Inspired by Dwight Conquergood, who calls on scholars to engage in intimate conversations, I offer an autoethnographic approach to explore the interconnectivity between place attachment, shame culture, and what I refer to as identity suicide through my journey to finding an attachment to place, to having interaction. Through these findings, I discovered the self-acceptance that had always been a struggle to reach due to the choices I was making within the shame culture in which I was living. This work is a reflective processing of my choices along this journey—choices that are denied to so many other queer individuals.
Events in my life have led me to an account of place—the loss of place, seeking place, finding place. Place matters; connections to place have helped make meaning of my life. Meaning creates spaces of importance for the creator. The connections to personal experiences begin conversations regarding the importance of place. One of the most important aspects of making connections to place is interaction. Melinda J. Milligan presents an interaction-based theory of place attachment to explain why we become attached to our created environment. As she states, “Place attachment is significantly based on the meaningfulness of the interaction itself (which then imbues a site with meaning), not on the inherent meaningfulness of the place in which it occurs.”1 In other words, I am not attached to brick and mortar, but to the interactions that take place within that brick and mortar.
This work is a reflective processing of the choices I made to protect myself. I did not understand how my privilege was invoked in these choices, nor was I knowledgeable of the terminology at this time of my life, but, at some level, I think I had to be aware of my privilege as a white, cisgender-identifying male, and maybe the thing holding me back from finding connections was not only the fear created within a culture of shame, but also the fear of perhaps losing the power and privilege that had been operating at some unconscious level to keep me safe, though closeted.
SEARCHING FOR PLACE
Through interactions with and within place, a sense of connection and belonging is found.2 Through my journey across counties, cities, and states, I was looking for a place to connect, but I had no interactions—nothing that connected me to place(s). In this telling, I discuss what kept me from making those connections, a hidden identity of my sexuality due to an entrenched shame for being gay, which was made even more difficult due to the constant changes of my location to keep my identity unknown to others. I suffocated my sense of self through my performance of heterosexual. I was able to hide my differences through dress, mannerisms, pseudo-friendships, and stories as a way to avoid discrimination and/or physical harm.3 The severity of my internalized heterosexism and homophobia caused the suicide of my sexual identity, the aftermath of which is still a daily struggle. I still find myself in uncomfortable territory when I am in the company of my family. I struggle with the decision to disclose my sexual identity or not disclose when interacting with family members who I wish could have a more active role in my life. I find my life full of indecision. Indecision feels safe and the truth hides comfortably within it.
As a white man, my focus was on my struggles with my identity due to the effect of the shame culture in which I lived and to find a space that allowed me the opportunity to feel safe in my own skin. Race was never an issue in this struggle, but I would be remiss to not mention the struggles I did not have to deal with due to being white. Queer people of color must navigate heterosexism and white supremacy. The fear of police brutality is an issue my whiteness kept me from experiencing. I had the affordability to hide, to pass. Others do not have this option. Their bodies mark their difference; their bodies are not able to pass.
I was able to pass. For the decades I spent as a closeted gay man, I monitored my public and much of my private interactions for fear of the consequences of being discovered. The adoption of straight sexual façades constrained my social connections to place(s), which in turn necessitated constant moving to keep up with my presentation of self as heterosexual. For the majority of my life, I have lived in 30 states—just existing in places and never calling anywhere home. My everyday interactions with people as a resident, neighbor, colleague, and occupant of/in public spaces more broadly, were oppressively heterosexist. The combined aspects of both homophobic and heterosexual-dominated spaces made it more possible to hide my identity in order for me to assimilate into the prevailing heterosexist engine in order to eat and pay rent—but not without a cost to my well-being. I practiced my lifestyle adjustment when shopping, dining, exercising, working, and even carried it over to my time at home.
According to David Seamon and Jacob Sowers, a sense of place cannot exist without an attachment made to it.4 I, however, made no attachments. I did my best not to interact with anyone in any type of meaningful way; I allowed myself to blend in to the heterosexist space, and, as a result, my memories of all the places I have lived are basically nonexistent. I replaced my desire for interacting and finding connections and attachments with the security and shelter of brick and mortar. I withdrew to the shelter of the building itself as an alternative space to prevent interactions with others who might have grounded me and helped me create more positive memories.
I would mainly travel between work and the space within which I lived—never calling it home. I never worked on relationships with my peers; I never developed close bonds, nor did I establish the network of relational support that I needed. And why should I? For most of my experience and what I knew of gay culture, to be a gay man in the imagination of the people I knew was to be a loner on the outskirts of normative society. I think the self-exile was easier than keeping track of all the lies; it was easier than all the repeated performances of heterosexual.
Looking back reflexively, I see that I made choices that were not readily available to others. The privilege to choose to or not to perform as straight, which allowed me to survive a little longer, is not an option easily available to other queer bodies: queer femmes, trans women, non-binary identified individuals, queer and trans people of color, and trans women of color especially. The choice to or not to perform as straight was a privilege afforded me due to my whiteness, my masculinity, my height; I checked off all the right boxes. I was perceived by others as someone who fit their ideologies of normal.
Recently, a friend invited me to see Bent, a 1979 play by Martin Sherman about the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany. As I watch the performance, I see in the protagonist, Max, a closeted gay man, my own denial of my sexuality. I see my own life being acted out on stage with each denial of who he is. Max lies to the guards, telling them that he is a Jew rather than a homosexual, because he believes his chances for survival in the camp will be better if he is not assigned the pink triangle. I see myself in the stage actor, the audience disappears, my face reddens with embarrassment from the shame I still carry about my past. I have made the same denial of my sexual identity for acceptance—for social survival.
While Max is in the concentration camp, he befriends a man named Horst, who shows him the dignity that lies in acknowledging who one is. For me, that man would be my partner, Steve. Throughout the production, each time Horst and Max see each other, Horst tells Max he should be wearing the pink triangle. I think of all the times my partner has told me and continues to tell me I am worthy of love and happiness. Horst and my partner have shown Max and me our self-worth, and we fell in love with the person who showed us the dignity of loving oneself. At the end of the play, Horst is shot by camp guards, Max puts on Horst's shirt with the pink triangle, and runs into an electric fence, committing suicide.
While the catalyst for Max's suicide is portrayed as the execution of Horst, perhaps the metaphoric suicide of his identity was also a contributor to his physical suicide. As the play ends, my thoughts turn to my brother (HP) and how he committed suicide; he purposefully contracted HIV so that he would not chicken out of his suicide attempt. His first suicide attempt was at 16. He drank bleach, but only enough to do damage and cause hospitalization. Then at 22, he overdosed on sleeping pills, requiring his stomach to be pumped. I was not in my brother's life much after this time. Years later, he fell out of a moving car on the 405 freeway with the car traveling over 70 mph. He claimed the door was not shut properly and he had leaned against the door without a seat belt on and was thrown out by the momentum. Maybe this was not an attempt. HP is no longer able to answer the question, and it doesn't matter. At the time of his freeway debacle, which left him with severe road rash and stitches galore, but, amazingly, no broken bones, he had already been successful in contracting HIV and it had developed into AIDS. With AIDS in the early 1990s, there was no cure that would prevent the inevitability of death. After this freeway incident, HP entered my life again.
AN UNEXPECTED VISITOR
It was a beautiful, sunny California day, and I was cleaning the house I rented in Long Beach when the doorbell rang. I answered the door and stared in disbelief at my brother, Harold, or HP as he preferred to be called, standing on the front stoop.
I looked at him. Waiting to hear what fantastic tale he was going to spin to make me feel sorry for him and let him sponge off of me until I couldn't take any more of his irresponsible antics, I noticed a tear trying to break free of his lower left eyelid. Other than during the severe beatings he received as a kid, I had never seen my brother cry. He was now aware that I was aware of the tear trying to burst free, and he broke down. He sobbed uncontrollably for a good 20 minutes. Still not sure if this was part of another master scheme to use me for money, I offered little in the way of comfort. I stared at my brother, still not sure if this crying fit was a new tool that he had crafted to perfection to gain the sympathy of the next poor victim of yet another con, or if his heaves and sighs were signs of genuine emotion—something that I never considered my brother to even be capable of showing.
HP looked up at me, and I could see the fear in his eyes. For the first time, I believed his tears were real. “I have AIDS,” he muttered through the last remaining deep sighs caused by his crying.5
I ended up taking HP back to Virginia to be with our family during the last months of his life. My brother always came to me when he felt alone or scared. I put aside my own loneliness and fears and took care of him until his death. He was a scared young man who had, in many ways, sabotaged his happiness just as I had been doing with my own happiness.
On the last evening of his life, as I sat on the edge of his hospital bed, he was telling me to lean in. He whispered, while tears ran down his cheeks, “Don't end up like me.”
HP died of complications involving the AIDS virus in the early hours of September 25, 1995.
HP's death has always stayed with me, but it was not until watching the play Bent that I truly connected the parallels of our lives. That night, in a small community theater, I picked up the pink triangle of my brother. He was out, loud, and proud; he would be disappointed that I hid my sexual identity, allowing myself to be out only when I found it safe to do so. The suicide of my own identity was perpetrated every time I denied my self-identity in order to placate society, church, and family. My day-to-day actions contributed to maintaining the heteronormative conceptualization of the space I occupied, which kept the spaces I occupied, as well as my performance of self, straight. This was, and at times still is, a privilege I was afforded.
I worked a job and kept my silence for a paycheck only to eventually be fired once my sexual identity was discovered. I attended a church and kept my silence for my salvation—salvation that I was told was unavailable to me if I were gay—only to be rejected by the love of the Christian church. I was part of a family unit that ejected my older brother from our house for being gay; how could I come out or even discuss my sexuality without fear of being expelled from my home and rejected by my birth family? In all of these spaces my queerness was right there in front of them. They just could not see it, or, probably more accurately, they did not want to see it, and in all of these spaces my queerness was ignored through their heterosexist framings of compulsory heterosexuality as well as their hegemonic views of men and masculinity.6 My queerness was invisible to their ideologies of masculinity and their views of normality. I was a square peg that was trying to be forced into a round hole. I had to fit their understanding of who I was in order for their world to make sense.
My response to this was to run away. I was running away, struggling with my sense of self, struggling with the role I played in allowing myself to perform as heterosexual in order to gain some form of acceptance. I wanted and simultaneously did not want to have this illusive connection to place(s). I wanted and simultaneously did not want to change my use of space as a shelter to that of the security of a home. According to Mary Douglas, “home starts by bringing some space under control,”7 but I had no control. Edward Relph adds that “home places are indeed foundations of [an individual's] existence”8 where interactions take place. Interactions ground us, not the brick and mortar I was hiding within. The years of moving and running made me nonexistent. Jan W. Duyvendak clarifies that the need for interactions is the root of finding home when stating, “‘Home,’ then, is more the result of home-making than the effect of place itself. Places do not intrinsically have home-like characteristics.”9 In other words, home is created “through our actions, our interactions, [through which] we bring about the world in which we then are.”10
Understanding identities as socially constructed through interactions with those who influence and shape me as an individual, I have to look at those influences, especially those from structures of domination and subordination, in order to illuminate the intersecting nature of identity where my experiences are tied to the marginalization I have faced for being gay.11 While other identities experience additional/different marginalization within their own intersectional location, in my case, the intersectional context was within the home, church, work, and self and focused on the theoretical underpinning of power and domination of heterosexism. The consistent rhetoric around topics of queerness created a constant barrage of anti-homosexual slurs, forcing my occupation of space to the borders of my home, church, work, and society in general. This space, in the periphery, offered me an escape from the barrage of slurs. However, it also brought in a deep-seated sense of shame. For those who are further marginalized by race/ethnicity and an inability to even remove themselves to the periphery, these issues are even further compounded.
I was able to hide through my performance. However, femme men, trans individuals, and queer people of color are often unable to hide and must stand up against the shame culture situated around not only sexuality, but also gender, race/ethnicity, class, and so on. I did not have the self-confidence to stand in revolt in these situations. I was fighting against structurally imposed ideologies that I could not meet. I felt the weight of having to adjust my life for every microaggression made against me. Although my queerness was always present, it was invisible to my family and peers. This invisibility was due not just to my performance, but also to their desire of not wanting to see what was in front of them. Instead of challenging the interpretations and uses of everyday spaces and places and pushing against social norms, I continued to run; my interactions and exploits were neither brave nor empowering.
I gave up my voice, my agency. The need to tolerate heterosexism on a regular basis by my family and friends affected my perceptions of the spaces/places I occupied. Knowing that I could not disclose my sexuality to my family, church, or colleagues created an environment of self-betrayal and frustration because I felt unable to take a stand against the blatant heterosexism that surrounded me daily. I was not seen as a person needing help. My brother had already been expelled from our home and was no longer in view. Queerness was elsewhere. Therefore, it was not in the space(s) I occupied. I did not need help.
Heterosexism is more than the irrational hatred of gay men or individuals who might be perceived as gay. The word faggot that I grew up hearing from my father “comes out of the depths of manhood: a label of ultimate contempt for anyone who seems sissy, untough, uncool.”12 Heterosexism lived within me as I tried to fight against being unmasked and revealed to those around me. I was afraid to let myself be seen as gay, unmanly, as the faggot my father hated.
However, the world I created for myself was accepting of me because as a straight, masculine, cisgender, white male, I maintained a structure that perpetuated material violence against those who lack the ability and access to pass as I had been able to by presenting a self that was straight with conservative beliefs. My passing self was perceived as normal by those around me. I didn't have to experience the shame of living as a gay man.13 I still experienced shame; the shame came from my silence14 and my hiding15 who I was behind an image of what people expected me to be.16 But I also experienced the shame of knowing that others could not pass and benefit from a performance as a heterosexual, masculine, cisgender, white male, and all the privileges that were afforded to me as I struggled to secure my sense of self. My only fear was of being found out. That one fear was the source of my silence, and my silence perpetuated my need to perform as heterosexual. Queer men and women of color, femme men, trans individuals, and non-binary identified individuals, have so much more than that one fear of being discovered, especially when their bodies do not give them the option to hide in the first place.
As I reflect on my silence, I have to wonder—did I remain silent due solely to the shame culture that was burying me alive, or had I come to realize that, while the shame had done a number on my mental health in relation to my self-acceptance, there was perhaps a positive effect of my silence? At this point in my life, I was a firmly established member of the working class. Despite frequent changes in positions held due to moving often, I quickly received promotions and raises. I promised to stay with companies and then left shortly after, never going unemployed for more than two or three days my entire life. I did not know the term white privilege at the time, nor was I consciously aware of how I was perceived by bosses—I thought my promotions and raises were solely due to my work ethic. Perhaps part of my silence was due to the privileges available to me as a tall, straight, young, and, most of all, white male.
Despite what these privileges afforded me, or maybe due to them, I remained hidden in plain sight through my performance as a white, heterosexual, cisgender man in primarily white, heterosexual contexts, burying my gay identity in the safety of the darkness of gay nightlife. When I lived in Atlanta, GA, I would go to the Eagle and have sex in the shadowy backroom of the bar. This practice continued with my move to San Diego, CA, where I would go to The Hole and finally to the Los Angeles, CA, neighborhood of Silverlake and the dive bar Cuffs. Though I was able to give in to my same-sex attraction, I still gave up my individual identity, forfeiting and reconstructing it in the darkness as part of a collective of anonymous shadows.17 I was simultaneously lost and found in the glorious dim of the darkness. I was accompanied by a temporary abatement of the overwhelming anguish and fear of being discovered, freeing myself, however temporarily it might be, to attempt to sort through my own sexual identity despite the denying of self, the fearing of being found out, and the succumbing to beliefs and pressures that caused me to hide.
The fog of cigarettes engulfs the dimly lit bar. Adjusting to the smoky haze, I make my way to the bartender. His unzipped military jumpsuit reveals a chest harness, and as my gaze follows the leather strap to the end of the zipper's teeth, a leather studded cock ring18 encompasses the girth of the barely visible base of his penis. My body follows my gaze until I bump against the bar. I look up. A smile greets me as I simply nod to the bartender. My Jack-and-Ginger appears on the bar counter without a single word being spoken. He knows my routine. A $5 bill is placed on the counter for a $3 drink. The backroom beckons.
There is a closed, unmarked door in the back left corner of the bar. The knowledge of what is behind the door sends my stomach into a fit of somersaults. My hand slowly turns the knob. I open the door as I step in and go to my left, feeling my way in the darkness down a short flight of stairs. Without fail, I think to myself every time I take these three steps, This was probably a storage room at some point. Perhaps I am trying to normalize the situation. The room's dimensions are small—maybe 10′ × 15′. After making my way into the room, I find an unoccupied space, lean against the wall, and am immediately hit with the smell of sex as my eyes adjust to this world of darkness. I close my eyes as hands and mouths explore my body—I am desperate to be more than this anonymous figure standing in the darkness. I calm myself as the musky odors of hidden sexual desire surround me in the darkness that hides not only my identity but also my shame for being gay and my guilt for pursuing my sexual desires.19
Perhaps I could have found my connection to place, a home, anytime along my journey had I just stopped and allowed interactions to take place between myself and others that did not consist of anonymous sexual encounters. Instead, I continue my performance of a normal heterosexual male20 even though I know my sexual identity is much more complex. I consider my performance of heteronormative male to be homophobic.21 The shame of my homophobic behavior weighs heavily upon me. Considering the paths I have traversed, I think somewhere deep within me, I knew I needed a support system, something I had been avoiding. I needed to accept my own identity, though, before I could make any kind of meaningful connections.
RuPaul Charles tells us that we're all born naked; the rest is drag.22 Well, my drag performance was of a gay man playing a straight man who was actually gay. I think of the Kevin Kline movie In & Out (1997), in which Kline's character, George, lives his whole life as a straight man because that is the expectation placed upon him. It is the blueprint of his life that he is supposed to follow. I followed my blueprint for more than half of my life. I did not need makeup or outfits to play my role. I was straight because I performed as straight. Due to my performance as straight, these inauthentic performances never reached the core of who I was as an individual, causing these interactions to be left behind as part of another well-delivered performance in which the interactions were never really a part of me. If, by chance, an interaction did make its way into my actual existence, I would run again, never allowing connection and belonging to any one place, deepening my feelings of isolation, making it easier for me to continually retreat and disappear into the darkness.
LOSING HP (THE FIRST TIME)
With every retreat I clung to the words of a poem that my brother, HP, wrote the night he was kicked out of our family home for being gay:
These words reveal to me the uncertainty of life, especially when you have had nothing but uncertainty as your guide. The poem is full of loneliness and isolation; I cry over these words remembering that night.
I am 14 years old. I am awakened by the sound of my father's voice; he is yelling. There is another male's voice yelling back. The second voice is that of my brother, HP. I start to get out of bed, but I am scared. While yelling and screaming are rather commonplace in the house in which I live, there is something different this time. I stay in bed and listen.
“WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU? WHAT DID I DO TO DESERVE A SON LIKE YOU?” my father screams.
“I'M GAY!” my brother, HP, yells. “I have known that I was gay for as long as I can remember!”
“YOU'RE A FAG, AND I WANT YOU OUT OF THIS HOUSE TONIGHT!”23
When I wake up the next morning, all I find is the poem, which I have kept all of these years.
FINDING PLACE (ALMOST)
As I again turn to reflection all these years later, I easily see how I sabotaged any attempt by others to make a connection in my life. This is true of my time in Atlanta, a city to where I moved in order to live openly as a gay man. However, I lost my courage; I was not able to present myself as gay to others and hid in the darkness. Despite having the start to a great career, I turned down a $20,000/year raise and moved to San Diego for a job that never came to fruition. San Diego was a place I initially viewed as an escape from Atlanta. I was born in San Diego; here is where I would be reborn and shed my heteronormative performance that I had allowed to entrap me. Unfortunately, I was still consumed with fear, shame, and guilt. San Diego was a place where I ultimately fell back into the darkness. Despite my promise of employment being rescinded, I happened upon a bartending gig and slept on the pool table until I could make enough money to settle into a more permanent situation.24 San Diego wasn't much different from Atlanta. I continued to fear being vulnerable and resisted letting people interact with me or become a part of my personal life. I once again navigated my way to another place, but stayed in California. I found a job in Santa Ana, and decided to live in nearby Long Beach. Initially, I made an immediate beeline for the darkness that I had come to know so well. I went to the neighborhood bar Cuffs in Silverlake. I continued my trips to Cuffs until I met my first friend outside of high school. After this friendship began to solidify, a few more friendships followed that initial connection.
I met some wonderful people in Long Beach, people with whom I still keep in contact. This was a first. Up to this point, I had never had friends who I could visit. I gave leagues a shot again, joining a bowling league, a dart league, and two beach volleyball leagues. I allowed these interactions to begin to develop connections. This could have been my connection for which I had been searching. However, this was when my older brother, HP, entered my life again, showing up on my front stoop and telling me he had nowhere to go and that he was dying from complications of AIDS.
HP'S PINK TRIANGLE
HP saw his life as a failure, but he was better than he saw himself. There was one aspect of his life in which he was unwavering: He was gay; he was loud; he was proud. I still do not have half of his courage. Nonetheless, I found many parallels to how my brother sabotaged his happiness and how I was sabotaging my own by hiding in the darkness—that glorious darkness that allowed me to somehow find that bit of solace for myself in its anonymity. I did not realize these parallels until that night when watching the play Bent as Max adorned himself with Horst's pink triangle.
I have my brother's metaphorical pink triangle now. I have found acceptance from a chosen family in Tampa, FL, that has given me strength to adorn myself with my brother's pink triangle, but sometimes that darkness creeps into my thoughts and haunts me—that feeling of not being seen still plays its melancholy tune in the back of my head, reminding me of that anonymous figure in the darkness, the sound echoes … Hello darkness, my old friend / I've come to talk with you again … Left its seeds while I was sleeping / … Images of the collective of anonymous shadows in the darkness appear in my thoughts … And the vision that was planted in my brain / Still remains.25 I have to remind myself that I am no longer just a body to be hidden, to appease desires, to be the sexual object for some other body reaching into the darkness. I am no longer searching for some sort of connection that the darkness could never give. However, the struggle is not over. Acceptance is just the first step. I still, at times, exercise my privilege and choose to not wear the pink triangle. This occurs every time I interact with my birth family. My visits to see my birth family grow more infrequent. Now, my visits are roughly every other year for two or three days at Thanksgiving.
Finding acceptance hasn't resolved the tensions of living a life in shame and hiding in the darkness. To this day, I still struggle in situations where I feel a need to be who my family wants me to be in order to not put them in an uncomfortable situation. I am definitely still struggling with familial relations. I think my struggle stems from the shame of still living a lie. I am 55 years old and have never told my family of my sexual identity, of my nearly 20-year relationship with my partner, of my marriage of four years … hell, I didn't even tell my mom that I had moved across the United States until a year after the fact because I left a permanent full-time position to work as an adjunct in order to remain with my partner. My mom still does not know that I work as an adjunct. She thinks I have a full-time, tenure-track position at a local university. I continue my performance of the good son because I do not want to cause my mother pain.
My mother came to visit me in April 2018.
My phone rings, “Hi son! This is your mom. I wanted to let you know that I am coming to visit.”
“Mom, I love you, but this is not the best time to come visit. I have friends leaving the first weekend you are arriving. It will be the first week of classes that Monday. I am so busy!”
“Well I am coming just the same. I can sit in on your classes. Then we can go to Seattle, I would also like to go to Victoria Falls.”
“Mom, that is in Zambia, in Africa. I don't think we will have time.
“No, the preacher told me it was in Victoria, Canada. He has been there.”
“Mom, I did a quick Google search. There are waterfalls we can go see in Victoria, but none of them are named Victoria Falls.”
“Well, okay. I want to go to Orcas Island too. You go there so often; I would like to see it.”
My mother had so many things she wanted to do in such a brief time. Her visit was exhausting. She claimed to have a good time, but I don't see how that was remotely possible. I had an excruciatingly horrid visit. It rained the whole time; we zipped into Canada and back with an overnight stay in Victoria, BC; we had a day visit to Orcas Island and two days in Seattle—one spent at the Pike Place Farmers Market. I gave her a tour of my campus (the one where I have my full-time, tenure-track position). Her visit was over before it even started. Conveniently, my partner, Steve, had to go home and be with his mother. She was having a leg amputation due to complications resulting from her diabetes, and he and his brother needed to be with her.
I took advantage of Steve's absence and made sure to de-gay our condo. When my mother visits my home, it disrupts my freedom to express who I am. Her visit turns my sanctuary into a place where I merely reside. I allow this heteropatriarchy intrusion into my space, my place, my home where I live as a gay man. While my sexual identity at home is performed as gay, my mother's visit puts my sexual identity under surveillance.26 Thus, a provocation to de-gay my home:
These items are put in a trunk. I close the lid on the life that I was finally able to live, a life that had eluded me for decades. I place the trunk high over the top of my closet where it can be neither reached nor seen. I know this is a choice. I know this is still a privilege I get to exercise due to my ability to pass as straight.
All of this hiding is so ridiculous—all in the name of following someone else's idea of having an acceptable life. Which, when you think about it, is such bullshit. I have had these voices coming at me telling me who I should be, how I should live, what I should wear, what I should believe for 35 years. It is enough to drive anyone crazy. Even when my mother is not present, the condemning voice is still there, reminding me of my worthlessness as a gay man. I still hear her comment about my brother, HP: “I pray every day that he has a miserable life, so he can see the error of his ways.”
I know she considers sexuality a choice. I know she says such things out of concern for the salvation of her child. I know she worries and prays every day for the safety of her children. I know these things, which is why I try not to cause her more pain.
I still do not have my brother's courage to be loud and proud. It is not worth it to me, at this stage of my life and my mother's, to be out to her. My partner understands and supports this. Plus, I have my own family to support me—especially when I make these choices to perform for my birth family. My family is constantly expanding to include others with whom I connect. This family I have found along the trajectories of my life's path makes it easier for me to bring out my brother's pink triangle more often and wear it in honor of him, to have interactions that help build a stronger sense of self and to find connection(s) to place(s) where I am accepted for who I am and not for whom someone else wants me to be. However, the struggle is not over. Nor will it be over as long as I maintain my performance as the good son, a performance I deem an absolute necessity in order to not cause my mother pain.
I set out to explore my perceptions and experiences of navigating the darkness, of losing, seeking, and finding place, to illustrate the reach of heterosexism in both my public and private space(s), and the long-term effects of living a majority of my life in a culture of shame. With the latter, I blur the popularly conceived notion that we are living in a time when sexual identities are not worrisome to queer individuals and that there are spaces that allow the expression of gay identities.
As I struggled with my identity, I constantly felt out of place and threatened. Consequently, I avoided being with others in any type of shared space. Not only did I withdraw from public spaces/places, but I also carefully monitored my behaviors so as to avoid disclosure. Through my own decisions, I moved from one staged life into another in which public acts of nondisclosure were performed daily. My dark world was hidden from public consumption; my personal sexual identity was known only via anonymous figures in the dark.
By hiding my sexual identity, I became invisible in my everyday environment. I was not able to develop healthy relationships with others. I feared the loss of the hidden world that allowed me to act upon my desires while keeping my sexual identity hidden. Perhaps I needed not only to find myself in the darkness, but also to be aware of my privileges in order to bring myself to a point of accepting myself in the light of day. The strength offered me by others resurrected the identity I had allowed to die. In addition, my brother's physical suicide has been with me through this journey of finding place. I could not keep hiding when he never did.
I see my identity suicide and subsequent resurrection at an intersection of identity theory and social identity theory. Identity theory focuses on one's identity through role-related behaviors.27 In my role as the good son, I was willing to let my identity be hidden, but my role as a young gay man pushed back against my identity suicide, flooding me with guilt for giving in to the heterosexism to which I was exposed. Social identity theory is a person's sense of identity based upon their group membership.28 My groups were family, church, and work, which all practiced heterosexist behaviors, which added to my own hatred of self. The groups that I kept hidden along with my identity were the gay sports teams and the people I would meet at clubs who helped me to believe in myself. I had to make a choice in order to find acceptance.
Acceptance was able to occur due to my partner and my close personal friends in Tampa. Some have moved to other cities as have I, but the neighborhood of Seminole Heights will forever be my home, the place where I accepted myself because of my acceptance by others—acceptance that carried me out of the darkness in which I hid and into the light of day.
Through this journey I move from my inward self to an outward expression.29 Thank you for taking this journey with me and seeing the loss of connection, the connection found, the family created, and the discovery of self that is allowed through self-acceptance and acceptance by others. I want to encourage you, the reader, to examine your own internal feelings of connection through the similarities of our stories—an act of reflexivity. Through this process, consider the relationship between finding place and the interactions that connect all of us to place and give us strength to accept ourselves and overcome the shame culture that drove us to self-doubt in the first place. All of which helps us all to wear our own triangle—whichever color it might be.