There will never be a day where I won’t be thankful I grew up surrounded by dirt. Living in the woods has its disadvantages, yes, but there’s something about coexisting with wild animals that humbles you. I forgot about that when I went to college. I forgot what a forest looks like in the fall. I forgot what dirt smells like. Even though it was easy to lose myself in college essays and physics exams, there’s still a small sliver of me that remembers.
As cheesy as it sounds, I needed a retreat. Living in a larger city than those in the Upper Peninsula exposed me to dozens of perspectives and countless stories I otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to, but what it made up for in collective human experiences, it lacked in reminding me where I came from.
Coming to this realization, I felt suffocated. My life felt dangerously routine and alien. I had to go somewhere. Not just to a forested area but to a completely different climate. I needed to throw myself into a habitat that was different, raw, and a little alienating. I needed to remember what it felt like to wake up to birds and not car horns. I needed to remember what silence felt like. So my boyfriend, Ben, and I went to Arizona.
The trip was fantastic, filled with spontaneous detours to monuments and coffee shops. We made a point to not plan what we did each day, rather see where the signs would take us. It was a type of calm and fluidity that each of us desperately needed. With a little bit of money, some snow storms (yes, it snows in Arizona), and some luck, we saw Arizona for what it was worth. And on top of that, the airbnb host left us alone. (Thank God.)
While all that was great – and believe me, it was – an awkward moment still sticks out to me like a sore thumb. We had planned to climb Camelback Mountain in Phoenix on our first full day. The hike was only 1.6 miles and had an ascension of 1,648 ft. That sounds doable, right? Well, no. Now that I think about it, people in Arizona use the word trail pretty loosely. Yeah, the trail was clearly labeled and present for the first half of the hike. But the second? Trail isn’t as accurate as Literal Rock Face, Hope You Brought Your Rock Climbing Equipment!
Somehow against all known laws of physics, we got to the summit. Sweaty, smiling, and thirsty, we took in the Arizona landscape. Which was pretty dull to be honest. Arizona is basically one giant zen garden, with rocks and dirt taking up the majority of the space and a few plants barely poking through, choking on the dust. But rather than feeling appalled, I loved it. Instead of massive amounts of grass, trees, and bushes, I saw dirt. The contrast between rubble and cactuses was mindblowing. The isolated plants looked almost offended; I questioned their ability to survive in the bare landscape. It was almost as if they wanted me to challenge their existence, square up, and fight to the death.
Hidden among the other tourists at the summit, we took our mandatory “We made it!” selfies to prove to ourselves (and the internet) that we were actually doing something with our spring break. After a few snacks and a chance to catch our breath, we began the descent. Bottlenecked behind a terrified couple, it took us a mere three hours to get down the 1.6 mile trail, a climb that only took one. Counting down the trailer markers, it seemed like it we would never get to the bottom and the slowly growing hunger pangs didn’t help either. It was almost as if the couple in front of us didn’t want us to get to the bottom. I bet the two women scouted out at the summit for hours, chose us as their prey, and as we were about to descend, decided to jump in front of us and hope our inevitable frustration at their slow progress would cause us to get distracted, misstep, and fall to our deaths. But that’s all just speculation.
Somehow, two gays conquered Camelback Mountain. Yeah, that’s right. Two gays. We found ourselves back on the access road, barely beating the sunset, and we made our way to our rental car a quarter mile down the road. And then it happened: once we stepped foot on the access road, Ben tried to hold my hand. For some reason, I hadn’t expected it. I mean, yeah, he’s my boyfriend, but our hands were dirty from the hiking and I assumed we were too exhausted to show intimacy, preferring to hide within ourselves, embarrassed by our own filth, until we could shower and come back to reality.
But there he was, trying to hold my hand.
I noticed a group of men behind me and another group on the other side of the access road.
A whirlwind of images flash through my head: my high school, my parents, coming out, being fifteen. I know I have to make a decision sooner or later.
What the fuck am I going to do?
I have a feeling I know what you’re thinking, “Of all the issues you could freak out about on a spring break trip, you pick this one?” And to be frank, yeah. I did. I come from a homophobic town. My entire life in the closet was filled with episode after episode of being called gay slurs and shunned for my eccentric, feminine personality. Even in sixth grade, I couldn’t catch a break. It’s almost as if every man at Negaunee Middle School knew I started watching gay porn the second I did and without fail called me out on it every chance they could get. I slowly made my way through middle school suffering through one – and exactly one – forced heterosexual relationship every year. These “relationships” were a month long and involved me avoiding the girl at all costs. After a month of dodging conversations completely and maybe one trip to the mall, I’d break up with them. Why after one month, you ask? Well, after about a month in a heterosexual relationship I thought the fact I avoided kissing the girl would change from being viewed as “cute, shy, and a challenge” to being viewed as “suspicious, and probably gay” and the last thing I needed were more suspicious people digging into my closet filled with rainbows.
I’m not going to get into it, but I came out on Facebook. (How millennial, I know.) Once I came out, whatever male friends I had mustered abandoned me literally right after commenting “Will never abandon you bro!” I’m not even exaggerating. Those that stuck around for just a little bit longer, soon faded away. It just didn’t feel the same. It’s not like I had changed or anything. I was still Zach, but all they could see was the gay oozing out of me.
So for years I was conditioned to view men around me as the enemy, people I couldn’t trust. If there was even a 10% chance one of them would call me a fag, or talk about me behind my back, that wasn’t a risk I could take. So I trained myself.
Straight man = potential for harassment.
A simple equation.
What the fuck am I going to do?
He’s about to hold my hand, and I don’t know what to do. Part of me is exhausted, tired of hiding, and just wants to hold his hand. But another part remembers what happened in Negaunee. The conditioning comes back when I notice the two groups of men and my heart sinks. Even though I want to, I can’t hold his hand.
I admit defeat and move my hand away and mutter some excuse about not wanting to hold his hand because we’re both dirty.
He doesn’t buy it. He gives me a look, his smile gone. “What?”
“It’s just, my hands are really dirty. And you know how clean I like to be and how weird I get, I just don’t think I’d be comfortable.” I start to feel this moment we just had, this perfect moment we had climbing the mountain fade away and become replaced by something ugly. You could almost smell the shame radiating from me.
“Um, okay, Zach.” He takes his hand back and looks straight ahead. He almost looks rigid, like something severed between us and he’s trying to recalibrate. I don’t know what he’s thinking.
I’m nauseous. I know he doesn’t believe me. How can I tell him my irrational fear and expect him to believe I’m not just embarrassed to be with him? And even if he did believe me, why should I let my assumptions about people all the way across the country affect how I interact with my boyfriend on a trip we spent a lot of money on? People suck. As much as I don’t want to somehow accidentally fall back into the culture I grew up in, someone will call my boyfriend and I fags before long. No matter how much I hide, how much I shrink, it’ll happen. Why can’t I just accept that, shield myself from the slurs, and enjoy the moment?
We don’t say a word until we get to the car.
The car’s hot from sitting in the sun all day.
I take a breathe and reach for his phone to enter in the directions back to our airbnb. He breaks the ice, “Are you sure you want to touch my phone, Mr. Dirty Hands?” He’s not smiling but I know he’s being light-hearted. Or at least I think he is. I hope he is. There’s humor there, I can taste it, but there’s something darker, too. Anger. Frustration. Confusion. It all comes at me in a regurgitated mess.
I shrink a little. “I’m sorry I didn’t hold your hand…” I trail off. I don’t know what to say. Actually, I do. I should’ve said I was afraid the group of guys would have called us faggots. I should’ve reminded him of my upbringing, the pushback I got from classmates, parents, and teachers. (Yes, teachers. Let me repeat that: teachers at NHS openly opposed same sex marriage.) I could have mentioned that. I could have explained what it felt like to grow up in a town where those who were educating us opposed same sex marriage and handed us health textbooks that told us being “gay” was just a phase and we’d grow out of it soon enough. I could have explained what it felt like to grow up in a town where a student in an English class wrote a story that only featured LGBT characters, and the teacher refused to grade it.
But I didn’t.
I said nothing.
I always wonder who I would have been with different parents. Different teachers. Different opportunities. I mean, who hasn’t? I wonder if the U.P. allowed me to grow, with its endless forests, or it suppressed me, with its narrow views and small populations. If my dad wasn’t homophobic, would I have held Ben’s hand? What about if my government teacher hadn’t said he was against gay marriage? Would I haven’t smiled more? What if every time a classmate called me a queer, gay, a fag, they told me they liked my shirt, or I don’t know, asked me what I got for #4 on the worksheet? (I got 16.4 grams, Eric.)
I sound ungrateful of the support allies have given me. Let me say this: I’m not. Although my life has its flaws, I can acknowledge my privilege not only as a white man, but as a gay person living in America. Of the 195 countries the U.S. recognizes as independent, 10 of them list homosexuality punishable by death and 65 have it listed as illegal. We think we’ve made global progress with gay rights, but only 22 countries have same sex marriage legalized (Cameron). That’s barely 10%. Yes, two other countries (Mexico and the U.K.) have legalized same sex marriage, but only in some territories but not others. And yes, an additional 13 countries have same sex civil unions legalized, but civil unions only offer the same protection as marriages in state issues, not federal.
Clearly, we’re not as progressive on the global scale as we’d like to seem.
I can still remember where I was when same sex marriage was legalized in the United States. I was staying the week at a friend’s house downstate, I had just woken up, and naturally, I went to check my Facebook. If I’m being completely honest, I was still a little high from the night before and I had slept in a little too late. (It was 3:00 pm.) Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide. 27 June 2015. It took a few seconds for the headline to sink in. I didn’t think same sex marriage would have been legalized in my lifetime, let alone when I was only 19. I almost didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want to force the “same sex marriage” ideology more than I already had. I didn’t want to see homophobic opinion after homophobic opinion from my high school friends as they heard the news. I didn’t want to be pushed into the limelight; I wasn’t prepared.
Same sex marriage has been legal for roughly 629 days. What’s happened since? Has anything actually changed? President Trump had originally planned to repeal Obama’s executive orders for LGBT citizens (the administration had even started drafting the executive order) but only after public pressure and relentless questioning, did they backtrack (Grindley). I guess that’s comforting? The public opinion seems to favor gay marriage, so the President backs off. But the President wouldn’t have proposed that change in the first place unless someone told him to – either himself, the Republican party, or his semi-formed cabinet. Clearly we aren’t all in agreeance just yet.
We also aren’t done. Same sex marriage was an incredible step for LGBT activists, but the fight is far from over. For example, what about anti-discrimination laws for housing for LGBT tenants? So far, 22 states have passed legislation for housing anti-discrimination but an equal number of states neglect sexual orientation in hate crime data (Cameron). With hate crimes like the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, can we really call our progress progress if the states themselves don’t recognize hate crimes for what they are?
My viewpoint isn’t entirely unsatisfied. (Shocking, I know.) Since same sex marriage was legalized, the entertainment industry had its own sort of revolution. This past February at the 89th Academy Awards, Moonlight became the first LGBT movie to win Best Picture, the Academy’s most prestigious award. Not only was Moonlight a huge step for the LGBT community, but it was a huge step for underprivileged inner-city black youth and a huge step for Muslim actors, with Mahershala Ali becoming the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar (Stolworthy). Ironically enough, this historic moment was overshadowed by the infamous oscar flub which immediately created two hours worth of meme material when La La Land was accidentally announced the winner of Best Picture. Hopefully after three weeks, the fact that Moonlight won is prevailing over the fact La La Land didn’t. (And just as a side note, let’s not pretend La La Land was better than Moonlight. Where Moonlight left me speechless, La La Land left me satisfied. Best Pictures are more than pleasing an audience, they’re about challenging them.)
The Oscar voting pool is 91% white, 76% male, and has an average voter age of 63 years old (Keegan). If an organization that is drowning in that much privilege can select Moonlight to be Best Picture over a movie like La La Land, what’s stopping the rest of us? (Remember, La La Land was a movie about glamorizing Hollywood, which the Academy loves.)
The facts are clear: times are changing, regardless of how slow it may seem. So is my viewpoint of the U.P. still accurate? I haven’t been back in that high school in almost three years and even as I was going through high school, the slurs became more and more intermittent, to the point of near nonexistence. Instead of the rest of the country being behind, was I the one that was this whole time?
I don’t think so. Although Moonlight was a historic win and a rightfully deserved one, it was one movie. We’re talking about massive social reform for the entire globe after persecuting homosexuals for centuries. No matter how much money Moonlight makes or how many people see it, it can only extend its reach so far. The vast majority of people from my hometown probably don’t know what Moonlight is. Above that, the teachers I mentioned at my high school still teach and still suppress expressing pro-LGBT ideas. And above that we have the Trump Administration and countries that list homosexuality punishable by death. We not only can’t see the finish, we are nowhere near it.
“What are you talking about, your eyes are black.” I squint, trying to see Ben’s supposedly brown eyes. All I could see was black.
“What? I’m telling you, my eyes are brown.” He sounds a little hurt, but it’s playful.
An idea. “Wait, move into the light more, maybe it’s just too dark.”
He shifts his body towards the light coming through the Bubble Island window behind me. It’s 2:00pm and the beginning of December.
And just then, I see it. An entire world comes to light before me. Brown was an understatement. It was too generic, too common. His eyes were anything but. Illuminated by the early afternoon sunlight, I saw the warm, maple syrup eyes he’s been hiding from me for the past month since we started talking on Tinder. I see the delicate peaks and troughs in his colorful – yes, colorful – brown irises. It’s almost as if I’m seeing him for the first time all over again.
I’m speechless, flustered, and I try to take all of him in at once. His skin is flawless, still a little tan, and even from across the table I can tell how smooth it is. There isn’t a single mark on his face, aside from the stubble already growing back since he shaved this morning. The stubble complements his hair, which is almost painfully thick and curly. If you run your hand through his hair, you get stuck. But it’s a good kind of stuck. Getting your hand to go smoothly from forehead to the back of his neck would defy physics. His curls reflect the December light alongside his eyes and I swear to God, he’s glowing. Don’t even get me started on his eyelashes. Women would end lives to get the long, black lashes he was blessed with. I don’t want to be cheesy and I don’t really believe the eyes are the window to the soul, but for some reason I get it. I get the saying because I see him. I see this introverted, beautiful, 5’6 guy sitting across from me and I smile. I see pain and struggle. I can see his cat, Simon, in him, too. I see this inquisitive guy, who loves coding, cats, and lemon bars from Espresso Royale looking back at me. I see a guy I want to date. He widens his eyes a little and moves his head slightly from side to side almost impatiently, waiting for my response. I snap back to reality.
“Holy shit, your eyes are brown.”
He smiles and we eat the rest of the mochi.
I think back to Arizona, back to the moment this whole thing started. In between then I’ve gone back to Negaunee, MI, explored the world status of same sex marriage, and considered Moonlight, but I’m no more certain than I was before. Is my fear of large groups of men irrational or rational? I see wins like same sex marriage and Moonlight and I want to be relieved. I want to feel a weight has come off my shoulders and I want to cry tears of happiness, because, ‘yes, it’s finally over. The days of my homophobic childhood are distant and were just bad dreams to begin with.’ But, I can’t.
I can’t because I feel this presence. I feel this darkness inside me – almost like someone else – telling me that ‘that group of guys, yeah, that group of guys over there, will definitely call you faggots, so if you know what’s best for you don’t hold hands.’ I hear muffled threats from my dad when I was thirteen and I hear my classmates tormenting me. I remember what it felt like to pray to God that something would happen and I’d promise to stop being gay in return. I can smell the trampoline I jumped on with my bestfriend when I was eight years old when I told him I was going to be bisexual when I grew up for science. (I soon learned there wasn’t enough demand for that in research labs.) But I also see Ben courageously telling his conservative parents I’m his boyfriend. I see our meals finally come after I suffered through an awkward and forced but equally sweet and endearing dinner with his parents. (They liked me.) I remember I can say I have a boyfriend to begin with and I do so slowly, feeling and chewing each syllable in my mouth as I declare it to whoever will listen. I see my friends eagerly awaiting updates from how meeting his parents went, and I see old classmates commend me for how much I’ve grown since I’ve graduated. You’re not even the same person, anymore. To which I respond, I know, with a smile.
But the one thing I can’t do is hold Ben’s hand.
And that’s okay. Even if I still don’t know why I can’t hold Ben’s hand, rather than let my experiences control my decisions, I’ll push back with as much force and see what lies underneath. Instead of assuming my fear just stems from my childhood, I’ll lift up the curtain, explore, and hopefully understand. But is that something I really want to do? I market myself as fearless and provocative. I constantly think about who people are, but if I look at who I am, will I like what I see?
In ten pages, I’m not really any closer to feeling comfortable with holding his hand, but maybe this isn’t an ten page issue. We’re talking about a lifetime long journey here. This can’t fit conveniently into a few thousand words, double spaced, with work cited page stapled to the back. I mean, there are other ways to show intimacy to each other and to the public. We don’t have to hold hands in public and if I’m being honest I’m a pretty sweaty guy. But now that I think about it, we both have instagram accounts and I’m sure we can take some incredible pictures together if we tried hard enough.
NOTE: This was the second essay I wrote for English 325, Art of the Essay.