I woke up in the morning, and I wasn’t drunk anymore. My wits were back—though dulled by a hangover—but worse, my fears were back. I kicked myself for daring to do something so brazen and care-free. And then, queue in the guilt.
The night before, I had been at a club in Cape Town. A group of friends and I were ending a daylong celebration before we all headed back to our distant homes. We were standing outside—me already regretting how much I had drunk and debating whether to get in a cab—when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
I had seen him from a distance. He was with friends too, laughing and taking selfies. When he saw me notice him, I had quickly turned my gaze. Now he stood in front of me, asking my name. He said he thought I was pretty. His directness made me blush.
Then he asked the question any person ricocheting in the closet dreads to entertain. Are you gay?
I have been told I have a very expressive face. Surely, right then I proved it. Seeing my discomfort, he quickly apologized for any insult. There was an awkward moment of silence. He just looked at me, and I looked at him. I wanted to say something–anything–but I didn’t know how to be honest without feeling like it would jeopardize me. Instead, I said nothing.
I am not an out gay man. I live in absolute distress and fear of being outed. It comes from a deep place that is informed by culture, religion, and society. I know the dangers and real-life effects being gay and care free can bring about in a conservative, homophobic society. Just weeks before, I had read about the murder of a gay man on a beach in Cape Town–not the liberal mecca it’s fabled to be.
Many times, people have expressed to my face their disdain for gay people, not knowing I am gay myself. I hear how my parents speak about well-known gay men. They speak openly and candidly—if only to laugh at them or denigrate them.
My fear of talking to the guy standing just a step away from me also came from an even darker place. I had just come out of a depressive spiral. Being outed would mean facing the very real possibility of increasing my already high levels of distress. I couldn’t imagine exposing myself to anything that would reignite those fell thoughts of depression and position myself again as my own worst enemy.
Right then, my friends called me over to the door. I excused myself and walked away from him, already feeling like I had missed out on something.
Inside the club, it was dark, loud and filled with straight people. My friends kept buying drinks and I chugged them down, one by one. I became embarrassingly drunk, almost incoherent. We had been there a while when at one point I turned around and there he was, in front of me again. The guy from outside. I felt despicable, and I couldn’t believe I would have to make a second impression in such a drunken state. He said “Hi.” I managed to respond.
Then, he asked a question even more shocking than before:
Can I kiss you?
I was near blacking out. And yet, somehow, someone thought I was kissable. I remember being impressed that he asked first. He didn’t make a move until I answered.
In the past, whenever I thought about kissing a guy, I’ve always understood it as something that would never be a possibility.
I’m not a drinker. Nearly all my male relatives and neighbours are committed alcoholics, and I have seen the damage it can do. I, personally, am not interested in turning to alcohol every time I need to relax, have a good time or breathe free. Before that night with my friends, I hadn’t had a drink in over a year. And yet, in that moment, I was able to understand how those drinks allow people freedom. My inhibitions, self-consciousness and terror had vanished. I felt emboldened, and I fully embraced the courage from the spirits.
“Yes,” I said.
It was my first kiss. I was twenty-five years old.
The room got even darker and the deafening music suddenly quieted when our lips touched. My body felt like lightning, fire and the arrival of an earth-splitting storm. Not the kind of storm that desecrates and uproots houses, but one that brings about rebirth and perspective. It was baptismal and life-giving, like being snatched, desperate, out of suffocating water to inhale the fresh morning air.
Alcohol may have assisted my consent to be kissed in that club, with straight people dancing all around us. Whatever it was, the freedom was so refreshing. With him, in that kiss, I just existed.
That kiss—sloppy as it was—changed my life.
My time with him didn’t last. I left him that night on the dance floor. He asked me to come with him, and it became apparent to me how little I knew about dating or being with a guy. I had never received lessons from anyone–not my parents, not in school, not even from my liberal friends.
What I did know about was how to date girls. I can remember my mother telling my sister, “No matter how excited he may make you feel, you cannot know him well enough to be riding out to the sunset with him after just meeting him.” I also remember my father saying something about “being careful not to put yourself in a predicament with girls you have just met.” He meant it as a warning against being unintentionally abusive to women, or getting a woman I just met pregnant. But advice is advice, and it was all I knew at that moment.
I went home, alone, but I kept that feeling of being with him. I did everything I could that night to prolong the feeling of fierce freedom. I clung to how great the release of years of repression felt, how free I felt. Through those memories, every breath I took of the night air felt fresh and new and affirming. I felt like howling like a Spartan warrior, doing the haka and beating my chest. I felt like I had defeated a terrible enemy in hand-to-hand combat. Victorious!
I found myself laughing sincerely—if only to myself—and I slept so soundly.
But too quickly, it starting falling away to a drunken yesterday. I was left to mourn that feeling of freedom as it faded into memory and the reality of my life sunk back in.
I woke up the next morning and I was drenched in even more terror. I had exposed myself absolutely. I felt unsafe, I felt jeopardized. My guilt came seeping out. I was well-practiced at punishing myself with intense guilt every time I was attracted to a guy. Muscle memory did what it does and I sank my head into my hands.
The solution at first seemed obvious. I had to come out. I had to finally tell everyone I am gay. If I wanted any bit of that peace I had felt, I had to step out and say it.
Humans don’t like being alone. Whatever representation of identity we choose does a lot to starve the demons of loneliness and worthlessness we feel. Still, I have often questioned why “coming out” is sort of a rite of passage for LGBT people.
The pressure I was already feeling to announce myself was instinctual. I felt that people wanted an announcement, they wanted to be sat down, they wanted a highly emotional letter, wanted the tears—even wanted the ‘gradual phase of acceptance’ that comes after. I have even felt like I need to announce myself to my liberal friends.
Growing up I depended a lot on coming-out stories I watched on YouTube. They brought comfort and relaxed the anxiety I felt about my fate as a gay human in this world. Most of the “coming out” experiences I have personally seen have gone reasonably well, even very well. And that’s good to know. But maybe I seek out those stories to reassure myself.
I’m not going to downplay the experience of coming out. But I have always hesitated. In a certain way, to me, coming out has seemed to be something that is done for the other, instead of something that is done for the self.
It’s difficult to be in the world while also dealing with yourself. I saw this in the way so many LGBT youth were committing suicide around the globe, sparking the #itgetsbetter campaign. Passionate activists and silent pew-sitters who just wanted to mind their own business turned up on the news, after having done the worst to themselves. Every single one of them broke my heart and brought on a new seriousness about how I relate to myself.
I didn’t come out.
What I came to realize is that saying I’m gay doesn’t dissolve the thick callouses internalized homophobia has formed over the years. The more important thing I can do for myself isn’t necessarily working up the courage to boldly come out. It’s to deal with the callouses that have formed. If I don’t, I fear they will only continue to diminish any happiness I can hope to attain.
The ‘conversation’ will probably happen one day. It will happen because the weight of straight people’s expectation that everyone is like them will eventually become too heavy. I will have to say something because it will become necessary to adjust their misinterpretation of reality, because some people can’t figure things out on their own and may need blunt assistance in reforming their philosophies about life and love.
What I really want, though, is just to live free. I keep thinking to myself—who did I come out to in that club when I fearlessly made out with a guy? I didn’t need to state anything to anyone. I just needed to be there. I have already come out to the most important person … myself.
The focus of my energy right now—the real work—is to be alright with myself.
I think the guy at the club that night was really nice. Still, I feel the connection we shared, however brief, could have been so much better. What if I hadn’t been so terrified that I couldn’t speak? I would have returned his compliment and told him that I thought he was really good looking. What if I hadn’t been so terrified to let my gaze linger? I would have offered to get away from the noise of the club so we could just hang out at a more chill, late-night, hipster café. What if I just wouldn’t have been so terrified?
I hope someday I can redo my first kiss. Not undo, but redo. It probably won’t be with the same guy. Whoever it is, I hope I won’t need liquid courage, because there will be no shame or inhibition left to drown out. Most of all, I hope in that moment to be fully present.
Just him and me.
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