Ill-Equipped for Ethnography

For such a long-time Joey cast a constant shadow over my decisions and actions.  My life was in a holding pattern as I hoped he’d come back in.

Joey seemed to be the first same-age guy that showed an interest in me.  Prior to Joey, guys my age said was too geeky, too short, too thin, not thin enough, not gay enough.

Joey liked all those things about me.  He was sweet to me.  He was kind to me.  College’s manic pixie boy façade had paid-off.

In my memory, he was the perfect straight-laced rebel.  Edgy enough to be interesting, and clean enough to bring home.

That New Year’s Eve, through Joey and his friends, I was fully introduced to seedy and drug-fueled as normal.  I was introduced to the concept of frenemies by how Joey and his circle behaved toward one another.  A world where my façade got me accepted in and insulated me from; my silence and listening-skills gave the illusion of emotional investment.  In truth, my carefully designed masks had kept me the constant observe of life and not the actor, leaving me ill-equipped for ethnography.  I began seeing the catty duplicitous behavior and normalized it.  I gave myself permission to replicate their naughty behavior.

Eventually, I went back to school and Joey and my correspondence petered out, as he was always too busy to answer a phone.  As I waited for Joey to re-enter my life, I created disruption in my relationships, making myself always available but never alone.

Verve (April 2017)

Life is a sedentary treadmill.  I am paralyzed by intense feelings of shame, that my existence is brought into question should I open myself, to create a bond through self-expression, leads to being ignored and thrown away.  Life requires experiences that provide a potpourri of emotions, and not the safe experiences that fall into the lap when home and being at work and exercising and reading.  Instead I created discord between routine and goals, which breeds familiarity as a crutch – an exhausting a platform that lack of change.  The intention of structure is to create a framework for risks, avoiding repeating past cycles of self-abandonment, bending backwards to create a new personality that is more accommodating.  What didn’t lead to being ignored was compliance to the needs of others.  It is easier to serve another than to assert myself.  Overtime I have made the masks I wear for acceptance the expectation others have who I am, in relation to them.  Should that mask be revealed to be false there is a second me underneath with different wants and needs; I will be seen as duplicitous.  I am terrified that my masks will be seen not as made for survival, which has grown into a core fear that my identity would bring about rejection from others.

Felix Masquerade

I dreamed of super-powers to be like the mutant X-Men, just as I had dreamed about being like the other boys in school.  I didn’t understand why I had to feel alienated and alone from everyone in my school and home; why couldn’t what made me different be celebrated the way athleticism and super-powers were? The character, Felix, I created was originally purely escapism, a way to join my favorite mutants as I read their new issues.   Over time he developed as I grew, becoming a character that I armored myself with in new and boundary-pushing situations.

The original power I grafted onto Felix were my wish fulfillment, liberating me from the conflicts I had with homosexuality’s shame.  Originally, I gave Felix shapeshifting abilities because I’d be able to become anyone other than myself.  With shapeshifting, I’d reflect the popular students throughout middle and most of high school, avoiding the lonely and isolation prophesized by television and movies.  Changing my appearance, Felix could literally become or match anyone’s desire, gaining the perfection that I had desired.  Being able to shapeshift I’d have more tools at my disposal to make my goals and fantasies match my outside.

Felix was eventually given telepathy as I struggled to juggle the various facades I had created to navigate interactions.  Telepathy ensured that the forms I took would be ideal for whom I was interacting with, removing the guess work about how to be part of the group.  I’d know exactly what to say, be prepared for what others would say, and always have a funny quip to keep grace.  Having the correct words, I’d be able to give the illusion that I was known without having to go through the painful experience of not exposing my queerness.

As I began to fully explore what differentiated me from others, I added the final super-power: teleportation.  Felix would be able to truly escape any situation that was uncomfortable; I’d be free to be away from ticky-tacky suburbia and be where the different, foreign, and unique are celebrated –  New York City, home to many of Marvel’s superheroes and faraway from the mundane.  By this time Felix stopped becoming escapism and became the armor for every day, designed to masquerade as popular and fleeting.  Felix had become the mysterious character whose silent smile spoke, so that I didn’t have to expose myself to isolation and alienation.

Verve (March 2017)

I have felt I don’t belong at the adult table – adulating, relationships, and work, comes so much easier to everyone else.  Their lives, and without actively comparing, are filled contentment, belonging, and legacy.  If I could just get a roadmap to eat, pray, love my way to those things I know the rest would fall into place, emotional security would follow.

Everything outside my goals feels foreign to me, as if I’m faking everything until I can be home and secluded.  The real word doesn’t hurt but it increasingly feels like something I’m not a part of.  There is a dissonance between how I perceive the world, how I want the world, and the way the world truly is.  I am more comfortable going through life seeing the fantastical and the speculative.  For example, when I am walking to the store and it is twilight and the lights are just turning on, and there is a warmth as the sky turns purple with twinkling stars.  To see that as less than a magical experience, and the opportunities that arise, saddens, and removes me from my neighbors.

I began feeling the greatest distance between myself in elementary school.  It was during this time that I began noticing that I was different from the world and the rest of the kids, particularly the boys.  Children are acutely aware of the differences amongst each other, particularly when there’s one who doesn’t participate in the same activities and games.  I imitated to the expectations of others when I should have been fostering an identity to grow into.  Inclusion was predicated upon adopting various skins that brought me affection and attention.

Chronic Shame Creates Masks

I was 9 years old when AIDS entered my consciousness, putting a dark stigma became attached to being homosexual.  The facts that I knew of AIDS came from what was gleamed from the deaths of Anthony Perkins and Robert Reed, effectively connecting homosexuality with death, separation, and sensationalism.  This opposed the previous generation of the 1960s and 70s, who found a footing after Stonewall pushed back underground and took on a seedy 8mm feel.  In the pre-internet era, there was limited ability to connect to others in the homosexual subculture, which could counter my first impressions.  These circumstances led to low queer acculturation particularly if someone lived away from gay neighborhoods in urban areas.  Growing up independent of a greater knowledge of homosexuality, I never became interested in homosexual culture, liberation/movement, camp, or fashion.  With limited exposure to homosexuality my development stagnated with a malleable inauthentic identity, designed for avoidance.

As I grew up I struggled with the idea that there was something false and untrue about my place in the world, only to realize that those feelings come from the fact that I was not living with authenticity.  In reaction to this I created a false self that wasn’t defective or flawed.  I diluted or ignored the parts of myself that I thought would alienate me from those around me.  When a false-self was created I ceased to be an authentic human being.  The psychologist, the late Alice Miller calls this “soul-murder” – toxic that leads to believing that they are a failure. Self-contempt, isolation, and a strong sense that they are untrustworthy are also feelings which accompany those who believe themselves failures. Shame became my core identity, shutting me down to human relationships, living in hopelessness, and locked in a set of very unhealthy beliefs.

My Chronic Shame

Chronic shame developed from the best of intentions of my parents when raising two children.  They were good at it, striving to create balance for two radically different kids – providing food, shelter, and safety, but I still felt neglected if the parents do not bond emotionally with me.  I have few memories of being held, comforted, played with, or asked how I was doing; plenty questions about the events of a school-day, but not their impact.  When they didn’t live up to expectations they privately, and I’m sure to this day, scolded themselves; they failed less times than they believe they did.  My parents instilled in me the three F’s – family, food, and fun.  If there were two then the third would be automatically follow suit; should food be part of the family gathering then we’d have some fun; if there was food and fun, then one must be amongst family.

Most of their concern was aimed at my sister and her uncontrollable outbursts.  My sister’s (then undiagnosed bipolar) behavior drew my parents’ attention, exhausting them, resulting in an often-chaotic home life.  The chaos she created taught me that disruptions to a plan lead to eruptions of an77ger and violence.  I blamed myself for that distress, believing I was the reason I was left alone. I sought safety and closeness from their parent — yet my parents could not be close or safe. All I could feel was “unlovable,” creating the seed of shame. The feelings of my parents, whether expressly communicated or sensed by a child, become internalized and automatic. The state of being alone and powerless became pervasive.

I felt shame for being abnormal or wrong. During childhood, I leaned into my better ability to gloss-over my bad behavior, or just being generally more agreeable, to be the “good child.”  This also meant not being seen, in comparison to the spectacle that was my sister.  My parents did what they could at the time, so I created a compliant personality designed to make life far simpler; I didn’t want to be the reason for everything or have the spotlight on me.  This allowed me to get attention when my parents sought respite from my sister.  I became incapable of trusting my own emotions, so was unable to use them as a compass for living.  There was no developed skill to ground myself in the present, and being in the moment and staying observant without judgment of my own emotions.

My not being seen combined with its created a spiral of neglect and ignored are bound with being loved.  Compliance allowed me to go unseen, my homosexuality never being addressed.  This self-imposed inability to say aloud that I was gay.  I had seen modelled on TV even how the most progressive of parents reacted, which was with tears of worry.  I was not going to add more concerns to their already full plate.  I vowed to not be the straw that broke any one’s back.

Manhattan Dreams

Art by Joe Kelly
Art by Joe Kelly

Manhattan was the setting where I could pursue being queerly perfect.  Manhattan was the place I wanted to have my original introduction to homosexual subculture.  New York City’s celebration of subculture and minorities was to be the place where I’d be amongst others who actively kept their queerness secret from family and friends because society won’t accept it.

With a false identity in place, I adventured beyond campus-boys to older gay males.  I quickly accepted invitations, hoping that I’d be a step closer to NYC-escape. Behind my more sophisticated and cool mask older men seemed more worldly and attractive. The Jodie Dallas specter faded from the peripheral of my concept of homosexuality, Sex & the City experiences that I had dreamed of seemed a greater possibility.  Instead of the Manhattan fantasy – theatre, dinners, and art galleries – I repeated my suburban youth in reverse.  This version though didn’t synchronize with the ticky-tacky boxes.  Now I saw behind the neighbors’ curtains, and I didn’t like it.  Calling them dates is using the term at its loosest.  The men that I went home with would close their curtains, citing their need for privacy.  As my perceptions grew I came to see “privacy” as a bent mirror to my rejection of the homosexual label.

Three Icons Make 1

Art by George Petty
Art by George Petty

The identity I forced was rooted in femme fatales of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  Garbo, Dietrich, and Bacall fascinated me.  Each of them exemplified a chilly aloof, embodying characters who lived as if any compliment was no surprise.  Their no non-sense control was what I needed to conceal the embarrassed boy.

In the three actresses, I found icons I could take who I was and reshape myself.  Growing up excluded from school parties and youth groups, I learned a preference for being alone or with the few close friends I had.  Like MGM did with Garbo, I molded an air of mystery around myself, utilizing silence and deflecting questions to gloss over my lack of life experience.  I became the master of the eye roll.  I learned to manipulate people’s gaze through the way I dressed and colored my hair, fetishizing myself, just as Dietrich had.  Combining the two I designed a Bacall inspired display of command over movement and gesture, never crawling to be noticed.

I consulted them frequently for advice on how to play it cool.  The best masks sit directly upon the face – smoothing over to present a picturesque self.  A generalized individuality to be seen and easily blend into a crowd.

Dream Home – Kitchen

The kitchen is rustic and French with plenty of work space that run along the walls, with a rolling island that allows the room to retain an open feeling.  There is light filling the white and natural wood filled room from a window that is over the in-counter brass country sink.  Storage and the pantry are beneath the counter space on display in glass containers.  The appliances are warm red and teal, designed to appear country and antique.  Eighteen inches from the ceiling runs a shelf around the kitchen that holds knick-knacks, which provide character that anchor the décor in a whimsical domestic fantasy.

My home would be my showplace, covering up for the tragic flaws that I believe cast me as inferior.  Placing the heavy belief that material things will bring me at the very least approval, if not validation.  In an effort to grab at validation the subtler aspects of my personality are bulldozed over by generalizations that come with décor shorthand.  The harder I work towards the materials that’ll bring me validation, the less easy it has been to achieve that validation.  This is because what is validated is not who I am but a façade.