There comes a time in every young queer’s life when they are struck by lightning.
For me, that time comes on a brisk spring morning in rural Oklahoma, when I’m standing behind the middle school, waiting for the bell to ring for first period. Two people are standing with me: Matt and Patrick, both of whom I consider friends. But it’s complicated. They’ve been acting differently around me lately. Sometimes they suddenly stop talking when I walk up to them. They smirk. They know something I don’t. It makes me nervous.
Today, I’m wearing a green John Deere tractor shirt and jeans that are one size too big.
“Hey,” Matt says to Patrick. He nods in my direction. “Talk to him about shirts.”
An electric pulse shoots down my body. This is it. I’ve been caught. All I can do now is play dumb.
“Shirts?” I say.
Patrick looks at me. He points. His posturing seems rehearsed, like this is something he’s been planning to do. Something he’s been practicing.
“That’s my fucking shirt,” he says.
It’s true. It is his shirt.
The person I’d like to be doesn’t wear John Deere tractor shirts. Instead, he is dressed like the beautiful people in my mother’s fashion magazines, which I keep secretly stashed under my bed. He wears elegant jewelry, blouses in exciting patterns and vibrant colors, fabric that flows and moves.
Every night I watch The Look for Less (hosted by a pre-Fox News Elisabeth Hasselbeck) on the Style Network with my sister. We like to tear apart the bargain outfits they come up with, because they always fall short of the designer original. I am perhaps the only boy in our little patch of countryside who daydreams about Tyra Banks finding him and recruiting him to be on America’s Next Top Model.
Patrick is a normal boy, and I want to be a normal boy too.
I’m wearing a John Deere tractor shirt because I’m hiding. I’m wearing it because I saw Patrick wearing it, and Patrick is a normal boy, and I want to be a normal boy too.
Patrick sees it differently. He tells me I’m obsessed with him. He tells me he’s been catching me looking at him. He tells me I’m in love with him. “You’re a faggot,” he says, and there it is. Lightning. Baptism.
The next few months of my life are faggot this and faggot that. There are days when I hear it more than I hear my name. Lunchtime, Patrick slaps a hot dog in my face. “You like that, faggot?” He says. “Faggots are supposed to like that.” A soccer game, he kicks a ball at me and it hits me in the groin, smack, sting, I double over. He tells me I don’t have a dick. He tells me to stop pretending to be hurt.
After queer people are struck by lightning for the first time, we are acutely aware of the space around us — of the dark cloud hovering just above our heads. It could strike at any moment. If you look a certain way, if you act a certain way, if you dress a certain way, the odds of being struck go up. Queerness is a breach of contract, one that often carries with it the penalty of violence.
Talk to me about shirts.
Eleven years later, I sit at This n’ That, a divey gay bar in Brooklyn, with my friend Levi, who does drag on the side. It’s a cute bar, shaped like a TNT barrel on the inside, but it feels cramped tonight. Levi asks if I want to step outside with him while he smokes. It’s early May but it’s chilly and rainy. People wait in line in their coats, then check them at the door to reveal their club attire, their fishnets and their high-waisted shorts and their crop tops.
I’ve just moved to New York, and like anyone who has ever been tossed into the too-much-ness of this city, I’m wrestling with the feeling that I’m not standing out enough. That feeling intensifies when I’m next to Levi, or, as she’s known tonight, Miss Thing.
Miss Thing is in her full drag attire — hair high to God, a strappy bondage-esque gown with sheer and leather elements, nails so long I wonder how she holds a drink, face beat to perfection. I ask her if she has trouble getting to the bar dressed like that. She laughs. “I usually change at the place,” she says. “But when someone whistles at me I like to slap my ass and wink.” I feel the eyes on her from people walking by. Glances. They make me nervous. She doesn’t seem to care.
My style at this point can best be described as “white dad on vacation”: floral patterns, my only conceit to femininity, on button-up shirts. Short shorts, a compromise between a strong desire to show skin and a stronger desire to stay in my comfort zone.
My style at this point can best be described as “white dad on vacation.”
But that’s not the real me. The real me is still very much into fashion and very bored with collared button-ups in every color, pattern, and print. I don’t know who made the decision that men’s clothing had to be so limited, but all the good stuff is in the women’s section. That’s where the interesting jewelry is. That’s where clothes do more than just hang off you. They wrap, they flow, they move. They transform.
I tell Miss Thing that I want to start exploring some new looks. Here, in New York, outfits are put together to dazzle and impress. It excites me because these are looks that feel tied to something older, to a queer history I’d never embraced. Here was a place where, maybe, I could finally be myself, a place where I could wear the things I want to wear — because here, someone else was already wearing it, only better and on roller skates.
I also tell Miss Thing that I’m afraid. Without going into much detail, I tell her that I’ve survived violence in the past. “Well,” she says, “this will be like therapy!”
The next day, we blink through our hangovers and go shopping in Manhattan. Our first stop is Topshop. Levi, in his boy attire, starts picking things out, things that are already making me nervous. “This is cute,” he says, holding something up that tells me he thinks I’m ready to make the leap from “Are you masc, bro?” to “Season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
“Could we start with something a little…less?” I ask.
He cackles. “You poor thing.”
He throws me a bone: a black sheer shirt he tells me will show off my chest. I walk into the dressing room. I try it on. I love it. It’s not the me I’d dreamt of in rural Oklahoma — the me I could have been if I had been allowed to grow up uninterrupted — but it’s a baby step in the right direction. The seed of doubt is definitely there, and I worry that it will bloom into full-blown anxiety by the time I get home. But today is about breaking barriers. So I buy it.
I take it home in a bag. I put the bag in my closet. It sits there for a month before I return it.
“Passing” — the ability to blend in with the straight world — is not a privilege all of us queer people have. But a lot of gay men do, including myself. It isn’t fun to hide. But it will protect you from lightning.
The thing is, I don’t really present as myself. I mean that in a way that goes beyond my clothing. Presentation is the way I talk, the way I walk, the way I act, the things I admit to liking, the people I surround myself with, the way I won’t hold hands with a guy in public. I present as a negotiation between myself and the space around me, a compromise between vibrancy and violence. It’s a compromise queer people around the world make every day. Flamboyancy means drawing attention to yourself. Being openly queer draws attention to yourself. Attention means they see you, and when they see you, they can hurt you.
I stick to my boring floral button-ups and short shorts and masculine mannerisms because that’s where I feel safe: in the privileged bubble of the gay male mainstream.
We, those of us in the mainstream, seem to have departed from our radical roots years ago, a shift that was finalized after the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015. Being gay never felt more normal, more tolerated, more boring, more safe. I tell myself I will work on being the queer I want to be later, when I feel bold enough to leave the bubble.
And then, Pulse.
I’m in New York when the news breaks. Being a gay Latino working in media today means full immersion. I can’t look away. I can’t stop reading. My knee-jerk reaction is to take a bus to D.C., the city I lived in before New York, to see my friends. I feel I have to see for myself that they’re alive and OK.
After a candlelight vigil in Dupont Circle, my friend Blake and I head to Trade, a local gay bar, for a drink. In the immediate days following the tragedy, the gay bar takes on the sacred significance of a temple. We go without thinking, because that’s where we’re supposed to be. We take turns letting it out — the hurt and the fear and the anger — because that’s what we need.
It’s dark outside, and the bar is nearly empty. The club lights are on and the music is playing, but for no one in particular. I don’t know if it’s empty because it’s a Tuesday night or because people are afraid to be here. (I’m afraid to be here.) We sit in the window and sip our drinks, watching people on the sidewalk stroll past. “Don’t they know,” he said, “how much we’ve been holding back?”
I consider all the ways I have muted myself. All that, and I can still be killed just for standing in a gay bar.
I cry a lot in the days that follow. Most of the victims are Latino boys, my community, and that hits me hard. But there is another pain, a reckoning, and I think a lot of gay men and other queer people are in that place with me. I consider all the ways I have muted myself. All the ways I have hidden. All the ways I have held back and apologized and changed. All that, and I can still be killed just for standing in a gay bar.
Our senses heightened after Orlando, allowing us to see the world as it had always been — and we saw that it was unfair, had always been unfair, even though some of us had become complacent. Why were there gay bars in the first place? Why were people killing us?
Don’t they know how much we’ve been holding back?
I realize now, in the wake of Orlando, that I have been sacrificing something special for a safety that was never guaranteed in the first place — a safety that asked so much of me and gave so little in return, but a safety I had become comfortable with nonetheless.
I was used to the spitting and the kicking and the shouting — but this, what I was suppressing in myself, was a different kind of violence. I could leave this at the door, leave that at home, stuff those in a closet somewhere, and I would be safe.
Orlando changed all of that.
I realize, now, everything I have lost. I realize that if a homophobe were to kill me tomorrow, I’d die a repressed, second-rate version of the person I could have been. That’s scary. Scarier than the alternative, even, because if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that you can do your best to hide — but they’ll still find you, even if you’re doing your best to walk, talk, dress, and act like everything you’re not. I don’t want to be something I’m not anymore. Even if that something is “safer.” There will always be the threat of lightning.
If a homophobe were to kill me tomorrow, I’d die a repressed, second-rate version of the person I could have been.
There’s privilege there. There are queer people here and around the world who can’t openly present as themselves without being killed. These are so many oppressive norms we have to dismantle. And while the word “dismantle” sounds like taking a sledgehammer to a building, today it looks more like skipping down the street with my friends.
The four of us are drunk, stumbling out of a nightclub in our head-to-toe looks, glitter and eyeshadow and gold. I never went back for that shirt I returned, but what I’m wearing tonight makes up for it, a flowy black number. “You’re giving me dumpster sorceress,” one of my friends says. I look a mess, to be honest. But that’s OK. New York is never bigger than it is on nights like these, when the streets are empty but the lights are on. There’s plenty of time. There’s plenty of space.
“Faggot!” someone yells as we fly by, and I’m not sure which one of us he’s talking to. But I choose to laugh, and suddenly I feel bigger than the word as it recedes into the night.
I don’t necessarily feel safe, but I do feel free.