TJ, in his own words: “I don’t know that being gay means anything intrinsically besides denoting my sexual preference, but to be gay means you live life as an Other, an aberration, defined in opposition to straightness which is ‘normal’.
It means the world is not made for you.
I grew up in a small town in Alaska so my view of the world was also small. There weren’t any openly gay adults and there were very few representations of gay men in the media I consumed, most of which were one-dimensional stereotypes or defined by having AIDS.
My family was not religious or conservative, but conversations I heard around homosexuality in school, around town, and on the news, made it clear to me that I could not expect to receive dignity or legal equality, I did not deserve it. And though I didn’t believe my life was worth less than other lives, I knew that if everyone else believed it then it might as well be true.
For a long time it was difficult to imagine a future for myself. A future that felt meaningful.
I grew up afraid of the world I inhabited. I saw how casually boys and men inflicted violence on each other. Being gay (even perceived as gay) was automatically a reason to have violence inflicted on you, whether through intimidation or actual physical violence. It made me cautious, overly aware of my voice, my mannerisms, my body, and it’s proximity to other bodies. Even now, even in Portland, I cannot completely stop myself from feeling afraid; it’s conditioned in me. To reach for another man’s hand as we walk together in public is a deliberate decision I make. I still don’t trust the world I live in, and I don’t know that I should.
I grew up with secrets, which I believed would keep me safe, and made me feel distant from my family. I learned to sublimate my desires. I grew up independent, believing I could only rely on myself, determined to be my own man. I grew up lonely. I grew up tenacious, focused on getting out of Alaska, organizing my life around this goal. I grew up internalizing shame, and when people told me I didn’t ‘seem gay’ I took it as a compliment. I grew up with low expectations, not wanting to be disappointed. I grew up with walls, to keep other from hurting me. I grew up and learned there is power in the feminine, in empathy, in traits straight men weren’t allowed to access. I grew up believing I was irrevocably damaged by the pain I experienced, that no one would want to date me. I grew up and stopped apologizing for myself; it was not my job to make people comfortable. I grew up and had my first kiss; I was 21. I grew up to trust my family later than I wanted to. I grew up and dated, badly at first, but better as I got older. I grew up and noticed when I fell into old ways of thinking that did not serve me anymore. I learned to take my mental health seriously. I grew up and stopped being afraid of being alone; being worthy of love and having a relationship are not the same thing. I learned to take down the walls when it mattered, to risk being hurt. I learned to move through pain. I grew up to be honest, with myself, with family, with boyfriends. I grew up to be more optimistic, not an optimist, but more optimistic. I grew up stronger that I ever could have imagined.
That’s what being gay has meant to me. To come to terms with being an Other. To try and thrive in a world that’s not made for you. I feel lucky that I have.
I hope it’s easier for those growing up now.
I knew I was gay from a young age, years before I knew the word for what I was. But I also knew this wasn’t something I could talk about with anyone; it felt dangerous. I started coming out to my friends in Middle School. By high school I knew four or five other gay guys, we weren’t all friends, but we were all aware of each other. I didn’t date; I wasn’t ready for that. I came out to my mother right before I left for college, it felt important to do, to close the gap I felt between us. I waited till we were alone one night and told her, she didn’t get angry or cry. I remember she told me she was scared for me. But we couldn’t have a real conversation about it for years. After college I was living in Seattle and my parents planned to visit, so I told my mom that I wanted them to meet my then-boyfriend. This meant I finally needed to tell my dad I was gay. She told me she would do it. I let her; it felt easier. Then she told everyone else in the family and it just became a fact. A few years ago I took my (different) then-boyfriend to my brother’s wedding, the first time anyone in my family had met someone I dated, and it felt surprisingly natural. It was strange to me how effortlessly acceptance suddenly appeared, like it all happened behind the scenes.
(With regards to the gay community in Portland) I’m a terrible person to ask, I hardly go out. But I know it’s there and it’s strong and I’m glad it exists.
I’ve generally become more political as I’ve gotten older, I’ve aged into the demographic that reads the news for fun now instead of doing things that are actually fun. Also we’re about to enter four years of a Republican controlled Congress and White House (probably followed by the Supreme Court) so I’m preparing myself to stay engaged through what I fear will be a tough time for a lot of people I care about. My rights exist because people before me did the work, work they didn’t always know was going to pay off, and the work isn’t over. It’s probably going to get harder for a while, but I can’t let the work stop. To me, that also means working to protect and advance progress for other members of the LGBTQ community with less privilege, specifically trans people. As a person of color I also want to see conversations around race continue nationally, as well as in the LGBTQ movement, as we move forward.
I would tell my younger self what I tell myself now when I’m struggling through hard times: You don’t know what you mean to other people and you don’t know what will happen in the future.”
Jared, in his own words:“What does being gay/queer mean to you?
This is a complicated question. I came out at such a young age and being gay was already at the forefront of my own identity development that I feel it might be more fully integrated than if I had come out later in life. In other words, I mostly take that identity for granted.
I think being gay/queer (two very distinct identities and both with which I readily identify) has allowed me a distinct vantage point to observe and consider how identities might impact experience.
My mother is Jewish and I grew up in a predominately Mormon suburb. Early on, I was used to living on the periphery. By senior year, my sexuality was not a secret. But many of my peers seemed less concerned with my sexuality and more preoccupied with the fact that I was not Mormon. I don’t think my sexuality was something they could even conceptualize, but not being Mormon? That was almost unheard of.
Critical thinking is a buzzword (buzzphrase?) in academia. How do we teach it? How do we learn it? What facilitates critical thinking? I think in addition to being Jewish, being gay and queer has afforded me the opportunity to identify counter-narratives. I spent my entire life knowing I was not the norm and having to question why the norm was the norm.
This was another experience I took for granted. I know I have internalized a lot of heteronormative, homonormative, misogynist, racist, et cetera, dominant discourse, but I don’t excuse misogyny and racism the way a lot of people in queer communities seem to just by virtue of not being part of a heterosexual hegemony. It seems a little hypocritical and contradictory. Like, you know the consequences of a non-normative identity. Why would you enforce that kind of normativity with people who hold other non-normative identities? I’m not saying I’m perfect by any means – just an observation.
Simply, being gay probably refers to some primary sexual attraction while being queer is a more political (and ideally inclusive) identity. I imagine that’s a common answer. It might be redundant to say sexuality is more complicated than that. If you account for history and behavior, attraction, and personal identification, being gay and/or queer can’t begin to capture all of it. So I anchor all of that in identity – separate from history, behavior, attraction, et cetera.
(With regards to challenges and successes) right now I’m preoccupied with money. I’ve chosen an expensive path with a modest payoff. And I never learned the best money management skills. Spend it faster than you make it. Buy now, pay later. While self-imposed, this has been a huge challenge lately.
But I’ve had far more successes.
I’m the fifth of six children and the first to earn a four-year degree. I’m the only one with a master’s degree and might remain the only one. And I’ll certainly be the only with a PhD. I did that myself, with very little guidance and minimal financial support. And now I teach undergraduate students! That feels significant.
The year I finished undergrad, I published two poems in a small independent journal. That was a dream come true for me. The journal never gained much traction and has been inactive for sometime, but I am tremendously proud of that work.
I’ve been a singer since I was 15. I stopped singing for many years, but started again two years ago. Finding my confidence and discovering my voice all over again is a success for me. I got to rewrite my story around singing and reclaim that space.
My survival feels like a success. There’s no reason I should be where I am now – I wasn’t set up for it. And I remember thinking I’d never make it past 18. Each year after that, I felt like I was blindly fumbling for some semblance of this “adulthood” about which I had heard so much. And even if I’m faking it, I think I’ve made it look pretty good by now.
I came out a couple of weeks after I turned 15. I went to the Warped Tour with my best friend David (and some other people). David and I have known each other since the summer we turned 8 (we’re a month apart in age) and he’s still my best friend. David’s parents were out of town and he was planning a party – my older sister’s friends were going to supply the alcohol.
That day, David kept saying he had something he wanted to tell me, but he needed to wait until he was drunk. I don’t remember what I thought, but I’m sure I was paranoid he was angry, had a girlfriend, had tried some drug, or maybe he had a new best friend – all the thoughts of an anxious 15-year-old.
That night, when we were both good and liquored, we went into his dining room, away from the party, closed the door, and sat down on the floor, cross-legged, facing each other. After some awkward plying, David finally said, “I’m gay.” I was surprised. I was so wrapped up in my own struggle to come out, I didn’t even consider David’s sexuality. David and I just talked about this the other night. He said my response was, “I think I might be gay too.” He was the very first person I told.
After that party, my sister and I got into a fight and she told my parents about the booze. Even though she supplied it, I got in trouble. The whole situation was depressing – I was grounded. And gay?
I remember I was painting my bedroom at the time and sleeping in a spare room with my mattress on the floor. My mom came down one afternoon, days or maybe even weeks after the party, sat down on my mattress next to me, and asked what was wrong. She asked if I was having “girl troubles” and I scoffed and said, “No!” Then she asked if I was having “boy troubles” – I didn’t have a lot of male peers and in my younger years was often targeted for being effeminate and nonathletic. My mother maintains that’s what she meant, but I responded, “Are you asking if I’m gay?” My mother said, “No.” and I shot back, “’Cause I am.” My mother then said, “No, I don’t believe that.” and I clarified, “No, mom. I’m telling you I’m gay.”
Next she asked if David, my best friend, was also gay. I told her he was then she continued with a barrage of invasive questions about whether or not we were in love or had had sex. For years, my parents blamed my sexuality on his and his liberal parents’ influence and wouldn’t trust us to have sleepovers. In their minds, two gay teenage boys equaled uninhibited and constant gay sex. Over the next few weeks, I slowly came out to a couple of my siblings and a handful of close friends.
I begged my mother to keep my disclosure between us, terrified of what my father’s reaction would be. A few weeks after the first party, I was at another party. I was standing in the kitchen with a few friends, having recently come out to all of them. At one point, I called my parents and left a message on their answering machine letting them know I was with David (the enforcement of their arbitrary rules was inconsistent and their attempts at controlling me were futile – they knew that I’d do what I wanted or needed to do). After I left the message, I hung up the phone and proceeded to talk for several minutes about being gay. Turns out, the phone was broken, did not hang up, and recorded my entire speech on my parents answering machine.
David and I sound somewhat similar – our tone, our inflection. My father had heard the message and I thought I fooled him into believing it was David speaking. But as it turns out, my mother had already outed me. She said she could not keep secrets from her husband.
What followed was a dark few years during which I ran away, was kicked out, and spent at least half (probably most) of high school living with friends’ parents, and a stint or two in a youth shelter. At 17, my parents kicked me out one last time, signing over guardianship to a friends’ parents. My mother took it upon herself to tell my entire immediate and extended family I was gay and that was why I couldn’t live with them anymore. Unfortunately for them, nobody seemed to care. Nobody was surprised.
My parents have come a long way. I moved back in at the end of my senior year and lived with them through the beginning of my freshman year in college. My mother wants to set me up with her hairstylist and, in addition to contentious political debates, my father and I have had long conversations about love and heartbreak.
I grew up in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, amongst a sea of blondes. Very all-American. I’m not read as white in Utah. It’s arguably more homogeneous than Portland. Being gay in Salt Lake, even being part of a sort of subculture, I was still on the periphery. I remember one of my last nights out, at a gay club, a guy walked up to me and said, “You’re cute. You’d be a lot cuter if you went to the gym.” I shot back, “Why? So I can look like every other faggot in this room?”
When I moved to Portland ten years ago, I thought, “Finally! Gay people like me.” Everyone seemed so dynamic and ruled by passions that had little to do with notions of prescribed identities linked primarily to sexuality. Maybe they had just been less repressed than all the gays I grew up with, perhaps unencumbered by ex-Mormon baggage.
A few years ago, an acquaintance who had lived in New York City, L.A., and San Francisco said Portland was the gayest city he had ever lived in. Whenever tourists would stop my friends and me on the street asking where the gay bars were, we would respond, “Portland is a gay bar.”
Like so many “scenes,” Portland’s is white-washed and caters mostly to gay men. But that’s not really the gay scene – that’s just a handful of gay bars that dominate the scene. The actual scene feels more integrated. When I travel to other cities, I realize I get to take my safety for granted in Portland. Maybe that’s naïve or I live in a bubble within a bubble, but there doesn’t have to be a scene here, if that makes sense. It’s not quite post-gay – I think that’s too dismissive of the history and the struggle and the work left to do. But it does feel like a privilege to be gay in Portland, with or without a scene. Or perhaps I’m finally comfortable where I live.
I am grateful for my life and as much as I try to overcome it, I do have regrets. I’ve worked hard, but in some ways, I have coasted. I would tell my younger self to put in more effort instead of being debilitated by potential failure. I spend so much time thinking – I would tell my younger self to be more action-oriented, that I will survive a bad decision, but it’s hard to either recover or thrive when I make no decision.
Maybe it’s that little voice from my childhood telling me I’m not enough, but I wish I would have really applied myself, gone to a better school, finished college earlier, started my career earlier, enjoyed more success.
I would also be very kind to my younger self to combat all the insecurities that held me back – I would tell my younger self how smart and handsome he is and encourage my younger self to put himself out there, in all areas of his life. Mostly, whatever it is, I would remind my younger self, “This won’t kill you. You will not die because of this.
I would encourage my younger self to trust people more easily and point out all my younger self’s walls. I would ask my younger self if all that time partying actually got him any closer to his long-term goals and point out other ways to live than in a bar.
But if I actually got to say all that to my younger self, I’d be a different person now. And I’m quite fond of who I am. Yeah, I partied, but I had fun doing it! Sure, college took a long time, but I covered a lot of ground and learned more than I might have had I blown through it in four years. And all those insecurities, unmade decisions, and regrets force me to be present as well as conscious and intentional about how I live my life now.
Morgan, in his own words: “I’m not quite sure what it means to be gay. Its such an abstract concept, one that is constantly being manipulated by each individual that uses it. I do know what it means to feel an indescribable joy after a great first date, to be hurt by someone, to be deeply affected by someone. I do know what it means to be in love.
(With regards to challenges) People are mean. Kids are meaner. The kids that I went to school with never let a day go by without getting their chance to say things like “You know you’re a fag, right?”, or laugh at me as I walked down the hall. This was my normal. It changed me in such a way that I physically and mentally retreated. I lived in such fear of being a target that all my energy went into keeping my effeminate qualities in check at all times. After years of this sort of upkeep, the mental exhaustion of always hiding forced me to realize that I was torturing myself as much as my former classmates. I learned to let go of all those fears and anxieties. I learned to look at myself and say “It’s okay. You’re okay.”
I’m not extremely involved in the gay community in Portland, but the impression that I have is that it is positive and supportive, yet small. Portland seems like a city where anyone can feel comfortable being whoever they want to be.
My coming out story is relatively simple. In high school, I tried dating girls. By college, I had realized that dating girls was not fulfilling. So I tried dating guys. Essentially, that was the most fulfilling decision I have ever made. Despite having previously dated women, I never really came out to my friends and family. I’ve always been open about my personal life with loved ones and when I started dating guys, it was no different. It was a smooth transition and no one seemed to question my decision. I say that with a definite sense of gratitude.
I would advise my younger self to always walk with a head held high and to learn the phrase “Fuck off!” by the 5th grade. A little confidence and an unapologetic attitude go a long way.”