Summer days when I was 7 years old meant hosting a show for my family, whether it be as a magician perfecting new tricks or solving a mystery as Velma Dinkley from “Scooby-Doo.” Sleepless nights when I was five meant fashioning my favorite blanket into a wig and dancing around the bedroom. And although I do not remember it, my aunts insist that when I was three, I loved to wear my mother’s heels.
In a ritual not far off from the storytelling around campfires, I regale these tales with my gay friends. Together, we laugh at what is so obvious to us now: these were the early indicators of my queer life to come.
But, at some point in my life, the funny stories turned dark. As I grew, I learned how the world worked: what was accepted, what was not, who is accepted, who is not. The 2010s were a turning point that infused gay rights in the mainstream, but as a kid, the world was quite different.
My childhood was in the wake of the AIDS pandemic and the conservative tide of the ‘80s instilling fear and skepticism about the mere existence of LGBTQIA+ people. While growing up in a home that no doubt loved me, I still existed within a dynamic of compliant women and rugged men who demonstrated their masculinity in every breath. My very nature stood at odds with theirs.
I realized the danger my inherent femininity posed. My remaining grade school memories are of enduring bullying and ostracism at the cost of being different. I heard adults and older boys toss around gay slurs casually in conversation, without a second thought. They would jump at the chance to correct anything I did that wasn’t manly. I was prohibited from seeing the monumental concert tour of “High School Musical,” I was teased for taking baths as a 7-year-old and I even felt ashamed for using the word “yay,” all because I was told those are things that girls do.
What felt like minor critiques to others were rejections that I dwelled upon for days while I worked to overcorrect my mistakes. They became walls that hid my gay identity. More than anything, though, I felt the absolute loneliness of a closeted boy who feared that his spilled secret might cause the world to implode.
I had to learn what was good and what was bad. I muted my personality, mumbled my voice, kept a buzzcut, wore baggy clothes, played sports I hated, dated and flirted with girls for whom I had absolutely no interest (sorry ladies) and hid whatever I could so that I was an acceptable straight boy. And while my heterosexual camouflage wasn’t fooling many, I was suppressing enough of myself that these tactics soon became subconscious.
I’m not special in this regard. Nearly any queer person you ask will give you a similar answer — to hide parts of our personality was a survival instinct. Coming out, unfortunately, does not undo those years of hiding. That is only the beginning. A greater problem lies ahead and that is to find the healthy, whole version of yourself again.
There is a decent amount of research on what the impact of living a covert life can do to a queer person. We spend our formative years in a near-constant fight-or-flight mode as we maintain a straight façade and navigate a straight society that wasn’t built for us. Then, we stumble into a complex gay culture that, among other things, idolizes masculine-presenting men.
The emotions I felt daily remained unaddressed until I read an essay published by HuffPost, referring to the phenomenon as “gay loneliness.” Our unique experience sets off a chain of mental and physical health challenges that remain through adulthood and take years to confront.
Reading that essay as a newly-out 20-year-old became a turning point as I then fervently dove into books and research like Alan Downs’ “The Velvet Rage” and Matthew Todd’s “Straight Jacket.” I had been awakened to my internalized shame and wondered how deep the damage went.
What I do know about myself is this: I have been in and out of therapy for years addressing the way my anxious lifestyle manifested physical side-effects, like the mystery of hypertension in a teenager or the seemingly unprovoked panic attacks. I continue to fight a self-imposed stutter I had created to hide my perceived gay voice. I struggle to establish and maintain male friendships simply because the primary way I learned to relate to men was through bullying. Most of all, I spend every day unraveling myself in hopes of remembering who the hell I was before I hid it all away.
When someone points out that they see a queen inside of me who awaits her time to shine, I deflect. I still create excuses and say that the speed of my wit wouldn’t match any queen or that I can’t dance (or lip-sync) for my life. But none of those are real reasons because those are not the only qualifications for a queen.
The truth is the thought of a queen inside of me used to be terrifying because, even after several years of being out and confident in my identity, femininity still felt dangerous and undesirable. It’s a devastating thought to have that after all this progress — internally and socially — maybe I’m still suppressing parts of myself.
Even then, I have moments when the queen emerges. A few weeks ago, the “SMASH” reunion concert left me with no choice but to steal the show (in my apartment) as Marilyn Monroe. In the season one finale of HBO’s “We’re Here,” Shangela reflects on a memory of wearing her blanket as a wig when she was a child. (Sound familiar?) The scene forced me to reflect on my own childhood — those moments when I was completely uninhibited by the social norms I would later learn. Those are the parts I am missing today. That’s the queen that’s buried deep inside of me.
The discovery of my inner queen will not be as easy as acknowledging her existence. I may have gotten a taste of her when my high school years begged for stage time in the fall and spring theatrical productions, but she was still constrained by my feigned straightness. She is Cleopatra, sealed in an elusive crypt far away from a modern man’s touch. It will take years of open-mindedness, introspection and maybe a cabaret or two to crack the sarcophagus.
Writing this piece, itself, serves as a process to recognize and evaluate myself. It’s part of a lifelong process to unlearn the shame around my identity. This poor, buried queen is just one part of a whole person who needs to air himself out. It takes a lot of strength but I am learning to love more than just the queen, but the man himself. He doesn’t deserve to be ignored.
In one of my greatest challenges yet, I’m learning compassion towards myself. I’m not going to get much farther in life without it because I’ve already learned that loving yourself is the root of loving and caring for others. To understand my own assets and challenges will provide a path to empathy for others’ just as well.
Today, that is what we need. I am a white, cisgender gay man in the age of Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump and rampant xenophobia. My struggles are not invalidated by what’s happening around me but rather give me the courage to stand with others who need love. Especially in a fight for LGBTQIA+ rights that has so often left our trans and gender-nonconforming folks behind, I need to use my love and my privilege to raise them up. I really hate to say it, but as RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
I have been so out of touch with my buried queen that it’s like I’m meeting someone new. Hello me, I’m me. Nice to meet you. Sorry for locking you in a cage. I can’t wait to get to know you better.
If you enjoyed reading Tyler’s piece, you should check out Cyle Suesz’s essay on how he came out over AIM.
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