@ Don’t Tell Mama’s
343 West 46th St., NYC
Photo by: Marc McBarron Kessler
I am the bravest person I know. That’s not the same as saying I’m the best looking or the smartest. Bravery is something else entirely. It is surviving the early 1990s when everyone around me did everything they could to tell me I was less than them because I am gay. So when Johnny, seventeen years older than me but sometimes my adopted younger brother, innocently asks me what we are going to do if Donald Trump gets into office again, I am oddly optimistic. We’re going to survive, I assure him, as we have always done. And that isn’t to say that I expect another twisted victory for Trump; It’s just that I know I have experienced and survived worse, insane as that is.
My mind flashes to unsettling recollections of my high school acting class, a place where I should have been free to be my most colorful self but where, as a hopeful freshman ready for a fresh start, I was tortured relentlessly by my male classmates. I somehow thought that high school would be a different experience from elementary school and junior high, but it wasn’t. If anything, it was worse because testosterone turned mean boys into even more frightful and aggressive young men. Guys in my class, upperclassmen and physically more mature than me, put their mouths to my ear to deliver the message that I was “a sick little faggot” and that they were going to rape me if they didn’t kill me first. “I bet you’d like that?” they’d say, referring to the threat of rape, as I sat motionless in my seat, terrified, silent, defenseless, not learning how to act but how to shut down, as other students and possibly my teacher were the audience to these repetitive offstage scenes, doing nothing to protect me.
Outside of class, the hallway was its own warzone of sorts. Classmates passing me by in the hall made fun of my wardrobe (“Did you wear that outfit for me, pretty boy?”) or told me I was fated to die of AIDS so I should just kill myself first. That’s what the government as well as rock bands of the day said to me, too, even though they didn’t know me personally. I brought my troubles to my vocal coach and she asked what I did to inspire such ill-treatment. “Did you wear that outfit to school?” “Yes,” I admitted. “Well, it’s no wonder. You asked for it.” Still, I considered this woman my mentor, even though she told me I was gay because of my upbringing. She said it was my parents’ fault, as if I was somehow irreparably damaged. And when I felt my ugliest, she told me I was no movie star but promised I had “nice eyes.” Her words echoed the words of my older brother who looked at me across the kitchen table one morning before school and said, “Dude, you’re fucking ugly.” Sadly (or not), his words didn’t hurt me, as I had already heard far worse for far too long.
Despite or perhaps because of this early opposition, I learned the gift of self-reliance and the ability to dance along with the madness of my world, literally. I lived for the private moments when, alone in the house, I could escape to my bedroom, tune out the cruelty of life by tuning into my favorite music, and dance away my troubles, ugly or not, sick or not, hated or not, for an audience of one: An isolated teenager longing to lovingly connect with a society that consistently rejected him, whether he wore loud clothing or kept his mouth shut.
One of the reasons I don’t mind growing older as many people in their forties might is that I am now having the childhood I never had. I never felt innocent, so I had no innocence to lose, which, in a precarious way, granted me an eternal innocence. Early in his “presidency,” Trump elected grown men to his cabinet who compared gay men to barnyard animals. I heard similar things during my school career. It isn’t acceptable, but these words did not break me. I didn’t die of AIDS and I didn’t kill myself. And I still dress how I want to dress. Survival is the greatest form of resistance. At least once a year, I am called a faggot, pushed (most recently by a man wearing a Trump t-shirt on Park Avenue), told something horrible about myself, and I consider myself lucky that this is nothing compared to what I endured in my school career. It doesn’t change the way I dress, love, or see myself. It’s “par for the course” for daring to consistently be me.
Before my shower last night, I stood before the bathroom mirror, half-naked, brushing my teeth to songs that got me through the hells of high school. I moved my arms in the air and mouthed the words the same joyfully defiant way I did as a teenager when the world around me expected me to, one way or another, die. I realized, I haven’t grown up at all. I’ve merely—yet happily—survived. And I realized, too, that hatred and homophobia are never justifiable, but neither is giving up or conforming to a supposed and ever-changing norm. That resilient teenage boy who danced alone in his bedroom is the same man who did a cartwheel on the lawn outside of the voting polls on Saturday after he didn’t vote for Donald Trump.
By: Marc McBarron Kessler
Central Park photographed by: Marc McBarron Kessler, 8/31/20
Photo by: E. Brislin