Thomas, in his own words:“Queerness is creativity; it’s curation. There’s an artistry and a poetry required to define yourself by your own terms. If you are told that everything you find to be beautiful or desirable is wrong, a path is forged to a certain freedom, to decide what you think is right, and true. I know that for so many of us this creates a constant anxiety, it can be really draining emotional work. But I know that for myself, it’s what saved me. The liberating revelation that my love and my life were to be entirely my own creation. It’s inspiring.
I didn’t always feel so empowered. I grew up going to Catholic school in the Midwest. When I told my parents I would be attending a demonstration for gay rights at the Kansas State House, my mother–she’s Italian–she grabbed the kitchen counter and burst into tears, repeating, “I just want to have grandchildren.” I was fourteen. Coming out, then, seemed impossible. It would be a part of myself that I would keep hidden, I figured.
I was lucky, though, because it was at my all-boys Catholic high school that I met my best friends: the Gay Lunch Table, we called ourselves. We were young and in this ostensibly repressive environment, but it never felt like that when we were together. We had our own lingo; we made each other laugh. If anyone ever tried to give us trouble, we made a game of it, coming up with unapologetically effeminate ways to make them uncomfortable. We felt tough, and not in spite of our homosexuality, but because of it.
I try to remember that every day. I’m older now, and less afraid of who I am. But it’s a good reminder: let your confidence be a shield. I read a lot of gay authors, try to follow gay artists, and there’s such a resilient beauty that runs through our history.There is both elegance and endurance. I find it very motivating. I feel the power of a family line, like I am from a long tradition of dreamers forced to reinterpret their world. So that’s what I try to remember, and what I try to put into my own work: queerness presents an opportunity to imagine a more beautiful world. Feel the power of that, wear it like armor, and embrace the grace of being gay. “
Dylan, in his own words:“I identify as gay, but for most of my life I didn’t know what that meant. I think that’s a newer term. I grew up just knowing that I liked boys and I always thought of girls as friends.
Everyone knew I hung out with the girls and I think girls thought of me as a girl. They would would say, “no boys can play with us,” and the other boys would be mad, because I was allowed to, and the girls would say, “only Dylan. Only Dylan can play with us.”
Then as I got older another boy would ask to kiss me, or would ask what it was like to kiss another boy, so I would show them.
It was just easy being gay. That’s the way it always was. It wasn’t until I got older and had to explain it to older people, or tried to fit in with guys that thought I was strange that I became more closeted. I became closeted for a while, because I wanted more male friends, but I think the guys I was friends with knew and would probably have been open minded if I’d known why I was different or how to describe it.
I never really came out. I think everyone just knew how I was. I was with older boys from a very young age and it was just natural. One time, after my first real boyfriend and I had moved in together, my mom sat me down and asked me if I was gay. I said I didn’t know. I guess. Something like that, and then they just started letting my boyfriend come to Christmas dinner and my family learned to love him too.
I don’t really feel like there is a gay community in Portland. I think that that’s why gay people like it here, because we can just be gay and nobody really thinks about it. I did go to a lesbian bar that happens once a month, and really there were only about 5 gay guys and no straight men there, and the lesbians kind of had us on the outskirts of the group, like “we’re not going to put up with any of your gay shit. Tonight’s our night.” It really shocked me, because I’ve never had lesbian friends and I was surprised by the diversity of women that were there. It was about 200 women and most of them didn’t fit any one stereotype. They dance different than gay guys was my biggest observation.
I think I would rather take advice from my younger self than give it. I was much more bold and excited about things when I was younger. I think I was very excited to be, to do, and to have. I’m kind of focused on my future self at the moment, because I don’t want to get stuck in too much of a routine and I want to be able to afford a comfortable lifestyle. Maybe I would tell my younger self, “Good job! You’re doing great! Keep going!”
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.”