Recently on an episode of RuPaul's Drag Race, one of her competing queens was asked why she thought she deserved to be the winner of the contest and she retorted with a very heartfelt and thought provoking response. She said that she has always been a drag queen and that she wanted to be an example for all the confused little boys out there who are scared about their sexuality and who don't know that its ok to be themselves, to accept who they are without self-loathing and grief. She wanted to tell them that its ok to be an individual and to accept themselves and that its ok to say FUCK YOU and stand up tall. RuPaul went on to say that there is "power in the fuck you factor." She's right!
For me, growing up in rural America was not easy. I felt different from a very early age and never felt really accepted by my peers, what few that I had, nor by my extended family. My Mother, Father, and Grandmother were very supportive once I came out of the closet. It was my other ultra-conservative, bible thumping, Baptist family members who never really treated me with much acceptance or respect. I once was told that HIV was "God's punishment for the queers" by a family member. My 12 year old cousin at the time, told me that his Mother said to him that she didn't want me coming to visit him anymore because I got on her nerves due to the fact that I "acted feminine sometimes." As soon as he said it, I punched him in the leg and made him cry. I was very hurt.
I grew up in Washington County, out in the middle of nowhere. We lived on a gravel road, and the closest neighbor was several miles away, and the nearest grocery store was a half hour drive. I lived with my Father, a business owner, former steel mill worker, and ex military army officer who served in World War II who only went through the eight grade but proudly managed to make something of himself and my Mother and Grandmother. My Mother was a foster child who suffered a lot and was bounced from home to home and finally made a career out of working for a dentist and also worked at my Father's glass and framing shop during my early years. My Grandmother did not work but in the past had wanted to be an artist and was quite good at hand sketches. She raised me during my early childhood since both my Mother and Father worked full time. Most of my childhood was spent alone, with not many friends, only my cousins who lived nearby worrying about hiding the big, self defined, dirty family secret. When I was a kid I was told that my Father was my Grandfather (or my Mother's foster Dad). It was a shock that haunted me for years in addition to bearing the heavy cross of being a homosexual. I have an adopted sister and brother. My brother had left long before I was conceived and made a career out of being a professional criminal starting at the age of 16, which was when he was first arrested for grand theft auto and then went on to things like armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and even had a SWAT team complete with helicopters after him at one point. I met him once while out on a parole break. Once was enough. My sister was with me as a baby and then moved to Florida and spent many years of her own trying to make sense of the family situation and to accept herself. She looked at me, and in some ways still does, as the root cause of why her family was dysfunctional.
The tone of the whole area in which I grew up was very anti- culture, anti-urban, and anti anything not involving a white, non-ethnic background. Diversity did not exist and being gay was not an option. I attended McGuffey High school with a graduating class of only 200. We had one African American girl in the entire school and 99% percent of the student body was Protestant and very lily white, and very country redneck. So redneck, in fact, that one summer on my way to school, the KKK actually had a road side meeting on Rt 40, trying to recruit new members. With southern flags, and white hoods, they stopped cars and handed out pamphlets about how blacks came from apes, and gays should be murdered for defiling the order of nature and going against God and how Hitler was justified in murdering a million Jews. It was something that I would never forget.
Most of my career in middle school was spent trying to survive, to blend in and not draw attention to my differentness. I knew, when I was 11, that I was gay. I had gone to the public pool with my parents and for the first time, noticed that my attention was drawn to the other naked men's bodies while changing in the shower area. I was attracted to the male body and it scared me and I repressed it for a very long time. I knew that deep down something was different about me. My parents would make comments about how soon I would be liking girls, and their friends would joke about when I would get a girlfriend. It made me very uncomfortable and very sad on the inside. I was so confused at that time. I didn't like girls. I liked boys. While most red blooded American boys going through puberty were in the bathroom with a playgirl, my time was spent thinking about boys.
Middle school was a nightmare. I had few friends and I tended to hang with the other kids who were forced out into the social fringe. They, much like me, were just trying to survive, to blend in, to go unnoticed, to avoid the pain of being tormented by the other "normal kids". High school was somewhat better, when I say better, I mean tolerable. Until this point, my only exposure to gay life was the few pathetic examples that I had seen on 80's television, all of which were portrayed as limp wristed, lisping, queens. Of course, there was the rumor during middle school of the "two queers who lived in Claysville who were caught having oral sex by the train tracks and were proudly beaten to a bloody pulp." It turns out that the "two queers" were the owner of the local bake shop in Claysville, and his newly found out lover. The bake shop closed within a month due to lack of business, and the owner moved out of town. The message to me was, it's not ok to be who you are. If you are open about who you are, you will be ridiculed, harassed, possibly beaten up, and socially shunned. I will never forget a boy named Michael Bonato who was my arch enemy all trough middle school and high school. He always sat behind me in homeroom due to our last names. For eight years I put up with harassment on a daily basis. We were in art class one day, and I can even tell you exactly what he was wearing during the incident because that is how burned into my brain it became. It was the days of Michael Jackson and the Thriller video and Mr. Bonato had on a red shirt with all those crazy zippers all over it like Michael Jackson wore. The class was working on a clay project and unfortunately I was pared up with him as my partner. He looked at me and said, "my Father says that faggots deserve to die." I knew what he was insinuating and it was something that always stayed with me.
My first crush was on a 30 year old man who worked at our church as an intern who was working toward becoming an ordained priest. His name was Tory and he had a full head of curly black hair, and a square set jaw with the most brilliant blue eyes that I had ever seen. He was also my Sunday school teacher. I was totally smitten at the age of 12. He never had a clue, nor did my parents.
When I was 13 I was told the true identity of my Father and that was the year that they decided to try to leave and run to Washington State. One Sunday morning my world changed in a flash. I awoke to my grandmother being gone to church and our family van packed up with all my belongings and my Mother in tears. She said this is your Dad, not your grandfather. I was hysterical. We rented a cheap motel, I tried to run away and they chickened out and went back home. The silence was deafening and no one spoke of it. I was told that I chose this and now I couldn't complain about being miserable. My already cracked foundation had completely crumbled around me and it would take years of future therapy to finally work through things.
During my late teen years , I had saved up enough money to have my uncle build a computer for me. This was my first real exposure of gay culture. The days of AOL, IRC chat, and message boards, introduced me to other gay people. In my senior year, I had an online friend who lived in Phoenix, who wanted to meet me in the worst way. I panicked and shut down. I started dating women, and actually had a fiancée at one point. I lost my straight virginity at the age of 18 in a cheap motel in Pittsburgh on my birthday. I wondered what all the fuss was about because it was not enjoyable. Needless to say that ended in a very angry mess during my freshman year of college. It was all about trying to force myself to fit in. If I married a woman, and lived a repressed life, like so many other married gay men out there, then it would all be ok right? In the end it turned out that the girl I was dating had called my father to inform him that "your son is a faggot." My father, being the person that he is, promptly informed her that it was none of her business, and " when my son is ready to talk about it he will." I had no clue that it had even happened since my parents kept it from me for years. When I was 18, my sister (or Aunt as she was called until the big secret was revealed) called me and said that she KNEW everything about the dirty secret and she was going to expose everything! This put me into a panic and into a depression. I felt like I was being asked to fix a mistake that I had no choice in. I was being emotionally blackmailed by my sister.
It wasn't until I went to college that I learned about the "fuck you factor". I attended the University of Pittsburgh and lived on my own in a roach trap of an apartment in South Oakland. I still kept to myself during my freshman year but then things began to change. I met other gay people and I realized that it really was ok to be myself. It was ok to be gay, it was ok to wear what I wanted even if it wasn't considered cool, it was ok to have my own thoughts and opinions, and most of all it was ok to say FUCK YOU, this is me and I am proud to be who I am.
My first gay sexual encounter was at the age of 20. I went out on a date with my soon to be partner and was seduced in a drunken mess on a couch in a friend's apartment later in the evening. I woke up feeling sick and even more scared and confused. I started dating and remember feeling very self conscious about being out in public with other gay people. I felt like everyone knew and was staring at us. I got over it quickly.
I partied my ass off in my early 20's and submerged myself in gay culture. I hit the club scene every weekend, I partied, I smoked pot, I started smoking cigarettes, and even tried cocaine once. I was into all things gay and thought that life was about bars, smoking marijuana, sex, and looking good. Thankfully I had enough sense about me to be safe during the height of the HIV epidemic. A lot of my friends were not so lucky. I managed to stay far enough from the drug scene to stay out of harms way. My friend Lisa, however did not, and died at the age of 30. I was warned early on by my on line gay friend from Phoenix about gay life. He said "honey, you will learn that a lot of guys will claim that they care about you, and then they will fuck you and be gone in a heartbeat." He was right and several did.
I found a partner with whom I had a seven year relationship with. The dog, the house, the joint bank accounts, the whole deal. After seven years, things fell apart and we both realized that we were too young when we had met and that neither of us really knew what real love was all about. It took me until the age of 38 to figure that one out! After my break up, or "mini nightmare divorce" as I liked to refer to it, I became a mess. I went from 195 lbs to 159 lbs in a few months. I was gaunt, and I couldn't walk across a room in my baggy size 28 pants, without feeling faint. My parents were worried and my friends disappeared and sides were taken. I was alone. My mother actually asked me if I was "sick", which was her way of saying do you have HIV. Until this point, my parents knew my partner as a "roommate" or so I had deluded myself. I finally broke down and called my mother and came clean. I said, "are you sitting down, I have to tell you something" to her over the phone with sweaty palms and quivering legs. She replied "yes, are you ok?" I went on to spill my guts about being gay. She never flinched. She told me that they had known for years and that my girlfriend had ratted me out a long time ago. She told me that it was ok and that I was her son and would always be. I then got a lecture about how "even though gay sex is with a man you can still catch things." I said "Mom, I am not a virgin!" My Father was equally supportive. My Grandmother, who was a staunch Baptist was the most surprising of all. She was my biggest supporter in the end and taught me that it was ok to love myself.
This leads me to discuss a recent article that I read about an actress and performer named Penny Arcade in this months Out Magazine. Penny, prior to her career, lived with a bunch of wild drag queens in NYC and according to Penny, they saved her life. Penny was a reform school runaway, whose father was in a mental institution, and whose mother was abusive. "My life was saved by gay men. Gay men recognized me. They taught me how to think. Everything that had made me wrong in the world made me just perfect," says Penny during her interview. Penny goes on to talk about how much gay culture has changed and why questions why we, as gay and lesbians, suddenly feel the need to find acceptance by the straight world.
"Now we're in this monoculture with this pathetic need of some gay people to have the approbation of heterosexual celebrities. When I look at people who are stars in the gay world—Margaret Cho or Kathy Griffin or even my most beloved Joan Rivers—all these people are always talking about their gays. And gay people accept that?? When Kathy Griffin says "my gays" I want to kick in the television. When Margaret Cho says "my gays" I want to take an axe and smash in the T.V. set. When someone positions herself along side and not along with, I don't understand that. Nina Simone was with. Judy Garland was with. Barbara Streisand was not saying 'my gays.''' "Being gay is not special, we need to cut that shit out." – Penny Arcade, OUT Magazine, April 2011
Arcade's point is that gays are part of, not separate from, everyone else. She goes on to say that there is no such thing as "gay rights", only human rights. This brings me back to the power of the "fuck you factor." We, as gays and lesbians, need to stop trying to gain acceptance from the outside and start accepting ourselves from the inside. We are all part of this planet and we should not have to seek acceptance as human beings nor should we be treated as substandard. We should not have to feel like it's a privilege to be included in society or to be accepted by heterosexuals. It really is ok to say FUCK YOU, I am what I am, and hold your head up high. I did it, and it was the best thing I ever did in my life. It took me most of my life to learn to love myself, and some days it's still very hard. I think that if you cant love yourself then you cant really love anyone else. You have to learn this lesson first!
I am not writing this for pity, nor am I writing it to make anyone feel anything other than possibly a light bulb going on in their head. My story is not unique nor was my tumultuous past. I am one of the lucky ones. Many gay people lose their family due to being disowned, many hide their identity and get married and live tortured lives, some even commit suicide. I was lucky because I still have a family and surround myself with people who care. I am writing this for all of the scared, closeted men and women out there and for the young men and women who are just starting out. It is ok to say fuck you and be yourself and to love yourself. Be proud of who you are!
To all the people from my past who told me I was worth nothing, who called me a faggot in middle school and highschool, to some members of my family who made me feel ashamed and hate myself for being gay, for the teacher in school who told me that I would amount to nothing, and to all the others along the way who tried to trip me up and make me not believe in love and in life, FUCK YOU! Boy that felt great!