I’ve put writing this piece off long enough, but the truth is my mind has not been in a clear space to make much sense of anything since I found out about the tragic shooting in Orlando. Incidents like this are especially hard for me to process, hearing of the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub elicited a visceral response from my body. In my solitude, I’ll admit that I broke down and cried. Crying is not something I do very often, but hate is something I’ll never understand. I know what anger feels like and I’m very familiar with frustration, but hate is something I only know through second-hand accounts from studying history or from watching television. In the past weeks there was nowhere I went that I didn’t hear about the shooting. It seemed like everyone was so shocked, but not me.

I’ll say this again — I’ll never understand hate, but I know it to be just as real as you and me.

Hate comes from a lack of something. Hate comes from needing someone to blame for your circumstance. Hate compels a man to do heinous things like open fire on innocent people who’re simply having a good time. And it is that same hate that makes him feel justified in his actions. Hate is very real, and it must be exterminated. But which of us will take the charge in working toward that goal?

Sunday, June 12 was a major eye-opener for me. By the time I actually started to heed the information on the television of the soaring death count, my best friend and I were already two glasses in on a pitcher of mimosas. I’d chosen that day of all days to go out and celebrate a new job that I was starting the following Monday.

As we were walking to the bar, I commented to him that I actually forgot that this was Pride week, but it was quite obvious as we walked through the city to find nearly every establishment bedecked with the conspicuous rainbow flag. I’d always held mixed feelings about Pride; in theory, I supported it and was happy that I lived in a city that championed equal rights for LGBT people. But I personally limited my engagement with events and avoided the parades altogether. Two weeks prior to D.C. Pride, an acquaintance asked me whether I’d be attending any festivities this year and I swiftly responded, “no!” I explained that I’d done Pride events before, but as a general rule I avoid large crowds and so I let that be my excuse out of going to Pride year after year. Never had I considered the possibility that, just maybe, I wasn’t proud of who I was and the fact that I am a same-gender-loving man.

In college I had one close friend who repeatedly asked me whether I was gay. This went on for much of my freshman year, and my response was consistent denial of the fact. At this point denial was second nature because I’d been doing it since the first time I was asked that question in middle school. She pestered me so much about this until I couldn’t take it any more and I exploded and said, “YES, I’M GAY!” She noted my frustration and apologized for being so intrusive, but at that point we were relieved to have broken down a barrier in our relationship. Honesty, it felt really damn good to say the words aloud. After that, I vowed to myself that should someone ask me about this again I would not deny my truth. Instead, I would boldly and unapologetically stand in my truth, owning my identity as a proud gay man. Yes! That sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, for me it did and I maintained that that was good enough for me. Until now.

Truthfully, I could count on one hand how many times since then that someone asked me plainly, “Are you gay?”

High school and middle school are completely different ball games. Kids are candid and lack couth, but in adulthood we learn to adhere to rules of propriety and political correctness (especially in spaces of higher learning). People will speculate and gossip, but there are certain questions they just won’t ask you. I knew this to be true and I also knew that I was copping out of doing the truly uncomfortable thing in branding myself with a scarlet letter.

The decision to embrace an ambiguous identity was something that was easy for me to do, although the comfort of being ‘undetectable’ was entirely a myth. With time, my false comfort started to feel more like a prison.

Subconsciously, I knew that being gay was something I would have to address at some point, but projecting an amorphous persona to the world was the stalling tactic I used to avoid a larger fear, and it is one I share with many of my brothers (gay and straight alike). This fear I am speaking of is the fear of commitment.

To this day, I could not say that I have ever had a boyfriend. Each time I ever started to connect with a guy in a romantic way, I pushed them away because I was scared of being with a man and I dreaded the thought of having to tell people over and over that I was with a man. As a result, I’ve prematurely ended all my “situationships” — most of the time without any explanation whatsoever. I would just vanish from their lives, almost as if I never existed. And, to me, I wished they hadn’t existed. Maybe if that were true, I wouldn’t be made to feel things for them.

I knew my pattern was unhealthy, but truthfully I never gave much thought to the ‘why’ that motivated my actions. I only started to realize that I wanted more for myself one night that I went out for drinks with a coworker. He started to make the case that I was very privileged to be able to exist comfortably between two worlds, and unlike him I didn’t have to wear my sexuality every day. I understood where he was going with it, but little did he know that was not my reality at all. The truth was I didn’t exist comfortably in either world, though I’ll admit that when I started to go to gay clubs and see other same-gender-loving men it did a lot for my confidence. Namely, it allowed me to witness the range of LGBT and I realized it was so much more than what I’d been exposed to via mainstream media outlets. I realized that there were so many ways to live as a gay man.

When I went out, I noticed there were lots of men like me that were cisgender (and I also noticed the preferential treatment given to them in the clubs) but I couldn’t entirely buy into the case he was making that we were so privileged. Yes, I could go to barbershops and straight clubs and not get the same stares and jeers that he might get, but it still hurt whenever I heard those same things used in reference to another gay man. Maybe I didn’t know him personally, but I knew that he and I shared something — we shared a struggle even if we experienced it differently.

I thought back to the fairer skinned black people I learned about in my African American studies courses that abandoned their childhood homes and passed for white in new communities, and I wondered what they must have felt. On one hand, they’d tapped into a wealth of privilege, but on the other hand, they’d lost so much in the process. When they heard the word ‘nigger’ come up in casual conversation I wonder if they felt the way I feel every time the word ‘faggot’ gets thrown around in the barbershop or even at a family gathering for that matter. Forcing myself to swallow my words and disguise my hurt in those moments has been far more emasculating than any sexual act I’ve ever performed, because in order to preserve my privilege I had to shrink myself and I had to shut up.

Hearing of the tragedy in Orlando, I really had to ask myself “what did it all really mean?” What was this mask I was holding onto so tightly worth anyway? How could I do my part in eradicating hate if I was still so fearful of being judged? How could I educate anyone if I wasn’t prepared to speak up? The truth is, I never felt better than any other gay man because my gay was less noticeable than his, and at times I’ve envied the fact that those effeminate men were so brave to live in a world that constantly berates and belittles them. To the masculine gay men that do believe they have something over those more effeminate men, I implore you to wake up and begin to undo your conditioning. It isn’t a compliment to be told, “you don’t seem gay,” that is called a microaggression.

If it isn’t clear, we need to unify now more than ever. The shooter in Orlando didn’t discriminate according to masculine or feminine – he saw gay and he hated what he saw. If we want to live in a better world, it means having to shake things up a bit and make our presence known. As members of the community, we know the range that exists within LGBT and it’s time we make others more aware of it and break the cycle of using our feminine brothers as scapegoats. As you think over it more, hopefully you’ll start to see that the mask really isn’t worth sh*t.

As June came to an end I realized that this Pride was one that I’d never forget. What happened in Orlando played a major part in that. Whenever I hear of loss of life, especially of this magnitude, it makes me that much more conscious of my own mortality and I begin to reflect on what I want for my life. I know that I want to be proud of my life. I want to be happy with the life I’ve made and also the person I choose to share it with. I want a real life, one wherein the only running I do is toward a goal or a dream. Today I say that I’m done running in circles, and in this moment and every moment after, I’m deciding to stand proudly just as I am.

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