Different people discover their sexualities at different points throughout their life. We as humans are fluid, and we change and learn new things about ourselves constantly. I learned I was gay at about 12. Well, I started suspecting a couple of years earlier, but 12 was when I was a bit more certain. Unfortunately, acceptance was not what I found. The first two people I came out to thought it was a phase. My middle and high school friends threw around the f-slur like a casual greeting, with the same energy as ruffling my hair or a playful punch in the arm. My family had some choice words for the Queer community in the rare moments it came up in conversation. I did not fit the typical mold of a young man my age, and constantly felt the shame of not meeting the expectations of masculinity. I wasn’t tough or ambitious enough, but I was too emotionally sensitive. Living in a heteronormative world of performative tolerance — with disdain and disgust crawling beneath the surface — formed little nuggets of internalized homophobia within my brain, nuggets that would latch on and grow like parasites. Any time I would see another Queer person take pride in who they were and feel envious, any time someone denounced the Queer community for having the utter nerve to exist and be unwilling to rebut those statements because I was not out of the closet, I would feel those parasites wriggle and squirm and feast on the sensitive self that was still budding through my adolescence.
I, like many other of my fellow Gen Z companions, gained unrestricted internet access at a fairly young age. I am a child of the Internet Age, and though I was only really present for the tail-end of the internet’s debut to the world, the connection and information that I was offered was something that generations before me had never experienced before. The internet held the key to a community that could not be found in my small private school life or my rather limited and fragile social network. The Queer community had a space advantageous to them within the anonymity of the internet, where one could drop the masks that they clung to so tightly within their real lives, or even adopt an entirely new identity that contrasted with their public persona. But with acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community becoming more mainstream, the anonymity also allowed for bottled-up feelings of anger to surface. If it’s no longer an option to publicly express hate for Queer people the good old-fashioned way, sharing those feelings online with no consequences is the next best thing, of course!
And with a world of infinite possibility in front of me, I decided to do what was familiar to me. Once again, I fed the parasite.
As an early adolescent, I didn’t really have much to do with social media. I didn’t have an interesting life to post glimpses of, and I was already too paranoid and ashamed about my self-image to display myself to the world, even if that world was only about 20 people. Some of the places I was spending my time online were fairly small Instagram meme pages, YouTube comments and Google+ communities (I know— yikes). These spaces were filled with edgy middle schoolers around my age, truly pushing the boundaries of comedy with their insightful and intellectual dark humor. Well, humor is a stretch. It was mostly just saying the most socially unacceptable thing possible, patting each other on the back for it, and upon receiving well-deserved criticism for being unfunny and an asshole, responding with “it’s just a joke,” or saying that their critics were just getting “triggered.” To this day I’m not really sure why I stuck around so long. I guess my online and offline environments rubbed off on me more than I’d like to admit.
As for why I was entering and staying in these spaces, it’s very easy to place blame away from myself. There was a need for me to conform with those around me; I wanted to fit in with the friends and family that I had ended up with. I wanted to grow thicker skin, toughen up to these attacks on my identity that would wound me so deeply since I was constantly being told I needed to learn to take a joke. I felt there was some way I had to change myself because the shame I constantly felt was a clear indicator that I was built wrong. This is all true enough, of course, but I can’t pretend I had no agency, that I was a blameless victim. Simply engaging with that content and refusing to speak out or act against it meant I played a role in perpetuating it. My silence on all of the things I’ve previously described didn’t only undermine my existence, it undermined others’ as well. There was a strange sort of pleasure or comfort in the flawed conclusion I had come to that I was differentiating myself from what I thought was the “overly sensitive” Queer crowd, rather than the fact that I was using hatred to feel more comfortable in my own skin. It was an idea that I was fixing myself at the expense of others, and that’s something I have to claim responsibility for.
Since I refused to step out of my comfort zone and explore more mature or welcoming communities online, I continued to stumble upon these spaces. A young boy my age was the target audience, an optimal mark for locker room humor and toxic masculinity in the making. Anti-Social Justice Warrior culture was on the rise, and there was an upward trend of iDubbbz fanboys or Redditors looking to be obnoxious and mean-spirited in new, innovative ways. Maybe it was the anonymity I mentioned earlier being a double-edged sword; Queer people could be Queerer, or homophobes and transphobes could become further entrenched in their anti-Queer beliefs. People become their most authentic selves, and the cynic in me wants to say it’s usually for the worse. The parasite was truly becoming a glutton. Anytime I would feel increasing discomfort at the cognitive dissonance of my self-denial, the parasite would demand more. I was trying to fix something by breaking it more.
There was no decisive moment where I decided to fight back against my own self-hatred. No, rather the world around me changed. I saw Queer relationships in the games I was playing, found Queer representation online, because Queerness existed everywhere, no matter how much I tried to blind myself to it. And eventually, I started allowing myself to love myself a bit more. My homosexuality was something I could start to look in the eyes. I began to have the courage to leave the things that hurt me behind, despite not having a backup plan.
Even as I continue to bloom and grow, continue to be fluid and change in ways I don’t expect, I am still left with scars from all the ways I have abused the young Queer man within me. I still default to keeping my identity as a gay man tucked away until revealing it is necessary. Thankfully, I’ve found more accepting friends and a more welcoming community in college including fellow Queer people, even if I feel like a traitor to the Queer community. And I’ve indulged in stuff on the internet that’s so gay it would make the author of the gay agenda proud. If there’s a part of yourself that you’re scared to confront, a parasite you continue to feed, please know that there will always be a place for you, but you need the courage to face yourself head on.
P.S.: If you are in a situation where coming out and being Queer can pose a danger to your well-being, or simply don’t feel comfortable doing so for any reason, this ending sentiment is not an attempt to deny your own experience. You are valid and deserve love, in or out of the closet. The least I can do is hope that this piece gives you that warm fuzzy feeling I got when I saw good Queer representation, and hope that one day you are no longer failed by the people or institutions around you. Much love, from James.
Daily Arts Writer James Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.