No one wants to be the fat gay kid stuck in the last lane at swim practice. Especially, nobody wants to be that kid in the heart of Virginia, which isn’t quite the Deep South, but is not liberal by any means. Growing up, Lawrence Vs. Texas was the only rhetoric that even mentioned gay rights, and there was a systemic lack of information and support. Physically, I was then a tan, pudgy target with fingers and toes pruned by pool water. Once the towel came off, I became an expert at hiding my body – shrouding everything up to my chin in a safety blanket of chlorine whenever possible.
Thankfully, there usually wasn’t too much time to address the other target painted on my back during practice. We were too busy perfecting our upper body technique for butterfly or trying to boost our average lap time. It was only after the national anthem at the second meet of the Oakton Otters’ 2008 season that I first felt the urge to defend myself for being called gay. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it was an insult, so I lashed out. It felt like an anvil crushing down onto my ribcage – a pressure I’d never be able to remove and that would only grow with each mention of that ugly word.
But really, navigating the haze of same-sex relationships has always been a struggle for me. In kindergarten I would dress up as Tinkerbell, go through stacks of paper sketching costume designs, and play house. Laughter undeniably ensued, and I was shunned from the LEGO table. In elementary school, I decided that if boys weren’t going to talk to me, I wouldn’t talk to them. They were too loud and too mean and never wanted to simply sit down and talk. But even that led to trouble since I was teased for only talking to the girls in the cafeteria.
During the holidays I never even thought of putting a harmless valentine in a boy’s lunch bag while everyone was handing theirs out, because of how others would see it. The judgement was overwhelming in my eyes even though no one cared a bit if I were to play with a boy on the playground or invite them to my birthday party. That fearful stigma that all the “other boys” were bullies taunting me about my haircut or my glasses accompanied me into high school. Yet, it abruptly ended as soon as I realized how trivial this psychological game I played was. Of course there were the boys who’d yell “fag” across the locker room while we changed before PE or playfully dance around calling me gay by joking about my lack of a girlfriend, but there were also the boys who told me dumb stories about their boys scout troupe or dragged me over to their lunch table to show me their newest failed art project.
High school was the first time I truly had male friends that simply didn’t ask, didn’t assume, and frankly didn’t care whether I liked boys. That was the moment I realized that good people are blind to a pudgy figure, a high voice, glasses, or a bowl cut. I didn’t have to hide who I loved anymore because most people didn’t care enough to label me in the first place. High school in particular taught me the most about my identity and how others perceive it. The more involved I became with programs around the school, the more people I met, and I was gaining friends I couldn’t keep track of. I went from five close friends to a school full of acquaintances. But I also learned that the more friends I made, the less most of them knew about me individually, and the less they knew me, the more likely they were to say something like “the gay one.”
When it comes down to it, labeling me as my sexuality is appropriation. If you can’t describe me in any other manner than my sexuality, then you don’t deserve to be my friend or even an acquaintance. Describing people solely on their sexuality is a double standard. If I were at a meeting and asked, “Which one of you is the secretary?” and someone responded, “the straight one”, laughter would undoubtedly ensue because judging someone’s sexuality if it’s heteronormative is ridiculous. Straight is the norm. But being gay? Well, it might as well be listed on your birth certificate. If the answer was “the gay one,” as it often still is in the overwhelming company of non-allied heteros, the conversation would be over. If you can’t describe me without using my sexuality as a pawn to simplify the discussion, then you don’t truly know me.
Although presenting yourself with your sexual identity is beneficial to those seeking representation or a like-minded community, we can’t let our sexuality define us. This is specifically something that I struggled to understand in high school. Pride is a beautiful thing. From the gay-straight alliance at your school, to the float of a local pride parade, uniting as a community is crucial, especially in this tumultuous political climate where our very rights as a community are on the table for discussion and prosecution. In fact, maintaining the strength and support of the LGBTQIA+ community isn’t just beneficial but necessary, since it spreads hope to those who are less fortunate in support, either at home or in their life in general.
However, those not directly in the queer community sometimes can’t see the meaning behind our labels and often can’t see past the letters. L G B T Q I A +, separating each letter, each label, isn’t the point of our community. We put them together for a reason: to support each other. We have built a community and a culture around this ever-growing alphabet of identities. They mean something so personal to all of us because we’ve all earned our letter individually, some claiming theirs through secrecy and pain, other through celebration and joy.
Labeling me as “the gay one” of the group undermines all that I have worked for to come out to my mother, to call myself gay for the first time, and to physically document it here. I am proud to be the G in our LGBTQIA+ community, but I am even more proud of being an ally for the rest of my community. Balancing the pride I feel in being gay, while not letting those outside the queer community solely define me by my sexuality has been near impossible. Finding this balance is difficult, and letting your friends know that you want to be remembered as more than just the gay kid when you leave the room is even harder. Yet it is necessary to establish such a mutual understanding, because of the lesson it teaches everyone about respect.
We aren’t one-dimensional and we can’t be summed up by one word. Although who and how we love is an enormous part of who we are, it isn’t the only thing that describes queer people. We are just as dynamic as anyone else. We’re artists and scientists and Olympic athletes and engineers and anything we want to be. At the core we are a beautiful, varied array of people with a dedicated and encouraging community at our hearts.
LGBTQIA+: let us never forget the history behind claiming these letters as our own, supporting both those who need them to identify and those who don’t. For me, it is that small boy at the swimming pool, unsure and uncertain, who needs them the most.
Image: Ian Kirkland