“Walking up Colfax!” I grinned. He finally texted me. My boyfriend was finally here.
This was our normal Friday night routine. He would most likely come up to my peach-themed dingle in Elder and we would play Catan or Mario Kart. On Saturday mornings, I’d get to wake up next to him. That sight always made me smile.
When I walked to Colfax to get him, the first thing I did was lay a big kiss on him. In the middle of our kiss, someone screamed at us.
“Are you two kissing?”
I was taken aback and yelled, “Yeah!”
That word cut our kiss short, and we just looked at each other. I could see pain in his eyes, and I’m sure he could see the pain in mine. Someone pulled the aux cord at our party. There was a loud sound and then absolute silence.
Justin and I stared at each other, absolutely petrified, and started walking back into Elder.
“Are you okay?” he asked. Was I okay? What was happening? How could someone on this campus say this?
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, “How are you?”
“I’ll be okay.”
As we walked back to the first-floor lounge (a game of Catan was set up and waiting), it was like someone had commandeered that aux cord and started playing Metallica. There was a banging in my head. My vision was hazy, and I quickly lost the game. I couldn’t even think straight.
One day during my senior year of high school, I was sitting in my friend David’s office. David, a 29-year-old man who was the artistic director at a community theater, had been my mentor since my freshman year of high school. Always honest and open about all things gay, he often helped me to understand my sexuality. Growing up in Iowa and surrounded by subtle bigotry, I needed that.
During one conversation, he said out of nowhere, “Sam, have you ever been called a fag?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Of course not! People don’t say that anymore!”
Then David said something that would haunt me for years: “You will be. You need to be prepared. All gay men are at some point. Just reclaim the slur and take it as your own.”
But I shrugged it off. It would never happen to me, and if it did, it wouldn’t be a big deal.
Two days after the incident at Elder, I got called a fag again. I was walking down Sheridan with my friends Allyson and Nia. One of them made fun of the new clothes I had bought that day. We laughed.
We were right by Plex when someone shouted, “Faggot!”
I looked around. Where was this coming from? He couldn’t mean me, right?
“The dude in the yellow backpack, yeah. He’s a fag.”
I was a fag.
If you ask my mom today, she will say she raised me in an open household. She will stand by her claim that she knew I was gay from birth and that she was okay with it.
That claim doesn’t align with my reality and the subtle homophobia everyone in my family fostered. It’s not that they shouted gay isn’t okay, but it was as if they whispered it. Too feminine wasn’t good, and I was constantly forced to play with more masculine toys or do more masculine things.
When I was three years old, my mom walked in on my friend Parker and I dressed up as fairies. I was spinning around and casting spells on the evil pixies. She made us change. I remember feeling as if I had done something wrong.
A few days later, my mom gave my dad a book called Bringing Up Boys: Practical Advice and Encouragement for Those Shaping the Next Generation of Men by James Dobson. It was notorious for bashing homosexuality. It argued for nurture over nature and claimed that parents control their child’s sexuality. This book instructed my dad to teach me sports and to do “man” things like handywork.
Despite the book, I would go on to paint my nails and get a rainbow tattooed on my arm last June.
When I came out to my sister, it wasn’t because I wanted to. It was because she asked me.
When I came out to my mom, it wasn’t because I wanted to. It was because my sister told her. She asked me a night later, “You’re not going to become a girl, right? Or do drag?”
When I came out to my dad, it wasn’t because I wanted to. It was because my mom told him. “I accept you,” he said, “But if you’re trans, I don’t know.”
Throughout my coming out process, I lost all of my “rights.” It was no one else’s right to tell anyone about my sexuality, yet the people closest to me did. Their love also had stipulations.
Fag. Fag. Fag.
I had to hold it in. I couldn’t be feminine. I couldn’t process even presenting more feminine. My family wouldn’t allow it, they wouldn’t know how to handle it. I would lose everything. I would lose family, friends and the life I had grown so accustomed to.
Everything hurt. My head, my body and my mind. I couldn’t escape my thoughts and I felt like I was about to pass out at 2 p.m. I left class and I headed to D&D’s to get shampoo.
Far too much occupied my head, and my vision grew hazy. The word fag played incessantly in my mind. I couldn’t breathe, and the world felt as if it were closing in on me. I had to sit down on the Sherman Avenue sidewalk and calm down.
After about five minutes, I centered my breathing and started my trek to D&D’s again. I bought the shampoo I should have gotten five minutes before and made my way back to Elder.
When I got back, I stashed my shampoo quickly and climbed into my bed. I fell asleep and woke up to a dark sky and a shooting pain throughout my entire body. My anxiety flipped my stomach over, knocked my knees out from under me and rammed into my head.
When I was in third grade, my mom and sister were obsessed with the show Brothers and Sisters. The show had a gay character named Kevin. During one episode, Kevin kissed his boyfriend.
My mom and sister shrieked. They made me leave and I retreated to my room, wondering what I had just seen.
About two years later, we watched Get Smart as a family. At the end of the movie, Steve Carell kisses Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a distraction tactic. I was forced to leave the room once again.
I wasn’t allowed to consume any media that may present men as gay or feminine until high school. Anything gay was ridiculed in my house. As a result, I developed an internalized homophobia. I even said my sophomore year that I was okay with gay people, I just didn’t know why they needed to get married.
When I woke up the word took over my body, limb by limb.
I walked downstairs, and I was suddenly on the floor in the RA office. My head throbbed and I could barely breathe. I couldn’t do anything except call for help.
Soon, I was surrounded by my friend Keith, my boss and three police officers. All of them gazed at me, as tears spilled out of my eyes, and I choked on my own saliva. My whole body shook, and the noise in my head just wouldn’t stop.
They took me to the hospital, and I was quickly hooked up to an IV. It didn’t stop the noise. My boyfriend was texting me, my family was calling and my friends were coming. It was more noise. More and more noise.
Finally, a woman came in and spoke to me in a quiet, hushed voice. She asked me to explain what happened, and I went through it step by step.
She apologized. She got angry on my behalf. “I’m positive you have depression and anxiety,” she said. She gave me a list of psychiatrists and therapists. She went on to say that we could fix this. It could get better.
The moment she said that, the noise stopped. Someone understood. Someone reached out to help me. Getting a diagnosis was relieving, because I could fix this. I could be okay.
Two months later, I was transferring from the Blue Line to the Red Line. I had just taken a bus back to Chicago from my home town of Des Moines. As I was walking through the dim tunnel, someone shouted at me.
I looked behind me and saw this man looking directly at me. Suddenly, the noise started again. But over all of it was my therapist’s voice.
“Breathe. You can’t control it. Feel the pain, and let it pass.”
So I passed the man and continued on the Red Line back to Evanston, back into Northwestern and back to this place that had caused me more mental pain than I had ever felt before.
I expected Northwestern to be safe, and suddenly, it wasn’t. And it still isn’t. Even though I feel more equipped to handle the stress thanks to anxiety and depression medication, the word still haunts me. I don’t feel safe.