By October of 1991, I was 14 and permanently living with my father. He was on a mission to convert me to full-blown manhood. In Washington State, my mother encouraged me to be my unconventional self, so when I arrived in Philadelphia, I had long curly hair that I’d attempted to dye blond but had ended up a strange orange color. Quickly, my father took me to the barber shop and cut off all my hair. I held back crying in the chair while he stared, ready to rage if a single tear dropped. I was very effeminate, and he was dedicated to purging the femme out of me.
Whenever I made an effeminate movement or sound, he snapped his fingers, like a master training his dog. “Every time I snap, it means you’re acting like a girl,” he explained. His snaps made me jump, causing endless anxiety as I prayed to go a day without hearing a snap. If I talked, walked, or moved against his standard of masculinity after several snaps, he would rage on me: “Stop acting like a faggot! Stop it! You keep acting like this, you’re going to grow up and get fucked by men! Is that what you want?” I was absorbing the performance of masculinity. I needed to act. It didn’t matter if it was real; the purpose was to convince others of my manhood before it was questioned.
I became seriously introverted. I was afraid to speak or move too suddenly and was in a state of constant nervousness. There was no space to be myself. I was labeled a “nervous child,” but no one understood that my father kept me on a choking, hypermasculine leash. I’d practice masculinity in the mirror. Trying to move my hands the “right” way, pacing my steps so I wasn’t “swishing”; studying masculinity was my survival technique to endure the mental abuse from my father.
By the time I was in high school, my father wanted to see a girlfriend in his 15-year-old son’s life. When I finally landed a girlfriend, he said, “If your girlfriend wants to stay the night, she can. She can say she’s staying with one of her friends. I won’t tell her mother. Ain’t nothing wrong with you having a girl in your bed.” My father was so consumed with my sexuality that he was willing to allow a 14-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy to sleep in the same bed to hopefully rescue my heterosexuality. My girlfriend never stayed the night, but we spent several days after school alone in my bedroom, with my father in the living room, probably praying her vagina would convert me.
This is an excerpt from Live Through This, Clay Cane’s brilliant new collection of personal essays on race, class, gender, sexuality, and faith. A journalist, TV personality, and filmmaker behind Holler if You Hear Me: Black and Gay in the Church, Cane calls the book “a direct response to Trump-era politics.” We couldn’t agree more.