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Posted By Sage     January 25, 2016     1,264 views     4 likes     1 comment
When I came out of the closet I blew the door off the hinges. I went from being a shy, expressionless wallfower to a finger-snapping, hip-swishing queen. I Vogued on the dance floor. I practiced swing-dancing (the girl's part) in a hippie skirt. I scooped up record numbers of signatures and subscrip...  more
When I came out of the closet I blew the door off the hinges. I went from being a shy, expressionless wallfower to a finger-snapping, hip-swishing queen. I Vogued on the dance floor. I practiced swing-dancing (the girl's part) in a hippie skirt. I scooped up record numbers of signatures and subscriptions for the then-"Human Rights Campaign Fund" from older gay men by prancing around in a ripped tank top and butt-hugging denim short-shorts. And when one of my oldest friends first met me at a Halloween Party I was dressed as a Bic lighter with my face and hair all done up in an orange flame. As it turned out, this was all just a phase.

No, not the gay part. Just the flaming queen part. It wasn't me, but I didn't know that yet. Not until I became it. Because as soon as I realized i was gay, a whole flood of preconceptions and presumptions flooded me. I had these concepts of what it meant to be a gay man, and since I was now one of those people I believed that meant I had to be those other things too. My colorful coming out, in fact, no doubt stemmed in part from the sheer liberation of self-discovery, the lingering high of that "A-ha!" moment. 

Last night Curry and I watched "Do I Sound Gay?", a 2015 documentary that follows filmmaker--and gay man--David Thorpe as he wrestles with a voice he dislikes because he believes it makes him sound gay. In one sequence several of Thorpe's friends recall the moment they observed the "regular guy" who they knew as their friend morph into a stereotypical gay man with all the culturally expected  characteristics of speech and mannerism. To no one's surprise, this happened to be the same point in time when Thorpe finally felt comfortable enough to come out of the closet. For him, and many like him (ahem!) this sense of freedom and liberation came with it a feeling that we could embrace these stereotypes we spent our whole lives guarding against. It was, for many, a form of compensation, as noted by one of Thorpe's old friends, a lesbian, who likens his gay voice to the proto-lesbian leather jacket she started wearing after she'd come out. It was, as she says, "a signal."

I'm not the most masculine guy in the world by far, or even the most masculine gay man. But nor do I fit most of the preconceived notions of how a gay man is supposed to be or behave. I'm a slob, for one thing. You couldn't come over to my house right now without a good 24-hour's notice. I don't have a gaggle of girlfriends I gossip with. I don't go out clubbing at night (not anymore, at least.) Nor are my husband and I raising two adopted kids (though we do have three dogs and a cat.) We don't swish (and when we try to, we do it so badly we look like straight guys acting "gay") We don't call each other "girrrrrl," and we cringe when other gay guys do.

For Thorpe those signals never dissippated, they subsumed his old ways of being and became the new him, whether he liked it or not. The question this raises for me--and for Thorpe and his rounds of a speech therapy bordering on conversion therapy progress--is which is the real David Thorpe: the man he's trying to get back to or the man he's trying to get away from? And asking this, of course, I couldn't help but wonder if I, who was able to succeed where Thorpe had failed and set those "signals" down, had in truth become more myself or less?

In another moment in Thorpe's film David Sedaris describes how occasionaly someone will say, "I didn't know you were gay?" and he looks up at Thorpe and asks with a pained look on his face, "Why does it make me feel good to hear that?" Most people who meet me are suprised to learn that I'm gay. Like Sedaris at first I too used to wear this as a badge of honor. Until, also like him, I came to realize that reaction was a sign of my own self-loathing, and it made me an active participant in my own discrimination. "Gay" was one thing, and I was something else. Homosexual, maybe, but not gay: definitely not gay. 

If people are surprised to learn that I'm gay most are downright shocked to learn that my husband is gay. He recently started broadcasting on Periscope, and at some point in nearly every broadcast some viewer catches a giveaway cue (like the word "husband") and shoots the comment: "You're gay?" One of these inquiring viewers was a young guy in Russia whose first response to Curry's revelation was, "In Russia they'll lock you up for that." We thought he was judging us, at first, but as the conversation continued we learned it was quite the opposite. He was expressing his own fears. He was having his own revelation. He was "questioning."

Our Russian friend proceeded to admit to us that he had considered homosexuality himself but dismissed the possibilitiy because he believed that all gay people were a certain way with which he didn't identify. He said that if he'd known gay people could also be (his words) "just normal guys" he might've started questioning his assumptions about himself much sooner. Whether Curry's Russian follower is gay or not is not the issue: the issue is that his presumptions were blown out, his perceptions of stereotypes broken down. And from that a more open, honest, and maybe above all accepting assessment of himself and those around him will forever be present. 

The question the film "Do I Sound Gay?" (and even just the title itself) raises is not so much, "What does a gay voice even sound like?" or more fundamentally still, "Is there even such a thing as a gay voice?" but rather, "Why would having a 'gay voice' be a bad thing--particularly if you are gay?" Or to put it more simply: What exactly is wrong with being gay?

Gay men are consrtantly assessing their own masculinity, and lesbians their femininity. We're always placing ourselves somewhere on the spectrum in direct comparison with every other gay man or lesbian we meet. We try not to, but can never completely escape it. That's because we've been conditioned to it--all of us: gay, straight, and otherwise--by this binary, dualistic world we've grown up in. It's so ingrained in us, in fact, we often assume it's all there is: the only way. The Truth, with a capital 'T'. What is. You are either this or that. There is no in-between. But lately, as more than just gay men and lesbians are coming out of the closet, we have no choice but toss out those old models and reassess some of our longest-held assumptions.

Look up the word "gay" on Google and what you'll find are results for lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, and several other groups, as well as gay men. That's because "gay" has somehow been elevated into the go-to word for everything not heterosexual or gender-normative. It used to mean "gay men". I don't know if there are all that many gay men upset about this co-opting of the label, but I'm pretty sure there's a hell of a lot of lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, and other sexual and gender "non-normatives" damned peeved about it. Especially when almost all of the media now targeting the "gay" community is actually  targetting gay men--and gay white men, at that! 

And herein lies what may be the greatest irony of my own experience as I've described it: as abberrant and divergent from the norms thrust upon me--first as a heterosexual male, then as a gay male, and more, a white gay male--I was still an indelible part of that prevailing norm. I was--I am--a gay, white male. Gay voice or not. Love it or loathe it. But imagine, if I felt at all constrained by the limitations of these labels, how much more so must these other gender and sexual "deviants" out there who have even less resonance with those terms than I do!

One reason so-called gay people--or what I prefer to call queer people--come out is to acknowledge to the world that we exist. Failing to see ourselves represented anywhere around us, we are forced to accept that we may be those very representatives we seek. 

What prompted me to pull up Thorpe's film on Netflix in the first place was the roiling to the surface of all these same thoughts and emotions triggered last Saturday, January 20, when I saw in the New York Times' LENS section (for "Photography, Video, and Visual Journalism") a piece called "'Tuff Enough' in New Orleans' Queer Community" by Jake Naughton profiling an exhibit of work by queer photographer Meg Turner. Naughton begins the piece with the line, "Between-ness is an idea that gives us pause." And that's exactly what the included clips of Turner's work gave me: pause to question, acknowledge, and embrace that "between-ness" or, as I (and it seems Meg Turner as well) prefer to call it, "queerness".

The queers in Turner's photographs are not "gay" or "straight", they're not "men" or "women". They're simply no more or less than unabashedly, undeniably, and perhaps most to the point, inescapably themselves. They are rugged and gritty. Open and vulnerable. Quirky and oddly familiar. They are beyond labels, beyond norms, or the rigors of fitting in, because there are no labels you could throw at these people that would stick. Even "queer" only manages to cling precariously to the surface like dew to the skin. These are individuals as unique as the term implies, each one treading, as Naughton calls it, "the liminal space" between the familiar and namable. And as we're more and more starting to realize, this "between-ness" seems more to be the norm than the perceived norm itself.

Growing up, my husband struggled with many of the same issues as I, as Thorpe, perhaps as Turner too, only (also like us) he had his own unique challenges shaping them. In his case it was undiagnosed Kleinfelter's syndrome: a condition occuring in men in which they are born with an extra--female--chromosome. He has confessed to me that had we lived in an era where such non-conformities as gender dysphoria were widely known and discussed, he may have wondered for a time if he himself were actually born in the wrong skin. He's told me that ultimately he's glad he's still a man. But he also knows now that he's not just a man. He's not even just a gay man. He's an intersex gay man. The irony is not lost on him that as one of the men least likely to be identified by someone as gay (he too prefers "queer", for what might be obvious reasons now) he's also biological, genetically more of a woman than most men--gay or straight.

The Kinsey Scale identifies 7 different sexualities. In truth there are probably more like 7 billion. And when you add in the range on the gender scale, that number factors exponentially into the stratosphere. 

That's why I use the word "queer" to identify myself. Because "gay" is both too general and too limiting. Because I don't just want to be a singular individual: I also want to be a part of something, to belong. Even if it's to belong to the group of singular individuals who don't belong anywhere else. 

In Naughton's article he describes Turner's body of work as "art as activism rewriting history, but also simply exalting people as they are." That's what the act of coming out of the closet does for every person who does it, and for the queer community at large. It rewrites our personal and group histories, and exalts us for simply being who we are. And that's what viewing Turner's photographs and watching Thorpe's film elicited in me: that sense of belonging to a group so vast and diverse that it's actually our unique individualities--that singular between-ness of each of us--that produces this profound and indelible sense of kinship. 

What stereotypes have you broken down in your life?

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Photo credit: Meg Turner
Cover photo: "Do I Sound Gay?" movie poster

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