What does a gay man do when stuck in rural Oklahoma?
In all my years as a lecherous homosexual, I have never, not even once, hooked up with someone in my hometown. The primary reason being: My hometown is miles away from anywhere an openly gay man would likely take up residence.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy visiting home. I do. I enjoy getting away from D.C. I enjoy seeing the buffalo out at the wildlife refuge. I enjoy visiting my parents’ donkeys in the barn. I enjoy the wide-open skies, unobstructed by skyscrapers and billboards and smokestacks.
But damn, it’s impossible to catch a dick out there.
And so, whenever I find myself in my old room with its lovely view of the mountains and the miles upon miles of yellow grass we call the Great Plains, I am forced to find another outlet for my sexual energy — one that doesn’t involve actually meeting anyone.
The best app for this, by far, is Scruff.
Scruff is different from its notorious counterpart Grindr in a number of ways. For one, it feels more chill. You can “woof” at people you find attractive instead of messaging them, an appealing option for an introvert. But most importantly, unlike distance-based dating apps, you can talk to people from all over the world.
In my neck of the woods, the nearest guy on Scruff, a self-described “53 y/o DTF white male,” is located 13 miles away from me. He always, without fail, has as his default picture a horrifying photograph of a human head mounted on a wall with gazelle antlers sprouting from its skull.
Not my type.
Unwilling to become the next head on the white male’s wall, and too lazy to entertain the idea of driving thirty minutes to meet up with guys from the nearest city, I typically choose to spend my time on Scruff chatting up men from Brazil. Sometimes they teach me disgusting words in Portuguese (a service you won’t find on Rosetta Stone).
But the last time I went home, something strange happened. A blank profile messaged me from about a mile away.
Given that this was during the dead of night, my first instinct was to open the blinds of my windows and check to see if I could spot a glowing light out in the field. A mile in rural Oklahoma is too close for comfort. It might as well be coming from inside the house.
“Hi,” the message read.
Curious, I responded. “What’s up?”
A few minutes passed.
“I think you know me lol.”
Things were getting interesting.
I flipped through my Rolodex of possibilities, but the only gay man I knew of who lived in the area was my best friend from high school, and he had philosophical differences with dating apps. With a rush of excitement, I deduced that this must be a teacher I once had. A specific one. I knew it, I thought.
“We went to school together,” the blank profile continued.
“We did?” I replied, on edge. “Who are you?”
“You probably don’t like me… haha. I was a little mean to you.”
A familiar feeling bubbled up in my gut: Panic.
I knew which school he meant. There was only one for miles and miles around. It was my former middle school, the one where I’d been mercilessly bullied for being gay.Even after I’d left and after I’d grown up a bit, I still couldn’t drive through town or pass the school without having a visceral reaction. My hands would shake. My stomach would tie itself in knots. This was my body saying, “You’re in danger.”
I didn’t really have one bully. I had quite a few back then. And this guy's blank dating profile provided didn’t narrow it down much. I mentally rifled through names and faces.
“Who?” I asked again.
He sent a picture.
I instantly recognized him. He wasn’t one of my main bullies. That much was a relief. And yet, for one reason or another, despite being more or less a background character during the worst years of my life, his was one of the faces of my past I still clearly remembered.
Despite being more or less a background character during the worst years of my life, his was one of the faces of my past I still clearly remembered.
I still have nightmares about this person: nightmares where I am thirteen again, standing in the hallways of my tiny school out in the middle of nowhere. My mission in these nightmares is to avoid being seen, to hide behind locker doors until I make it to the safety of the bathroom. But I am always seen, and when I am, it feels like the monster caught me. I wake up sweating. I put my hand to my heart.
I think it was the casual way he joined in on the harassment that made me hate him. The way after someone called me “faggot” he would parrot them, ally himself with them, use me to form solidarity with others.
I came to see him as the embodiment of what had happened to me. He was everyone who didn’t stop it. He was everyone who could have helped me.
And so, I carried his voice with me for years. He doesn’t know it, but he’s had a major impact on my life. As I got older, I became impossible to argue with or criticize. Whenever someone tried to confront me, even in a respectful way, I would see his face again. I would hear his voice. I would feel ganged up on. I would become defensive. I would lash out.
“Dude,” the other person might say. “Relax.”
But it only made me angrier. I was angry all the time. How could I not be? If I ever let my guard down, someone would hurt me again. Day in and day out, I felt like a cornered animal. My body would scream, Attack. Attack. Attack.
This is before I knew what fight-or-flight meant or what PTSD was. Before I knew those words, I knew him.
“Oh,” I finally replied to his picture. “Yeah. I remember you.”
After the panic subsided, embarrassment set in.
I recalled, of all things, a tree outside my old apartment in Oklahoma City. It was warped and crazy-shaped. This was because, as my landlady explained to me, the tree had grown up and around something instead of straight up. The object, whatever it was, was later removed, resulting in the tree’s strange trajectory. That was me: A weird-ass tree that had grown up, around, and in spite of something, shaping myself to it even after that “something” had long gone. This experience had altered me. Changed me, in some irreversible way.
Whatever. The metaphor worked in my head at the time.
But how had I let that happen? How had I let him have such an influence on me?
“Are you mad?” the profile asked.
“Yes,” I said.
Unable to control myself, I decided to ask him if he remembered anything he’d done.
“No lol,” he said. “But I was a real asshole back then.”
And that was it. All those years of remembering, carrying, and suffering over this person, and he probably never thought about me at all after I moved away.
A better, more appropriate tree-ism came to mind: “The axe forgets; the tree remembers.”
I had to walk for a while. If rural Oklahoma is good for one thing, it’s long walks outside, especially in the fall when the night air is clean and crisp. I breathed into my hands to warm my nose as I crunched along the gravel road, trying to clear my head.
I thought about it, and when I calmed down, I reached a conclusion I didn’t expect.
This person wasn’t the one-dimensional villain I’d made him out to be. All this time, he’d been closeted. Just like me. Yes, he had hurt me. Yes, he was wrong to hurt me. But I realized he was a victim too. In the town he and I had grown up in, being gay was seen as one of the worst things you could be. You might as well not even be human.
I was fortunate enough to have parents who accepted me. But I know he didn’t.
In the town he and I had grown up in, being gay was seen as one of the worst things you could be. You might as well not even be human.
When he saw me getting pushed or getting my books smacked out of my hands or getting slurs thrown my way, he must have been relieved it wasn’t him.
And I can’t forgive that.
But I can understand it.
He and I were both thrown into an environment where we had to either prove our masculinity or become a target. I can assume he felt scared. I can assume he was unhappy. I can assume he felt pain.
I didn’t know it at the time, but he and I were caught in the same system, a cycle of violence that perpetuates itself — one that leaves in its wake people who are in turns the victim and the villain. Someone made him hate himself. He saw himself in me. And so, he hated me.
If I could trace what happened to me back to its roots, it would be somewhere far beyond him and beyond me. It’s the thing that makes me insecure about my voice. It’s the thing that makes me stop and consider, whenever I’m picking out clothes, whether the things I like are too feminine. It’s the thing that makes me have to think critically about why I dislike certain things about myself – and why I dislike those things in others.
Masculinity has been programmed into me since before I can remember, but it has taken me a lifetime to unlearn. In fact, I’m still unlearning. I’m not free of internalized hatred either. That’s the brutal reality.
But the process of unlearning it has given me more freedom than I ever imagined for myself. It has helped me separate the real me from the me I’ve been told to be. It’s made me more accepting of others and of myself. That’s something I want for everyone. Even people who have hurt me.
I was busy thinking all these thoughts when I received another message on my phone.
“Want to fool around?” he asked.
I didn’t know how to tell him that this was a nightmare I hadn’t even considered. It would probably take weeks to scrub that image from my mind, the thought of “fooling around” with someone who had traumatized me.
“No,” I said. “Have a good life, man.”
I meant it.