When you’re gay and young, there are words you cannot say, or at least, may be afraid to say, or taken on additional meaning when someone else says them. Faggot, queer, homosexual, cocksucker, gay, etc. etc. Because of the dangers of these words, you are inevitably impacted as a writer. Vocabularies are charged, dangerous, if not fatal. You cannot “happen” to be subjected to these loaded words. You are these loaded words. You cannot “happen” to be a gay poet. You are a gay poet. To pretend you “happen” to be a gay poet is essentially to be still in the closet, dealing with your own self-hatred.
Once I came out in college, I joined a Speakers Bureau in which three open queers were sent to classrooms to tell Human Sexuality classes what the "homosexual lifestyle" was like. Whenever I went to speak, I admired the way the other speakers said how their lives had “got better.” They gained a significant other, went to more parties, and developed a greater number of friendships.
When I came out, I said, it was strange, nothing much happened; I was still waiting.
How long have you been waiting? someone asked.
Four years, I said.
The class asked, but didn’t your life get better?
I said, not as far as I could tell. Nothing much happened. Maybe I missed something.
Once one of the other speakers took me after class and said that if I couldn’t at least pretend to be more well-adjusted that I should stick to help making floats for the next pride rally.
My freshman year of college I joined a speech team—you had to perform what would amount to a serio-comic after-dinner speech in various classrooms, competing against other students. There was someone who ranked you on content and delivery ---three different judges, three performances. The only reason I participated was you traveled on the weekends to other colleges. Translation: I didn’t have to accept that I had no one to hang out with on Friday and Saturday night.
My speech was about not being "The Ideal Male." It was all a huge self-deprecating joke about my weight and effeminate nature. Not once did I ever use the word gay. Or homosexual.
I remember the first time I competed. I knew it was well-written speech, even if unfinished, and I predictably forgot an entire section, making it far shorter than the time requirement.
I was a disaster. I didn’t care about my scores. I just wanted to go home—I was already planning what I would do as my two other roommates went to Bible study and then came home and watched The Blues Brothers. They did this every weekend night. I can still remember huge patches of that movie by heart. Ask me sometime to recite it to you.
But something weird happened. I won the tournament. I was shocked. I thought there was a miscount until I kept winning tournament after tournament. I ended up a national champion in After Dinner Speaking for the American Forensics Association. Look it up.
After the season ended, a speech coach from another team came up to me and said, “Next year you’re not going to be able to play yourself. That is the reason you won after all. It was a smart move. No doubt you knew most of the judges would be gay. How could they deny you a trophy based on your content?”
“But I never said I was gay,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said.
A few week ago a friend came up to me and said, I heard all you teach is gay material. I was upset and went into my office and examined all my syllabi. Here are the books I’m using in my classes this semester:
Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line by Sean Thomas Dougherty This Noisy Egg by Nicole Walker Red Fort Border by Kiki Petrosino Teahouse of the Almighty by Patricia Smith The Tunnel by Russell Edson Recyclopedia by Haryette Mullen AM/PM by Amelia Gray The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso
And two anthologies:
Seriously Funny edited by Barbara Hamby and David Kirby Great American Prose Poems edited by David Lehman
As far as I know, none of these anthologists or writers are gay/lesbian. I felt the need to emphasize this fact to my friend. “Look,” I said, taking out my syllabi, “Here’s the evidence I don’t just teach gays and lesbians.”
“Evidence?” my friend said, “Evidence for what?”
In the wake of these recent publicized suicides (though, unfortunately, it may be a misconception that the problem is simply getting worse-- and not that it's been this bad for a long time) Dan Savage now has an important project titled "It Gets Better." For this project, members of the GLBT community, both famous and not-so-famous, make videos telling about how their lives have changed and improved since their youth. The project is intended to give young GLBT people hope and offer the idea of a better world to those contemplating suicide.
Does "it get better"?
Ask me now. Even for me, chubby, geeky, I have found happiness with my partner, and I found love.
Things aren't perfect by any means, but they sure as hell are better than they once were.
And despite all the words and all the stupid shit gay people hear in our lives, that's enough reason for anybody to live.
Due to my need to work on other projects, this blog will be on temporary hiatus. That's why this is a repost.
Steve Fellner's second book of poems The Weary World Rejoices was published last year. His first book of poems Blind Date with Cavafy won the Thom Gunn Gay Male Poetry Award.
His memoir, All Screwed Up, focuses on his relationship with his ex-trampoline champion mother.