A few weeks ago I was hosting my sister and her friends at my apartment. Cram five queens into a three-by-three-foot box, and it’s pretty hectic. But whatever, it was fun and they bought me Patron (the toilet Patron from “ONE-TWO-THREE”!) as a thank-you present. On Saturday, when they were heading out to da club and I was heading to a house party, one of my sister’s friends brought over a friend from the area.
He walked in and my high-school-heart beat a little bit faster. He was just like every frat boy-wannabe I went to high school with (an all-boys Catholic prep school)—non-psycho American Psycho hot face, slicked back long hair, Oxford shirt buttoned tightly over lacrosse muscles, canoe-like leather shoes and blue jeans. Yung Wall Street.
And when I introduced myself to him, it wasn’t me. It was a strong, firm handshake and a voice that was like mine, but several octaves lower and controlled. “Hey, I’m Danny,” he/me said.
It’s a voice I pulled out a lot that weekend as I met my sister and her friends’ straight guy friends. That afternoon, I was downtown and I got out of my car. “What’s on your sweatshirt?” said-shouted a straight guy on line outside the bar I was going to. I looked down. I had pulled on a cross country hoodie from my sophomore year of high school, underneath an olive-green bomber jacket.
I shifted my jacket and showed him. “Fuckboy Prep,” he said (name has been changed, because duh). “Yeah, do you know it?” I asked, my voice hitched in the bottom of my throat, my vowels pitching backward into my esophagus.
It’s difficult to describe the “straight” voice, but it’s like that: instead of projecting forward, the words make a boomerang: out from the bottom of my throat, below my Adam’s apple, jut forward and then careen back into my collarbone.
“No, but I went to Yung Money Prep in Maine,” he said. We nodded at each other. End of conversation.
It’s a voice that I unearthed from the deepest recesses of my early tweenhood. Monotone, soft, deep. A voice I had discarded when I came out at fifteen and, shaky in my gayness, hurtled towards the opposite end of the scale and went full “Agaytha Christie.” What a gay joke. Neither were my actual voice, which is decidedly average and can veer equally into deep monotone and higher-pitched modulation.
It’s something I do when I’m meeting straight guys for the first time. I drag my voice back into low-pitched “sups” and “yo.”
I do it for a few reasons: I want to be taken seriously by another man, and I want to survive.
“Survive” sounds so extra, but let me remind you—I went to an all-boys Catholic high school where I was already harassed enough. Lowering my voice into a monotone was at least one attempt on my end to make myself seem like less of a target.
I have one vivid memory of sitting at a lunch table at fourteen. I was saying something when across the table, a mean hot redhead said to me, in brusque masculine tones,
“Talk like a boy.”
This was before I came out, so I was vibrating with anxiety about being “found out.” I couldn’t respond to him, so I picked up my tray, shakily threw out my trash and hid in the library. In the moment, I was doused in ice-water dread. Later, I would feel a coiled mixture of revulsion and attraction to him. Revulsion that he could embarrass me with four words, and attraction to him and his masculinity.
Because that’s what it comes down. We as queer boys are taught to hate our femininity and strive towards masculine attributes. It might be why gay guys work out so hard at the gym, sculpting Adonis bodies and artfully manicured scruff. Why we put “masc for masc” on our Grindr profiles. We eschew femmes and shame bottoms because we never, ever want to be put in that vulnerable position again.
So instead of living our truth, we shut it off and hate it. We fight against it. We slit the throat of our femininity and let it drop to the floor, a sick survivalist instinct to protect ourselves in a masculine, heteronormative world.
But in that “passing” is a hidden desire uncomfortable to admit: that part of passing for straight is not just out of a survivalist instinct, but undeniable envy.
I would imagine that queer people have thought about it; some of us have the ability to pass as straight in a heteronormative society. To not appear different or othered. It’s a dangerous thing because it’s a temptation to step outside of your marginalized group.
In a day-to-day scenario, it’s easier being straight than it is gay. When I’m walking late at night, with a female friend and we come across a group of straight guys, I put my arm around her, or I move closer. We both tacitly understand that those guys won’t respect a woman not wanting to talk to them, but they will respect a boyfriend because there is the notion of women as property.
And as much as it is a protection against catcalling for her, it provides me with a dangerous taste of heteronormativity. It provides me a glimpse of the luxury, respect and authority that being a straight white male awards you. The ability to express physical affection without wondering if it could get you gay-bashed. The respect given to you by straight men who don’t see you as Othered or predatory or sissy.
In a lot of ways, when I lower my voice, I’m still that skinny little kid who wants to impress straight boys. Look how manly I can be! Hear how low my voice can go!
It’s a muscle-memory reaction, a hit of fight-or-flight adrenaline, and it’s something that complicates me even now. It complicates my relationship to my sexuality because for so long, I have been taught to hate it. And when that didn’t do anything, I moved on to hating myself. And others. And everyone.
It’s easy to forget, six years on, that I have been irreparably damaged by the strain, stress and assault of living in the closet for fifteen years. And it’s easy to forget that that strain and stress does not disappear when you come out. That the reason I dress more plainly and simply now is a way to avoid being labeled as flamboyant. That I keep my hair messy to not seem prissy. That the reason I like mean guys is because in the hidden depths of me, meanness is associated with masculinity, and thus, idolization.
There is damage in having been Othered. There is damage in hating a part of you because society has deemed that part to be malignant.
But there is power in reclaiming that damage. I started wearing nail polish recently. And even that small bit of femininity has eased me a little. Because I am a feminine person in some ways. And in just as many ways, I am also masculine. Everyone is masculine and feminine; labeling or coding one as negative only serves to incur further damage.
My voice rings up high when I’m excited. I talk fast. I use my hands a lot. I’m expressive. These are just descriptors. They’re not bad or good, they just exist. My voice is my voice.