When a friend asks what the guy I’m seeing is like, my other friend answers before I can: “He has dreamy eyes.”
His eyes. In a letter that’s currently in transit to my friend’s mailbox in the United States, I tried to describe them and I wrote that they were like underwater lights in a hotel pool after dark: as serenely clear, as luminous.
So, when the daymares come, I see his eyes—just slits through a wince of pain, shutting tight when the punches land. Slivers of luminous blue-green as blood spatters his face. They’re hurting him, taunting him, doing the outlines of terrible things that I refuse to imagine in colorized detail. I never know who they are, but only their actions matter: their malice in its hideously pure form destroys him, and I am powerless to help.
This again. The anxieties and the flashes of horrific imagery: they are the usual sign that the crush is going well.
My crushes go through certain recognizable stages, and each stage has its own telltale signs. When I’m beginning to like someone, we’ll inevitably end up in restaurants because the new stages of attraction make your senses pop. Everything tastes better when you’re with someone you’re starting to like: the steak is juicier, the crème brulee richer, even the tap water is sublime. We must take advantage! There’s no time to explain, find some duck confit and an excellent wine pairing!
Then, if it survives long enough, emotions get more serious. I start to recognize the genuine compatibilities I might share with another person, and when I want to explain to others what my paramour is like, I can hear the admiration in my own voice as I rattle off the precise details that endear him to me. And then he gave me the last of the cheesy bread. And then he gave the little toy racecar to the six-year-old girl playing next to us. And then he sang a song about Coyote stealing fire from the gods.
In other words, I start to recognize him on a deeper level and care about him—and that’s when the daymares start. I will be riding the metro home from work, staring at a Chinese grandmother absentmindedly picking her nose, when I suddenly know that he is being followed by large men who scream faggot as his pace quickens. Or someone recognizes him from when we left the gay bar the other night, and he doesn’t know he’s being followed, and—glass bottles, tire irons, hammers— there are so many objects in the world that could hurt him, and so many people who say they want to. At least, in anonymous Youtube comments.
The rational part of my brain recognizes the absurdity of this thinking. Gaybashed? In Shanghai? From what I’ve seen, you’d have to hand someone a stick and then run into it repeatedly while instructing them to yell homophobic slurs (“In English, this means ‘Unity between our two countries’”). I’ve gotten more trouble walking around NYC during the damned Pride Parade than I ever have in eleven months of living in China.
Maybe the paranoia comes from watching the wrong movies. In mainstream movies, nothing good ever happens to the gay characters—unless it’s a comedy, at which point, nothing happens at all. But they sure do talk funny.
Or maybe, the internalized homophobia from years of mainstream media consumption and Catholic school has gone underground and learned a few sneaky tricks. Years have passed since my angsty teenage era of suicidal thoughts. I know all the correct discourses about queer empowerment, the gift of difference, and the freedom of living life beyond heteronormativity. I’ve done my time campaigning for gay rights, volunteering at the Pride Center, and dragging friends and family out to educational conferences and the like. Plus I send in my dues once a year to the Destroy the Fabric of American Society Fund, which gives me a 50% discount at home décor stores and florists. So instead of passively wishing for my life to end, or subconsciously seeking out dangerous sexual situations hoping that someone else will help it along, I’ve found a better way to hate my queerness: to visualize all of its most beautiful gifts being violently destroyed. Because the wider world still knows that people like us are depraved abominations in need of correction or annihilation, and the back of my brain keeps waiting for it to find us.
I had my first crush on a boy when I was five. I got with my first boyfriend when I was 14. I’ve been with Jeff in a polyamorous (bonus queer points) arrangement for eight years. I’ve been with wonderful women too but at this point I know that my greatest passions and desires are for men; I know there is so much to love inside them, and so many who deserve it. Now, I’m turning 27 in a month and after all this time, I still feel uncomfortable accepting happiness when it looks queer.
And yet, the events of the world outside my head aren’t helping. In a few months, the Winter Olympics will be hosted by a country that has seen the torture and humiliation of gay teens broadcast on the internet and the passage of an anti-‘gay propaganda’ law that criminalizes positive treatment of homosexuality within the earshot of children. In NYC, home of Stonewall, Greenwich Village, Broadway, rumor has it that the number of anti-gay hate crimes in 2013 is predicted to reach double that of 2012. Every headline I read about gaybashing isn’t about an anonymous gay stranger— in my mind, it’s about my husband or the other men I’ve been with. We share the same nature as the victims, and if they are not safe, we are not safe. The men I love—because I love them—are not safe.
My brain: it worries, it frets, it nervously tears the labels off of beer bottles.
The most destructive response to suffering is learned helplessness. So say psychologists after administering electric shocks to rodents. So, like a rat pressing a button to stop an electric current, I am taking what measures I can to control the absurd panic: I go to Muay Thai class and bash the hell out of some pads. The instructor is a demon-warrior made purely of red shorts, crazy eyes, and skin-covered bones, and though he doesn’t speak much English, his glare of disapproval will get me wailing on the pads until my joints go numb. Week by week, the classes progressively decrease in agony as my conditioning improves.
I’m no fighting dynamo—my right middle kick is pretty decent and my elbow strikes aren’t shabby, and otherwise I try drowning my opponent in my sweat—but it’s amazing how differently men react when they learn that you’re studying Muay Thai. It is not a pretty martial art; there is no standing on the Great Wall, hypnotizing cobras through sheer badassery. However, its speed and aggression require you to focus all of your body’s power, which can turn out to be considerably more than you’d thought once you learn proper technique. It is a martial art fit for people who expect to encounter brutality.
A proper kick to the pads sounds like a thunderclap. I work up a lightning storm as my sweat pours onto the mats and I try to punish my body into being what I’ll need: stronger, faster, more powerful. I need to be bigger because in the daymares, they are always bigger. I need to be able to protect him and I need to be unafraid.
Then, when I leave the gym and another flash of gaybashing violence flares in my mind, the fear returns. Sometimes, I can land a solid hit. I’m also 5’4”, a buck twenty-five, the smallest and least experienced guy in a room full of muscular men who know how to make a punch count. Of course, that’s not the heart of the problem anyway. Whether I’m with him or not, he is unprotectable against everything that could hurt him. If only I could be big enough to suffuse the world in a fine mist, and if trouble came, I could suddenly materialize where he needed me—just my head, right there, to take a hit on the chin so he wouldn’t have to. The sight of some random Chinese/white guy popping out of the air would probably distract them, so he’d have long enough to destroy them (and I know he could, because I don’t fall for weaklings). This body, contained in space—I wish it could be enough—hell, I’d do with a few more inches of height, or a bit more thickness around the torso and arms, so if I needed to take bullets for him, I’d have a few more inches of meat to catch them.
After all these years, and all of the beauty that queerness has allowed me to experience, some part of me sees what terrible strangers have in store for us and knows they will come find us.
I don’t know how to stop being afraid.
I don’t know how to stop believing that the possibility of violence is my fault.
And worst of all—most poisonous of all—I can hear a sibilant voice deep down hissing: Well, naturally—isn’t that what faggots deserve?
Being queer means a lifetime of fighting demons, within and without. Someday, maybe I will be able to look at him and think: this is pure and exquisite, this is right, there is nothing to be ashamed of, and believe it. To dispel the daymares, though, I would have to trust the world not to hurt the men I care for, and I’m not sure I can take that leap of faith. Cheesy bread, toy race cars, songs about Coyote… I have too much to lose.