When the story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who tragically committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington bridge, started popping up in the news headlines, my first thought was “man, why would an 18-year old kid kill himself over something seemingly so trivial?”. His roommate and another Rutgers student bugged his dorm room and broadcast footage of Tyler making out with another guy. After all, we live in an era when the minutiae of our lives is logged for all to see via social networking. Privacy seems to be a thing of the past.
As the story continued rolling around in my head over the next couple of days, I became more and more disturbed. Having someone broadcast my romantic encounters (even today) would certainly be a low move, and would also certainly result in an attempted ass-kicking (or a good cussing out at the very least), but it wouldn’t upset me enough to resort to suicide. Why would a kid who seemingly had a good head on his shoulders and the world going for him (he was, by all accounts, a good kid and a talented musician) do something like that?
Then I remembered what it was like to be 18, gay and in the closet and it all made sense.
Some people are fortunate enough to grow up in a gay-friendly environment. Most are not. I am the first American-born child of a black Catholic old-school Caribbean family. Black. Catholic. Old-school Caribbean. First born American. Not the things you think of when you consider environments that would be good for a gay youth. I also came of age in the late Eighties/early Nineties-times that were nowhere near as gay-friendly as the 2010s. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, if someone was to have come out of the closet, they would have been risking a beatdown or at the very least, ostracism within the community. Back in those days, the first two associations most people made when the subject of gay men was brought up-hell, the ONLY two associations most people made were either of flamboyant queens or people with AIDS. There were no major media figures at that time who had come out on their own terms. (Hell, there are STILL no major media figures of color out on their own terms, unless you count Ricky Martin).
I’m not going to get into the whole nature vs. nurture argument when it comes to sexuality, for two reasons. One, no one can definitively say whether homosexuality (or bisexuality, for that matter) is genetic or due to various factors in your environment as you grow up. Two, not everyone “becomes” gay the same way. Perhaps, for some people (I would imagine especially for those who find same-sex partners later in life) it is a choice. I’ll tell you straight up that it was never a choice I made. Some people feel that they turned towards homosexuality due to abuse in their early years-well, I’m fairly certain that I was never sexually abused, and the physical, verbal and emotional abuse I experienced came from both male and female members of my family. Without going into potentially embarrassing specifics, I can remember having an attraction to men as far back as when I was 6 – before said abuse even started, and a couple of years before I even knew the specifics about what sex WAS! (hey, simpler times and all that).
You hear stories these days about kids who come out to their families and their friends while still in their teens, and I say to myself “I could never have done that”. First and foremost, for me, there was no precedent. I didn’t meet a reasonably well-adjusted gay person until I was a junior in high school, and I didn’t meet an openly gay man who wasn’t a caricature until some time after I graduated. There were (and still are) no openly gay people in my immediate family or among my immediate family’s circle of friends. There was no hint that my friends would be tolerant, whether back home in Flatbush, or in my more open-minded, but not THAT open-minded high school environment (even though among my circle of friends back in Brooklyn, there was one guy who was quite obviously gay-although he denied it then). The only discussions that I remember even having about homosexuality in my household were comments a relative made about my pierced ear (which I got shortly before I turned 17) making me look like “a fruit”. I’d be willing to venture a guess that a lot of gay kids and teens have been in or are currently in similar situations, particularly those in small towns.
My sexuality was a closely guarded secret back when I was a teenager, and I didn’t see myself ever being in a situation where I would have been open, even proud, of being gay. While the one openly gay guy in my high school (out of a graduating class of 1,200) wasn’t bullied or bashed, he WAS mocked by a hell of a lot of kids, including me, and while I secretly admired his bravery and honestly (especially for being so young), I definitely didn’t want to be THAT guy. So I lied. For years, I paraded around a series of “girlfriends”. Some of them may have actually had romantic feelings for me, but others were just good friends who had no idea that they were being used by me (I guess I wasn’t such a good friend). I did this, to varying degrees, for much longer than I’d like to admit, ever conscious of what people I cared about would think of me if they knew the truth.
Had I not been such a short-sighted kid (and had I not been going through an Atheist phase where eternal damnation on account of my sexuality was the last thing on my mind), I think those years would have been even rougher than they were. Not to say that they weren’t rough enough. As far as I knew, I was going to keep my secret and continue parading around these “girlfriends” until…well, there was no “until”. I was just gonna keep doing it. I guess there was a part of me that figured my sexuality was a “phase” and that I would eventually find a girl who made me feel the same things I felt whenever I saw a guy that I liked.
A series of events led me to begin to come to terms with my sexuality. First thing was-I left home. About a month before my 18th birthday, I moved into my co-worker Harry’s apartment and made my first step towards being independent. My folks’ ignorance manifested myself even while I was making that transition, as the relative that helped me move apparently reported back to the rest of my folks that my future roommate Harry and my friend Paul (who also helped me move) “looked fruity”. Both Harry and Paul are (and to my knowledge, have always been) straight. The second thing that happened (around the same time) was that I had my first sexual experience with another man. Actually, it was the first sexual experience of my life, period. The third, and maybe the most important, was that I finally got busted in a lie.
I’d led many of my co-workers at the time to believe that I was seeing this girl who also worked at the store. Well, “seeing” is an understatement in regards to what I was telling them I was doing to her. It’s amazing to me that I thought she would be a willing participant in my ruse, and more amazing that it seemingly never occurred to me that she would find out (Good Lord, was I a dumb kid). Well, she found out. And she wasn’t happy. Actually, she went to human resources and filed a sexual harassment complaint about me. Needless to say, the whole ordeal was incredibly embarrassing, and it almost led to me losing my job. In a way, I was blessed to have people there who were advocates for me (or maybe just took pity on me being a dumb-ass kid), because instead of tossing me on my ass like most companies would’ve done without a second thought, I was demoted and transferred.
The whole situation turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because the store I wound up transferring to marked the first time that I’d been in an environment where being a gay man was not something that was swept under the rug or something that was a cause for embarrassment. A healthy percentage of the store’s employees were gay or bisexual men or women (mostly men), and while some played their sexuality close to the vest, many others were more open. And the people that gave a damn one way or the other about it were distinctly in the minority. While it’s not like I spent a week in that environment and suddenly burst out of the closet, it was certainly the first real step on the long road leading to self-acceptance.
I can remember the first time I acknowledged to another person that I had same-sex attractions. A group of us were having lunch together, and one guy, another young black man whose name I forget, was discussing his bisexuality in relatively matter-of-fact terms. I was able to chime in (of course, at the time I was “bisexual”, too…a tactic I fell back on for years anytime I thought the introduction of me as a gay man might be too much to explain) and, much to my surprise, the world didn’t stop turning. No one at the table gave me a disapproving look or got up and walked away in a huff. While I’m sure there was a look or two of surprise, ultimately it was no big deal, and that was monumental. For so many gay kids, the thought that there are people who greet the idea of homosexuality with a shrug is a completely foreign idea. I think once you realize that, then there’s a part of you that says to yourself “why the fuck have I been hiding this for so long?”
Of course, that’s not to say that my story continues with the perfect partner, tons of money, and a parade down 5th Avenue. I’m now in my early thirties, still single, struggling to make ends meet, and I still deal with periods where I’m conflicted about my sexuality. I’ve accepted that I’m gay (and honestly, complete acceptance is something that’s still relatively new to me, as I’ve bounced in and out of the closet several times over the years), certainly, but there have been consequences. I’ve lost some friends, I’ve distanced myself from most of my family, and I’ve dealt and still deal (probably more so now than in my youth when I had callowness in my corner) with the feeling that I’m somehow a mistake, that I’m cursed with loneliness because of my lifestyle. My Catholic upbringing has raised the issue that maybe I *am* cursed with eternal damnation for my orientation (although something tells me that many of the people that judge me will be joining me in Hell, if that indeed turns out to be the case). If I could push a button and re-live my life as a heterosexual, there’s a large part of me that would. My goal here certainly isn’t to tell anyone reading this who may be conflicted about his or her sexuality that the rest of your life is going to be lollipops and roses-very few people (gay, straight or other) get to live a charmed life. Hardship is a part of the human experience-we have to deal with it and move forward.
Although dealing with my issues hasn’t been an easy task, I can say definitively that ending my life because of my conflicted sexuality or even because of the bullying I endured (which was primarily due to factors other than my sexual orientation) would have been absolutely the wrong move. There are a great deal of things-good, bad and indifferent-that I would have missed. The best advice I can give to a young boy or girl who is having issues with his or her sexuality is to be patient, and at the first available good opportunity, find a supportive, tolerant environment. It may mean that you have to wait until you graduate high school and have to move into a more urban environment where you can surround yourself with people who are a little more cosmopolitan (as I did). It may mean that you have to distance yourself temporarily from people you care about and that distance might become permanent. It may not happen at 18 or 19-self-acceptance is a gradual process. But ultimately, it’s rewarding and a relief to be OK with who you are-and you will get there.
If I can offer a word of caution, I will say that you don’t have to turn into a stereotypical clone (as I briefly did and I believe plenty of other people do simply in order to fit in). You can be yourself and still be gay, and you should also be educated enough to know that “gay” comes in many different guises. You can don a feather boa and participate in the local drag show or you can play bass in a rock band or you can sit at home on Sundays in dirty sweats and watch football and be gay. Don’t let other people’s views of what “gay” is turn you into something that you are not. And don’t let your sexuality define you, either. For a lot of folks out there, being gay is who they are, and while my sexuality is certainly a part of me, it’s certainly not what defines me. Whatever you decide, though, make sure that whatever you’re doing and however you’re doing it, be true to yourself and try your best to maintain a positive attitude. Being in an environment where you’re treated just like everyone else is key to self-acceptance. Trust me, if you don’t take steps to accept yourself, you’re going to find yourself in a very unhappy situation. Look, being a gay teenager or young adult, struggling with your sexuality is a rough situation. It most likely will (and should) elicit sympathy. However, no one is going to feel sorry for a 35-year old closet case, especially one who gets married and ropes an unsuspecting member of the opposite sex (and possibly a kid, or kids) into a fucked up situation. How are you going to feel 10 or 20 years from now, or when you’re on your deathbed, with the realization that you’ve lived your life as a lie? How can you teach your kids to be true to themselves when you haven’t?
As many strides as we’ve made in society over the past twenty years, being gay (ESPECIALLY being a gay man) is not easy. It’s doubly difficult for those of us gay men who a) grew up in religiously oppressive environments, b) are men of color, and c) don’t conform to stereotypes so obvious that we don’t have the need to have a discussion about sexuality because everyone’s already figured it out. There is a stigma around male homosexuality-even among the most “enlightened” of us-that is going to take many, many years to go away completely, if it ever does. However, (and take it from me, ’cause I’ve lived it), we all have the power to change our situations to make things better for ourselves. It starts with self-acceptance. Once you get to that point, things will slowly begin to get better. It won’t necessarily be easy, mind you. You may have to go through even more hardship before things start to turn around, and things may never be perfect (hell, I’m still waiting), but I guarantee you that a life lived honestly trumps living a life in shame or in hiding. And it certainly beats not living life at all. I wish someone would have been there to tell that to Tyler Clementi and the many other gay young people who commit suicide.