During my senior year of college, I’d made a friend I’ll call Ray.
When folks on campus saw me with Ray, it was like wearing a secret wristband to a party I didn’t know existed. People were nicer to me than they were before they knew I knew him. They were more open.
Then, one night, Ray invited me out to go hang. “Put on something cute and let’s go do something,” he said. I obliged. Miami was lovely and I was more free than I’d ever been in my life. I put on a dress that was just as brown as I was, and a pair of beige heels with my hair blowing in the breeze. He rolled up on campus, and I jumped in the car, curious as to why he wasn’t pulling off.
“Oh, we’re just waiting for somebody.”
Before long, three guys—three of my “new friends”—hopped in the backseat.
And that, we did.
We drove out to the borders of Miami, possibly beyond, and to a club with long white textiles hanging from the ceiling. There were stairs, black lights, possibly a password for entry, and a very green brown girl tagging along with four very not-green men who clearly were familiar with the spot.
The inside caught me off guard—it was a gay nightclub. I mean, it was pretty similar to any other club you’ve ever attended—that is, if you’ve ever had the pleasure—except there was an abundance of men. Bright clothes, hype dancing, drinks flowing, typical club fare.
Ray and the guys sat me down at a table along the wall. One of them brought me a drink.
We danced, laughed, talked, people watched, and enjoyed ourselves. After a while, though, I started seeing people I recognized from campus. Many of them, my “new friends.”
I started feeling like a CD that was skipping at the same part of the song—“I didn’t know you’re gay!”
“Well, you know now!”
All kinds of people who served in all kinds of capacities on campus were in that spot. The language to describe it would only become clear to me a decade later: that was their “safe space” to be themselves, free of judgment, free of shame for being gay.
Months later, I’d meet another man, Sam, who I’d come to learn was living a double life, and feeling immense guilt about it. His brother, a family man with a doting wife and living children, constantly gave him grief over not being like him. “When are you going to get your life together? What’s wrong with you? You’re so fucking gay sometimes,” accompanied by a punch or a furrowed brow, and it was never ending. Sam’s other siblings, his mother, they never harassed him like this, but they never intervened on his behalf, either. Years of torment about his alleged gayness for not having had a family and being an Upstanding Man like his brother. All the while, it never dawned on him that Sam could actually be gay, as if it were some horrific disease that must be eradicated with cruel words and beatings.
Sam eventually found a woman who fell in love with him, and they eventually became pregnant. A happy story, sure, except Sam was still gleefully maintaining his original lifestyle, culminating in a very loud argument between he and his girlfriend when she found his profile on a gay dating website, where he was proudly advertising his HIV negative status and sexual “likes” and “dislikes.” The two agreed—he’d stay away from her and the child, and she wouldn’t reveal what she’d found to his family.
Sam’s story is a complex one. He continued on for years, letting his family believe he was straight and bringing women around them to keep the comments at bay, all the while keeping a true love hidden, otherwise known as his “roommate.”
Yesterday, I spent half the day sitting with Sam’s death certificate in my hands. He was found dead by his “roommate” after an opioid overdose. His mother entrusted me with finding the mother of his child, and ensuring that she received all of what she was due from both his estate and his pension. She left a note in the fat envelope of documents she mailed me, asking me to apologize to her on her behalf—she didn’t know what caused the split between them, but the family recognized her child as being the only piece of him they had left. She begged me to get a photo for her.
Sam’s “roommate,” who ultimately outed himself and their relationship on Facebook after his passing, had the not-unique habit of writing letters to Sam on Facebook, even knowing that Sam was long gone. He would leave these heartfelt letters to him, a painful form of performative grief in hopes that someone would empathize with him in his moment of pain, but would tag what appeared to be Sam’s secondary Facebook page. When I clicked over, I saw photos covered with text heralding love as the answer, the key, stronger than everything, trumps all. I also saw missives about being honest and truthful with the people you love.
When I think about Sam and Ray, my heart aches. When I think about the shame that Sam felt, for decades, believing something was wrong with him for not being the model citizen his brother insisted he be, I feel pain in my chest. For having someone he loved constantly use this part of his humanity he so desperately wanted him to recognize as a negative, a pejorative, it isolated him from the people he loved most. Worse, it made him feel like something was wrong with people who were gay like him. His partner lamented letting Sam hide his humanity from his family. He knew that Sam needed somebody besides his partner. He needed the people he loved to love him, not who they thought he was.
Ray had his community. Ray had people who he could come to, with whom he could explore the world. He wasn’t in isolation—he wasn’t relegated to hiding his humanity. He had people he loved and people who could love him, people he could trust and learn from. He built circles of friends who saw who he was as a person, and loved him anyway. That’s what that nightclub that he took me to symbolized for him, and many of the other people who came out to me that night. My presence there was a way of welcoming me to the family.
And rest assured, they are family. They support one another. They love one another. They see each other often and, even though you might get tired of the same faces every weekend, you’re happy to see those same faces. You at least know they’re alive. You know the outside world didn’t get to them, because that’s what the outside world does—out there, outside of our little community, they demand you to look and act and think like them. And, if you don’t, you should be ashamed.
Brené Brown, writing about shame in her brilliant book Daring Greatly, made it plain: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and, therefore, unworthy of love and belonging.”
Inside the walls of that club, there was no pressure from the outside world. There’s no need to feel shame for who you are or who you love. No pressure to change. No siblings punching you to make a man out of you. No one thrusting lipstick in your face in hopes that you’ll look like a girl for once. No one locking their makeup in a safe to keep you out of it because that’s not for boys. No one making them feel like their differences means they deserved to be isolated, an inhumane treatment for a human being built for connection and community.
Imagine what that space feels like, today, after a heavily-armed Omar Mateen stepped inside a well-populated night club in Orlando and opened fire. The gunman’s father recounted a story of how Mateen became angry upon seeing two men kiss in Miami, furious that they would have the audacity to display affection in front of his young son. Apparently, their love was shameful. They should only show it in isolation.
But those of us who loved Sam, the real Sam, know what it looks like to believe your love is “shameful.” To hide it. To only show it in isolation. We see what that does to people. It is a slow death. Sometimes, like in Sam’s case, that death is self-inflicted. Sometimes, like in the case of what happened in Orlando, it’s not.
Homophobia kills in far more ways than a madman with a gun. It kills in the slow, torturous way of internalized shame and pressure from outside forces, demanding you be something you’re not. It kills in the way that prevents you from working where you’d like, studying where you’d like, receiving health care that reflects your needs, using the bathroom that best suits your needs. It leaves people fearing what kind of punishment they might face for being “different” in public. In 2013 alone, approximately 2,000 hate crimes were reported against the LGBT community, averaging out to one in five each day. An untold number go unreported, however, because people who fear the consequences of “coming out” would sooner keep silent. How many more do we lose to suicide, struggling to end the pain? How many are self-medicating, in hopes of erasing that pain, if only for a moment? How many go from self-medicating to overdosing?
How many more do we have to lose before we realize the truth? Homophobia is a murder weapon, and we wield it against people we claim to love every day. Put the weapons down—not just the ones that require bullets or magazines or holsters, but the ones that force people to hide who they are. Not just the weapons that take lives, but the ones that make people feel like the only way out is to take their own. The lives of our loved ones’—both yours and mine—are at stake if we don’t.
Dedicated to the memory of my dearest Sam; may you finally be at peace with who you are, wherever you are.