I’ve been thinking a lot about my time in L.A. After three months, I was single, broke, and very sad. The bad breakup happened in Los Angeles, where most people are very sad. A strange, sleepy sadness pervades the city.
To cope with the fallout of my breakup, I started impulse-shopping. When I arrived in the city for a career opportunity, I realized all my clothes were wrong. My suitcase was filled with dress shirts and khaki pants. On my first day working at the magazine, I looked like a Baptist youth paster.
“You look very nice,” a coworker said, “but you never have to wear a collared shirt here again.”
Everyone in the city was beautiful. People driving Ferraris wore flip-flops to the Beverly Wilshire. Local streetwear for men embraced the feminine, the queer, the nonbinary — even straight men were wearing jewelry, tiny shorts, and long, flowing cardigans. I felt free to start experimenting, but on my ridiculous body, my thick legs and long torso, the clothes I tried looked comically bad.
I wanted to be chic, but I was too gamey, too cornfed. I didn’t even know how to walk properly. I stomped and huffed along. I tried walking like a model, as a friend instructed me to, with my chest up and my head back as far as it could go, but doing this felt incredibly dangerous. I was worried that I would miss something at my feet and fall. I am a chronic ground-watcher and have never fully mastered the art of walking while looking up at the world, as if its wonders are, at times, too much to bear.
Masculinity is a difficult subject these days. Certain gay men — the masculine ones — have a pronounced history of shaming feminine gay men. In response, feminine gay men, armed with the awesome power of the internet, have created an online culture in which masculine gays are regularly presented as lumbering oafs. This bizarre division is rooted, like most of our problems, in misogyny and internalized homophobia — two things every gay man will struggle with in his life.
And while the debate stirs arguments from both sides, it’s not new: as far back as the ’70s and ’80s, when gay culture was its most decadent, there was a stark divide between feminine gays who loved Judy and Liza and masculine gays who loved metal and leather. These two camps — faeries and leathermen — have intermingled, overlapped, and blended in decades since, but their perspectives have not dissolved. I came to L.A. without having chosen which one I would be part of.
I wanted to wear feminine clothes — a purple cardigan, a pleated skirt — but I also wanted to wear masculine harnesses and get fucked by masculine men, to whom I am primarily attracted. I myself am pretty masculine, but I’m not sure if this is a result of my chemistry or of growing up in a fiercely homophobic part of the country. Whatever the cause, I am masculine now, although I’m not really trying to be.
I want to step away from this debate and appraise the two sides like miniatures on a table. I want to bang them together like action figures to see what happens. I like guys who play with their masculinity by being sassy. I like feminine men who dominate and hate-fuck. I can “butch up” in homophobic company and I know men who can’t, and I believe they suffer more. I have never known what to do about all this or what place in it I have. The only thing I did know in Los Angeles was that I felt outside of all this.
I was uncomfortable with jewelry, which I found odd. I could wear a dress but I couldn’t wear a necklace. And I wanted to wear the necklace more. One night, I was talking to a friend at a Mexican restaurant. She was wearing a silver ring and the stone in it was a white opal — my grandmother’s birth stone. My grandmother wore an opal ring like that every day of her life. I commented on the ring and told her it was beautiful. She asked if I wanted to wear it. I tried it on — if only fit my pinky finger — and at that moment I remembered another table at another restaurant when I was about fifteen. At that table in the small town where I grew up, I was wearing three rings on one hand.
Dad saw them and was furious. He told me to take them off and give them to him. I never saw them again. At the time, a young medical student was living with my family — I think she was shadowing my parents, two doctors — and at the table, Dad pointed at her and said, “Look at her, she’s not saying anything because she knows it’s wrong. Boys don’t wear rings.” I wonder now if she wanted to defend me.
I have been uncomfortable with jewelry ever since. I realized that my fear had nothing to do with Dad — he was a product of his time, his home. And that home, the Deep South, was and remains a place where it is dangerous for a man to wear three rings on one hand. Jewelry was one of countless little things associated with femininity and, by extension, homosexuality, and these were things a skinny little faggot had to avoid in order to live.
But now I was in L.A. and I wanted to wear jewelry, and so I talked through my discomfort and started buying rings and bracelets, necklaces and bangles. I pierced my ears and septum. In L.A., jewelry became part of my personal style.
One day I was telling another friend about all this stuff — this private mental journey of style — he called me “queer.” The word “queer” is a difficult one and has been co-opted by various youth to mean many things. To my friend, it meant a rejection of classic gender roles and stereotypes, a rejection of toxic masculinity. And if that’s what Queer was, it was me.
I eventually had to leave the city. It launched my career, taught me about work. Despite my complicated feelings about the South, I came back to it. I still don’t know where I’m going next.
Somewhere in the stretch of Texas, I parked at a rest stop and looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. I had metal dangling from my nose — my parents would hate it. I had a gold drop earring in my left ear and a stud in my right. I couldn’t go home like this. I knew I should take the jewelry out.
But I didn’t. I took a deep breath and got back in the car.
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