Drinking Gay

Glory of the 1980’s.
photo by David Quick.

We live in the shadows of our past. We are shaped by the events of our own, individual life. We are affected by the histories of the communities to which we belong. Try as we might, we cannot escape certain realities; we can only embrace the truth.

Sometimes, that truth comes in the form of a massive headache and a tumbling stomach the morning after a night out. You’ve all been there. You really didn’t feel like going out. You certainly didn’t want to drink. But it’s Friday, and there’s an 80’s themed dance party at the gay bar downtown. Tonight could be the night—the night you meet that magical person; the night the world sees just how electrifying you are. So you throw on some parachute pants, find a Pac-Man t-shirt, and summon your inner-Zack Morris. You down a shot of Tequila to take the edge off. You head out the door of your apartment and head toward your destiny.

You arrive. The music is loud and familiar. It’s the same tracks they always play…just with a few extra Madonna songs tonight. It’s the same crowd, too. You recognize 90% of the people…it’s the unknown 10% you’re there for, though! You scan the room. You zoom in on a few prospects. They don’t zoom you back. You want to leave. You stay, though, and order a drink. If you’re liquored up, you’ll forget just how disappointed you are. This is an important moment.

It’s within this space—the time in between when your expectations were high with hopes and the time just before they are shot down by the disparages of reality—that alcohol becomes your fortune. It’s sort of like a liquid tax for being gay. You can be sober to the loneliness of your own reality, or you can pay a toll to intoxicate bliss.

This is how queer people are disenfranchised.

Hangovers aren’t particularly indigenous to homos, but there are certain reasons that LGBT folks are three times more likely to abuse alcohol than their hetero-peers. In the Midwest, the isolation is compounded by a conservative political climate and a fragmented sense of community. There aren’t enough of us, and we don’t really know what to do with each other. We live in a heterosexist world where no one teaches us how to be intimate with a member of the same-sex. It’s quite the opposite, actually. Most of us grew up being engineered toward a sexuality that didn’t fit; even when parents and peers accept us, we’re left alone to negotiate how we integrate into a world that only has fragments of space for people who are LGBT. It’s highly uncomfortable.  So, we drink. Gay identity often amounts to being a barfly.

You aren’t socially deconstructing when you’re rocking out to “99 Red Balloons”, though. You’re just trying to keep up. You’re keeping up appearances by pretending that this scene of ours is just fine by you. You’re also just plain trying to keep up with the number of drinks those who arrived earlier have downed. By the end of the night, you’ve imbibed 7 beverages. Maybe you’ve even gone home with someone. What about the magic and the destiny, though? Providence got lost somewhere on the dance floor… or perhaps inside one of your glasses.

When we surrender our uncomfortabilities to the bottle, we drown the very hope that is intrinsic to our unique being. There’s a special challenge to being gay; in the 21st Century, we have the ability to redefine the very terms of life by rising to the occasion of this contest. We live in a highly assimilationist culture. Advertisers and media conglomerations tell us what music to listen to, what TV shows to watch, what clothes to wear, and which foods to eat. To acknowledge a sexual orientation outside of heterosexuality is to admit to being different. It’s an affront to American social order. Yet, it’s also the paradoxically the paradigm of what it means to be American. In the last century, we opened doors for people who have been marginalized by expanding opportunities for women, racial and sexual minorities, persons with disabilities, and other groups. The challenge of this century will be to determine what we do with the freedoms we’ve been afforded. The queer community can play a distinct role in this.

Instead of blending into a rainbow flag subculture where Cher, Madonna, and Lady Gaga are our patron saints and where communion is taken with a shot of tequila and some poppers, we need to be masters of our own universes.  We need to create our own culture—lots of different cultures so that each person, homo or not, can have a distinctive place where their talents and gifts fit. Alcohol is the antithesis of uniqueness. It’s a distraction so that you don’t have to contend with that peerless sparkle inside. If we can simply own who we are—and I’m talking about characteristics way beyond sexuality—we can create powerful forces. Part of the reason drug use, alcoholism, promiscuity, and suicide rates are high in the LGBT community has to do with how we discourage true individual examination. Gay people are just as guilty as the straights, too!  There’s a tendency to “fit” into the gay community as soon as we come out so that we aren’t left standing alone. Empty bottles on a table and toxins in your tummy aren’t company, though.

We homos have a peculiar history with alcohol. It brought us together as a movement when bars were the only true avenues for same-sex socialization.  In many places, that’s still true. As a community, we need to start thinking about what this means in terms of how we live our lives today.

Eighties dance parties are fun. Zack Morris is cute. But is going out all the time worth the health risks?

I drink. Sometimes I drink too much. Hell, I drank too much last night! But I’m getting tired of waking up feeling terrible. My body is screaming for change. I have a feeling yours might be, too. So let’s start a conversation. How can we get out of the bar scene and get more in tune with our own being?

More to come…much more…

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The Cities Speak. Are You Listening?

Me and David Quick on a road trip to Lawrence (photo by David Quick)

Every city has a unique sound. All communities have a distinct dialogue. Each area has its own voice. But how often do we listen to the words and absorb their meaning? There is perhaps no great influence on a person than their geography. Where we live dictates who we become. We can and we do defy odds, but we can never deny how the contours of our surroundings influence our every action along the way.

If you are a homo on the range—a queer person shaped by the boundaries of a state like Kansas, perhaps—your life is very different than someone who is LGBT in NYC. That affects more than your ability to see shows on Broadway, too! It directly impacts the terms by which you can negotiate your life. New Yorkers are protected from being fired from their job because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. They can marry the person they choose. They can also more easily find people who are like them. None of that is true in the Midwest. But the true meaning of “homo on the range” has little to do with what we don’t have; it has everything to do with what brims beneath the surface of our flat land. Our lives are just as compelling here as they are anywhere else. In fact, it takes a certain amount of backbone to navigate this terrain successfully.

If you don’t believe that can be done, I have visual proof! Or rather, my friend does.  And this testimony comes with some very enticing doughnuts to go along with a side of allegory. This Friday evening, Wichita artist David Quick will debut a collection of photographs documenting contemporary life in Wichita at The Donut Whole. Paired with him will be his niece, Vanessa Quick, whose photos detail everyday life in New York. It’s a subtle juxtaposition of how people and place collide to formulate indelible imprints.

This is not a gay art show; the images document a myriad of lives, events, and circumstances. However, a simple examination of the photographs does more to illustrate my point than any words I could ever write. These images document subtle ways of how two very different hordes of people are adapting to differences. In her artist statement for the show, Vanessa says, “I think most interesting moments go unnoticed.   They are so commonplace that we forget that they’re even interesting.” Having known her uncle for several years, I can safely say she has adroitly adapted his approach to snapping a camera. To watch David quick take a photo is to witness the freeze-framing of social evolution.

Late last summer, I received news that a very important friend had committed suicide. He was openly gay and lived near and often visited New York City. I habitually feel alone and isolated being gay in the Midwest; I envied his proximity to a city with a thriving LGBT community. Mere association can’t keep everyone on life support, though. Only a life in motion can survive. The morning after I learned of his death, I took a road trip to Lawrence with David Quick. Along the way, I was reminded why I fight to stay alive. We took a pit stop along Highway-70 at one of those gas station/McDonalds hybrids. I’ve always had a flair for funky fashion, and my sunglasses are no exception. David and I were both sporting wild shades that looked as though they were sold at the corner of Haight & Ashbury during the Summer of Love in 1967. We looked queerly rowdy.

Subtle changes, seismic shifts. (photo by David Quick)

An averagely-dressed white-haired grandmother and her young grandson spotted us as odd spectacles. The kid was intrigued by our outrageousness. I asked if he wanted to try on my glasses. The grandmother looked a tad bit afraid of us. I could tell she wanted to run away from people so different from her. But when David shoved his glasses onto her head and I handed the kid mine, she didn’t have much of a choice other than to go along with an impromptu photo-op. She ended up being amused and even complimented our audaciousness. “You sure do it differently,” she said, though with more awe than judgment. We all shared a laugh together. It was a random moment of joy. Tacitly, she accepted us. The range of their lives got a little bit queer. Sometimes, it’s Kansas that keeps you alive.

This is one example of many I’ve seen over the years where subtle interactions have seismic repercussions. They may not be changing laws yet, but they are shifting minds, even if slightly. In the Midwest, we can’t always be as direct as our friends in New York might be, but the most interesting moments in any city often go unnoticed. I’ve seen a good bit of these images, and trust me—Kansas stacks up well with NY. I heart them both, but for very different reasons. We all need to learn to appreciate our surroundings—no matter who we are or where they lie. Transformations are taking place everywhere, even if the people changing are intermingling on different topographies.

In this complex world with constantly evolving mores, it’s comforting to be able to see our progress captured on film. When we see we believe. When we believe we speak. Our cities are speaking. Where are you in the dialogue?

You can meet David Quick and Vanessa Quick this Friday at The Donut Whole (1720 E. Douglas) near downtown Wichita. Their “The Cities Speak” exhibit opens April 27th at a Final Friday reception, 6pm-10pm. Works will be on display through the month of may. Get a doughnut, analyze some art, and go “on the range”!

A Dartboard and a Message

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For Pocket O

“Everyone should always have hope in their heart, feel love in their life, have an even playing field, and an equal chance to be happy.”

Those were some of the last words my friend O said to me. They were the mantra of his life and the message he wanted carried forward. Sadly, they were also all of the things he was never able to embrace. In the aftermath of his suicide, I am left with the task of deconstructing the taboos that blocked him from realizing what he so eloquently desired.

O was a dartboard for everything we as a culture are afraid of: he was gay, Muslim, and mentally ill. When he came out of the closet, he found there was no place for him inside his religion. As he turned to the gay community for support, he discovered the awkward truth that a culture colored by the rainbow is still uncomfortable with some of the hues inside that prism. Though he constantly desired personal freedom and intimate connections, his personality disorder robbed him the ability to live life on his own terms. He was born into a family that loved him, but most of his relatives were ill prepared for the advent that was O.

When we decide that something is a taboo, we limit people’s abilities to navigate how to deal with it when the inevitable manifests. We can want something to not exist; but we cannot wish away reality. Sometimes, people come into this world to challenge assumptions and expand horizons. With so many taboos tattooed to him, O was one of those people.

Teenage suicide and adolescent bullying are issues that have gained national attention and caused strife in communities across the U.S. News anchors like Anderson Cooper venerably try to dissect how ill treatment from others lead to irreversible decisions. It is not just kids who are offing themselves, though; O was well into his thirties when he died. Causalities come when we refuse to allow people to fully integrate who they are with where they are. When we refuse to confront the things that scare us, we chase off some of the very people we want to love. That is exactly what happened to O.

I am no scholar of Islam, but I know most Muslims will tell you that there is no place in Allah’s kingdom for a gay man. Muslim men are supposed to be the leaders of their families. Their offspring bring honor to the bloodline and goodwill to the family name. This was one requisite O would never manifest. Instead of dealing with that fact, most of his family ignored it, hoping it would go away. Simultaneously, they overlooked his mounting cognitive deterioration. Stigmas over mental illness do not just bring dishonor to Muslim families; most Americans are uncomfortable confronting the challenges that come when a family member has an anguished mind.  When relatives cannot give you the acceptance you need, it is natural to seek that out in other people. Islamophobia and the misconceptions most people have about Muslim culture often prevented O from making those connections.

Suicide, he felt, was the only release from a life full of contradictions.  Race, religion, culture, health, and sexuality tragically collided.

These are not easy issues to talk about. You are probably uncomfortable reading this piece. If so, that is very good. Uncomfortable is compelling. Answers are often found inside the notions that scare us the most.

My relationship with O was complex. He and I never actually met in person. We were introduced via the “Gay Men Who Think Levi Johnston is Hot” Facebook group. See, even Sarah Palin is good for something! Though I never interacted with his physical presence, I got to know his mind better that probably anyone. We talked nearly every day for two years. He knows things about me that even my best friends do not. We had a relationship full of constant challenges. It required my mind to expand. It made his heart open up. It was strange, but it was real. Technology can either be the means by which we break taboos or it can allow them to exacerbate. I choose to let social media broaden the scope of my social understanding.

Every night around 9:00 p.m., I wait for my phone to ring and a picture of O to pop up. That does not happen anymore. It is not the dartboard of our collective fear that I want to hear from, though; I just miss my friend.  Suicide often happens because circumstances larger than a single person overtake an individual’s life.

In our last conversation, O told me he did not want his message to be forgotten. I write this in hopes that you will lace in your heart the words that open this article. When you encounter people whose identities and circumstances challenge or befuddle you, please pay attention. If you have been affected by suicide, examine the conditions that surrounded the event. Sometimes, people come into your life to wake you up. With open eyes, we can level the playing field and create the world of hope, love, and happiness for others O did not have for himself.

Really Deep Wounds

ImageIt isn’t words that matter so much; it’s the meaning behind them. Intentions add definition, giving profound significance to expressions. When comedian Tracy Morgan “joked” to a Tennessee audience that he would stab his son if he were gay, he failed to understand that negative aims often cause deep wounds. As a culture and as a community, we’re just starting to wrap our minds around the effects of those lacerations.

Recent headlines show just how deep this cuts. There’s a study that was just released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that finds gay, lesbian, and bisexual U.S. high school students are more likely than heterosexual students to engage in self-destructive behaviors such as disordered eating, smoking, drug use, and excessive alcohol consumption. Some might point to this as evidence of a moral decay inherent with homosexuality, but doing so dismisses a larger truth. A different study done on the same population revealed that LGBT youth were nearly two times as likely than their straight peers to be bullied in school as well as be sexually and physical harassed. They also make up about 1/3 of all teen suicide cases. When darts of venom are thrown our way, we tend to internalize their poison. Negativity gets projected onto us from the corner of someone else’s insecurity. As a result, we emulate behaviors that bring us down farther than any attack someone else could launch.

When I was a sophomore, going to high school felt more like entering a battle field than it did an institution of learning. More people referred to me as “faggot” than they did “Jason”.  Navigating the hallways in between classes was a treacherous journey full of spit wads, back slaps, and violent threats. The bathroom was a dangerous place; I was assaulted there early in the school year and learned to just hold it in. The gym was even worse. To me, P.E. stood for “physical endangerment”.  There was a boy in my class who had an odd fascination with my sexuality. His name was Anthony. He made a mockery of my identity in the locker room with lewdly bombastic sexual gestures that made many of the other guys roll with laughter. The day he sexually assaulted me was no laughing matter, though. That was the day I began to internalize the poison; it got deep into my bloodstream.

My mind had been trained to view each day as a battle when I was an adolescent. I suppose it’s natural that I went to war with myself as an adult. After that incident, I became shackled by shame. Negative self-talk permeated my idle thoughts. My body became an inconvenient orifice I was forced to live in. Life became a chore I had to get through. I entered politics as a way of fighting back. Every electoral victory I could achieve on behalf of gay rights was a punch in the stomach to Anthony.

There comes a point, though, where you can either twist someone else’s knife deeper inside yourself, or choose to pull it out for your own relief. When you stare down negativity, it runs away.

My ordeal happened in 1999. Much of the bullying I was subjected to was viewed as a normal rite of passage. Yes, it HAS gotten better. Today, you can download You Tube vides of the President of the United States and just about every celebrity telling you to hang in there. It might seem trite, but those videos are lifelines to more people that you realize.

The aforementioned 30 Rock Star reminds us that there are those who still need to learn the significance of positive intentions, though. When you joke about gay people being stabbed, you help instill a narrative that incites violence, both externally and internally. As he embarks on his “gay pride apology tour”, I hope Morgan will come to understand that negativity is nothing to fuel on.

I’m sure that many of you have your own war stories to tell. We all have our own shame to contend with. I hope that you allow your own negative energy to be released. You deserve to live a life of deep meaning, not deep pain.