a current. Shimmying and swaying, I’d never felt so free in my life. I still feel that way to this day every time I dance at a club, every time. And each time it’s a new revelation and a reminder of--
Oh, actually, I was too shy to dance in public back then. And I wasn’t wearing my silver pants. I got about two blocks in them and people kept making comments and I made him turn around and go back with me so I could change. No one said anything even slightly derisive, but I grew so uncomfortable that I felt physically sick. The attention was all just too much.
Kurfew had this meet-up wall that, like everything else, made me vaguely nervous. You could, if you so chose, wear a number on your clothing or bare chest that corresponded with a notepad on the wall. If someone liked you they could write you a note. Which you would then have to check and respond to, hoping, of course, that they returned and checked your pad for said response. It’s roundabout, yes, but no different from the myriad of roadblocks to interpersonal connection we’ve set up around ourselves in the name of personal communication today, a decade later. Sure, I’m reachable by text, Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, and, occasionally, telephone, but each of those is really nothing more than a signal reaching out, never guaranteed a response. Today I have a collection of notepads in a collection of hallways waiting for human interaction.
I didn’t know, back then, that my life would become populated by profiles and ID numbers. I found it hard to take the Internet seriously because it seemed blandly anonymous and impersonal. Conversely, however, I eschewed ever wearing a number at Kurfew because that seemed too public and I was afraid that someone might actually try to talk to me.
I fought a battle every day that first year of college between the desire to be a participant and the fear of being seen in the midst of the mass, recognized, singled out, outed, Othered.
And my friend, in some mysterious way, understood that. And he didn’t push me. He would take me to this gay café called Drip. Only, he said, because they had the best lemon squares in the city. And so we would sit and share a lemon square and two cups of tea and talk for hours. He shared with me how his family had had to flee Tehran for fear of persecution. And he told me how his father had almost not made it. He told me about how his family on Staten Island could never know he was gay, how they couldn’t possibly accept him and how it would shame them, but how that wouldn’t stop him from living his life to the fullest extent here in Manhattan. And I felt my world unfold and bloom and simultaneously grow infinitely complex and blessedly simple. An idea began to form in my mind.
In the spring semester, I started stalking the Coming Out Group, which was a secret meeting that convened on Tuesday nights where questioning and newly out students could come for support. I stood, in the dark, in a hedge, with a hoodie on, watching people go in every Tuesday for a month. And I didn’t make a step to join. I thought, Don’t they realize that any creep can stand in a hedge and see them and know that they’re gay? There had to be a more secret secret meeting. I would retreat to my room and log on to a gay AOL chatroom if my roommate wasn’t home. I found little acceptance there. The faceless society of screen names only queried “A/S/L?” and all I wanted to do was talk about my friend and our lemon squares.
I found myself obsessing about him, thinking constantly about him, and it was wonderful. I felt we were the only keyholders to the comfortable closet in my invisible life. Comfort, however, is conspicuous. As the year wore on, I got the sense that other people could actually see me. It was awful. Ironically, this revelation came most stunningly and terrifyingly from the blind man who lived down the hall. He would write “Come out” on my message board daily in his childlike scrawl and then cackle, before tottering away. I stood with my back pressed to the door, listening for the sound of him dropping the pen, so I could run out unseen and wipe the evidence away.
But that’s another story.
I found myself wondering the other day whether college students still have message boards. There doesn’t seem to be any point. The Wall on Facebook serves that exact purpose, and with more immediacy and direct access than a dorm room door could ever provide. Which, of course, is strange because between the individual and his Facebook wall are two electronic devices, an interface made of algorithms and magic or whatever the Internet is constructed out of and a massive system of telecommunications. Whereas, the only thing that separates the individual from his message board, and, by extension, the rest of the world, is a door.
In retrospect, this shift casts a lot of things in a different light. Take Drip--you know the coffee shop, with the lemon squares. One of Drip’s selling features was their Notebook. Customers would fill out profiles on sheets of paper and take a Polaroid picture to accompany it. The profile would them be hole-punched and added to the Notebook with some sort of identification number so other people could contact you. It was essentially the premature lovechild of Mark Zuckerberg and Jane Austen. And, of course, it disgusted me. It was so public and gauche and awkwardly personal and anybody, just anybody, could come in there and see you. This was, again, 1999. The Internet existed back then, of course, but it wasn’t anything like it is now. Social media was in its infancy; online dating sites were still the provenance of the desperate and the creepy.
Little did I know that in a few years I would spend many a long night tinkering with a Match.com profile or refreshing a Friendster page, hoping there was someone out there who wanted to connect. Little did I know that a few years after that, a fun Saturday night’s activity would consist of getting really drunk and paging through the Facebook photo albums of people I used to know, introducing myself to their lives.
My friend and I lost touch after Freshman year but about 2 years ago I had a couple martinis and decided I was going to find him on Facebook. I didn’t care how long it took. It took about 13 seconds. The olive skin and crooked smile suddenly filled my screen as if no time had passed. Bolstered by liquid courage, I sent him a friend request and tossed out a quick note. “Hey! I hope you remember me!” An understatement that broke my little heart. A few days later he confirmed the request. So now, I guess, we’re friends. Again.
I took a sloppy drunken tour through his life in pictures and felt all of those messy, intense, charcoal-colored emotions come rushing back. Sitting safe behind the veneer of my computer screen I had forgotten that I had felt like that.
Quickly: One night--just before winter break, cold--he and I were walking back from a the cafe. The campus, which had a huge quad in the center, was empty. The whole city of New York was empty. I walked him back to his dorm, our shadows elongated by the lights that sat atop the library. Everything felt so big. Everything felt so open. Everything felt. And I had decided, apropos of nothing, that I needed to tell him how I felt about him. Right then.
“I hope this isn’t awkward,” I started. “But I really like you. I like everything about you. I know we’re just friends but I feel really strongly about you and I thought you should know.”
I remember now that I had started walking back to my dorm before I mustered up the courage so there was probably 40 feet of space between us as I yelled about my emotions.
I don’t remember what he said. I know it was gracious and kind and resolutely platonic. Which was all that I expected, I guess. And I walked away feeling good, surprised to not feel shame. I used to think of that night as just a funny story I never told. I’ve come to think of it differently. I realized that that night, in the big open public space of our campus, I had done something I’d never done. I had been honest with someone about who I was--who I really was--and how I felt--how I really felt. Actually, I had been honest with two people: with him and with myself.
Unbeknownst to me, our connection had largely been about honesty--the true stories he told me of his family’s past, the conflict that brewed in his life over being honest with them in the present, the way he prodded me to speak my mind, to dress more authentically, even if that authentic self looked a hot mess. He didn’t teach me how to be “gay”, how to pick up boys or put on mascara or dance on the bar. He didn’t take me to any protests or show me where to get an HIV test. He didn’t ever kiss me. All he did was be himself and be my friend. And in so doing he created a safe space within my life where I could be myself and eventually learn how to tell others who I am. Honestly. Fearlessly. Face to face.