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Richard Scott Larson recounts his queer coming of age in his powerful essay “What ‘Halloween’ Taught Me About Queerness.” As a young teenager growing up in an unstable suburban home, horror movies became a frequent pastime for Larson. A favorite was Halloween, featuring a masked serial killer who carries out his murders in suburban houses similar to Larson’s. These familiar structures contain gruesome horror inside their “presumed realms of safety;” “what seems innocuous on the outside can in fact contain deadly secrets.” The film’s scene involving the killer’s mask being yanked off then registers the true horror for Larson. As a young queer person watching the film, in his vulnerability, he begins wondering what his own house masks, “whether it was obvious from the outside that someone like [him] was living there.” But it is not long until he makes the traumatic discovery he “had never really been wearing a mask at all.” Every queer person born into a heteronormative world starts with a mask, and realizing one’s identity is often deeply isolating. The task of coming out is, for some, an unparalleled horror, yet sometimes pulling off the mask is the only relief to keeping the secret. It certainly was for me.
The person who saw through Larson’s mask was an older man who took the opportunity to abuse the boy. This is a tragically-common component of life as a young queer person—being minoritized and vulnerable opens the door for abusive people to take advantage. But Larson’s experience of abuse continued well afterwards, through his continual fantasies of sleeping with the man, as he describes in the concluding paragraphs of his essay. He “fantasized relentlessly, about what might have happened.” The few short sentences ending the essay underscore his lasting trauma. “I wasn’t twelve years old anymore. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. After all, I had been begging for it. Everyone had seen.” Everyone had seen. Here, readers begin to see the extent of the self-blame, the internal explanation of why he deserved what happened to him. Self-blame is an unfortunately standard response for victims of sexual abuse (and one originating in deeply-rooted patriarchal assumption). No one brought their abuse upon themselves—regardless of decisions they made, ultimately the choice remained with the abusers, who mobilized their agency for wrong. But the self-justifications and rotten lies fester for victims, and it takes time and deep emotional processing to fully comprehend, let alone move beyond. The deep shame of the experience lives on.
The comedian Hannah Gadsby shares this sentiment in her breakthrough Netflix comedy special Nanette. Living in a post-Stonewall, post-marriage equality world, it can seem like there would be no need for shame in LGBTQ+ identity. Our commercialized, mainstream message of being LGBTQ+ is glamorous—after all, Gadsby jokes, “My people…don’t they love to dance and party?” But inside, regardless of pride parades, queer people carry the long-term effects of deeply-internalized homophobia. “I’m still ashamed of who I am. Not intellectually. But, right there [in my heart], I still have shame,” she comments, sharing her hesitation to come out to a family member. And the trauma is far from being purely internal. In righteous anger, near the end of her show, she circles back to a story of her own teenage-era physical abuse, getting “beat the shit out of” just for existing as a “lady faggot.” Reflecting on why she failed to call for any help after the attack, she says, “it’s because I thought that was all I was worth.” An all-too-familiar story—while Larson’s trauma may be more invisibly psychological than graphically physical, the lasting sentiment of deep shame and horrid trauma live on for them both. “And that is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate,” Gadsby adds.
Queer identity in the contemporary world often comes with a strength of character sometimes even reaching the stereotypical. Tragically, this character originates too often from a lifelong, valiant struggle for mere survival in a world determined against it. As Gadsby puts it, “this tension is what not-normals carry inside of them all of the time because it is dangerous to be different.” Carrying “this tension” can be all-consuming, but faced with no other choice, we adapt to it. When Gadsby concludes there is “nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself,” we can only agree.
In his 2018 pop song, “Seventeen,” Troye Sivan describes an experience common among queer people but rarely discussed: early relationships with much older partners. “Maybe a little too young, but it was real to me / And in the heat of the night, saw things I’d never seen / Oh, seventeen,” he croons. In an interview with The New Yorker, Sivan opens up about the story behind the song. In his late teens, steeped in peer pressure, he hooked up with a man in his thirties, via Grindr. Unlike Larson, the beginning is at some level consensual, but these relationships typically foster a toxic power dynamic. “Can’t tell a man to slow down / He’ll just do whatever, do whatever he wants,” the song continues. In the aforementioned interview, his co-songwriter describes a shelved lyric: “Here he comes / like he just walked out of a dream / Doesn’t care you’re seventeen / and maybe he forgot what that means.”
Troye performing “Seventeen” Philadelphia, October 6, 2019
The lyrics present Sivan’s experience with a neutral tone, neither personally traumatic nor as an aspiration, memorializing the experience unfalteringly. His songwriting remains light on details—like Gadsby and Larson, he leaves much to the imagination, allowing his audience to feel the story for themselves. For me, listening to “Seventeen” for the first time (after months of impatient anticipation), I felt my legs shake beneath me, feeling the sounds and understanding the story. Hearing this song’s story enabled me to open up to a friend for the first time about someone abusive in my life, not wholly unlike that of Larson. This is the immense power of authentic cultural representation. Minoritized people who have experienced trauma feel themselves to be alone, but authentic representation of minority experiences in culture lifts this blanket of false isolation. A world with more representative storytelling, from more voices, would relieve so much of the lasting pressure trauma builds.
Regardless, these early traumatic experiences become formative, remaining unshakeable for life. Gadsby calls the “damage” done to her “real and debilitating,” remarking she “will never flourish” because of it. Trauma is closely intertwined to coming of age for so many queer people, whether through partners, violence, abuse, family, religion, or community. Even in my liberal hometown, I would never hold my boyfriend’s hand without checking all directions. At night, perceived as male-gendered but wearing a dress, I cannot walk home without staying on guard—harassment has come in the past, and for friends of color, often accompanied by violent death threats. In meeting any peer, teacher, or co-worker, I must evaluate my level of safety and comfort, determining whether to share my pronouns, often choosing between continuous discomfort and compromising an opportunity or relationship. These microaggressions, around the clock, add up, yet they are only one component of a more significant burden. Sexual assault, manipulative partners, parental abandonment, physical violence—while cisgender and heterosexual people are not immune to these dangers, statistics demonstrate consistently higher levels among LGBTQ+ people. The results are often tragic: nearly half of trans people attempt suicide at some point in their lives. Almost no LGBTQ+ people escape adolescence unscathed by trauma, and hold these “tensions” for life. “Being different,” as much as the concept is theoretically celebrated in our culture, comes at a terrifically high cost.
Trauma is intimately familiar to David Wojnarowicz, who looked back at his own coming of age in his 1990-91 work “Untitled (One Day This Kid…)”. A portrait of himself as a child, eager-eyed and looking straight ahead, is wrapped in flowing, continuous text, most lines prompted by the starting phrase, “one day this kid…”. The text begins simply: “One day this kid will get larger…one day this kid will feel something stir in his heart and throat and mouth.” It becomes increasingly exhilarating to read with each consecutive line, a feeling of horror bubbling up as the lines grow more intense. One day this world “will compel him to commit suicide or submit to danger in hopes of being murdered”…“men will attempt to silence him with strangling, fists, prison, suffocation”…“he will be subject to loss of…all conceivable freedoms.” It ends sharply, objectively, but as simply as it started: “All this will begin to happen in one to two years when he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.”
The Whitney Museum featured this print, about forty inches across, in a 2018 retrospective of Wojnarowicz’s art career. It stood out in the gallery, rendered entirely in black & white and unusually filled edge-to-edge with dense black text. The words buzz behind the subject, a dense cloud of hatred behind this innocent child. They are projected by others onto him, without his knowledge, understanding, or consent. In the moment, this hatred exists just outside his boundaries, a slim whitespace firmly delineating the two, but viewers realize the boundary’s imminent degradation. Throughout adolescence, through unending heteronormativity, torment, and abuse, the world’s judgements of queer identity sink in, often leaving behind intense, internalized self-hatred. Gadsby felt this—as men assaulted her throughout her early years, societal shame of queer identity imprinted itself near-irreversibly upon her sense of self-worth. And Larson shares a similar long-term shame, with the memory he may most want to forget becoming unforgettable as he continually blamed himself.
In an essay entitled “Post Cards from America: X-rays from Hell,” Wojnarowicz wrote passionately about his rage. “WHEN I WAS TOLD THAT I’D CONTRACTED THIS VIRUS IT DIDN’T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE THAT I’D CONTRACTED A DISEASED SOCIETY AS WELL” (“Tongues of Flame,” 106). He worked against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis of the late twentieth century, eventually contracting and then dying at thirty-eight from the virus. There seemed no end in sight to the constant deaths, and a complete lack of action from politicians at every level. Though even our—still preliminary—level of basic public acceptance seemed unimaginable in his era, many lines of “One Day This Kid” speak to harsh realities very much still present. While marriage equality defines the backdrop of my queer coming-of-age in the U.S., the recency of that decision is easily forgotten. And many of Wojnarowicz’s statements ring uncomfortably true to lived reality for young queer people around the world today. Concentration camps in Chechnya, the alarming slaughter of trans women (the political inaction on which mirrors that of the AIDS crisis), worldwide gay and trans panic laws (justifying violence and murder if the victim is LGBTQ+), and the literal criminalization of homosexuality in the majority of countries in Africa and Asia all speak to queerphobia still horrifyingly widespread in 2019. Marriage equality, of course, was not a cure-all for our “diseased society.” We are mending the edges of the tear of queerphobia in our social fabric, but it runs deep. Though my bubble of white privilege in the Northern U.S. has kept me physically safe, tragically this is far from the most common experience.
At the 2019 Emmies, the one-and-only Billy Porter became the first openly gay Black man to win an Emmy for Lead Actor in a Drama. In his acceptance speech, Porter included a quote from the writer James Baldwin: “It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.” There are significant echoes of Gadsby’s struggle with self-worth after a childhood of shaming. In his own words, Porter declared to the crowd in his signature crescendo, “I have the right. You have the right. We all have the right.”
“One Day This Kid,” alongside much of Wojnarowicz’s other art and writings, is not hopeful—living and working through the height of the AIDS crisis, with friends and partners dying around him, utter despair would seem more natural a reaction than hope. But poignantly, critically, his work instead features a kind of unending, infinite insistence. Wojnarowicz’s art became his resistance to an immoral system and society allowing the deaths to continue unchecked. Where could we be going, if not pre-occupied by the crisis at hand? When a fellow artist expressed her anxiety that her photographs were not contributing to the AIDS resistance, Wojnarowicz told her: “These are so beautiful, and that’s what we’re fighting for. We’re being angry and complaining because we have to, but where we want to go is back to beauty. If you let go of that, we don’t have anywhere to go.”
Wojnarowicz insisted queer people have something to say, that they should be listened to. It is an insistence Gadsby unmistakably shares when she declares, “I just needed my story heard, my story felt and understood, by individuals with minds of their own.” An insistence Larson brings by sharing his story with a rare candor and authenticity. An insistence Sivan inserts through unapologetically queer lyrics into the narrative of a largely-heteronormative pop music industry. An insistence Porter brings with every boundary-pushing red carpet outfit and speech.
The queer story is one filled with seemingly never-ending roadblocks and struggles, but in hindsight, profound beauty. In a world soaking us with shame and filth, a world filled with grooming, abusers, and queerphobia and transphobia, we must remember Porter’s declaration: We all have the right. We all have the right to existence, to physical and psychological safety, to pride in our identities, maybe even, as Gadsby put it, to dance and party. For most, coming of age as a queer person is an adventure richly layered with trauma and perseverance. “One day this kid will feel something stir in his heart,” Wojnarowicz told us. “[He can] submit to silence and invisibility. Or one day this kid will talk.” ◆