After three months, I was single, broke, and sad. Understandably, this happened in Los Angeles, where most people are very depressed. A strange, sleepy sadness pervades the city, although it’s sometimes hard to detect. The deep sorrow is boarded over by glamour and advertisements that promise an Americana the world is quite familiar with — relaxed, beautiful, and filled with celebrities. Every person I know who’s spent any time there has developed a drug habit — either to actual drugs or to some unhealthy person or routine — and I think that’s one of the things you have to do to live there.
To cope with the fallout of my breakup, I started impulse-shopping. Upon arriving, I realized all my clothes were completely wrong. My suitcase was filled with button-down shirts and khaki pants. On my first day working at the magazine, I looked like a youth paster from a Baptist church back home.
“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 with 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 ridiculous, even comical. 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, nearly to the point of looking upward. 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 at the world, as if its wonders are, at times, too much to bear.
Masculinity is a difficult subject these days. The word is precarious journalistic territory. Certain gay men — mainly the masculine ones — have a rather 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 Garland and Liza Minnelli and masculine gays who loved heavy metal and leather. These two camps — faeries and leathermen — have intermingled, overlapped, and blended in the decades since, but their perspectives have not dissolved. Shockingly, and perhaps without foresight, I came to L.A. without having chosen which one I would be part of.
I wanted to wear feminine clothes — a draping purple cardigan, a pleated skirt — but I also wanted to wear masculine leather harnesses and get fucked by masculine men, to whom I was primarily attracted. I myself am fairly masculine, but I’m not sure if this is a natural result of my chemistry or a more constructed result of living in a fiercely masculine, homophobic part of the country. Whatever the cause, I am masculine now, although I’m not necessarily trying to be. I feel like I must say something in my defense.
I also like stepping away from this debate to appraise the two sides like miniatures on a table. I bang them together like action figures just to see what happens. I like guys who play with their masculinity by being sassy and effete. I also like feminine men who dominate and hate-fuck. I can easily “butch up” in homophobic company and I know men who simply 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 during my time in Los Angeles was that I felt outside of it. I was separate. I was not uncomfortable in feminine clothes, just ugly.
I was, however, uncomfortable with jewelry, which I found very odd. I could wear a dress but I couldn’t wear a necklace. And bafflingly, I wanted to wear the necklace more. One night, I was talking to a friend at a Mexican restaurant in the valley. 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 every day of her life. I commented on the ring and told her it was very 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 years old. At that table, located in the small town where I grew up, I was wearing three rings on one hand.
My father saw them and became 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 us — I believe she was shadowing my parents, who are doctors. Dad pointed at her — she was sitting across the table from me — and said, “Look at her, she’s not saying anything because she knows it’s wrong. Boys don’t wear multiple rings.” His face was red the way it always was when he was angry, and I was terrified and embarrassed. Her face — the medical student’s — was also red, out of fear or embarrassment I can’t say. I wonder now if she wanted to defend me. Did she know then what I was?
I have been uncomfortable with wearing jewelry ever since. And I realized that my fear had nothing to do with Dad — he was a product of his time, his country, 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, if you were a man, and these were things a skinny little faggot had to avoid in order to live. My dad, despite his rage and passion, was safe. Many men there are not, men with guns and trailers attached to their trucks, men who might follow you home. And I realized I was masculine invariably because of them — because I loved them and was raised by them, because I was enamored with them and have been all my life. I have smelled the rich, earthy odor of their canvas hunting jackets. I know what the insides of their trucks smell like, what their skin smells like. I have wanted them and hungered for them long before I had words for what I was. They hunted deer and I, in my way, hunted them — the farm boys and tobacco-dipping, camouflage-sporting, honey-jawed white trash that populated both my life and the filthiest dreams you can possibly imagine. It is impossible, when you are grown, to fully discern the things that made you and separate the things you fear from the things you love.
I wanted to wear jewelry, and that’s what I started doing. The jewelry I bought felt, initially, very uncomfortable but I continued buying it, in part because doing so relieved me of my depression for at least an hour. I pierced my ears and my septum. I wore bracelets, then necklaces, then rings. Jewelry is still important to me. I wear it not out of defiance but out of sincere love of its artistry and aesthetic. It actually suits me.
Coworkers at the magazine began complimenting my fashion choices. I got my first genital piercing, then I got barbells through my nipples. I realized that I actually didn’t like wearing rings — they made it hard to type on a laptop, which amounted to the entirety of my job — but I loved wearing earrings and I still do. I liked the flowing purple cardigan, but I didn’t have to like it. I liked women’s shoes and lingerie because I thought they were beautiful, but when I tried them on, I felt sexy and wondered, for about fifteen minutes, if I was transgender. I quickly realized that I was not trans, but I did want a guy in Silver Lake to treat me like a girl in his bed — to put me in panties, call my hole a pussy, rough me up, and hold me down. My default mode was masculine and remains so, but I realized I could play with it. My look became malleable, at last uprooted from the place I was from.
Coinciding with this private mental journey, the topic of trans identity and gender started blowing up at the LGBT magazine where I was working. Laverne Cox was making headlines and transphobic hate crimes were hitting record numbers. Our staff had a meeting at which we discussed how best to approach this subject as diligent members of independent LGBT press. When the film Tangerine, which is about two black transgender sex workers in Los Angeles, started making the L.A. circuit, the magazine was invited to a press premiere and Q&A with the film’s stars. Two coworkers took me to the tiny theater in West Hollywood where Caitlyn Jenner, who had only come out as trans a year earlier, presented the film.
The queer theory and conception of gender supporting the trans movement made perfect sense to me — I was fresh from literary criticism classes in college where I read Eve Sedgwick and analyzed texts through a queer lens. My masculinity — the heavy, leathery thing I was raised with — was a ghost, a construct because gender was a construct. We were debating fictions. Underneath these tales, we were just people. I’ve heard many debates on the transgender topic, which is both tangential to the debate of masculinity in gay men and also far more important. Transphobic gay men — who are regularly the most vicious combatants of our trans brothers and sisters — argue, among other things, that trans identity enforces the gender binary and is performative. And of course it is — what else could it be? I perform my gender, which only happens to match my genitals, every day. Trans men are men and trans women are women because “man” and “women” are fictions that can be assumed or discarded. If world languages, at their ancient origin, had evolved without gender — if all bodies were the same gender with minute fleshy variances between them — we would likely live in a more interesting and loving world. I would not be here without trans women and am required, as a gay man aware of my history, to love and defend them.
I was telling another friend all this stuff — I had many great conversations in L.A., usually over Mexican food — and he called me “queer.” The word “queer” is still a difficult one and has been co-opted by various youth to mean a plethora of things. In my friend’s mouth, at least, it meant an awareness of all this — something I did not have before living in L.A.
Even so, I eventually had to leave the city. It was a dream that I always knew was temporary. It launched my career, taught me about work, and perhaps more importantly, taught me about my home. Despite my complicated feelings regarding the South, I came rushing back to it, back to sweet tea and fireflies at dusk, because people I loved were there and because it remains the terrain in which an inner me, a child me, feels safest. I will probably live in cities for the rest of my life, but I know I will never fully belong in them.
Somewhere on the long stretch of Texas highway after which the South blooms, green and verdant, I parked at a rest stop and looked at myself in the dirty bathroom mirror. I had a piece of metal dangling from my nose — my parents would hate it. I had a gold drop earring in my left ear and a pearlescent stud in my right. I couldn’t go home like this. I knew I should take them out.
I looked at myself a little longer, breathed, and got back in the car.
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