What does it take to undo a self?
I had worked so hard to construct my self. Not myself, but the self that was to be presented to the world, to be shown to friends and family, to wear, to be in, to be of. There was no first moment that I became conscious that I was gay, just as there was no one moment in which I started to build and then maintain this self. There was a ‘before,’ where I would happily watch the first season of Glee, where middle school me was known as the kid obsessed with Lady Gaga, where I just liked what I liked and it never had to be more complicated than that. And then there was the ‘after.’
There were boat shoes, and there was deepening my voice so often that it became second nature to pitch it down, there were head nods and only having rap or alternative rock on my iPod nano, there was desire for being with another boy and there was the painful stifling of that desire, a suffocating struggle that felt never-ending and yet wholly necessary, a battle borne out of thinking people would not love me for who I was, which was borne out of not loving myself in the first place, which came from a dark, repulsive part of my brain that I wished I could eradicate.
I had built this self, one coded as straight and safe, or maybe straight and safe are inherently linked. To be safe was to be straight, and to be straight was to be safe. But finally, after months of inner dueling, I thought it may be time to come out, to get to another ‘after,’ an ‘after’ that was finally about giving myself what I deserved and letting go.
It was messy and it felt wrong. I didn’t know exactly where my constructions ended and my true self began. It wasn’t like I could undo my self like a never-ending ball of yarn, pulling and pulling, never making headway, never understanding what I was doing. I had to figure out what was made up, decide what parts of me were an utter fabrication and what parts of me made sense, were part of me in their own way. And then I had to face the fact that I didn’t really exist yet because I had been living a lie, and at 18 I hadn’t engaged with family, or friends, or anyone, without a veil to filter our interactions. It seemed that I had no organic identity, because an identity is created through one’s organic interactions with other people, and I had instead lived out my youth under a falsehood, playing video games and living on Twitter and YouTube while everyone else seemed to be out at parties, meeting up after school, and solidifying who they were at a much faster rate than I could have ever imagined.
I wrestled with the waves of anxiety, but there was the constant voice in my head telling me that I was an impostor and always would be, that I would always be trapped in liminality. That the harm done was irreparable.
As I typed up the final words of a sprawling Facebook announcement on July 14th, 2014, I thought it would be the pivotal moment of undoing. I hit send, and let the tears roll as comments flooded out of my desktop to serve as the base of the formation of a new self. The most ultimate of validations an 18-year-old could have felt, transmitted in real-time via static blue light. I sought a finite shift — if I put my truth out into Facebook (to me, this was the entire world), some divine force would collect all of the detritus I had built up of my fake self, shove it into a box, and lock it away, never to be seen again.
Instead, while the Facebook status was my Step One, it wasn’t enough to settle me into some sort of ‘gay normalcy,’ and I still didn’t feel stable. I trekked off to college, still wearing boat shoes and pastel button-downs from J. Crew, still hyper-vigilant about who could see my phone screen when I was playing a song by Charli XCX or Ariana Grande, still finding the words ‘I’m gay’ catch in my throat when I was meeting a new acquaintance and deciding whether to share that part of myself.
I was out (verified by Facebook, the keeper of truths) and…it wasn’t enough. I stood awkwardly in my str8 uniform at Wesleyan, this bastion of ‘individuality’ and ‘queerness.’ I had heard about the enticing sexual freedom of its naked parties, of fraternities whose members didn’t need to follow any gender rules. I walked a certain way, a chill but masc way, and my voice deepened around other men, especially the fucking athletes, because it was to them I still felt I needed to prove myself. I was at the mercy of my assumptions — but I was at Wesleyan nonetheless, and I felt supported even without anyone needing to directly show their support, and I knew I could walk around and be whomever ‘Karl’ was, and that it was probably going to be okay.
My mimicry took new forms, and served new goals (this time, it would help me start to be someone who maybe loved themselves, who maybe felt like sharing themselves with the world). I had plagiarized the str8 uniform from those around me in high school, so I did as I did then, scoping out looks as I baby-stepped into my new clothes and new identity. Suddenly, ASOS was my best friend, and I was enamored with colorful (but not tacky) button-down short-sleeve shirts and pants, as I felt more comfortable with a tighter leg, slowly but surely. First straight cut (lol), then skinny. I ran to the tattoo parlor the summer after sophomore year, shortly after throwing my Sperry’s in the Goodwill bin, and had my cartilage pierced. Hoop in flesh and I was well on my way, baby!
I continued to test out what was possible, and I became more and more used to wearing my earring, clinging to that as my tiny metal signal to those around me that I was, in fact, a real life gay. See? I had the earring to prove it. And I had ASOS joggers on. And I could assume this new persona and nobody was going to hurt me, or stare at me, or laugh at me.
There were other things I could now ‘do.’ I could listen to as much Charli XCX as I wanted. In fact, it was celebrated! I could be enamored with the pop girls and I could play them when I was on the aux and I didn’t have to cater to my audience and what I assumed their taste might be.
‘Men walk with the weight in their shoulders, but WOMEN walk with their hips,’ says drag queen Miz Cracker in a recent YouTube drag makeover of Queer Eye hunk Antoni Porowski. You don’t need to be a drag queen to learn from drag and realize how much of gender is a performance. The way I walked (and maybe still walk) was in need of a makeover of its own. Not that it needed to be more feminine, but I knew I was walking in a way that represented my fear of seeming feminine. Hips rigid and NOT flowy. Feet do not cross over the imaginary line in the middle of my walk. Chest out a bit strong, shoulders swinging just slightly exaggerated — a certain swagger. An ex of mine would always comment on how ‘straight’ my walk was, both a compliment to my immaculate performance of masculinity and an insult to my continued dedication to that performance.
Did I have to strut down the catwalk on the way to the train? No. But I am intent on working through that fear of being perceived as feminine, a fear so intertwined with the fear of being perceived as gay. And maybe sometimes I want to strut to the train, and I am trying to let myself! There’s no easy way to hammer something out of the psyche, though, so while I now buy the clothes I want and listen to the music I want and go on Grindr in public, it will take time to work through the default physical aspects of performing masculinity.
In this whole process, the post-coming-out-identity-finding process, I am trying to push myself out of my comfort zone without being too hard on myself. I don’t know what the end goal is, or what the results will look like, or how I’ll know when I’ve gotten there. But that is the thing about queer identity. When we come out and grow out of our old selves, where’s our roadmap? Surely, we can just say ‘I’m me! And that’s enough!’ Surely, we can just *start* being ourselves. But we don’t always know what it means to ‘be me.’ And maybe there is no end here, because we’re all constantly growing or decaying or revising. And maybe I’ll never really get there, because there is no ‘there’ to get to. The biggest lie here may be that growth is linear. It’s actually a whole fucked up mess that can backfire or derail you or make you so proud of yourself for the first time in a long time.