WORDS: BENJAMIN ROMERO '16
IMAGES: TOM BIANCHI
I am ten when my older brother teaches me how to hold a purse. Or, rather, when he teaches me the correct way to hold a purse. We’re waiting outside the women’s restroom in Nordstrom’s for my mother. As she rushes in, she gives me the bag, a leather satchel number with gold clasps. As one does, I throw the bag around my shoulders. My brother grimaces.
“Don’t hold it so naturally, like it’s yours or something.” He grabs the bag from me and demonstrates. “Hold it out in front of you. And make a fist.”
I take the bag and hold it out in front of me like it’s raw sewage or a recently acquired active landmine. I can’t quite make out what my brother means by all of this, but I know he’s right. I know he knows best, a feeling I won’t ever be able to shake.
Ever since I was young, I knew that I acted differently, especially from my brother. It was a finesse, an embellishment, a bit of too much. Sometimes I try to place it’s origins, but the earliest pictures I can find always show me beaming with something extra. My mom used to say I smiled too hard. There’s a polaroid of me taken during a Halloween party when I’m about four or five. I’m in a skeleton costume, with all my bones showing. I remember she was about take the picture and she said, “Ben, you’re smiling too hard.” I smiled harder. “Is this better?” She sighed, “No, don’t smile then.” The picture ends up with me unsure of what face to make, my teeth bare but not grinning. It says, “Don’t look at me,” or “What am I doing?” or “Who do you want me to be?”
As I got older, it became more pronounced. When we separated boys and girls into separate classrooms for sex ed., Alex Jennings pipes up, “Aren’t you in the wrong place?” When Theo Nelson interviews me for class and asks me my favorite baseball team (the Mets, one of the few teams I knew), he insists I name three players or else it doesn’t count. When I have to explain that my friend isn’t my “girlfriend” just a “friend who’s a girl.” These were small, stinging defeats.
To be sure, I grew up in a male-dominated world. My suburban childhood was filled with former high-power stock brokers turned competitive homemakers, a fervent commitment to the men’s athletic program, and an overall conservative preeminence of normality. It’s a town where there’s always construction of some sort: renovated kitchens, Christmas Cards, everything bigger and better than the Joneses. Anything divergent, like, say, the theater program, was considered an afterthought at best and in peril at worst.
As I glided through high school and through puberty, things changed. My voice grew deeper, and I grew larger. I could finally walk the walk and talk the talk, somewhat. Girls suddenly became interested in me, it seemed, all at once. I could finally be the man I was supposed to be, wanted to be, had to be for my own safety. I could be normal, somewhat, finally.
Skimming through several girlfriends, misplaced virginity, and pounds of Catholic guilt, I came out to my parents during my freshmen year of college. At first, this felt liberatory. I could be honest about who I was. I would answer to no one. It felt like a wave cresting over me.
And yet, no one ever speaks about what happens after you come out. It gets “better.” Better how? Better who? Better where? It gets “better,” some unknowable place that Dan Savage, Neil Patrick Harris, and Zachary Quinto live. It gets “better," a place populated by white, wealthy, famous, and cis-gender men. You join David Barton Gym. You fall in love through the VSCO cam filter. You get married and move to Chelsea.
Some people I talk to like to say that they’re “just gay.” It’s a passive identity, a facet of them impertinent to discuss because they are “normal otherwise.” And yet, can one be just gay? Is this an identity sapped of all its baggage and power and stigma?
I will not speak for every member of the queer community, the endless patchwork of genders and sexualities that somehow forms a shaky coalition. Still, I would argue there is a dichotomy to the message I received as a gay, white, cis-male. At once, if you come out, you can be ‘normal.’ Being gay is just a piece of who you are. In a society still steeped with homophobia and heteronormative dogma, this is critical to a feeling of safety and well-being, to commit to the act of coming out.
And yet, even as it gets better, it stays the same. Coming out does not neutralize being ‘gay,’ rather, it just encompasses it into who you are. It does not make you 'normal' or 'the same.' ‘Normal’ was never in the realm of possibility, This creates cognitive dissonance, as one strives to attain something that never was possible while basking in the glory of living in somewhere unknown, somewhere different but ‘better.’
To be sure, this cognitive dissonance is less conspicuous at Wesleyan. In our liberal bastion, being ‘queer’ is valued as cultural capital, a marginalized identity positing oneself against the dominant ‘normal.’ This does not discount the prejudice at home, but I feel the message here is often: congrats, you’re here! welcome to the promised land!
It is not the promised land. Being “gay” is not neutral, and the intersection of gender and sexuality does not disappear. It’s in the tones of girls who say, “I couldn’t tell he was gay the entire conversation,” as if that’s a strength; in the guys who exit parties shouting, “go suck a dick,” as if that’s a weakness. It’s being tokenized, valorized, exemplified, exoticized, fetishized, and having the eyes of people on you in a room.
Some days, I find myself feeling a sense of moral superiority, as if I’m in on the game everyone else is not. Seeing my friends flirt with boys looks primitive and beastial, a feathered display of constructed texts and stilted interactions. A boy steadying a girl, a girl’s hands above a boy’s in a hug. We applaud and take note.
Other days, I feel like I’m on the outside, like I’m only pretending to play along with the heterosexual game. Friends joke that I sound “gayer” on some days and celebrate that I can go to events ‘that other gay guys won’t.’ They never quite seem to understand that even armed with thick skin, I have “Brokeback Mountain” to their “Before Sunrise.” There are some things they won't ever understand.
Three weeks later, my Aunt takes me an errand. As she runs into the store, she hands me her purse. I hold it out like my brother taught me. She turns around and catches me holding, my arm taut and lengthy. She looks me in the eye, and she says, “From one actor to another, you should remember that for a part you play someday.”