(or: A Very Real Chance to Make Things Better)
The following words might seems jaded, or bitter, or cynical. Don’t let yourself think that. Under any circumstances. It might be tempting, given what I have to say. Don’t do it. These are hopeful words for a hopeful world, and if you don’t think so please come find me and let me know. I’m only twenty; I have lots to learn.
I came out at age fourteen, which astounds some people. “How brave!” they exclaim. Or, “You must have been so self-assured!” And yet I can’t really lay claim to either of these epithets even today. Ask my friends—they’ll tell you how (apart from the odd shenanigan) I jitter in the dark and refuse to walk near ledges, how I question my existence at every fork in the road, how when it all comes down to it I have many good qualities but bravery and self-assuredness might not be chief among them. And at age thirteen I certainly wasn’t any braver or more self-assured. So why did I come out? Why did I hurl myself into this cruel and carnivorous world when I could have wobbled around in the womb of straightness for a few more years with little to no outside objection? I think economists would say that the “opportunity cost” of coming out would have been much higher than staying in the closet.
But of course, I’m no economist. And at age fourteen I thought I had the answer—not just to my sexuality, but to how to live with my sexuality. I really thought that it was true: being gay was easy.
It’s, uh, not. It’s not easy. At all. But more on that later.
Let me tell you a story. When I was a young child, my sister and I had a strange fascination with troll dolls—those little, extremely ugly dolls with mushroomesque, neon hair. We’d collect them and imagine up towns of them. We’d couple them up, we’d arrange social functions for them, we’d make them go to the little troll store. One day, on a drive from southeastern Connecticut up to Northfield, Massachusetts, my sister and I ran out of lady-trolls. This was of particular note because it was the Great Marriage Festival in our tiny troll town and how the heck were we supposed to marry all of the trolls if there weren’t an even number of man-trolls and lady-trolls?
“Well,” says my mother, “You could just have a gay couple.”
Oh. Now, somewhere in the less forgiving part of my mind I want to deny my mother’s role in my open-mindedness, to say that Mama Bogdonoff was really just concerned with her pocketbook and didn’t want to buy us two more lady-trolls. But isn’t that better? I mean, isn’t it a testament to her that she treated homosexuality so nonchalantly as to use it as a way to not buy me things? Jump forward a few years and you’ll see my father asking me why on Earth I felt sick to my stomach after telling him I was gay. “Okay. Um, is that all?” he would ask.
Which leads me back to my earlier point: I, being dumb, thought that being gay was easy. Oh, sure, I knew how the rest of the world might react. I was prepared to have a beautiful and tragic childhood, from which I might emerge victorious and saint-like. Or maybe everyone would be okay with it because they were okay with me, in which case I would just have to be better than them so that they could raise me to hero-like status for helping them realize that equality is paramount. Maybe. And in fact, the latter was (partly) true. People liked me. They liked me quite a bit, even after the somewhat startling truth about my sexuality broke loose. Maybe they liked me even more.
But you know what? It’s easy to live up to expectations. It’s easy to be what people think of you. Here I was, this white, bourgeois, gay Jewish kid in the middle of a largely low-income, black and Hispanic, straight Christian school. How could people not be fond of me after a few years? So I came out, graduated middle school, and trotted off to high school where I continued to think that being a successful gay was a simple matter of being better than other people.
Yeah. That’s what I said. Being better than other people. I mean, what was wrong with me? Being smart, funny, or well-dressed might be good goals, but not as a way of assessing their comparative worth. And to achieve them simply as a way of distracting people from my sexuality—my inner dialogue, the way I connect with the world—is just plain hypocritical. Because what happens when I’m not the smartest, funniest, or most attractive? What happens when I’m not the best anything in the room and the accolades stop trickling in? What happens when there are other gay people—new gay people, gay people who feel the way I did back then (and maybe still do), as though they need something to hold over the rest of the world?
What happens when I just want to live in peace and wake up to a world in which every single action of mine isn’t defined by a need for outside approval? I’ll tell you what happens. I can’t. I don’t. Because being gay is not easy.
Here’s another story, and it’s less cute:
In 2001, which is ten years ago and four years before I came out, a gay dating website called Manhunt.net opened shop. My senior year of high school, I joined on the off-chance that I could maybe find someone like me—someone ready to stop trying so damned hard to impress everyone, someone different, someone gay. Upon signing up, I was asked to share my interests, hobbies, hair color, sexuality, body type, penis size, and my HIV status. Because that’s what it meant to be gay, apparently. I had to be better than these people, too. I had to have the best body, or the biggest genitalia, or the most glamorous lifestyle.
So that’s it. The answer to everything was just to be better.
Here’s a tip: you can’t. I can’t. Nobody can. Better is a word best used to analyze literature, cooking, philosophies, architecture, etc. Not people. Because Nobody, with a capital N, is better than anyone else.
Which brings me to my final point: we are at a seminal moment in history, a time when the phrase “gay community” actually has tangible meaning. Isn’t that something? A new community is coalescing before our eyes, one with the chance to divorce itself from the messy business of qualifying people in terms of “better” and “worse”. It is time to peel ourselves away from the very legitimate and tempting need for external approval and recognize ourselves as role-models not just in the ways we speak, dress, or do business but in the ways we approach our fellow humans, the way we seek fulfillment, and the respect we give to every moment of life. Because life, I think, is worth living—simply, respectfully, and healthily.
How to Purchase Number Theory:
Number Theory is available for $0.99 from The Untreed Reads Store in a variety of formats, including PDF, EPUB and Kindle formats. Through October 31st, it’s also discounted 30% off for Gay History Month. You’ll also find the titles at virtually every ebook retailer around the world including Amazon, B&N, Apple, WHSmith and Waterstone’s.