I used to do drag on stage when I was in high school. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t know how to do elaborate makeup and sew fabulous dresses out of curtains. Doing drag, for me, at that time, wasn’t new at all. When I was little, I used to dress up in my mother’s clothes and put on lipstick and dance in front of the mirror. I thought high heels were just the thing I needed. Pretending to be a woman on stage felt like a natural extension to my daily life: I did the washing up when mother was too busy doing other stuff, and grandpa always added an “a” to my first name, which, in Romanian, is usual for girls’ names, whenever he wanted to be affectionate. I was, throughout my childhood, called all kinds of names and they were all variations of sissy. Or they felt like they were variations of that.
I spent a lot of time with girls because guys naturally excluded me from their group. When I did manage to break through that wall of ice, which rarely happened, they regarded me with suspicion and kept me at arms’ distance. Or they bullied me back to the girls’ side of the room, where I was accepted with the kind of giggle you give a child when it cannot work out how a toy works. I knew I wasn’t one of them, that was kind of obvious, I had the extra thing, but at least I had somebody to hang out with. And that was okay for a while, that is until I was expected to develop a sexual interest in girls. Which is where things started to go amiss. For obvious reasons that were not as obvious at that time as they are today.
My brother did it. His friends did it. My uncle did it. They all spoke about girls with a wink at the end of every sentence as if they had been let in on a secret I was yet to be revealed by actually being with a girl. Often enough, my brother would boast about the fact that he had been taught by my uncle to fuck everything he could get his hands on, no pun intended. As opposed to my brother and his friends, who gathered to watch porn on the same VHS player I used for watching Disney movies (Aladdin is my favorite btw), girls represented a particular class of citizens that, to the eyes of the same group of men, required the implementation of a strategy, an approach. You circled around them, and then you closed in on them.
I was, of course, oblivious to the procedure, and I still am. The first time I went out with a girl, and she held my hand, all I felt was the embarrassment of having trespassed on an act that was not for me to see. She snuggled against me while we were watching a movie at the cinema, and perhaps I knew I was supposed to do something, but I kept watching the film because there were fucking robots and flying drones in it (“only a guy could like such things,” she said). When another girl held my hand, just outside class at university, I felt like disappearing because I was suddenly visible, my interests were revealed to the world.
Don’t get me wrong, I feel the same about guys. A couple of weeks ago I went out with a guy, whom I really liked, and we held hands and kissed in public. At the bus stop, while waiting for my bus to come, I kept my arm around his shoulders, and a little girl stared at us, and I couldn’t help obsessing over what she might be thinking. Or what the mother, who accompanied the child, might be thinking. I felt the urge to keep my hands to myself, but I also felt the guy didn’t want me to do that, and we sort of met halfway, unconsciously, and decided to enjoy those moments together. That shyness was there, too, yet, it was a shyness overruled by honesty. I wasn’t doing something that betrayed who I was, or who he was. It was the shyness of being awarded a prize of which I was proud.
I felt the same giddiness, though of a different degree when I went to the Pride Parade in Turin this year. I danced in the streets, and there were times when a chastising voice in my head kept reminding me of the fact that I was a university teacher and that a student might see me, inevitably, and think the worst. Or tell his parents who would later storm into my office and point an accusatory finger at me. I found it hard, but I reminded myself that the parade was precisely about that, about being proud of who I was, and that there must be, akin to the lives of famous writers, a separation between the personal and the professional, and that the two do not mix except obliquely and in non-invasive ways. At the end of the parade, my friends and I sat down on the sidewalk in the Vittorio Veneto square, and I felt somewhat empowered and decided to wear the rainbow flag on my backpack. I felt the fatigue one feels at the end of a productive day.
But above all these aspects, there looms an overwhelming fear, which creeps in often enough to make us avoid certain situations and which leads us to long and search for safe spaces. The phrase is often overused in gay-speak, but it defines a place where we are free of the expectations of gender. Where we are not expected to develop a sexual interest in a person of the opposite sex. Where we are able not only to hold hands and kiss with people of the same sex but also where guys can have girl-friends and girls can have boy-friends and not feel the pressure of sexual interest. It’s not necessarily a physical space, akin to those quiet coaches on a train, but it does set boundaries against any type of bullying. It is, quintessentially, a space that makes us less self-conscious.
I’m confident there are people out there, people I know, people you know, who do not see the necessity of these safe spaces. Society nowadays has developed a system of checks and balances that ostracize those who engage in hate speech, and this is, doubtlessly, a positive development. In most European countries today as well as in the United States, gay people are no longer attacked, verbally or physically, for their preferences. But that is not the point. Difference, much like change, is always unsettling mostly because we live in a world that is saturated with the things we trust are normal. When I started sharing my dating life on Facebook by writing short posts in Italian, I did it with the best of intentions and out of the belief and confidence that I should no longer hide. A few days after publishing one of my posts, the father of a friend of mine warned me that I was too naive and that some people, out there, might not be as open-minded as the most of us. He said it was fatherly advice and I accepted it as such, although, for a minute, I had visions of somebody using my words against me. An enraged student, one of my high school classmates, my parents’ friends who might use my homosexuality against them. Since then, I started filtering out, by using Facebook’s privacy settings, those who might pose a threat from that point of view. Friends, except so and so. And that is the point.
You mostly feel the necessity of these safe spaces when you like somebody, and you feel the world is standing between the two of you. It might be something that the guy you’re dating says while you’re waiting to get your movie tickets at the cinema that makes you want to touch his face. But before you take any action, you must always, be aware of your surroundings. The thought process is akin to those habit-breaking techniques they teach you when you’re trying to quit smoking. Take a step back, observe your thinking, and act against it. If you’re straight, you don’t think twice before touching your girl’s face to show affection. We have to think twice. I’ve experienced this a couple of times, but I’ve never felt it so ardently as I did when I met Richard.
[Slight change of tone here. Bear with me.]
Richard lives with his mother, and after meeting me for the first time, she told him that I’m slightly effeminate. He said it casually, over one of our expensive dinners, as if to say that he doesn’t agree with his mother’s first impression. I dismissed this confession with a papal wave of the hand. All first impressions are mistaken, as the saying goes, and to the naked eye of a mother who can only wish the best for her son, I might appear slightly offputting, as all in-laws do. And I might have returned to the thought, perhaps, while I was having sex with her son and she was still in the house one Saturday morning, adding to it, if not scorn, then at least some form of pity. But not the kind of compassion one feels for the unfortunate; instead, it was the sort of sympathy one feels for those who decide to tell you about the latest conspiracy theory they came across on the internet.
The first time I met Richard, which was in front of the Porta Susa train station in Turin, I fell in love with him. Love might be a word too big for what really happened, but I like to think that, finally, and for once, I fell in love with a guy. He speaks English with a proper English accent (not sure about the grammar though), and he dresses like a guy who’s got his own business and likes to look as if he’s never done one hour of work in his life. Which is the cool and slightly-urban-zen-just-out-of-the-gym-and-freshly-showered kind that makes you jealous and fear for your life. The second time we went out for drinks, I was still in love with him and touched his hand while he was showing me a LOTR parody on YouTube. It was also out of love that I decided to tell him the drinks were on me. It didn’t matter that I spent the pocket money I had saved for a week teaching English to a twelve-year-old on two drinks (!!!) as long as it was out of love. We kissed in the car in an underground parking lot, and we kissed when nobody was looking. And when we went out with his friends, I had to pretend I was straight.
Now, acting straight in public should be (and is, presumably) easy, and it’s not really about making comments about girls or talking about how much you like them. It is, in fact, the default label you end up with unless the person observing you has the emotional acumen to detect or understand that you are not straight. I say this from personal experience. A girl I met at the library once told me she had sensed a peculiar sensitivity in me and hence she concluded that I must be gay. A student of mine, a girl, told me she realized I was gay from the way I folded the cable of my earphones. It’s true, I don’t like when it gets all tangled up, but that girl is Sherlock. (Also, she might be reading this.) However, most people don’t have that, and they stick to the default settings: you’re straight, let’s not discuss this further. And Richard wore that label like some people wear their flaws. On his (expensive shirt) sleeve.
We always sat at opposite ends of the table, and if any touching was to be involved, we did it under the table, and only when some heavy tablecloth could cover our trespasses. Richard would always look both ways before doing anything that showed affection towards me. When I asked him whether he came out to his parents, he said yes but that he didn’t really talk about it with them. His friends did not know, and once it happened that one of the girls took an interest in him and he rejected her, not because he was gay, there was no talk of that, but because he was not interested. This created tensions within his group of friends, for obvious reasons, and he kept complaining about the fact that the others sort of avoided him. The problem was, of course, with his friends.
We danced around the topic akin to tribal men around a fire. When I addressed the issue of him coming out to his friends, which, I thought, might have eased the tensions and reinforced the bonds he had with these people, Richard dismissed it and said that he doesn’t want his sexual preferences to define who he is. Which is, rationally, a valid argument. Nobody puts that on their CV for sure, just like nobody goes around telling people, at the bus stop, for instance, that they are gay or straight. Being proud of who you are also implies this, that you can lead a life in which what you do in the bedroom does not affect your daily struggle, that you have a secret life you share only with those who matter. Yet, again, that is not the point.
Coming out is a sensitive topic. When I came out to my parents, I trembled the way I do the moment I’m about to open some blood test results. We all struggle with it, and it is that very struggle that makes the moment crucial, and constructive. Before actually doing it, I practiced everything in my head a thousand times: what I’m going to say, how I’m going to do it, where I’ll keep my hands. Yet I knew that I have to do it because, for a very long time before that, it had started to affect how I acted around my parents. Thinking twice before doing or saying anything in their company became second nature and, for once, I wanted to enjoy the ease of mind and body I could only feel at home. And perhaps that is the point. You come out to the people you care for when you begin to think that what you do in the bedroom stands between you and that ease of mind you experience only when you’re around family and friends. It’s about removing a massive amount of anxiety from your life.
I stopped seeing Richard more than a year ago. We didn’t discuss it over, we just stopped talking to each other. He isn’t much of a talker anyway. I wouldn’t hear from him for months until I would write to him and ask him out. He blocked me on Facebook or deactivated his profile, I do not know for sure. I only know that he disappeared from my life. Searching for reasons would only mean vilifying him, and I don’t want to do that. Then, a few months back, I started to miss him and asked him out again. We had drinks and French fries at this very butch pub in Turin. And by butch I mean that they sell burgers and dozens of different types of beers I cannot tell apart and men go there to watch soccer matches wearing funny hats and flags. We talked, and I was disheartened to notice that he had not changed his mind in the meantime. He no longer goes out with his friends because he feels as if they betrayed him somehow. I asked whether he made any new gay friends and he said he doesn’t need that. I suggested he tried dating apps, we had met, after all, on Tinder, but he told me everyone there has AIDS, and I didn’t broach the subject further.
I was on those dating apps as well. I knew some of those people who supposedly were HIV positive. I saw him again in his pastel-colored suit at my Ph.D. graduation ceremony, but he didn’t stick around for drinks, so we didn’t have the chance to talk that much. I still get that warmth in my chest when I see him, and, perhaps, that feeling will never go away. I hope it doesn’t. And I hope he’ll find what he’s looking for, whatever that is.
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