A unique look at how microaggressions cause undue harm and one’s journey into self-love & acceptance.
I drop the heavy box I am lifting with a loud thud. My shoulders are sore, but I secretly like the unintentional workout I’m getting. Amar calls to me: “Ya just slide them against this wall”. After I do this, I talk with his friend Ishir who is also helping him move. I notice that his eyes are really pretty (a deep blue that illuminates near his dark skin). He talks about his summer and mentions the friends that live in his building. He talks about how his good friend Matt got so drunk and so loud the other night that his neighbors had to call the cops. In retaliation, Matt said he would call the cops on them. A real riveting tale. I silently judge him for speaking highly of this man when I’ve only seen and heard terrible things, but I flash a couple of smiles and laugh as if his story is so amusing.
Our energy sort of peters out after all the boxes have been placed accordingly. As I zone out of the conversation, Amar tells a story I don’t particularly remember. But I do remember Ishir quickly retorting after he stops speaking: that’s so gay. I look up at my friend Amar who awkwardly smiles. I pause and stare at the ground. I don’t think I make a noticeable face but I must have because Amar swiftly changes the topic of conversation to something lighthearted. After a moment, I blurt out that I have to go and leave for my car. Ishir desperately calls out: “Bye Luke!” with a contrived enthusiasm. I respond with a low and lethargic goodbye without making eye contact.
I drunkenly follow three of my fraternity brothers to a nearby room. The party felt overwhelming, and I’m happy to leave the chaos for someplace quieter and more familiar. I’m a bit unnerved because I know the three guys are all much closer to each other than I am with them, but I look forward to the novelty and getting to know them more. I lounge in a chair and try to organize the Uber to a bar we’re going to. An alcohol-induced wall stands between me and the friends I sit with. It feels like I’m spinning quickly, around and around a drain: so close to being sucked out of the present moment. I hear it. This time it’s loud and booming despite my subtle dissociation. I am propelled out of the drain and into the tub. That’s so gay. Again, I don’t think I react, but some sort of contorted facial expression must have escaped my mind because in the next moment, my friend Adam asks me about my music, my summer plans, my class schedule. Anything to change the subject and re-position himself as a friend in this situation, rather than an oppressor. In a weird way, I am relieved. Because my biggest fears about never being able to fit in and never feeling accepted are validated.
I remember a year and a half ago during pledging, we waited in line outside before our meetings. We usually waited longer than expected, so it became a sort of social event. I was afraid of the everlasting hourglass. Doing nothing with people who didn’t know anything about me scared me the most. I think one occasion encapsulates how I treated the process. I showed up late to the line with Airpods in my ears. Rather than talk to anyone there, I blared out reality with music that I thought no one would be able to relate to. I didn’t want to try to relate to anyone because I felt so profoundly different. I wish I had let my ears roam free and quieted my mind, but I felt like a true imposter. So when now, I hear the callous words that’s so gay being echoed, even if the motive is not harmful, I feel like my Achilles heel I tried so hard to cover up has been bullseye’d.
I am transported to my middle school bus. My most vulnerable, insecure eighth-grade self bobbles on the seat alone. The laughter that reverberates in the seats next to me makes me envious and angry. My friend asks: “Luke. So are you like gay?” He laughs as this question drifts from his lips. It feels weightless to him but my ears feel like they have been pounded with dumbbells on both sides. He gestures to the friend who sits beside him and says: “You know we wouldn’t like care or anything”. I felt attacked. Exposed. Trapped. I don’t think they wanted to harm me with their probing but somehow I felt like everyone in the world was against me. I had tried to hide to cover my tracks but they just kept digging, digging, digging.
This past summer, back in Los Angeles, I became friends with a new crowd. Most of them are gay and some of them are even musicians like me. I remember one party vividly. Though I swallow the same alcohol and expect the same wall to emerge, I feel looser and more myself. Instead of dissociating, with each drop consumed, I feel more connected to the people around me. They play the same music that drifted into my ears while I waited in line. But this time, it’s loud and unashamed for the world to hear. I don’t shut myself off to feel present, I only let go and open up. Unlike at the fraternity, where I sometimes felt like I needed to prove that I deserved to be there, there is no guard up with these people. There is no more overthinking. There is no more staring at the ground. There is no more drain.
Back at school, I feel more isolated than before. It sort of feels like I was a magnet and the world just decided to switch poles, rendering me without a charge. My point is not that you have to be very similar to other people to connect with them on a deep level and understand them, but more so that there is something deeply comforting in the familiarity that surrounds. You certainly have to work less hard to be seen as what you want to be seen as. And struggle less to be heard as how you want to be heard. With that group, I didn’t worry about whether something annoying was so gay. From practically the moment I walked in, I was asked what my pronouns were. Though I did nothing wrong, it felt good to be the one being educated for a change.
I’d like to think that being around these people and simply getting older has made me more confident, but I’m still plagued with insecurities. Whereas I refused to cross my legs as an eighth-grader (out of fear of seeming overly feminine), I now don’t mind it. But when I see grandiose displays of masculinity in my fraternity, I still wither away. The past choices I have made rise in my mind like a flood. Was I just playing a part to seem a certain way? It’s as if my friends and I are running a marathon in a foreign country. They have been studying the course and training for weeks, but I’m in the back, blindly following their steps, only now learning how to synchronously move my feet and breathe. Two years ago, if they disappeared, I would have been immobilized, unsure about which path to take. But now I have confidence that I could cross the finish line in a destination that felt right to me. Though I now feel comfortable giving a kiss to my boyfriend in public, the arrows of judgment I perceive still penetrate my skin. Where will I be in five years? Where will I be in ten? Although it often feels like a curse to grapple with this narrative of self-love and acceptance, it also has taught me so much about who I am, who I want to be, and how to treat others.
Both Ishir and Adam have since apologized. I don’t hold grudges against either of them because I know it wasn’t their intention to be homophobic or hurt me. People should be allowed to make mistakes and change. Taking accountability after all is the first step in becoming a more mature and developed person. But I still wonder. Do they actually feel bad for what they said or are they more so afraid of being canceled or looking “unwoke”? Do they genuinely understand how saying those kinds of things perpetuates and normalizes homophobia or are they merely virtue signaling? I’d love to trust everyone and believe that their apologies are sincere, but what are the odds something is so gay again? If I’m not there, will they even blink an eye? These fears rattle in my brain like the anxiety I felt in line, but I know I can’t keep plugging up the drain. My ears must be exposed even if the silence feels deafening.