“Even if your love was unconditional, it still wouldn’t be enough to save me.”
I have spent a lot of time this past year reflecting on shame, validation, and vulnerability. It started when I watched Brene Brown’s Netflix special A Call to Courage, which I immediately followed by reading her book Daring Greatly. As a creative person, who regularly writes and puts their work out in the world, vulnerability is both necessary and terrifying. Writing a book is hard. Making art is hard. But putting a one-star review on the internet is easy. This is not to say that people shouldn’t have opinions, but it’s important to recognize that not all opinions are the same. The profound takeaway for me was this: the only criticism worth listening to will come from those also willing to put themselves out there. There was some deeper part of me that already knew this, but I hadn’t really considered the implications of it beyond my creative work. Once the door to that idea was opened, I couldn’t close it again.
A few months later, my friend Emmanuel recommended reading The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs. The subtitle of the book speaks its stated purpose: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World. As I read it, I immediately saw myself and several of my past relationships. The author described the self-destructive phases and cycles of shame that are commonplace among gay men, but I had never seen them presented in this way. In reflection, I saw the demise of my last relationship. I saw the self-hatred and promiscuity of my college years. I saw the decades-long determination and drive to make something of myself, just so I could shove it back in the faces of everyone who ever made me feel small. The Velvet Rage is a book I probably would have benefited from a lot more if I had read it in my early twenties, but I am still grateful for the context and terminology it has given me now. The underlying context of validation is what tied it all together for me. I know that seeking external validation is not unique to the queer experience. I think everyone I know has struggled with it to varying degrees. What makes the queer experience unique is the manner and degree to which validation has been withheld and denied throughout our lives. So I started retracing my steps.
From a very young age, there was a part of me that knew I was different. Polite society had lots of subtle and not-so-subtle ways of letting me know. In fourth grade, when we played “smear the queer” at recess, I played too. From a very young age, a word that I would later identify with was already associated with the negative. In sixth grade, I learned that my obsession with the Spice Girls was something worthy of mockery and ridicule. That same year I had a catechism teacher boast about donating to the boy scouts to support their decision to kick out gay members. I had another catechism teacher who prayed for her gay sister’s salvation every night. My experiences in middle school in particular taught me how to keep those parts of myself quiet. It took years for me to overcome my fear of talking to new people in junior high. That old sense of panic still creeps in sometimes when I meet new people. Throughout my high school years, I got used to kids using the term “gay” as a synonym for “shitty.” My identity was the butt of more jokes than I could count, and that’s not even touching on my own internalized homophobia. I had supportive friends that helped get me through it, but survival came at a cost. My coping mechanisms were flawed and damaging in their own ways. So much so that I am still unpacking it twenty years later.
Melodramatic selfie in my favorite Thursday hoodie from the early aughts.
I used to fantasize about being a nu-metal rockstar. I was going to become the best of the best and shove it back in the faces of everyone who ever made me feel invisible. Because I thought that I could only be my authentic self if it were an act on stage. And if that didn’t work out, I had plans to disappear. I would just hop on a bus that shouldn’t exist, and ride off into the end credits like Enid in Ghost World. Or maybe I’d be crushed by a plane engine in my bedroom and save the world like Donnie Darko. Whatever my future was, it had to be dramatic and it couldn’t be ordinary. Ordinary was off-limits for me. Looking back now, I’m glad I didn’t disappear. There was a lot that I got wrong, including but not limited to the prevalence of nu-metal as a popular genre of music, but I was right about “ordinary” not being for me. I can’t take back the time I wasted longing for something that I didn’t actually want. I can’t take back how much of my self-worth I placed in the opinions of people who probably don’t even remember me. All I can do is start to let it go.
Enid waiting for the bus in Ghost World.
When I went away to college, I found slam poetry. It was a medium that uniquely suited my need to be heard and, to a lesser degree, my rockstar fantasies. The instant gratification was electrifying. For the first time in my life, I felt seen and heard. But the self-hatred of my early high school years just evolved into new forms of self-destructive behavior. I fell in love and got my heart broken. I stumbled into an abusive relationship after that, one that I allowed it to go on for way longer than I ever should have. I didn’t have the self-awareness at the time to see that I was just lonely and didn’t know that I deserved better. I started smoking cigarettes like it was a form of self-punishment. They were one part goth aesthetic and one part gradual suicide. Even the saving grace of slam poetry became a trap over time. Instead of being a platform for using my voice, it became a mechanism for chasing applause. What had once been validating became the only way I felt validated. I couldn’t separate writing for myself, and writing what I thought people wanted to hear. For my own sanity, I had to walk away.
I spent a year living in Albany after college. During that time, I learned a few valuable things about myself. More specifically, I figured out who I didn’t want to be. My abusive ex had taught me what I didn’t want in a relationship. A few years of promiscuity and hookups had shown me that sex alone would never make me feel whole. If I had to point to a single revelatory moment, it was after a “date” I went on in 2010. The guy was boring but really hot. We met for drinks. He talked about how he liked to drive his car really fast. This basically accounted for his entire personality. But I wasn’t looking for personality and neither was he. Later on that night he tried to talk me out of using protection, and pretty much checked out when I refused. Seeing his cold indifference over being denied made me sick with shame and disgust. I remember thinking: what the fuck am I doing here? Why am I spending my time with someone like this? I left and went for a long walk, just smoking and marinating on that awful feeling. I vowed to never put myself in that kind of situation again. I didn’t quite love myself yet, but I knew I deserved better than that.
It was later that year that I started dating Blair. He and I had initially met during the messiest part of my messiest years; senior year of college. We were both grateful that things progressed at their own natural pace. With Blair, I experienced real love for the first time. It was deeper than infatuation and heartbreak. Even though his death was devastating in its own right, it put me on a path to regular therapy and taking better care of myself. I still carry Blair’s love with me. I was also inspired by the works of my friends like Caroline Rothstein, who introduced me to the concept of radical self-love. While I never struggled with body image, there was a part of me that truly and deeply hated myself. It was too ingrained to just kill off, and I realized that I just needed to forgive it. Just like I did with my abusive ex. I chose forgiveness because grudges are dead weight. I chose forgiveness because the best revenge is living a better life. I chose forgiveness because I was choosing myself. That negative inner voice is still there. It still finds its way to the surface from time to time. It is still cruel and self-destructive. But it’s a demon whose name I know, and knowing its name was the first step toward reclaiming my own.
When Against Me! released their album Transgender Dysphoria Blues in 2014, it was the first time I had heard an expression of uninhibited queer rage that mirrored my own. The experience of listening to it was liberating as fuck. It still is. I may be a cis gay man, but there are some universals in the queer experience. Righteous anger at the gender binary is a constant. I quoted their song “Unconditional Love” at the top of this post because I think it really drives home one of my key takeaways from The Velvet Rage. It will take more than love to save us. As far as we have come in accepting queer people, we haven’t come far enough. Acceptance is not validation. Acceptance is a starting point, but it is not the destination. Having the support of friends and family can make a huge difference, but that alone cannot overcome every toxic part of our culture. It took me nearly twenty years to get from accepting that I was gay, to loving the fact that I am gay. Even then, I still had to learn the difference between loving myself in spite of being gay, and truly loving my whole self.
Against Me! Circa 2014.
On the surface, self-love might sound a lot like narcissism. The difference between them is massive and it all comes down to the ways we seek validation. Self-love is knowing your worth regardless of what the world at large has to say. Narcissism is a fragile ego built around a desperate need for outside approval. Self-love is holding yourself accountable because you want to be the best version of yourself. Narcissism is getting the people around you to buy into your self-delusion so that you never have to change. Self-love is acknowledging your failures while believing in your ability to grow beyond them. Narcissism can only see failure as weakness, and so it changes the narrative to protect the ego. I spent years allowing my ego to take the wheel while my sense of self-worth spiraled out of control. Taking that control back has been a journey. I’m still in the thick of it. I’m still figuring shit out.
I don’t mean to make it sound like it was all bad. Throughout high school and college, I was fortunate enough to find people who could match my weirdness. I have a community of friendships and chosen family that loved me for who I really was long before I did. For everything I got wrong, I got that part right and I’m eternally grateful. Validation is something I will continue to seek, but there has been a significant shift in who I will seek it from. The Velvet Rage helped me contextualize the ways that I chased validation without realizing it. It gave me the language to help navigate it going forward. Shame will still rear its ugly head from time to time, but I have healthier ways of coping with it. Daring Greatly confirmed a lot of things I knew intuitively about vulnerability and power. But more importantly, it shifted my thinking on the value of criticism and which voices are worth listening to. My innate fear of judgment isn’t ever going away. I will be contending with it as soon as I hit the “publish” button on this post. Some of the things I shared here were difficult to write. I would be lying if I said I’m at ease sharing all of it. I could just as easily let this whole thing die in my draft folder, but I won’t. I will put my best foot forward and step into the arena.