When I realized I’d never jump in the sky and fly away like the mythical African slaves in that old folktale, which was also around the time I figured Michael Jackson would never come to the projects and take me away in a rocket limo, I begrudgingly accepted my sexuality.
I was still a child, a precocious one, about eight or nine years old who lived inside his overactive and always vivid imagination. I didn’t know what “gay” really meant, but I gathered from the casual and mean-spirited homophobia at home and in the working-class neighborhoods we shuffled in and out of that being “that way” or a “faggot” was a sin and shame. Still, I didn’t see myself as “that way” or a “faggot,” which brought to mind the flamboyant queens who sashayed around the park nearby, men who dressed in women’s jeans and wore long Jheri curls. But folks shot those same slurs at me like bullets, and I spent most my childhood and adolescence dodging those whose finger was on that figurative trigger.
I thought my crushes on boys were natural, innocuous, and sensual, all captured in crayon-colored daydreams. All I wanted to do was kiss them, feel their skin, get close enough to smell their sweat, maybe taste it. But I was no fool: Outward displays of affection toward any other boy would have gotten my ass dusted. It was enough that my sisters and other boys around the way teased me for being so insular, artsy, for having “too much sugar in my tank.” Even still, I knew there was no sense in praying the gay away. That made about as much sense as wishing for and fully expecting my eyes to magically change from brown to blue, which drove Pecola Breedlove crazy in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which I read in the eighth grade. Her blues was not like mine, but I could relate to wanting to be something else, anything that would garner the affirmation and affection I sought from those who looked like me. But that affection and affirmation never came from my family. So my journey to embracing my sexuality was a lonely one. There was never an official exit from the proverbial closet. What the hell did it matter? Everyone knew anyway. And besides, my relatives were too deep in their own dysfunction and misery to notice my internal struggle, which really wasn’t a “struggle” now that I think of it. It was more of a reckoning.
I courageously befriended one crush in junior high, a boy named Andre with a Colgate smile. I detail the very brief but sweet infatuation in my book, Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl. But my high school and college years were mostly spent with laser-like focus on a path out of Arkansas, far away from the indifference of relatives and the supreme boredom of a sleepy Southern city. My scholastic gifts earned me a full academic scholarship to college, which meant an exit from the oppressive life at home and after that, a stimulating life in a real metropolis where I could be anonymous, and like the “children of the night” the Stylistics sang about, I could find someone “who is just like me, looking for some company.”
I’d never had any gay friends and had one gay sexual experience during my senior year of college, with a cousin of a friend whose eyes were the color of sand and whose hot mouth left deep purple marks on the sides of my neck. But nothing came of it. He blamed his actions on the alcohol. Infuriated and embarrassed, I wanted to vanish.
So there I was in Philadelphia just a month after I’d earned my degree, working as a staff critic intern at the Philadelphia Inquirer. My lovely apartment—bay windows and hardwood floors—was in the heart of Center City, the “gayborhood,” with several gay bars and clubs just two streets over. I soon befriended Curtis, an impish guy with artsy ways who worked at the post office by day and lived in the clubs at night. Although I thought Curtis was adorable, it was a completely platonic relationship. With him as a guide, I met other guys our age. Most had been abused; several had been thrown out the house while still teenagers. Others had been raped, contracting HIV in the process. But in the clubs with house beats ricocheting in the dark, they thrived—shirtless black and brown bodies gleaming under twirling red and blue lights. They were free. But I was a wallflower observing a scene that felt sad and beautiful all at once. Never a club queen, it just wasn’t my scene, but I still felt privileged to be there, even if I didn’t really belong. At that time I needed to see young black gay men and women busting loose, embodying outrageous personas in a safe place.
That was twenty years ago, and much has changed in the way of gay liberation, as it were. It’s more mainstreamed now. A friend jokes that “being gay is the new black.” Teenagers take their same-gender dates to prom these days and no one even blinks. “Faggot” is so politically incorrect that the utterance of the word may get one’s ass dusted. That’s a good thing. However, far too many still struggle and fear for their lives. There’s always work to do.
As I move into middle-age, I don’t bother with labels or defining myself for others. My openness about my sexuality may be seen as a political act, but I’ve never seen it that way. It’s simply part of who I am, like my fingers and toes. Even as I live in perpetual singlehood these days, dealing with changes and loneliness that aging brings, which often leaves me anxious and breathless, I know I’d take nothing for my journey now. Hell, I’m still on it, surrendering to the air, flying anyway.
About the Author
Rashod Ollison was an award-winning pop music critic and culture journalist. He was a staff critic and feature writer for the Dallas Morning News,Philadelphia Inquirer, Journal News (Westchester, New York), Baltimore Sun, and Virginian-Pilot. He also wrote a music column for Jet magazine. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Ollison lived in Virginia Beach.