Learning to flyThe Gay Boy Next Door Thursday, February 3rd, 2011
Social Chaos: The Gay Boy Next Door
Life can sometimes feel a lot like drowning. A few weeks ago I was preparing for my U.S. Mr. Gay competition and decided to brave the faster lanes at swim practice. Keeping up with the better swimmers was difficult, and every so often I would swallow water or gasp for air. With the stress of the competition eating at my sanity, I occasionally felt like crying right there in the pool…tired of trying so hard. I thought back to my adolescent years when I would shiver by the pool, cross my arms to hide my fat chest and wonder why I couldn’t keep up or fit in. Years later and I could still feel my frustration, even as my developed shoulders burst from the water and completed the 200 yards of Butterfly the coach demanded.
I wouldn’t let myself stop fighting. Every time I slowed down I would remind myself of how much I hated high school and how determined I was to prove that even a fat, closeted loser could become something special. I thought of the recent string of LGBT suicides and used my rage to push myself harder. I had come so far, accomplished so much, and there was simply no way I could give up on myself or my fellow youth who desperately need role models, heroes and hope.
Soon enough I was flying to Philadelphia, confident that I could win the national gay title. My body was the best it had ever been, and judging by the online profiles of my competitors, I was one of the most well-rounded contestants. I had the look, an impressive activist resume, an education, communication skills and an intense passion and drive. I had answers ready for any question they could throw at me and I was ready to share my story with the judges. From a bullied underdog to Mr. Gay San Diego, I had transformed and was ready to represent and serve the LGBT community proudly.
I did not anticipate what happened next. The selected judges were an assorted bunch of gay personalities, two from Logo’s A-List New York, and made no secret of the shallow criteria they’d be using to judge the contest. I was told the competition was a search for a gay man who would break stereotypes, be a positive role model and actually work to make a difference in the world. I was suddenly feeling very misinformed.
The judges were not given any background information about any of the contestants and were instructed to select a Top 5 based solely on the swimsuit and formalwear portions of the pageant. From there, the Top 5 contestants would each be asked a single question and a winner would be chosen. A bit concerned by the inadequate decision process but still determined to impress, I shed the insecurities of my past and rocked the stage with a sexy suit, Human Rights Campaign equality stickers and cute EQCA swimwear. The judges enjoyed the gimmick and I felt confident in my body and look. If this was the embarrassingly shallow price I would pay to win, I was more than prepared to pay it.
When they called us out to announce the top 5, I stood there with a whitened smile and bold red dress shirt. One at a time, each of the five names was called. My heart beat faster as each man stepped forward. Please just say my name, I begged in my head. But mere seconds later, in front of me stood 5 other men and the crowd cheered. I forced a smile, but inside I was screaming. It wasn’t fair. I had worked so, so hard and wouldn’t get to speak. “We didn’t even place,” I could hear the Glee kids saying with me. And as though God were trying to punch me in the gut, Katy Perry’s Firework began to play. The message of finding power within oneself was like a knife twisting in my side. I felt so defeated.
My fellow underdogs and activists were dismayed, but the few friends I had there could tell I was taking it the hardest. We had upheld every stereotype we were claiming to fight and it felt obvious that the winner would do little to create change. After discussing the implications of the results with the other contestants, I could feel my own selfish hurt take over. Years of practically killing myself to look a certain way, all so that this shallow world would just take notice of someone like me, and I had lost. I finally looked exactly like they wanted and I had everything else to back it up, but it still wasn’t good enough. I didn’t even feel like a person, only some empty shell paraded around to make someone else a quick buck. The clock struck twelve and I felt my coach turn back into a pumpkin. I went back to my hotel and cried. I was a loser once more.
Upon returning to San Diego the next morning, I had no time to feel sorry for myself. My birthday party was scheduled that afternoon and I was pulling things together at the last minute. Unfortunately, my party forced me to miss the Different Strokes Swim Team Awards Banquet that same night, but I had a wonderful time with some of my best friends and was able to recover from the tough weekend in Philly. At the end of the night, I received a text message from a fellow swimmer who had attended the awards banquet: “Congratulations! You won most improved swimmer of the year!”
The message took me by complete surprise, especially after feeling like such a loser all weekend. I thought about how hard I worked in the pool and the road to the national competition. The Glee comparisons were impossible to ignore and this win was truly about the journey. I thought about life, drowning and all the obstacles we each face. We’re all underdogs in our own way. Every second of life is filled with happiness and struggle, with determination and hopelessness. We all feel alone sometimes, but we each fight to live in the hope that one day our dreams will come true. Life isn’t about winning everything, I told myself. It’s about not giving up long enough to find the one thing you can win and the one place where your voice can be heard.
Maybe U.S. Mr. Gay just wasn’t right for me. Perhaps there was no place in that competition for a nerdy boy-next-door. I certainly didn’t need a national title to be the hero I longed to be. Making a difference isn’t about being the best looking, the smartest, the nicest, and the most perfect…it’s about giving people hope and the glimmer of improvement, and that I had accomplished.
On my first day back to swim practice I looked at my lane options, smiled and jumped into the faster lane. Without the motivation of the competition, I knew the Butterfly would be brutal. But even as I grew tired swimming, I knew that I had improved and was one step closer to finding my place in this world. I stretched my shoulders and told myself to be a hero. Stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, and just like that…I was flying.
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