Sitting in the Snow
“There’s one more thing you better understand. I have taught myself to sew, cook, fix plumbing, build furniture – I can even pat myself on the back when necessary – all so I don’t have to ask anyone for anything. There’s nothing I need from anyone except for love and respect. And anyone who can’t give me those two things has no place in my life.”
– Arnold, Torch Song Trilogy
When I first came out to myself, I was alone. I was away at boarding school, walking out of the dining hall. I remember it was dark outside, and I stepped away from the lamp-lit path so that no one would see me crying. I wanted to be found, because I desperately wanted someone to just ask me what was wrong, so that all the weight could be forced off my chest. I suddenly knew that I was gay – that’s what I was called – and that’s what I would need to tell my parents someday.
It was impossible to keep my secret from my family once I had stopped keeping it from myself. A month later, during Christmas break, I remember walking towards a frozen lake with my mom. I stood on top of a hill with her, watching my dad walk further away across the ice. I remember sitting down next to her in the snow, because I was spending all of my energy on both working up the courage to speak and telling myself to stay silent. I remember these moments because my body has never been more exhausted.
Coming out to my parents was the hardest thing I have ever done. I do think secrets can lead to a kind of internal death – you retreat into yourself, and crawling back out is extremely difficult. If you are forced to pretend for long enough, you can no longer distinguish between the pretend and the real. Sometimes, when I’m nervous about playing Frisbee, or I have a big exam, I tell myself, “Spencer, you came out to your parents, this is nothing, you can do it.” Even though it is ridiculous, it sometimes helps.
In hindsight, I did not need to be afraid. My parents were as loving and accepting, as I should’ve expected. But with something like queerness, you just can’t know what will happen. And even if people don’t outwardly condemn you, you are afraid you have let them down, because you know you will no longer fulfill years of fantasy that they have imagined for you. The moment before coming out is like looking at an unopened letter: you never know what is inside until you break the seal. Except the contents of this letter can be horrifying. I was privileged with a positive outcome, given some relief from the uncertainty.
I have supportive parents, though like others, they tend to worry a lot. Even growing up, they would sometimes try to hide signs of my feminine identity. In elementary school, I remember taking a pink-covered romance book from the library, and I remember my Dad arguing with my mother over what the other kids would think of me. In their own way, they were trying to protect me from an often-cruel world, which I do not blame them for. While some of their fears are rooted in stereotypes about the gay community (sexual promiscuity), others are more legitimate – fears about the days I will meet people who will hate my queerness. I have been relatively lucky, perhaps even untouched, by queer hatred. But there was nothing like the sick confusion I experienced, when I was walking near Times Square holding hands with a boy, and a stranger spat on us.
It would be ridiculous to ignore these hard truths. I wish that queer people did not have to experience them. However, recognizing the difficulty of queer lives should not interfere with assessment of their worth. This may seem obvious when stated explicitly, but I think it is often missed in real life. Who in “real life” teaches us to value queer lives? Even a year ago, if I was given the power to change my sexuality, I would have done so immediately. A friend recently mentioned to me how people, including queer people, often say: queerness is not a choice, because who would choose a harder life? But this implicit suggestion of undesirability is damaging. Though I never had the choice to begin with, I hope I would choose to be gay.
One of my professors recently referenced Eve Sedgwick during a talk at the Queer Resource Center. Eve tells us this: “There are many people in the worlds we inhabit … who have a strong interest in the dignified treatment of any gay people who may happen already to exist. But the number of persons or institutions by whom the existence of gay people is treated as a precious desideratum, a needed condition of life, is small.” To hear that line, as someone still somewhat closeted, is special. I’ve been told to love myself, to celebrate myself, but no one’s ever told me to desire myself. Queerness is a gift, as much as the color of my skin, as much as my bones and mind. This does not elevate queerness above heterosexuality, but recognizes it as something to be desired equally.
Why did it take so long for me – a queer person of color – to learn that I had this crucial right to desire myself? The media did not teach me – when was the last time you saw a queer person of color as the protagonist in a mainstream film or book? Where are out queer people on professional sports teams? Where are they in politics? Even those fortunate enough to have accepting parents can only do so much against systemic devaluation of queer and colored bodies.
For many years, I have found a lot of hope in the quote I included as an epigraph. What simple things to ask for: love and respect. On a campus like ours, I feel that the problem is less a lack of these things, and more a lack of their visibility. Queer people come with our own distinct history, and being sexuality-blind is similarly problematic to being color-blind. Queer people need those with privilege to step forward, to physically put themselves in unfamiliar and potentially uncomfortable spaces. Do not run away from that discomfort, and do not be ashamed to be uncomfortable. Discomfort will only dissipate as you continue to explore unfamiliar territory. Go to Pride. Actively learn to be an ally. Demonstrate that you are an ally through action. If you are an athlete, consider going to Athletes & Allies. It’s hard. I get it. Weirdly enough, I often feel uncomfortable at Pride. It’s a time commitment. I have my own internalized homophobia that I’m trying to deal with. But there is absolutely nothing more frustrating than those with privilege failing to acknowledge and appropriately employ their privilege. Apathy is heartbreaking. Thinking back to Professor Parham’s speech at Amherst Uprising, I remembered her message that privilege means having the ability to protect those who are vulnerable; responsible use of that privilege involves being cautious of not taking advantage of their vulnerability. But above all, to be effective, allies have to show up.
When I started writing this article, I had no idea what purpose I was trying to achieve. It felt self-indulgent to talk about coming out, though I do believe that my story is worth sharing. My queerness is a privilege because coming out has allowed me to question and know myself; it is a burden, simply because it is painful. I think there is value to any queer person sharing their story to add to our collective, often invisible, narrative.
I’m learning to love myself, even though some days I still desire to change. To allies of all the queer community: know how much power you have to make coming out possible for closeted people. Creating visible safe spaces, even a small gesture, like a photo or T-shirt, can make a difference. Small, loving gestures can eventually build up a culture that desires the existence of gay people, a culture that sees queerness as precious: “a needed condition of life.”
Postscript: I am grateful to the women of color who created a space for individuals to share their experiences with racial identity to the broader campus community during the Amherst Uprising movement. Many of these discussions helped me consider questions I had about my own marginalized identities, racial and sexual. I believe the intersectionality between these two identities is extremely important for many people on this campus. Listening to each person’s story during the open mike helped me examine my burden and privilege as a queer, upper-middle class, light-skinned man of color.
As the sit-in drew to a close, I didn’t know how I wanted to leave the space. What had changed? I have come up with at least one (somewhat selfish) answer. In many ways, the world has hurt me. Friends and even strangers have allowed me to talk about my broken pieces. They have begun to heal me.