Written by Thomas Johanesson
That’s the night I saw her. Him. It? I don’t know what’s polite now. But... that’s a man in a lady’s clothes? I begin to ponder about the time I snatched my sister’s little black dress with straps and put it on in front of the floor-length mirror in the dining room. Wearing a broken taboo gave me life.
Anyway, as I recall it, my mother was watching some VH1 “Behind the Stars” sort of documentaries. I remember the image of a thin-faced woman with dark tan skin adorned with the glitz and the glamour of blended and contoured cheeks. Her fierce and wild eyes narrowed as her red, plastic lips pulled back from her teeth—his teeth?—as she released a cackle. She was a witch.
The image flickers in my head now and replaces what I currently know in 2017. The memory of my parents’ house in 1995 comes clear into focus, as their current Pergo floor, flower couched, purple walled living room fades back into the light green walled, dark green couched, dark pink rug of a room that it was. The sun seems to set as we sit around the great boob tube. The room is dark except for this face of the blond-haired wicked witch’s face that spreads wide across the tubes of the squat, fat black TV. I feel myself shrink.
There’s a certain importance to being interviewed on TV, or at least that’s what I thought that late night in front of a flickering screen. The green couches in my living room felt gigantic to my four year old self. I remember crawling all over, my hands gripping to the vinyl as a monkey would grip the bark of a tree. I have this chance to be up late and all I wanna do are the things I could do during the daytime, but everybody knows things are more fun at night when it’s dark. I suppose that’s why we have Late Night Talk Shows.
RuPaul is pretty. RuPaul is a drag queen. Does that mean he cut his wee wee off? Does he like boys? Does he like girls? What does this mean? It means he’s like me, and I know it. I just don’t know it yet. I’ve always known I was gay, or something queer. That became particularly... Well... Clearly queerly dearly.
The little black dress was slung over the chair. I walk past it a few times, not knowing it was about to be important. I was little and I was in the house alone. My parents were working in the garden outside. I had nothing better to do and I had always wondered...
I feel the pink carpet under toe as I turn to the kitchen, making my third lap around the house when I see it. I see it. The black dress, maybe? Is it a dress? If it is... is it any different than wearing dad’s big t-shirts? It has to be if only girls can wear it. Is there a reason for that? Who cares?! I step on tiptoe to the dress. With each step, I slip an item of clothing off. A sock. Another sock. A shirt. Unbuttoning my pants. Then it’s on me.
The material was soft... Is it satin?
I turn to the mirror and see a four year old boy in a dress—pudding bowl haircut and hazel eyes just barely visible beneath my fringe. My face is so much more slight than it is now and not a spec of hair in sight. My nose is a bit smaller too, but I wouldn’t know that now. My skinny shoulders covered in a tiny black strap. The length of the dress goes past my knees. I twist and turn, blushing and wearing the broken taboo in private secrecy and out in the open all at once. I revel, take it off. I put it back on. I twist. I take it off. My heart is pounding. I keep shooting looks at the front door.
I stop and look at myself. ‘I’d be a pretty girl,’ I think to myself, ‘No wonder people think me and mommy are mother and daughter sometimes.’
I hear the scuffing of shoes on concrete and vanish out of the dress and reappear in my clothes in a blink as the storm door scrapes the door frame. I hear my parents chatting as I pace my way upstairs. I feel nervous. I’m just trying something. I don’t wanna get caught. And then there’s this woman on TV that isn’t even a damn woman, but giiiiiirl, if she ain’t lookin’ fierce then I don’t know what fierce is, girl. Yaaaas. My four year old self is still panicking about the dress, as if waiting for Ru’s eyes to turn to the camera and scream, “Karen he was wearing a dress!” and point to me from TVland, but that doesn’t happen. No one knows. I know. You know. Y’know?
“When Ru was born, I knew he wasn’t gonna be a normal little boy,” RuPaul’s mother says in the interview in a voice over. As someone who has researched some adolescent psychology, and as someone who suffered through gay adolescent psychology, I can say for shit sure that this is usually the most common statement any parent of any queer child says at some point, whether to themselves, to a camera, to their partner, or to helpful psychologists looking to destigmatize homosexuality and transgenderism as embattled identities. I’ve read it as far back as The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs when I was 15, where I smuggled it out of a Barnes & Noble in a purchase of comic books.
I read the sentiment again when I did reports on research into issues in adolescent psychology when I was 21. I’m still waiting for my mother to say that to me. She may never do that because she may have already done so without saying the words.
One day when I was 3 I was at my now sister-in-law’s house. Wendy and Tina’s house. My sister was watching me at 21, and pregnant with my oldest nephew.
She was just living her life from what I can understand. I was living mine. Wendy and Tina watched me walk around the concrete backyard. I imagine the scene as such.
A little me walking around, a little me in my overalls. The small patch of concrete served as the backyard. A small patio set is covered in case it rains. The three adults are standing together, supervising me from 5 feet away.
“You know, Michelle, your brother is different,” Wendy likely said, broaching the silence. Wendy is and was a tall, tan Puerto Rican woman. Her brother and she share the same nose, ever so slightly hooked. Her almond eyes squint slightly behind round glasses. Big lips pursed to one side in concern. Hair big, wavy, and black. Arms crossed over her chest, slightly uncomfortable to bring this up.
“How so?” Michelle turns, her natural blond hair still blond and not red like it is today. She has the same face as my mother—slightly round with gentle eyes behind similarly round glasses. Her hair is in a pony tail. She’s not going all out because of pregnancy. She holds her hands on her belly.
“Well, he’s gonna have some different stuff to deal with than the rest...” Tina is the shortest one of the three. Her nose is narrower and her chin more pointed. She’s a well-meaning lesbian.
“How. So.” My sister repeats with less curiosity and more solidity in curiosity. A ‘get to the point’ tone punctuating her statement.
“He’s you know... different. I think he’s gonna be a little... different. You know.” Wendy is tall but not straight forward. While she may look pretty tough, she’s gentle.
“He’s gonna be gay.” Tina was not so much so.
The scene comes to a close there as I imagine my sister becoming increasingly defensive and uncomfortable.
I came to view Wendy and Tina as unspokenly untrustworthy through childhood. As an adult, I stitched the pieces together from oral narratives given to me by my mom, my dad, Tina and Wendy, and my sister. I’ve always wanted to get down to the truth. The truth here is in the schema of things.
In cognitive psychology, we humans have schema in our immaterial minds. I like to imagine these as snowglobes. As we grow from childhood, we may be taught that an animal with four legs, fur, and a tail is called a dog. However, when we call another animal with four legs, fur, and a tail a dog, and someone responds, “No, sweetie. That’s a cat. CUh-AH-T” the schema (or mental snowglobe) splits into two separate snowglobes. We learn to discriminate between two different types of animals with four legs, fur, and a tail because “Dogs go woof-woof and cats go meow!” So what happens when two schema crash into each other? Just what you’d think—they shatter.
According to research that I have to pull from the depths of my Google Drive, parents born in the so-called “baby boomer” generation have had years of propaganda telling them “GAYS ARE PEDOPHILES! SEX PERVERTS! DERANGED MANIACS! AMORAL SOCIOPATHS WHO CARE ABOUT NOTHING FOR SOCIETY!” I can’t say that I identify with any of that, though, simply because I don’t. However, it explains why boys would come up to me in 5th grade and ask if I raped little boys. Even to strangers, my gayness was something that could be seen from space— much like the Great Wall of China or the Staten Island dump in the late 1990s.
But the violent collision of snowglobe schemas—of an innocent child you have created from your own flesh and blood and this rank perversion that is the propagated vision of homosexuality—leads to a lot of tears, shock, and sometimes real damage. I think about this now, as an openly gay teacher. Sometimes, I’m my students’ first queer person. Sometimes, I cause these collisions which leads to some shocked gasps and some “What?!”s from the back of the room, as I calmly smile and clarify that “Yup, I’m gay.” This is always horrifying. It will never be easy; it will only feel less difficult.
I think of the little boy in the dress that I was when I saw RuPaul on TV later that night with my mom. I look out into the faces of my students and see little boys in dresses, little girls in the bodies of little boys, butch lesbians, and others that I don’t even know of. Sometimes I see myself through their eyes and I stop and say, “Damn, that’s me.” Because, I might be the first gay person that they know other than themselves.
During one of my classes, two of my little gaybies were talking. They’re not terribly little, since they’re both sixteen, but they’re my godson’s age, so I can’t separate the schema there.
Eli and Shawn, (both black, gay boys) were talking about some kids in school. I wanted them to be on task, so I walked over. Proximity can be everything in teaching.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothin’, we’re just talking,” Eli responded. He was dark skinned, with a squishy round face and short cropped hair. He regularly tells me he loves me for being me.
“I know. But not about the work.”
“We’re almost done,” Shawn said. He was a lighter skinned black boy with a sharper jaw and nose than Eli. His hair was done in twists with a yellow bandana on his forehead. He thinks I’m not cool enough, most of the time.
As I walk away I overhear, “Well yeah, everybody’s gay now.”
“Well yeah, when you have a gay-ass teacher, everybody gon’ be gay.”
“Boys!” I snapped. I had to say something to stop myself from bursting out laughing in the middle of teaching. This is why I elected to reform a Gay- Straight Alliance in the high school. No one shows up, but everyone knows my name now and everyone knows we have the club. After I took it over from Ms. Danielle, more students come to talk to me.
It’s March and it’s cold. I’m walking from the car to the school when I hear Kai calling me, “Good morning, Mr. J!” This is a first in our student-teacher relationship. I’ve always seen Kai reading books on spirituality and faith. His skinny, bespectacled face was usually buried in a book. He wore du- rags and Timberlands. He was quiet, but he looked tough.
“Good morning.” I didn’t expect our relationship to change so suddenly.
“So, I’ve been seeing this guy for a few weeks now and my grandparents don’t like gay people and I don’t know if I’m gay, but I really like him, and I don’t know what to do. Do I tell them?”
I felt my heart stumble as I kept walking with my eyes forward focused on the school and the path in front of me. I had known this time would come. I had known I would meet a down low or 'DL' student, but I didn’t anticipate it at 7:45 in the morning before I had even tasted the coffee I made at home. Then again, this is teaching, so what did I really expect other than this?
“Wow, that’s a lot of information to put out there first thing in the morning.” Honesty, while not always perfectly appropriate, was the only thing I could muster at that moment. “
I need a moment to digest all of this information because you’re in a really tricky spot as a high schooler.” He nodded in agreement as we continued walking forward, side-by-side, in quiet reflection.
What do I say? What do I say? What do I wanna say? I wanna say, “Just come out. Fuck everyone. Live your life,” but it’s not that simple. Sometimes, it’s more complex to be a little black boy in a dress than it is a little white boy in a dress, and this felt like one of those times. I knew he was Carribean. I knew he was living with his grandparents. Both of these things indicated that they had worse schema regarding gay people because of the high religiosity in the households of people of color. So what did I say?
We entered the school building and I pulled him to the side of the hallway. “I’m not going to say what you wanna hear. You have to play it safe with your grandparents. Since you’re not financially independent, coming out can be much harder and much more complicated because you depend on them." This sucks. “In a perfect world, you could come out safely and no one would look at you differently. Fortunately, things are better than when I came out in middle school, like 14 years ago. We have marriage equality, so people are more likely to be accepting, but you have to judge for yourself. "Ask yourself how your grandparents will most likely react. Does this help at all?”He stood there looking at me blankly. DL guys are hard to read, but he seemed to feel better. “It’s a lot to think about, but I’m glad I talked to you. I’ll see you in first period.”
I stood there for a moment before I ran to the main office to sign in. I walked up to my classroom and immediately started to do some Googling. When Kai came in, I handed him a small note that I had folded in half. He opened it to reveal a list with phone numbers and addresses.
“I know you’re interested in spirituality and these are some churches in the area where you can go to worship with gay-accepting folks,” and then I added, “Just in case you’re having any crisis of faith or whatnot.” He nodded and put the list in his wallet.
So what of the little boy in the dress? Well, he’s still here. He’s worn dresses as a big boy though. Halloween is usually a little bit of a drag for me.