I remember when I first got the courage to not only admit that I'm gay, but start the process of coming out of the closet. It was liberating and exciting as I tried in as many ways as I could to embrace my newfound freedom, wearing rainbow bracelets and pins, going out to gay bars and pride festivals.
My first Pride was in 2002, in D.C. at the Capital Pride festival. Tammy Faye Bakker was there, and I was in gay heaven. The energy was exhilarating and I finally felt free, surrounded by shirtless daddies, drag queens, butch lesbians, other bright-eyed youth, and many elders, just experiencing this new freedom and allies who affirmed the community.
By the time that I left, my best friend, Wayne, and I were covered in stickers, glitter, beads, paint and feathers. We were fabulous -- that is, until we started making the trek back home to Anacostia. Wayne, pacing back and forth, glaring at the monitor and counting down the minutes until our train's arrival, was peeling his pride paraphernalia off like it was the plague, throwing some in the trash and tossing other pieces into his book bag. He looked me over, then insisted rather impatiently that I "take that shit off before we get on the train."
We'd just celebrated Pride -- I looked myself over, and then looked back at him. "Why?" He rolled his eyes. "Bitch, you are not about to get our asses beat on this train to Anacostia."
Crushed and kind of confused, I began peeling off any trace of decoration that I could find. He explained to me, "See, just because we got to come down here and celebrate does not mean that the rest of the world is like that, especially on our side of town. They are not down with that gay shit, and I do not feel like fighting tonight."
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The train came roaring into the station shortly after, just as loud as this new reality about the "freedom" that I thought I'd found. We got on the train, and sure enough another pair of young Pride attendees were being laughed at, even harassed, for holding rainbow flags and wearing gay Pride stickers and buttons. Although the train ride was awkward and embarrassing, I realized Wayne had a point. Thankfully, because of his advice, we rode and exited without incident, as he observed me, under his breath sighing, "You gon' learn."
He could tell that I got the idea, and it was occurring to me that "being out" wasn't as simple as I'd thought. There was a whole science that went along with it. Although we were both around 16, he'd come out a couple of years earlier than I, and had a couple of older gay men share and explain this information.
Originally, I had been confused because he was the person who'd encouraged me to live in my truth. I watched, slightly fearful and somewhat in admiration as he sashayed and twirled on street corners and down escalators into train stations, or headed to sneak into some bar. As I paid more attention to when he did, I noticed he only did it in certain parts of town or certain functions or while talking to particular people. That's when I began to understand that in order to save myself some trouble, I had to know when to "butch it up" a bit.
It didn't mean that we were necessarily ashamed of being gay or were in denial about it, but we definitely did it to save ourselves some trouble. Although there were a couple of gay men in our neighborhood like "Peaches," who wore auburn-colored hair and booty shorts, strutting through our neighborhood with "her" purse, it was also filled with Newports, a flip phone, an ice pick, tazor, and cement in the bottom. He'd slept with half of the down-low dudes in the neighborhood and wasn't above exposing any of them. "Peaches" was fierce, respected, wasn't to be messed with, and was also an exception.
Most men who were perceived or suspected to be gay were beaten up, thrown out of their houses, called "faggo-ass motherfuckers" while bottles were hurled at them from passing cars. Or sometimes simply when folks looked at you as "gay" that carried a stigma that labeled you as dirty or even worse, "infected with AIDS," and we were afraid of that. In fact, in a lot of cities and under many circumstances in this country, folks still are, and they are dealt the task of "code switching."
All across identity lines, folks have done this, from black folks in the late 1800s to mid-1960s who passed for white (because they were high yellow and weren't darker-skinned black people, with straighter hair and sometimes lighter eyes that allowed this) to avoid many of the hardships that the black community dealt with, which included racial terrors and segregation -- but they could also come into the black community and talk jive, play the dozens, and engage in other cultural practices. Many gay men (and women, I'm sure) have had to learn when it was appropriate to turn certain mannerisms on or off in the same way when existing in the heterosexual world, and then coming back to gatherings with friends who are gay.
For example, walking into a barber shop even now, although I'm proudly and openly gay, there are certain behaviors or mannerisms that I avoid simply to make the visit less uncomfortable. Some people say, "Well, go somewhere that you can be comfortable." And while I understand and agree to a certain point, as a black gay man it's not so easy if you live in a city where that's the closest or only barber shop. Or if you visit a basketball court or attend a football game, maybe even some clubs or bars, it's more understandable if you "butch it up" a bit.
In some places, it's for survival or the sake of safety -- who wants to be walking down a street after a night out at their favorite bar or club and be called a faggot and have a brick hurled at them at 1 a.m.? In some cases, it's for show. I've walked into plenty of clubs where all the men were posted up on the wall, looking like trade and acting all butch -- until the DJ turned on a Beyonce song and everybody broke character. There are other cases where some of us do it simply because we demonize each other for not being butch enough; after all, hypermasculinity seems more valuable to gay men that anybody else. Either way, depending on who we are as gay men, I'm sure for many of us, at times, we treat how comfortable we are with our mannerisms and language as a revolving door on the closet -- and sometimes we're in ... sometimes we're out.
SAMPSON MCCORMICK is a comedian, writer, and activist. He also produced a documentary about his experiences trying to make it in the comedy world, A Tough Act to Follow.