Growing Up Gay Without Shame

As a kid, I embraced my femininity unquestioningly. Later in life, I learned how powerful that truly was.

Growing Up Gay Without Shame The author, age five, on his first day of elementary school in Atlanta, GA.   Courtesy Killian Wright-Jackson

My stepfather said he had something he wanted to show me. I was eight years old in Houston, Texas, and I hurried to the living room couch, plopped down, and curled my legs up. The older man’s face was smug, and a smile stained the corners of his mouth as he pressed a button on the remote. Grainy footage from my final summer theater recital started playing on the television. On the screen was Ethan, one of the boys in my class. He had the kind of voice that some boys spent their lives praying for — deep and thundering, all baritone. When he finished his monologue there was a moment of silence, the camera shifted out of focus, and the sound of a higher voice wafted through the television. There was no depth that throttled its throat. The camera snapped into focus and zoomed in on me. I stood beneath the stage’s spotlight, tall and glowing, the only boy with the voice of a girl.

I realized that my stepfather wanted me to feel the same disgust with my femininity that he did. But I felt no shame, instead letting out a rib-cracking laugh and focusing on my performance. This reaction was not my stepfather’s intention — and he shook his head with contempt and rewound the footage — but I simply walked away, leaving him on the couch with a remote in his hand. My mother had taught me to remain upright and firm no matter how I felt. “Carry yourself with pride,” she’d usher anytime I was nervous. So I never had a coming out story. Unlike children who are forced to hide their true selves from their parents and friends because of fear, there was nothing that could veil who I was. I knew I identified with femininity; I knew my sexuality was as natural as breathing.

Growing Up Gay Without Shame The author, age one, on a playdate with two friends in Houston, TX.   Courtesy Killian Wright-Jackson
Growing Up Gay Without Shame The author, age four, in upstate New York with his cousins (and Tweety Bird).   Courtesy Killian Wright-Jackson

Even so, I had to contend with the cruelty of playground bullies. It began in elementary school, with taunts that my handwriting was “girlish.” The boy who criticized my writing couldn’t have paid me to entertain him, though. I watched him stutter through simple words during reading hour and never saw his name on the Accelerated Reader chart. Of course, acting in a “feminine” manner doesn’t make someone gay. But at my close-minded school, my sexuality — while always private — was visible through things like my handwriting. I learned that it didn’t stop there. Critiques of my clothing came next, followed by the way I walked, or how my hands rested on my hips.

It never weakened my resolve. When I was signed up against my will for flag football, one tackle was all it took for me to know this was a game I was not willing to play. In my world, winter scarves became bundles of hair that rivaled Pocahontas. I was an unruly child, incredibly firm and self-possessed. I did not question my interests, and through this sense of self, I allowed no one to question me. When teasing became a daily occurrence, I sometimes cried at home and always fought at school. Soon, no hand swung as fast as mine and no comeback was as stinging.

I knew I identified with femininity; I knew my sexuality was as natural as breathing.

Fights were frequent, brutal, and bloody. Once, when I went to the bathroom, a classmate emptied my backpack, chained it to a desk, and scattered its contents around the room like a treasure hunt. I grabbed a chair, crossed my legs, and took a seat in front of the door. No one left that room until my backpack was delivered to me as it once was. Another time, my high school’s Christian Coalition, a group that weaponized tenets of Christianity, surrounded me during lunch. They came to pray for me and ask the Lord for guidance. I smiled politely and then said, “Let’s pray I find a man.” Their faces burst in anger, and they never approached me again. It didn’t get better, I forged it.

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I always knew the world belonged to me. How could it not? All I had to do was breathe and the world quivered. There were those who wanted me to atrophy; many still want me to. They want me to slouch my shoulders and drag my feet, to feel uncomfortable in every space. Even now, at times when I open my mouth and speak, I hear gasps or snickers. Occasionally, as I walk down the street in my new home of New York City, epithets and insults that never held weight to me are occasionally tossed my way. I do the same thing I did when I was eight. I hold my head high. I let my height and beauty glow, and I tilt back my head, giggling. And if you look carefully, down my rigidly straight spine, my hands are still flexed, ready.



June 19, 2017
Growing Up Gay Without Shame