Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Velvet Fish

My husband likes to point out that fish is one of the few foods where the best thing you can say about it is that it doesn’t taste too much like what it is. “Give this a try,” people will say, “it doesn’t taste very fishy at all.” No one says, “Try this steak; it’s not very steaky,” or “Mmm, this pork isn’t porky at all!” If fish were good, my husband argues, then having a fishy taste would be a good thing, not a bad thing. While I enjoy fish quite a bit more than my husband does, I have to acknowledge he makes a valid point.

Exhibit A

A lot of people, straight and gay, treat being gay like being fishy. “He’s gay,” a well-meaning straight person might say, “but he’s not one of those flaming, in-your-face gays. He’s just a normal guy.” You can blame it on homophobia, but the truth is that gay men do this as much as anyone. No one is more guilty of worshipping masculinity and devaluing femininity than gay men. “Does he have to talk like that? Does he have to walk like that? It’s limp-wristed, lisping fags like him that make the rest of us look bad.” Is there an acceptable range of variation from straight masculinity beyond which we’re too gay?

I recently started listening to the audiobook of The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World by Alan Downs. In the book, Downs questions why so many gay men are obsessed with fashion, decoration, and all things fabulous. Is there a gay creativity gene? Downs postulates that these over-the-top self-expressions are making up for years of deep-seated shame from growing up in a world that invalidated a core part of who we are. Most of us have overcome the belief that being gay makes us broken, but there still remains a deeply entrenched belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. So we attempt to drown out the shame with sex, with drugs and alcohol, with having perfect bodies, beautiful homes, successful careers. We hide the shame behind a façade of fabulousness.

Exhibit B

Appropriately enough, I started listening to The Velvet Rage while painting my kitchen in bright pink, yellow, and aqua. The juxtaposition of thought-provoking audiobook and on-the-nose home decoration activity certainly made me question my motivations. While working with a therapist through some unresolved childhood issues recently, I discovered within me that shame Downs is talking about: a belief that at my core I am flawed, unlovable, wrong. Maybe my recent obsession with decorating my home and body in bold, bright colors is an attempt to cover up that shame, but I think it’s more about moving beyond the shame. For me it’s about reclaiming an identity that I spent years trying to hide. Pretending to be straight was exhausting and now I don’t have to pretend anymore; what better way to celebrate than by embracing the fabulous? That doesn’t mean I’m going to adopt stereotypical gay mannerisms or hobbies just for the sake of proving I’m gay. It means I’m going to be 150% me and I’m not going to apologize for it. And I sure as hell am not going to criticize other gay men who do the same—whether for them that means being a glamour queen draped in pink feather boas, a leather-clad muscle daddy, or a nerdy computer guy who couldn’t care less about fashion or home decor.

Thankfully, I’m surrounded by people who get this. When one of my best friends and I were discussing my newly-painted kitchen the other day and she said jokingly, “Well, it is kind of gay,” she couldn’t have given me a higher compliment. Yes, it is kind of gay, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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