Garth Greenwell [click here for his site] wrote the brilliant novel, WHAT BELONGS TO YOU, and Garrard Conley [click here for his site] wrote the eviscerating memoir, BOY ERASED, which have in common besides being fantastic writing and moving reads, that they are informed by the gay experience; these are life stories still too rare, still too stigmatized, still too dismissed and denied in too many places, which makes the world dangerous for people like Garth and Garrard and, well, me. So, part of my story, here, where I am, going.
I am up at 5a.m. cutting up ten pounds of vegetables.
This weekend there’s a family gathering of my only living parent, Mommy, her five remaining offspring accompanied by members of their individual branches, and, too, relatives borne by the deceased offspring. We will celebrate the visit of one niece/cousin/daughter and the return to college of another niece/cousin/daughter, and, if we’re honest about it, this fried chicken dinner is about what every other joining of more than one or two of us has become: a marvel that we have survived.
I try not to invade the privacy of others with my writing. I understand people in the same room having had the same conversation will individually experience it through their own filters of frame of reference, life experience, and personal prejudices, so I hesitate to write about something (anything) someone else has “done”, the doing of which has resulted in me feeling a certain way. This is why, I think, my blogs are often so solipsistic; I believe we are responsible for our own reality, as in, I am responsible for how I react to whatever the world gives me.
As an actor, director, teacher, writer, and now, house/pet sitter, I have spent most of my life examining and contemplating what the world gives and how the gifts make people feel and react. Cause and effect. Things happen because . . . this is what interests me; the WHY of life.
I see now that for many years I couldn’t get to the pith of WHY — my own WHY anyway — because I harbored such anger. Anger born of fear. Fear of rejection. And as is so often the case, that thing I feared was the very thing I sought, set myself up to find.
Now, let me begin by saying, I am not looking to blame anyone for anything. It is not the fault of my family I was born into a heterosexist culture from which come my earliest memories, these family members I cherish disapproving of me. The “stop acting like a girl” and “boys don’t wiggle their rear ends when they walk” and “boys can’t have long hair” and “stop pretending you’re a girl wearing dresses” and “don’t you want to play with your trucks?” and the subtler sort of tsks and turnings away, the times they pretended not to see me with a towel on my head substituting for luxurious, long blonde hair, the times they would tell my sister how cute she looked in a found dress-up dress but pretend not to see me there next to her, these communicated to me from the beginning of my consciousness that I was, somehow, not right.
Not what they wanted.
I want to be absolutely clear: My family loved me unreservedly and any hesitations had to do with what they thought would happen to me out in the world because of who I was and how I behaved. My family — to a person — all struggled with feeling not enough, not right, not belonging, not deserving of love, success, being seen. We all made life decisions we regretted based on the belief we would never, could never really be loved if anyone actually knew who we were, what we were, so we’d best be grateful for every crumb sent our way and hope we were never found out for the losers we really were.
When I formally came out, there was no rejection, only support, at a time when many LGBTQ people (although that term did not exist) were disowned, denied, and destroyed by their families.
None of which changes the chronic stress of being other in a world where it was clearly communicated that other was unacceptable. If I wanted to be happy — hell, if I wanted to SURVIVE — it depended on me pretending to be someone and something other than who I was. It was a natural trajectory that I’d gravitate to the arts, where pretending to be something and someone else was rewarded and where I was able to find cohort and companions who understood — even if it wasn’t said out loud — my journey.
The sadness of that; as a performer I had a good-enough voice and a no-holds-barred intensity, but I did not have the masculine mien that allowed me to be cast in most available male roles. I was, as they said at the time, “light”. I tried, but not hard enough, I did not have the required fortitude or confidence to bear all the rejection of being sort-of-talented and a type. I ended up directing and teaching, which was a mostly good thing. I worked very hard to embrace other when casting and teaching, to include and expand, to see soul, not gender, color, age, size, when making stories. I succeeded quite a bit. And, yes, I also failed. I misunderstood some people, I missed some opportunities to see and encourage people, I had a prejudice toward beautiful voices and troubled souls and floppy, gangly movers.
But, I made a world. Or, more accurately, I made a safe room in a scary world where others were supposed to be safe to be who they were, the kind of room I wished I’d had as young Charlie.
And then, for reasons too private and in many ways the telling of which — even my part of the story — would elide into the realities of others I do not wish to denigrate, criticize, nor in any way harm or judge, it became impossible for me to stay in that room myself; impossible because it had become clear that in ways I’d never suspected — or, perhaps, willfully ignored — I was again not being seen for who I was by people who meant to love me, but, instead, loved who they wanted or needed me to be, some other version of me, a version it was killing me to try to be. It was past the time where I could keep morphing to make others happy, I needed to try to be me for me, and let that be enough.
So, late-ish in life I struck out, giving up many things, quietly. In the process, I was given up by lots of people, most of whom meant little to me, acquaintances, but some of whom I loved and trusted deeply, family and dear friends whose absence and/or lack of understanding and support cut me deeply, felt like rejection, very nearly killed me.
But one goes on. Or, I did. I knew that I too had hurt people. One doesn’t mean to, one sometimes can’t do anything else, most people act from self-preservation and we don’t consider what others believe to be our heinous acts of betrayal to be heinous in the least. We are all sociopaths when it comes to getting what we think we need to survive.
And so, as I had with acting, producing, and teaching, I concentrated on writing, which has the same sort of audition/rejection foundation as does acting. I repeat, as with acting: I tried, but not hard enough, I did not have the required fortitude or confidence to bear all the rejection of being sort-of-talented and a niche-type. I ended up odd-jobbing, house and pet sitting, living far below the poverty level.
During which process I, well, let Roxie Hart speak for me:
Look, I’m gonna tell you the truth. Not that the truth really matters. But I’m gonna tell you anyway. The thing is, see, I’m older than I ever intended to be. And all my life I wanted to be —- but No, No, No, they always turned me down. It was one big world full of No. . . . Anyway, to make a long story short, I started fooling around. Then I started screwing around — which is fooling around without dinner.
While I might have faced mostly rejection in acting and writing and love, to my surprise, late-ish in life, in ways and to degrees never the case in my youth, I was remarkably successful at tricking. And its rejections didn’t bother me because it wasn’t me. Not Charlie. I didn’t have a name. Or, if I did, it wasn’t my real one. No one gave a crap about names. Or resumes. Or my singing. Or writing. Or my ability to make people feel safe or seen. Or anything but this six feet, one inch, one hundred and something (private, that) pounds, age undetermined (lied about, actually), average-bodied, relatively sane, clean, smells good man onto which these other men projected whatever it was they needed me to be, and we all got what we needed. Right then. Moments. Pretending to be whoever they wanted us to be, pretending they were who we needed them to be, pretending to be.
And I am okay with that. And damn good at it.
And this: I’ve spent the majority of my life with a room of my own. I don’t want to share my bed. I don’t want to get married. It’s too late to have a child. I don’t want to start another career. I want to be content in my space of me.
So, I need to protect that space. I don’t invite people into my rooms — wherever they are — I go to theirs. And that, less and less. I am in retreat. Where once I was on Twitter hours a day, now I check in once or twice. Or, not at all. I love the people — my dear ones — on Twitter, but like my family and dear friends from before — I don’t want to face the thought of losing them, of watching them go, as has happened so much in life. So, in my bed, now, (in my life, now?) I have room only for me, my books, my Moleskines. Where I sleep is my sacred retreat from the possibility of rejection of any kind. Where I sleep is my place of inclusion for me. Just me.
The me who has survived in a world where the minority stress caused by cultural externalized and internalized homophobia coupled with a genetic predisposition toward self-abnegation and early Catholic training in the benefits of being a martyr to others, could easily have done me in.
I survived. I’m not sure why, to what end, or, frankly, some days, that I wouldn’t have been better off not surviving, but here I am. Cutting up vegetables for what remains of my family, even those who broke my heart. Swiffering someone else’s floor. Cuddling someone else’s pets. Holding someone else’s space. Being where and what I am needed to be by others for a while during the day. My choice. And, having reached this place in life, too, my mistakes, I’ve owned them. I am not ashamed of the things I did badly and wrong, of the things I fucked up, nor am I ashamed of being fond of casual sex with virtual pretty strangers. Now, when I get into bed at night, wherever that bed happens to be that week, I am unashamed and contentedly alone with my books, with my me, the me who has against gargantuan odds of predisposition and disease, survived when many of my gay brothers did not. Have not. Could not. I am a survivor.
And we are all of us that, yes? Survivors. The secret aging tells us, the whittling away to essence, the pith of our personhood, what remains when all the bullshit and braying and boasting and believing and betrayal is done with.
Happy weekend, kids. Going.