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Untying the Knot

Sometime around midnight, I thrashed awake screaming—throwing off what few covers I’d craved amid the heatwave, pillows hitting the walls and startling Joanna awake one room over.

Something heavy lay across my torso, and in my sub-sleep panic, I’d assumed it was either a possum or an anaconda that’d fallen through one of the house’s many rotted sections.

Switching on the bedside lamp, I realized the offending creature was, in fact, my completely numbed arm. Having been contorted at some bizarre angle, it’d reached a painful numbness. I assumed my body had attempted to reopen circulation by flopping it across my midsection, rousing me awake.

I shifted and lifted it onto a supporting pillow, wincing as the blood started rushing back to it, painful pangs thrumming as I lulled myself back to sleep.

***

Hours later, sunlight was beating against the sun porch’s drawn curtains, and I flicked on my fans, turning them to their highest settings. They did very little, but at the very least, they pushed the heavy, heated air around rather than letting it hover, slowly weighing my eyelids down into unwanted naps. Opening the windows, I could feel the air outside was just as still—no hint of a cooling breeze.

While JoJo slurped down her breakfast, I saturated the garden as best as I could—watching rivulets cascade down through the cracking blocks of compost and soil churned up by nocturnal creatures mightily vying for the snow peas and beans dripping from their flowering vines. I surveyed the damage, and mourned the disappearance of three of my four strawberries. I eyed the hovering, bloated squirrels hard—spraying a plume of water tree-ward.

Back inside, I poured myself an iced coffee and lounged at the kitchen table while I chatted with a friend from North Carolina. After ruminating about the state of the country and the daily horrors that unfurl on social media and across embattled news outlets, he described a glorious buffet lunch he’d just had: crispy fatback, creamed corn, thinly-sliced sautéed cabbage, and mounds of mashed potatoes exploding with gravy-saturated centers. He’d avoided the chitlins. I longed for a truly southern breakfast.

The sun wasn’t getting any cooler, and I checked the time, telling my friend I had to get ready for Pride.

“Now, m’dear, go and sink into some tight jeans. Pull on a suffocating tee, and go to that damn parade and find Mr. Right. Or Mr. Overnight.”

We both laughed, knowing full well that I’d do nothing of the sort.

Instead, I dunked my head under the faucet, threw on my clearance Target rainbow shirt, frayed, worn jeans, and a pair of Dollar Store sunglasses. Along with my sash of activist buttons. Having entered a different part of my life, I no longer needed to cling to the false confidence that sprang from not eating breakfast, or tarting up clothes by either shrinking or tattering the life out of them.

I wasn’t going to Pride to find someone. I was going simply to be present, to reaffirm my collective belonging to a community that desperately needs cohesion. And I went because I needed to see that expression of love, compassion, and unity. I needed to see people of all faiths, races, ethnicities, and gender identities mingling and supporting one another. I needed a reminder that we, the people, would be okay—and to see the brave, upcoming youthful faces that’re contributing so much to the fight against our country’s current totalitarian regime. I needed to see that, while it hangs precariously, our democracy has future protectors.

I lasted all of forty-five minutes at the parade before I skittered across the street—past a man dressed in a condom-clad penis costume and sequined Planned Parenthood cape staring longingly at a large floating Chipotle burrito—and wound my way up to Capitol Hill. Since the divorce, I’ve been pushing myself to return to The Hill—to remember the good times, and map on my next chapter alone. Sidestepping into a former bake shop haunt, I ordered two of their savory biscuits and an iced coffee, shoveling it all into my mouth as I surveyed the desolate streets below. It hit me that a bake shop was the perfect place to go for solitude during Pride; the carbs most likely elicited twink terror amongst the most lithe, forcefully thin of the revelers.

Having devoured my brunch, I dusted crumbs off my lap and meandered to a nearby hardware store to pick up eye hooks and a few tubes of caulk for my house-painting project. Ahead of me a man with a tattooed spine dripping down his neck bought a fan, and I lost myself in a momentary daydream—imagining him shirtless, sitting in front of his spinning purchase, sweat dripping from his forehead and down his inked back. I mopped by brow, and watched as he turned the corner, disappearing into the growing foot traffic outside.

On the subway home, a crowd of young women flooded on from the downtown stop, their rainbow bikinis and fake tattoos and glitter glimmering as much as their metallic shoes. One complimented my button sash, and I said I liked all of their shoes—and did my best to quell my internal panic that they might be thinking that I was some deranged, Kiss the Girls-style foot fetishist. But then I realized that they were probably born a solid decade after that movie came out.

The ease with which they held on to one another in public, exchanged intimately friendly pats among their group of black and brown and white faces, gave me a necessary jolt of hope. I could see something similar reflected in the face of a woman standing in front of me, her National Park Service rainbow tattoo flaking slightly at the edges, a rainbow badge on her sleeve reading, “You are safe with me.”

The subway shuddered to a stop in the industrial district, and I hopped off, racing my way to the bus stop. After a solid thirty minutes, I realized the buses were probably all backed up by the parade. So instead of waiting, I walked the four miles back—across the West Seattle bridge, snapping photos along the way, letting the sun kiss my pasty white shoulders.

Every now and then I’d stop and survey the vistas, catalog the swaths of graffiti and street art—some including messages of hope.

Women are Perfect

Others, calls to action.

Rail against

And others, simple reminders that there’re other folks out there.

Hello, World!

I stopped at a rusty chain-link fence, and screwed up my face at a wadded paper towel tied and retied multiple times across various links.

Knotted

Something about it struck me—at once beautiful and unsettlingly ugly, it reminded me of how, last year, I’d knotted myself around my problems so much that my life centered them, normalized them; and it wasn’t until I started wasting away around the tied-up mass that I recognized how severely tattered I’d become.

***

A block from Gay Gardens, I breathed deeply and stared into the cloudless sky. It’d taken almost a year along the road back to find myself in a place where I finally felt emotionally grounded.

I smiled up at the open sky, the promise of it all. And then a bird shit on my sunglasses.

Once I took JoJo out and refilled her water bowl, sprinkling in ice cubes, I walked back outside, pulling a battered chair from my studio along the uneven brick walkway I’d re-laid months before. Atop the chair, I twisted in the eye hooks and hung up my single purchase from the parade. The rainbow flag fluttered in a brief, welcomed wind.

Gay Gardens

I stepped back into the cooling shade of a black cherry tree—its newly formed fruits dangling confidently—and watched the flag undulate along the weathered clapboard.

I smiled, and mopped my brow again. I was home.

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Blushing Pink

After flipping over the sixth pillow and finding an $85.00 price tag, I start searching for the clearance rack. If this swanky décor boutique even has one.

So I smile and peruse and pick things up and try not to drop them because everything is bloody expensive.

And then, behold, the clearance rack!

But I know even before puttering over to the dark corner where all things stained and forgotten are banished that I’m not here for a chipped vase–even if it’s only $55.00!

I’ve been thinking about these “Mr.” bowtie hand towels since I first saw them with Andy. I was so despicably close to snagging them then, along with two “Mr.” mustache-laced highball glasses, that I really want them now.

But, there’s a catch: “Mr.” towels are tied to their “Mrs.” complements.

Because, sweet readers, it seems only straight couples can have these particular hand towels.

But just for bitchy shits, I give it a whirl.

“Excuse me. Is there any way I can switch these two so that there are two ‘Mr.’ towels?”

The smartly dressed employee walks from behind the counter, smiling as she does.

“Oh, hmmm. I thought each was sold separately. I doubt there will be an issue. But let me just check with the owner.”

She disappears into the back, and I imagine some Oz-like character with a pompadour dictating his will to his employed peon.

“NONSENSE! Absolutely no gay hand towels for the flamboyant one! Look at his sweater for bejesus-sake!”

She reappears. But I already know the answer.

“Well, the owner says that we don’t have enough in stock to split them, but to come back later. There might be some then.”

And I just might not have the money in my pocket.

I smile and thank her, since she seems genuinely sorry.

But then I redirect my attention to the overflowing display. Then do some quick math:

Overpriced towels+Empty store/Potential customers on the outskirts of downtown=Bullshit.

I stand there a minute more, silently accusing the towels of their misdeed. But that makes me angrier.

Don’t blame the towels, Matt. Blame Oz.

So I buy some random Deco-like tray reproduction and leave.

Fair Trade?

Yeah, that’ll show’em.

***

By the time I run more errands, mourn the fact that my favorite camera shop is closing, and circle back to The Target to print off some photos, I’m fairly well pickled with resentment.

But as I take my frustrations out on the photo kiosk, muttering “No gay towels for me!” I select a photo of me and Andy from Pride.

I stop.

I take in the moment.

I own it.

So I let the pickled jar of resentment burp a little–no, I don’t fart–swallow my frustration, and revel in the fact that I’m happy right now. That I don’t need some goddamn towels to tell me that I have a boyfriend whom I love, someone who makes me want to come home. That I should stop having some stupid pity party over cheap cotton and get over it.

And I do. I grab the photos and start searching for conditioner.

“Excuse me! Sir!”

Great. Now the kiosk Nazis are going to shake me down. And I’m not old enough to be called ‘Sir.’

But when I turn, I see the guy who’d been standing behind me, waiting patiently as I’d muttered and punched the kiosk screen.

I’ll go ahead and admit I’d prejudged him–fratastic and vapid with a few pretty girlfriends (at least from what I could see blown up on the kiosk screen, from my perch next to an old pumpkin display); basically, many of the traits I associate with the proverbial bigoted Bubba.

“You forgot this.”

It’s another copy of the Pride photo.

I thank him, turn, and blush a little. And that gets me angry, too.

There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. And, clearly, he doesn’t give a shit.

Wait.

He. Doesn’t. Give. A. Shit.

If he’d wanted to, he’d have tacked a smirk, or sigh, or epithetical comment after “this.” But he didn’t. Because he was printing out moments of his own life. He had his own life. Why should he care?

Exactly.

***

With bags in-hand, I toss everything onto our bed and get changed. And there, pushed against my closet wall, hangs one of the first shirts I bought specifically for a gay college party.

Not a fun-gay party.

A gay-gay party.

The Pink Party.

I’d only been out for a little while when I got the invite through a friend’s friend. Having little in the way of man-snagging clothing at that particular point, I’d run to The Target in Tuscaloosa, Alabama to find something pink.

Anything.

I think I was probably contemplating a Bratz tee when I saw the fairly ho-hum pink-and-gray striped shirt.

Mine.

Pinky

So I was prepped for the party. I was going to be with The Gays.

Somewhere along the line, I ended up on a couch with my friend, and we giggled as we watched two guys totally suck face on top of the kitchen island. (Yes, I think I even said ‘Suck face’ back then.)

And they did so without worry–like it was normal.

Because it was normal.

Oh.

But then I got tired, and slightly despondent that I’d decided to wear my battered Adidas, and left with my friend. Right before we left, though, a guy gave us each a shot.

I’d had a little to drink already, but did a little equation:

Sober stranger with a shot+Unknown party host+Unfamiliar apartment complex+Driving home=Take the shot.

About five minutes later, I remembered I’d always been terrible at math. And gullible to boot.

“Ay ThiNnnk there-uh mayuh Bin somMMmmmethinnn in Dat shottttt.”

I was totally fine to drive.

And then I drove over an entire roundabout. I didn’t just hop the curb. I mean I drove right through the center of it–planting bed with pansies and all. How my Pontiac Sunbird ever made it is still a blur.

That, single reader who stumbled upon this blog, is the reason why I never drive after a stranger hands me a drink.

Kidding! No strangers and drinks. And no drinks and driving. Alright, PSA over.

Regardless of the roofie dollop, the party was fun. Because I was out.

I was OUT.

The Out Matt.

I was myself. For the first time in a while.

And it felt a whole hell of a lot better than being drunk.

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Moving Gaily Forward

A little over six years ago, I sat my parents and sister down at our large antique dining room table in an incredibly dramatic fashion and announced that I had something to tell them, something that’d been eating away at me, eroding my relationship with them. I’d informed my sister of my plans, and she stood by me stoically.

Being gay in a small Alabama town isn’t easy. It’s not easy anywhere, really. But watching others who identified as members of the LGBT community being persecuted at my high school made me close the closet door tighter, shove a chair under its knob even. But I always knew, just like you always hear. From the time I was about eight or nine years old, I knew I wasn’t like other boys. Contact sports were never my thing, but I craved the attention boys would give me, even if they were about the tackle me because I actually caught a football (this happened exactly once, and I ran to the wrong end zone). But then we got older, and any semblance of prolonged contact was automatically suspect. Either tacit or explicit, the assumption was clear: he’s a fag.

I wasn’t called a fag until high school. I even used it in my own jeers among peers. Because that’s what you do when you’re desperate to hide a part of yourself, when you see other, prouder, braver people demoralized in front of the lunchtime crowds. I became grateful that, somehow, I passed. But everyone’s time comes due. And then you become the fag people laugh at when you walk down the hall, the fag people impersonate with overly embellished, lispy inflections and limp wrists. But you deny it; it’s the only way you know how to cope.

And then you graduate, and move away from the small town to a bona fide city, still in Alabama. There, you make life-long friends during heartfelt conversations and experiences, and leave others behind in quintessentially angsty tirades. You grow a little over the years. More people come into your life: first crushes, first exes. You realize through these experiences that who you are at your core isn’t problematic or immoral; it’s just a part of you–not the whole shebang, but a crucial building-block to use as a basis for constructing your future self.

And then you prepare to tell the people who’ve been there from the beginning, and hope they accept you. Because, during the ride back to that small Alabama town, you steel your nerves for the potential fallout–what you’ll grab and leave with, how hard you’ll try not to let them see you fall apart. You stay as distant as you’ve been for the past few years during those first few days back, trying to wrap your mind around the fact that this is it: the moment of truth.

Then we all sit down. We’re all here, at the table. And I stare at my plate. I trip over my introductory blurb–memorized for months now, but as distant as Pluto. The silence becomes palpable. I glance up every now and then to make sure they’re still there, that I’m not still in my Tuscaloosa apartment talking into the dark. And then my voice cracks at the precipice of that final phrase. But I fall in, the words following me down and out.

“I’m gay.”

Silence. I look up, straight into their eyes, catch a tear or two. And I want to scream. But then, another voice breaks the silence.

“I hope you know that this doesn’t mean that we love you any less.” Mom: the champion.

Still, it takes time for it to sink in. There’re more tears and questions, and all the typical things that follow. And there’s a bit of distance. But then, gradually, there’s more acceptance and interest in my romantic life. There’s the usual prodding about “getting out there” and questions about “seeing anyone.” They express an interest in becoming more involved, educating others. They want to make a difference for others like me. They talk about opening their home in the middle of the Alabama woods to disowned, homeless, or threatened LGBT youth. They are no longer the “them” against “us.” I’m immensely proud.

And I think to myself, and say aloud, “I’m fucking lucky.” I’m out, proud, and loved.

And I love each and every one of you.

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Pride

With just a few weeks until the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots–the pivotal confrontations referenced as the impetuses for the US LGBT rights movement–I’ve noticed a gradual increase in Facebook posts by LGBTQ allies and LGBTQ individuals, the messages of which are infused with support and calls for acceptance. For those posts and those allies, I am grateful.

But one thing that gives me pause, not just with these messages, but in many rally speeches and calls for equality, is the attention given to people who identify as GAY–in all caps. GAY, not LESBIAN, not BISEXUAL, not TRANSGENDER, not QUEER. But GAY.

Debates about rhetoric plague every identity group and community, and the LGBTQ community isn’t immune. “Gay” has seemingly become the semantic blanket-term for all LGBTQ people, even though it most commonly references gay men. To map “GAY” onto these various identity groups adds to the welter of misunderstanding about how LGBTQ individuals identify themselves; only LGBTQ individuals can identify themselves as such, and decide if they want to be a part of a “community”–a term which is simultaneously inclusive and exclusive, a quintessential example of the us:them binary opposition entangled in one word.

And it’s when I start to deconstruct the nitty-gritty, ask myself the hard questions, that I come to realize the great differences within the LGBTQ community: the power dynamics, the alliances, the ambiguity. All too often gay men are given more attention than lesbians, and lesbians and gay men garner much more of the public spotlight than bisexual or transgender individuals. And then there are those who prefer to identify as queer rather than gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual.

Perhaps this “GAY” mapping is because it is “easier” for news anchors, reporters, and even members of the LGBTQ community to “get” the relationship between two men or two women than it is to understand a woman who has partners of different sexes, or an individual born male who identifies as female, who is in-transition to becoming the woman she has always felt she has been and is in a relationship with a woman who identifies as a lesbian. Identity isn’t easy; it’s always in flux. But everyone deserves recognition. We’re all people, with the only perceived differences between us being equal parts melanin and social stigma.

So, let’s not forget the “B,” “T,” and “Q.” Because between them and the “L” and “G” is where pride thrives, bound up in the connective threads that unite us, make us a community with committed allies, and not just jumbled letters. However you identify yourself, own it.

And be proud.