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Things I Wanted To Forget

This post was originally my third post on accepting my queerness. Those first two original posts are less relevant now and I just add extra complexity. This current post about my queer journey although not first chronologically is a good introduction if you want to know more. However this post does help understand some of the emotional roadblocks and trauma that kept me individually from processing and accepting who I was for so long.

A Reckoning With Old Trauma

In the dead of night, a memory I had banished to some dark corner of my brain came back in a dream and stayed with me after I sat up in bed in the dark. Not like in the movies in a cold sweat or anything, nor thank goodness with a panic attack. I’ve had a few of those over the years. But I suddenly vividly remembered 1998 like it was last week.

You see in August of 1998, I moved to Atlanta. I had spent eight years in college (six working on an undergrad degree and then two more on a Masters I never finished). A lot of that was avoiding the real world. I knew it even then. I loved the structure of school, and college (for me) was easy. If I hadn’t needed college loans for grad school I might never have left but I had hit the point after two years that I realized I really didn’t have a direction with that degree. It was just the next step on a ladder that I had been mindlessly climbing. And all while I was racking up student loans and credit cards. It was time to move on.

Enter me finding my first real job working for the Federal Government in Atlanta. At the same time I had been told there was a job I could have in nearby Americus if I wanted it. I look back and I’m sometimes shocked I didn’t pick the easy path. Instead I headed to Atlanta. I felt a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Up until that point, Auburn, AL, was the biggest place I had lived and although I enjoyed Auburn it was not the big city at all.

Who Can Afford A Life?

When I say Atlanta was the harder path, I mean it. It wasn’t just that I was moving somewhere I didn’t really know anyone. I was moving and the job I was taking paid barely enough to survive. Between my loan payments and credit cards, I barely had enough to eat. I surely didn’t have enough to enjoy myself. Eating out, movies, concerts, etc. I wouldn’t have even had cable if it didn’t come with my apartment. That first year was very lean. Because I had a MARTA pass to get to work, I explored a little but mostly if I wasn’t at work, I was sitting in my apartment logged into Earthlink‘s dial-up (my one extravagance). Gosh that’s a whole other world now. But it was the first time in my life I’d been not only on my own but I didn’t have anything like homework, school assignments, etc. to fill my time with. And of course who could afford even a fledgeling social life!

If you’re of a certain age-group, one of the other things that came with internet service back then was typically Usenet. A lot of Usenet then was plain old bulletin board style messaging with people with similar interests. It was also one of the first places online where one might find things of a spicy or prurient nature. Mostly I’ll let you use your imagination but what I looked at was all over the board content wise running the gamut from gay to straight. It was probably mild compared to what’s out there today. Think more along the lines of adult magazines. I think I was beginning to accept the idea that I was more than incidentally attracted to guys. But something was about to happen that caused me to “put away some of those toys” so to speak.

And that was the gruesome death of Matthew Shepard. That happened in October of 1998 in the midst of what might have been the beginning of me accepting my sexuality. And while his murder at least ultimately led to something of a shift in public sentiment, all I saw was someone only a little younger than me killed for being different. It was an “oh shit” moment that I had mostly suppressed all these years. It has been so long that I hadn’t really consciously thought about any of this in a long time. I would feel a disconnected mixture of anxiety and sadness each time his name came up. These days that’s basically just the anniversary of his death. I wouldn’t so much say it was a repressed memory as it was a mixture of fear and sadness I had somehow squirrelled away into a dark part of my brain. I just didn’t want to remember. I guess it’s been my recently writing about all this that pulled these memories of that time bubbling back to the surface.

Looking back I wonder if my first panic attack was partially connected to this. I had that panic attack one night the following January. Somewhat like like this time, it was one of those bolt upright in bed moments but unlike last night it was connected with a feeling of not being able to catch my breath and a racing mind. I haven’t had panic attacks often but I’m familiar enough with them now that I recognize them for what they are. That very first one was like an unfamiliar freight train in the dark Atlanta night.

I thought that first panic attack in early 1999 was mostly connected to an unpleasant work environment. That freaky night led to me putting in applications for a new job and by the next month I had found one. That’s a long story, but definitely the job I was leaving was needlessly stressful. So the source of all that anxiety could simply boil down to a little of column A and a little of column B.

Regardless, looking back, I think October of 1998 was the point where I decided to really shutter off what felt like a dangerous aspect of my psyche. I guess somehow it seemed easier, if misguided, to concentrate on interests that didn’t have the spectre of being beaten and left to die. If I sometimes found women attractive, why risk touching a live wire?

It’s strange now how this has stirred up echoes of those feelings. The first was oddly enough in 2001, the scene in the first episode of the TV show, Smallville. A kryptonite poisoned young Clark Kent was left tied up as a scarecrow in a corn field by jocks at his school. Of course Clark lived but I remember watching that and instantly having flashbacks to the descriptions of how Matthew Shepherd had been found. I’ve read any similarity was unintentional but it’s almost hard to imagine. I don’t think at the time I entirely connected it with my feelings from October of 1998 but I definitely remember feeling emotional and thinking it was too similar to Matthew Shepard’s death.

Another more directly comparable moment was the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain. That’s a movie that I was only able to watch once. The scene near the end where we see/hear conflicting versions of Jack’s death… I’ll leave it there, if you’ve seen it, you know. But the fact it was another unhappy ending was the reason I never desired to see it again. I’m not even saying it’s a bad film at all. I am saying it’s bad for me.

This is probably also all connected to why I’ve hit the point if a film/TV show has a gay character I want to know what I’m walking into first. In the past year I enjoyed Love Simon, Love Victor and Heartstopper specifically because I knew they were all ultimately uplifting stories. Everyone doesn’t have to live happily ever after for me to enjoy it but please just stop killing off the queer characters. Some of us have a low threshold for trauma.

Does This Change Anything?

In the big picture, I lean not necessarily exclusively but heavily in the direction of being attracted to male presenting people. Regardless of who I’m attracted to, this feeling of being “not quite right” affected my relationships with everyone. There was always this feeling that if I wasn’t happy in my skin, why would adding someone else to the mix change things? Ultimately this 3am revelation was more about recognizing that I brushed on these feelings long ago and decided to banish those thoughts. Not that they ever went away. Feeling different was always there, just pushed down behind a smile and over-dedication to my job.

Perhaps in a different world where Matthew Shepard didn’t become the unfortunate national face of a hate crime, I would have had the space to explore my feelings in my 20s. Or perhaps not. As time travel stories have borne out, it’s hard to guess how changing one detail would have changed the overall narrative. Maybe I didn’t actually have the courage then and nothing would have changed. Regardless, this underlines that part of my difficulty was fear that I had been storing inside for years. I thought it was primarily internalized homophobia that kept me from owning some of my feelings/attractions. Now I realize it’s more like a blooming onion with layers of issues.

In recent weeks I’ve been looking back through childhood memories trying to use the fragile lens of hindsight to see what I might have missed in my life. And mostly I’ve noticed how relaxed my parents were. I mean, I have no idea how they felt inside but I’ve just noticed some childhood moments they didn’t make a big deal out of in front of me. Like when I was about eight or nine years old and wanted this poster for my bedroom wall.

A sign? Maybe? LOL I honestly don’t know but I don’t remember any friends who had the Duke Boys on their wall. Earlier than that I also recall playing with dolls. I even had a Donny Osmond doll from the Donny & Marie show. Clearly my parents didn’t gender toys.

To their credit I have yet to come up with any memory where my parents expressed concern over the things I was interested in. They never said X was for boys or Y was for girls. And I definitely never heard either of them use the sort of casually homophobic language I learned in the world outside our home. They also just didn’t talk about sex in general.

For their time period, they were either fairly relaxed or them not saying anything was part of a bigger picture of being unwilling to address sex and adolescence. Regardless I think most if not all of my internalized homophobia was absorbed from the world at large. As an adult more freshly attuned to these things, I’ve been shocked to watch TV from my childhood and see how often shows that I remembered as being wholesome were packed with homophobic stereotypes. And so often it wasn’t even part of the plot, just a casual bit of easy but abusive comedy.

And I guess this is where we are now, my 2023 blog has become my own unqualified self-counseling. But for what it’s worth writing about this has provided some clarity and just generally I am feeling better as a result. Of course I wonder if there are more 3am revelations on the horizon. As long as it leads to being more comfortable in my skin, I’ll count them as a good thing.


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