We all have a need to belong. Whether it be to someone or something, we are bound by an inherent, inevitable feeling that cannot be extinguished. It brings out the best and worst in us. This need to belong has forced me to spend my entire life making sure I fit the mold society has etched out for me. I am 44. I am single. I am black. I am gay. I have attended some of the best universities and colleges in the country. I have two degrees and one advanced degree. I have been published in many respected magazines. I have been given awards. I have had three long-term relationships. Today’s news stories depict a republic that is more than ever before accepting of blacks and gays. Yet it’s not the republic I find myself at odds with. It is the gay world that I live in that I find it difficult to fit in.
I don’t spend my days on apps like Grindr looking for my next sexual conquest, and I refuse to spend my nights viewing television shows like Modern Family where gay characters perpetuate stereotypes. When I see a gay man diminished by stereotypes, I say to myself, "That man is a member of my sexual orientation,” and I feel embarrassed, enraged to be a gay man because after all that the gay community went through during the AIDS epidemic, to be able to get married legally, and to be looked upon and treated as an equal and not as a bunch of Neanderthals humping each other, it portrays us as victim, exploited, subjugated, a slave who is coerced into organizing and administering his own demise. Gay men who behave in such a manner embarrass me the same way a slave would embarrass a black person in 2018.
Hollywood has made millions of dollars off of typecasting gay men, but it’s the rest of us who have to pay for it. I’ve been called strange, weird, and nuts by gay friends because I prefer to wait and have sex with someone I’m dating rather than hook up with random guys. I’ve also been told that there’s something wrong with me, and that I’m too sensitive because I find shows like Modern Family appalling. I was forced to watch Modern Family when my now ex-partner bought season one. He said it was the funniest show he had ever seen. Our idea of good quality television was not something we ever agreed on, hence one reason we’re no longer together.
It upsets me that Hollywood, for all of its liberal political views, offers nothing but a numbing sea of stereotypical homosexuals who are prancing around, desperately looking for love through sex, or just having raw unadulterated sex with random guys. Even great shows like The Americans stereotype gay men. There has only been one gay character on the show in its five seasons. The gay man’s introduction was a scene with him fucking a stranger underneath of a staircase outside of a gay bar. We have to stop selling the idea that every gay man lives this way, and start showing gay kids, especially brown-skinned gay kids that this is not what being gay is all about, that gay men are more than stereotypes and random hook ups. It certainly would have helped me through the horrible memories I have of a young brown-skinned boy who thought he wasn’t normal because he was gay.
In the words of Aretha Franklin, “Let’s go back, let’s go back, let’s go way on to way back when.” When I was in the sixth grade, I was bullied by a kid named Richard Clark for being gay. I didn’t know what gay was. There were only two brown-skinned kids in my elementary school, and I was one of them. A browned-skinned kid getting bullied in the school yard stood out like a black smudge on an all-white wall. Richard Clark was taller, bigger, and five years older than me. He didn’t go to my school or any school for that matter. He had dropped out, but his brother went to my school. When Richard came to pick up his brother was when he saw me and started picking on me. Websites such as It Gets Better didn’t exist in 1984. The Internet didn’t exist. Celebrities and politicians and nearly all public figures for that matter didn’t want anything to do with gay people. It was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and people were afraid of having any association. The main source of news was via television. And all I remember seeing on television were straight white characters offering a veritable panoply of options for straight white people.
I didn’t know what to do about Richard Clark. I feared this bully would bash my brain in so I told my mother. She went to my principal and asked why he or any of the teachers hadn’t done anything to stop it. “That’s not my job,” my mother remembers him saying. “We are only responsible for the kids during school from nine to three.” For the rest of the school year my mother dropped me off and picked me up. The whole situation was humiliating, demoralizing, and dehumanizing. I felt guilty, like I was the one who had done something wrong, like I had committed a crime for being born this way. All I wanted was to just be like every other kid, but peer pressure was at its zenith, and no matter what I did, if I sat stone-faced when I got pranked or cracked on, the gay jokes left me so tied up inside I began to think about suicide. I was eleven-years-old.
He was white, a Harvard grad student, and approached me at Avalon. He didn’t care about fitting in. He didn’t care about what people thought of him. He had no qualms holding my hand as we walked through Harvard Square or around Back Bay, even though I did.
Richard Clark eventually left me alone. But slowly, as I lived my life, throughout junior high school, and my freshman and sophomore years of high school, my mind accumulated data I was completely unaware of: fear and loathing. I didn’t even know it was there. Until one day, I was sitting in art class listening to the teacher when—Wham!—my mind was telling me that I was a pathetic faggot, a disease spreader, a useless piece of shit, and I needed to end it all. So I got up thinking that the thoughts were justified, right, and normal, went to the back of the room, and slit my wrist with a razor used for cutting ceramic clay. The wound wasn’t deep enough to do any real damage. It was a surface cut, a cry for help as they say, though my fear of dying didn’t go to the bone with deepness. I wasn’t afraid of dying. I was terrified of living.
Dying was easy. It was living that scared me to death. The thought of my body withering away, decomposing to become part of the earth again was a mere formality. It was my emotional being, the part of me that felt every ounce of pain and loathing that told my mind it would be better to die than keep living like a “walker” on The Walking Dead. Then one night I went to bed listening for the first time to Aretha sing, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and thinking if I hold tight I’ll be alright, don’t give up the fight, keep pushing on, something about getting older, something about becoming a mature young man, realizing if I just say it out loud the fear and loathing would die instead of me. And in my junior year in high school, I came out to my mother and close friends. There was no coming-out-of-the-closet celebration though. There was no joy in revealing the part of me I had spent every day, every minute, every second of my young life trying to deny. As liberating as it was, I had a very hard time accepting I was gay. It meant being ostracized. It meant being a barrier to fitting in. It meant having to lie to people, to hide who I was, and living a life of confliction and confusion as I was raised to always tell the truth and to thine own self be true.
Believing once I was out of high school and had become a part of the gay community I would be free, I decided to put myself into college-prep courses and focus on getting good grades to get into college. This gave me purpose and helped take my mind off of not fitting in. Most of my family didn’t amount to much. My parents divorced when I was five. My father was a factory worker for most of his life before becoming a maintenance man at Brown University. My mother worked three different jobs all of my adolescent life. She also spent those years going in and out of court chasing my father down to pay child support. Neither of them went beyond high school. And as the story’s been told to me, if my mother didn’t help my father with school, he wouldn’t have graduated.
I made sure I got my education with nothing less than a B- in all of my classes during those last two years of high school. My determination in part came from the rich white “preps” in those college-prep courses with me. Many of those kids skated through because of who their parents were and the money they donated to the school. I wasn’t privileged enough to have such a thing. The preps didn’t know how privileged they were, nor did I until I was in those college-prep classes with them. Whenever I heard one of them whining that they actually had to study, I wanted to yell, “Shut the fuck up. Do you have any idea how fortunate you are?” I was black, gay, poor, an only child with only one parent. I had no one to help me with my homework. My mother had to hire a tutor for me, money which she didn’t have, which was taken away from paying a utility bill. I know what it’s like to have no electricity and to use the oven as a heater in the wintertime.
A lot of the preps had tutors too, and while some got B’s, most got C’s, and hardly any got A’s. These kids had both of their parents at home, had parents and siblings who went to college, lived in beautiful houses, wore name-brand clothes, and didn’t have to work or worry about whether or not the utility bills were paid. It surprised my youthful mind that kids from privilege could have such ingratitude. This reality came to play one day when I got to algebra class early, and Matt Pirraglia, the football quarterback, who lived across the street from me in Governor Francis Farms, the wealthy area of Warwick, asked to copy my homework. It was only he and I in the room. At first, I said no, but then he stood up and said to me, “I’ll let you see my dick,” and started to unbutton his shorts and tug on his boxers. I quickly told him to stop and handed him my paper. Till this day I don’t know how he figured out I was gay. It might’ve been the “I LOVE M.P.” written all over my notebooks and jeans and boat shoes that gave it away.
I can’t tell you how many times Clarence and I stood behind the velvet rope in line at a gay nightclub and watched the pretty muscular white boys pass right on by and go inside.
By the end of my senior year, with all I was dealing with: hiding my sexuality, trying to get into a good college, and working part time at a retail store, I was emotionally drained. It was hard living a double life: pretending to be into girls yet unable to stop myself from falling in love with Matt Pirraglia who sat in front of me in Spanish and algebra class that year. But it felt good to excel in classes I never imagined I would, and to have many of the “preps” ask me for help. That was the reward for my deliverance. Ironically, after they asked, they would say, “Don’t tell anyone, you hear?” They weren’t embarrassed to get help. They were embarrassed to get help from the brown-skinned kid who was rumored to be gay.
When I finished high school, graduating with honors in both my junior and senior year, I didn’t have enough college-prep courses to get into a four-year college, so I attended the Community College of Rhode Island. I also got a part-time job at the men’s clothing store, Chess King. It was there I befriended one of my bosses, Clarence, who was black and gay. Actually he took me under his wing and guided me. He was tall, four years older, and well versed in the theology of the gay community. Thrilled to be free, to be me, I expected to be embraced by the gay community, but when I went to my first gay nightclub, I was treated differently because of my brown skin. Gays, like straights, had clicks: yuppies, femmes, queers, butch, bi, and drag queens. Those were broken down into subgroups: black, white, Latino, Asian, pretty, muscular, twink, bears, young, old… The gay world was far from a Benetton commercial. The races didn’t mix much. The clubs were fairly segregated. You only had to say the name of a club and everyone knew which race occupied it. It didn’t matter what city or state either. If you wanted to be among gay black guys in Rhode Island you went to Gerardo’s. White gay men went to the Mirabar. In Boston, black gay men went to Axis, Sporters, Paradise and Venus de Milo. Whites went to Quest, Avalon, and Buzz. Tracks, The Edge, and The Frat House were the black gay nightclubs in Washington DC. Badlands and The Fireplace were where whites went. This was the lay of the land from the east coast to the west. You had a few “others”, like me, in a crowd of white who weren’t afraid to challenge the system, but I can’t tell you how many times Clarence and I stood behind the velvet rope in line at a gay nightclub and watched the pretty muscular white boys pass right on by and go inside.
It didn’t make sense to me why a gay man would discriminate against other gay men knowing that we gay men are discriminated against collectively. I never got picked on for being brown-skinned in elementary or high school, nor did the other brown-skinned kid. When it came to our color, we were treated on a par with the white kids. No one ever called me a nigger, a coon, or any other derogatory racial remark. That happened a few years after I had graduated from college in Provincetown, a place considered to be a gay mecca of America, when a gay white man I found attractive told me he wasn’t into niggers. It confused me. Not just for the fact that someone had called me to my face a word my mother had warned me about when I was a little boy, but because it came from someone who understood what it felt like to be hated, oppressed, and treated as a plague. I thought we would have respect for one another, but racism, and many other isms are at constant practice in the gay world. It’s about the way beauty and desires are configured and how that plays on one’s weaknesses to fit in.
I never viewed being gay quite the same way. That punch in the face left a permanent bruise and a stain on my heart. I never went up to another man I was attracted to; I also avoided speaking to gay men unless they spoke to me first. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school that I fully accepted being a brown-skinned gay man, even though I was once again one of the few at Emerson College. I met Shawn Malone, a man who showed me the respect I so longed for from the gay world. He was white, a Harvard grad student, and approached me at Avalon. He didn’t care about fitting in. He didn’t care about what people thought of him. He had no qualms holding my hand as we walked through Harvard Square or around Back Bay, even though I did. He was proud to be my boyfriend, to have a brown-skinned boyfriend, taking me to a party at the Harvard Signet Society for the now deceased Reverend Peter Gomes, who was black and openly gay, and introducing me as his boyfriend. For the first time in my lifetime it felt good to be a gay black man. I would even go so far as to say proud. He set my heart free in my time of need, some sixteen years ago now when he touched my soul and changed my life in a way I would never have known. I cherish what he did for me, for the man he helped me to be, and all the strength he still keeps bringing to me.
There are days though when I’m unable to compartmentalize not fitting in. Those are the days I say to myself that no matter how high I get, there are people who will always look down on me no matter my race, sex, or sexual orientation. No matter how many degrees, awards, and published stories, it will never be enough. To them, I will always be the black faggot they told me I was all throughout my young life. The preps, the well-born, the high ups whose respect I still long for. Who said the black faggot would never amount to anything, laughing at me as I lay there bruised and scarred and humiliated for trying. That’s the real tragedy here. I can make them choke on my success and awards and headlines, but it won’t change a thing. James Baldwin wrote and spoke about being dehumanized as a black man and as a gay man. Yet on this thirty-year anniversary of Baldwin’s death, black people still only want to reflect on just his blackness. See last year’s critically-acclaimed, Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro and you’ll understand what I mean. Baldwin’s homosexuality is referenced almost in passing by way of an FBI memo.
I admire James Baldwin not just for the obvious reasons: his literary gift, his contributions to fighting social injustice for blacks and for gays, but more for not fitting in, for staying an “outsider”, and not succumbing to the pressures of society to fit in. Being gay and black and not fitting in gave him a unique ability to see the world so clearly, influencing his writing, his voice, and many generations of us black gay men who see him as a father figure. When it’s all said and done, the reality is some folks never fit in. No matter how hard they try. And that’s OK. 'Cuz we were born this way.
Allen M. Price's fiction and non-fiction work has appeared in Columbia Journal, The Adirondack Review, Tulane Review, Pangyrus, The Saturday Evening Post, Open Minds Quarterly, Muscle & Fitness, and many other places. His poetry appeared in Tower Journal. He has an MA in journalism from Emerson College.