I was thirteen when I realized that I was gay.
And yet, I did everything that I possibly could to shield that from those around me. I pushed this as far down as I could, trying everything possible to suffocate it, to drown it. I couldn't be any more different that I already was. My blackness always entered the room before I did: the downfall of being only a handful of racially diverse people living in a small town. In Southern Oregon, there are only a few ways that you can fit in. Hunting and fishing is one way, but that wasn't for me; I like animals too much to shoot them and fishing bores the shit out of me. You can join a club, like 4-H, but who really knows what those four H's stand for? Then there are sports.
Oregon only has one professional sports team, the Portland Trail Blazers. But, when you're as far away from Portland as Jacksonville is, roughly four hours south, high school sports are a way of life. This is what I decided to throw myself into. Sports were the only thing that would allow me to infiltrate the social norm of Southern Oregon life. If you didn’t play a sport, you were often not as popular among your peers. And, like most young adults, popularity is key to your existence. Popularity is what defines you. In this case, if I didn’t do a sport, I felt that I would never be accepted. Paying the price was hiding whom I truly was in order to fit into the status quo of my peers. I also had an image to uphold, being one of those few black kids. Sure, I had to deal with the Microaggressions: can I touch your hair? Do you have an extra muscle in your legs to make you run faster? Of course you’re good at basketball, you're black!
In their defense, I was something they hadn’t seen before except for on television; the questions were natural...for them. Fortunate for me, I have parents that taught me the power of words and how to answer these questions with dignity and grace. It was the easiest way for me to hide who I was.
I had always assumed that gay men were incapable of competing in a sport: they were far too effeminate to participate in such a brutish thing. And yet, I was able to do just that. It gave me the ability to hide and blend in with the other young men in my area. To them, I couldn't be gay because I played basketball, ran track. My gayness was never brought up on the court or on the field. Instead, the focus was on me for a different reason: my blackness. It wasn't hard to hide that fact since I was, generally, the only (or one of two) black kid(s) on the team. Every basketball team picture, there I was, standing in the center for display. There I was on the court playing what it was always assumed I was going to be good at because of my blackness. I had created a foolproof way of defending myself from these hurtful statements: Bottle it up and pretend that everything is all right.
That’s what I thought I had to do. I thought that I had to keep everything in a tight jar and not let anybody near it, for fear of letting air in. Never did I think about what it was doing to me or how it was crippling me and not allowing for the creation of authentic relationships. Truthfully, I didn’t care. This was the safest place for me at the time. Small town Oregon is not the place for a black man, let along a gay one. I thought I had to stifle it in order to protect myself. Choosing to be black was easier than being gay. It was easier to beat people to the punch line when they thought they were coming up with the funniest racial joke. Or being okay with everyone touching my hair and agreeing that "yes, it felt like sheep’s wool".
That was easier than what I thought would happen: being bullied for being more different, for being gay. If I was going to live as both, I would have to do so someplace else.
I graduated high school in 2009. I tried to do everything that wouldn't draw any unwanted attention to me. I continued to play sports, to have girlfriends, to do what was "expected." I had told myself that everything would be different when I went to college. I was leaving everything that I had known and decided on a school far from everything and everyone that knew me. The University of Vermont happened to be that place. Something about it felt comfortable. Maybe it was the fact that I was surrounded by just as many (if not more) white faces. With what I was used to in Oregon, I felt that I was able to disappear in a sea of whiteness. That, for some reason, it made it feel not everyone was looking at me. I had told myself that this would be the time for me to truly be myself, in all aspects.
That never happened.
Instead, I went back to what was safest: pretend that my life is just like everyone else. I still couldn't be a gay black man, not yet. The simple thought of it was very isolating to me. I felt that I had to do everything in my power to shield that from my new friends. Overcompensation was inevitable. Looking back, there are many days that I wish I had been more comfortable with myself. I was finally in a space that was accepting of those that were different, far more accepting than that small town I had just left. I was drowning in an ocean of my own insecurity, gasping for air. It wasn’t until I took time away from school that I was able to breathe. When I got there, I thought that I was ready to be a new person. I was in this new land, far away from anybody I had known. But still, I couldn’t bring myself to come out with it. It just wasn’t my time.
In 2012, I came home and finally realized that I needed to stop hiding from myself; It was time for me to do what I knew was right. The first time I went to a gay club, I was able to be myself. It like any other club I had been to before, only this time, I didn't have to worry that I knew the lyrics to the Beyoncé song. I was also free to lock eyes with a man that I found attractive. And I did. He was everything I wanted in that instant: I was attracted, he was easy to talk to, and it seemed as though he took a real interest in me. I as in uncharted territory but ready to explore what was out there. Something compelled me and I built up the courage to go home with him.
It was in this moment that I never felt more nervous but also at ease. It felt like my first time all over again, only this felt right instead of something that I was "supposed to do". Afterward, on my way home, a feeling of guilt came over me. I felt ashamed for what I had just done, even though, in the moment, it felt right. I wasn't able to look at anyone the same again. Instead, my internal strangle constricted in a way that made it so I couldn't accept anything. I'm gay, I fully am aware of that now, but why do I still feel so awful with myself? It wasn't until I said the words out loud, to family, that the fog was lifted.
Part II, Thursday
Title: "I'm Coming Out"
Artist: Diana Ross
Year Released: 1980