Back in July, I published my second piece on Medium — I Didn’t Drink Water at Dinner as a Poor Black Kid — about growing up poor and its continuing effect on my life. It was the first time I’d really written anything personal about my life and shared it with a mass audience. So many of my friends praised my piece, thankful for the insight into my life, but also for the new perspective of their own lives.
But my family felt otherwise. They were embarrassed by what I’d written. And angry — my mom especially. Hindsight being what it is, I probably should have prepared them more. We’re all at different stages of our healing journeys. I could go into a much longer story about how society teaches poor people to feel ashamed for that poverty, but I’ll save that for another article. What I do want to call attention to is something my mom said in the heat of the moment. In her defense, she was hurt and has since apologized, as well as received apologies from me. But one text message, in particular, sent me down a rabbit hole:
“ I can’t believe you wrote those things. You were always gay and I never put you down.”
I was more than taken aback, I was flung. My piece wasn’t about my experiences as a gay person. In fact, I had to re-read it to see if I’d even mentioned it. I was so utterly shocked by her leveraging my sexuality in such a quid pro quo flex that for days I sat thinking about my experiences growing up gay in what she seems to recall as a loving and accepting environment. But as I indexed through my memories, it was disturbing to see just how much my mom’s idea of my childhood was wrong.
In fact, after talking over my past more, after saying the words and stories out loud, it’s easy to understand why she felt that way. But even easier for me to see why it wasn’t true. What I saw was trauma.
I remember living in fear of being found out — earlier even than understanding what it was I could be found out for. My family never outright told me not to be gay, nor did anyone express that they would withhold love if I were either. I thought for a long time that that was the same as “acceptance.” I used to proudly espouse how glad I was I didn’t come from one of those homes that kicked their gay child out of the house at 15. Was that really the bar, though? Not being kicked out and not being slurred? Well, that last part isn’t necessarily true.
I do remember being directly verbally attacked about my sexuality — twice actually — by people close to me. Both times I was called a faggot. Once, after one of many childish fights I had with my little brother, he hurled the word at me with such force that I think it caught us both off guard. The fight wasn’t going his way and he probably thought to use the word when he realized fists weren’t working. I’m sure he felt bad for it, though. And I forgave him for it a long time ago.
The other instance was different.
It was 1998 and eight-year-old me and my family were at Tybee Island Beach just outside of Savannah, Georgia. The beach was a treat for us. We didn’t have much and going to the beach was one of the few things that didn’t really cost much besides a little gas and a borrowed car. Tybee Island, just 16 miles east of the city, was our annual family vacation.
That year we went with my little brother’s dad. He was a large and physically and verbally abusive guy (towards my little brother and my mom) and I was always terrified of him. Till this day I almost stutter whenever I speak to him. He’d walked my two sisters and me to the boardwalk to get soft-serve ice cream cones. Anticipation was high as I stepped up last when he turned to me and said, “faggots don’t get ice cream.” I was stunned at his cruelty, even if I couldn’t quite understand what it really meant at the time.
When we got back to our plot of the beach, he told my mama that I’d dropped mine on our way back. I’m sure I was too afraid to say otherwise. Still, my little sister let me have a few licks of hers. It was an act of solidarity that I don’t think she remembers, but I do.
Fast forward to the very first day of my freshman year of high school. I was determined to be quiet, unnoticeable, and a loner until I inevitably left and went to my next school. Until that point, I’d gone to a different school just about every year since Pre-K. We weren’t a military family, though. We were just poor. And whenever something wasn’t going right or the rent couldn’t be paid, we moved. I had no way of knowing at the time, but we actually ended up staying put until I graduated from high school. Boy was I unprepared to make and sustain friendships for four years.
But as fate would have it, on that first day of school, I sat next to a boy who turned out to be my best friend. He and I became inseparable. I don’t even think we really liked the same things, to be honest, but opposites attracted.
He was very cool and reserved, I was talkative and flamboyant. But part of me knew that when I looked at him, I secretly wanted there to be more. I wasn’t completely sure what that ‘more’ was, but I was old enough to know that it wasn’t allowed.
But damn it I was crushing hard, and for the first time ever I seemed to have found a kindred spirit that didn’t shy away from my incessant need for intimacy, even if it was the 14-year-old seemingly platonic kind. I honestly had hopes that we might explore that ‘more’ part together.
All the while, my mom and siblings, maybe because they were already aware of my sexuality, never questioned if there was anyone I was interested in. No prying questions about who was cute or if I was thinking about dating, no talk about the birds and bees. I don’t remember any of it. My siblings were already either going out with boys in the case of my older sister (by two years) or being preached at not being distracted by the opposite sex. But none of those talks about sexuality and dating happened for me. And because of those subtle hints I was receiving, I think I began to believe it just wasn’t for me either. These feelings that were surfacing had to be wrong and I was just waiting for someone to tell that to me.
Well, high school was high school and our growing collectives of friends recognized our closeness, instinctually made fun of it, and we both repelled from one another, afraid of what they would label us as. It seemed that I’d gotten my wish — someone was there to tell me to stop, to turn away, that boys didn’t behave this way with boys. We stopped being friends; actually, we became enemies. I don’t remember us ever speaking another kind word to each other after we fell out.
And had it continued like that, maybe this wouldn’t be such a harsh memory. But it didn’t. We eventually did reconnect, but not until after we’d graduated and I was well into my freshman year of college. We found each other on Facebook and DM’d our apologies for what had happened and planned a meet-up to catch up on lost time. Something happened that I think of as the best and worst thing ever: at the end of our meet-up, he suddenly kissed me (and I kissed him back).
It was the best thing because I’d never felt more validated. All those things I was feeling as a 14-year-old were true. I hadn’t been told about what it might mean to one day be a feeling, intimate person, but there I was anyway, fumbling in the dark for closeness to somebody. All those passing smiles between us, the hours working on secret handshakes just for the excuse of touching each other’s hand, all that affection we shared, I wasn’t wrong about any of it. I wasn’t crazy. I was in love. And maybe he was too.
But it was also deeply saddening because that meant I’d actually been denied something that could have been good for me. That chance to finally feel like a normal kid, to giggle and laugh on the phone with someone special like my sister. It was stolen from me. It could have been a very innocent first attempt at intimacy (again, even the child-like teenage kind), but not for me. That kind of thing wasn’t for me.
But something was wrong with our reconnection. The kiss lasted only a minute and it ended with him panicking, calling it wrong, and storming out. That wasn’t the end of it, though. We met up several times afterward, always with the same pretense of wanting to become friends again, always ending in what I used to think were passionate, fiery, sporadic embraces followed quickly by anger, panic, and disgust (on his part, at least). I was confused but I thought that must be normal. I now see it for what it was: violent, harmful, and tainted with shame.
We’d missed our chance. What could have been my first-ever romance, my first ever boyfriend, my first childhood love story was soured, and as much as we tried to rekindle what we felt before, it didn’t work. We haven’t spoken since.
Still, I never begrudged my family for this or our set-up. I counted myself as lucky to have them (which I am), but as I grew and continued through life I came to realize that this kind of environment was not one of their gifts to me. But I soon learned what gifts really looked like.
I was in Baltimore, Maryland with one of my best friends, Kevin, for Baltimore Pride 2015. It was the night before the parade and we spent the night at his parents’, who, for the record, are two of the loveliest people I’ve ever met to this day. Both were social workers and joint partners in a marriage counseling practice and it was evident from knowing Kevin that he and his sister, both social workers as well, grew up in a home filled with love, affirmation, and freedom of self-expression.
The next morning I could hear his mom shouting to keep his dad from starting breakfast until we got up for the day — I was a ball of nerves and I remember pleading with Kevin to wake up so they could eat. I don’t think Kevin realized this, but this was my first ever sleepover. At age 25 if you can believe it. So these little kindnesses I was seeing sent me back to that age where your friend’s parents kind of unnerved you and you very much tried to seem the positive influence. That afternoon, they asked to ride with us to the pride parade to Kevin’s chagrin and adamant refusal. It was all so cute and so unconvincingly annoying to him but I was constantly amazed at what I was seeing.
We made our way to the parade and were enjoying being as celebratorily gay as we knew how when I saw something that shook me to my core. Something that, until that moment, I thought was not even in the cards. There were his parents, in the parade, leading the PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) section, and holding signs and chanting along with dozens of others.
“Oh, yeah, they’re like the co-presidents of their local chapter,” my friend explained quickly.
We waved and hugged them and I realized immediately that what I thought was acceptance from my family was barely even tolerance. That look in his parents’ eyes, that unabashed pride and love and reverence was something I never thought was possible. It was a look that no one told me was an option.
My mom was right in a way that she never put me down for being gay and I’m thankful for it. But she never, ever looked at me and my sexuality that way. As a child, I was skinny, effeminate, bookish, and I hated playing with my boy cousins, and all of that was okay but no more. A line was drawn for me and I knew it. I wouldn’t get any more acceptance than that.
Why couldn’t I have that level of love? Why didn’t anyone in my family ever look at me like that? And what’s worse, it made me realize that I‘ve never even felt that way about myself. I’d never seen that kind of love and so how could I ever feel it?
Alan Robarge, in his YouTube video on Growing Up Gay and Attachment Wounds, talks about how the consequences of growing up in an environment that overtly or covertly signals to you that you don’t belong because of your sexual orientation are plentiful and carry over into your adult relationships. That the gaping absence of intimacy and acceptance is triggered by your attempts at experiencing intimacy later on. But even further, what did they do to my love of self? That eight-year-old boy on the boardwalk was going to enter a world that had problems with his skin color, his culture, his gender expression, on top of his sexual orientation. But in so many ways he — I — was woefully unprepared to disbelieve those messages.
These kinds of traumatic incidents shaped who I could and, as I’m learning, who I couldn’t be. And as an adult, it became clear that I had to now undo the impacts of my past because as it turns out, that person who I couldn’t be is actually who I very much need to be if I’m going to be happy in this life.
I received such scarce involvement in the community rites of passage that other children took part in — prom dates at homecoming, the talks about the birds and the bees, the teen relationships that should have instructed me on the emotional vulnerability, connection and reflection of myself in the men who were a part of my childhood. All these things and more I missed out on and am only just realizing how important they were to be the best version of myself.
But I’ve gotten this far and have so much farther to go still. And so many more past memories to dive into. Not because I compare mine or anyone’s lives or to look back and think about how the grass might have been greener, but because I need to look back at myself and perform a radical act of self-love: I need to give myself all the love, attention, curiosity, respect, and grace that eight-year-old, 14-year-old, and even 25-year-old me wasn’t getting enough of from those around him.
This is about looking back and forgiving my mom whom I love more than anyone else, forgiving my siblings for the privileges that they didn’t ask for, forgiving myself for believing that I wasn’t worthy of any of it. I was. I am. And so are you.
If you’ve read this piece and found that it resonated with your personal experiences…
If you’ve read this piece and saw yourself as the little person who was denied self-expression and self-development…
If you’ve read this piece and realized that you might have been a family member or friend that might not have known how to help me or your own loved one grow and experience those critical rites of passage…
Forgive yourself. And contact a mental and behavioral health counselor and let them know that you’re ready for your journey of self-directed healing because despite any of this happening, you are more and bigger than those experiences. And my loved ones, and potentially yours, are bigger than their mistakes. Or maybe they’re still making those mistakes and you’ve had to distance yourself.
That’s okay, too.
But what isn’t okay is that you have to continue to live a half-life because of past injuries. Those “attachment wounds”, as Alan Robarge calls them, can be healed and you can be a better partner in your adult relationships — life partners, friends, family members, etc.
Diving deeper into past pain points can be difficult, but through that reflection, you can begin to find the antidote to that pain as well.