The photo hangs in a museum in Minneapolis. “Robert Mapplethorpe’s Two Men Dancing, 1984,” the placard reads. The men wear plastic crowns and waltz together. One rests his head on the shoulder of the other, eyes gently closed. The other stands upright, a pillar of body, and stares into the middle distance, shirtless, unafraid.
My partner and I have walked down many streets together, but some days I do not hold his hand. I try to worm away, to unlace my fingers surreptitiously, as though he will not notice the denial of such an intimate act. Other days he does not hold mine. We have learned well that there is no such thing as a secure city.
When I let his hand fall limp at his side, I imagine myself disappearing into the margins of the
sidewalk. Gone. When he lets my hand fall, he says it’s because his palms sweat.
We all have excuses for letting go. We rarely admit that it’s because we’re afraid.
I’m afraid, I admit it, but I would prefer to wear a crown.
My roommate wears filigree chokers, witches’ hats with chrome belt buckles, high heeled boots. He’s been known to confront men on train platforms when they disparage him for his appearance. He’s playing Angel in a Chicago remount of RENT and has rarely looked more sure of himself with a black bob and a St. Nick jacket with white trim. One night, after the show, a spectator asks him how he connects to the character, now that AIDS is not as endemic as before. “Queer life is still one of saying names,” he might have said, though I believe he phrased it differently.
Online, I watch police excavating bodies from a gash in a nightclub wall like an interment run backwards. My first thoughts: desperation has been punched into those cinder blocks. A solemn voiceover explains what has happened, a tragedy that has swiftly moved from the periphery of my consciousness to its devastated center. A buckled sense of certainty about the world fills me. Or, am I more shocked to have confirmed what I already know?
“You know you’re really lucky to be gay,” my co-worker informs me. “Look at how good you guys have it now.”
In the papers, in the days that follow, they list the names of the fallen. Gradually, they fill in those names with the color of biography–a neon-pink life for Christopher, conifer-green for Amanda. At a loss for words we type their names into chat boxes, and we speak their names at vigils. We root ourselves to the only thing that’s certain–they lived and no longer do. This is an old tradition–
“David. Howard. Graham. Terry. Paul…” Derek Jarman whispered.
“Steve’s holding Jerry, though he’s already gone / Marie holding John, gone…” Mark Doty wrote.
–this is our ritual of naming.
Of course, it isn’t just the fear that our bodies will be broken. It isn’t always the men on the street shouting faggot and throwing beer bottles. There are more prosaic forms of violence. That they’ll laugh at us (like the teenagers pointing as they speed away on a Chicago train) is one; that they’ll whisper about us (like a family living room gone quiet) is another.
“I don’t have a problem with two men kissing,” my father said, once. “It’s just that I’m not used to it. It’s not something I’d want to see on the corner of our street.”
I argue some nights with bridal showers wearing penis shaped hats and drinking cheap whiskey at our bars, or with large men who blanket their girlfriends with possessive dance moves and insecurities. They’ve decided to make this gay club their novelty for the night. They marvel at our strange customs. They take pictures of how we dance. They observe without offering: like people at the hard center of their own authority to belong anywhere. “This is not a zoo,” my roommate shouts one evening, as the purple negative of a flashbulb clears to reveal a giggling young woman.
“He saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid, and he got very angry,” the father of the shooter said, after it all. Not all looking is innocent.
“Why do you flinch when I touch you?” My partner asks me. We’re standing on a busy street
corner. I am aware of the woman in the Sunday dress watching us in sideways glances, and I imagine a world of spectators heating up our backs. “Why do you always keep your eyes open
when we kiss?”
My mother explains it like this: “I worry about you, but Steve says if you stick to the right neighborhoods, if you use your head, you’ll be safe.” Steve is her gay friend, her acolyte to all things queer. His advice is pragmatic, and I know she repeats it to comfort herself as much as me. However, I do not find solace in keeping to the correct neighborhoods, and I do not trust in the promise of safety when they have made our temples into tombs.
Instead, I find rage. Rage that we should be sequestered to our enclaves for our own protection. Rage that I am subject to that fear as much as anyone. There are days when I wonder how many faces I’ve seen over the shoulders of men I’ve kissed. Thousands, maybe. Thousands of kisses, thousands of–blank, bemused, startled, angry, indignant–stares framed between a shoulder and a sideburn. All I ever wanted was to share a kiss.
Your actions are the only ones you have control over the poster in my office reminds me, daily.
How defenseless I feel, then, to know I can’t help myself from catching their eyes, even briefly,
before I remember to shut my own.
There’s a story about a German officer who visits Picasso in his studio while World War II burns across Europe. Shocked by the violence and chaos of Guernica he asks, “did you do this?” to which the artist replies, “no you did.”
In the aftermath, facts trickle in. Careful dispatches hang in the air. For a moment, there is comfort in the promise of change, but it’s gone like flash paper. We witch-hunt for our italicized you, and labels I would rather sidestep for the sake of my prose begin to appear. You know the ones (radical Islam, self-hating-gay, sociopath, homophobe). They’re offered at the feet of an agenda. And none of the one-thousand circulating postulates can mend a shattered vision, can raise the dead from their graves.
In the long anti-climax, I play a game styled like an old arcade shooter, with thick pixels and bold outlines. The object is to hit two buttons labeled think and pray in rapid succession: think, pray, think, pray, think, pray. Eventually, an option appears to ban assault weapons.
“Unamerican” the screen blares if you click the button, and you return to thinking and praying. I play twice before realizing that you save zero lives every time.
The man and I don’t share a common language, but we dance together all night, we understand each other. He is new to the country; he has driven in from the suburbs. When the lights go up, I notice that the picture on the back panel of his cell phone is of two men waltzing together. “That’s my favorite photograph,” I explain, smiling. He nods and points to the screen, seems to understand. “They wear crowns likes kings,” he says.
I dream sometimes of driving to that photograph, through hundreds of miles of Midwestern highway and clear winter light, just to remind myself it’s there. In the dream, I never make it, but I wake up to the sensation of moving forward.
So chalk in the outlines of our bodies, and make us gambits in your games. Be sure to take a picture to prove you’ve been there–a cheap lesson in cultural tourism, just a block away at your local gay bar, $5 whiskey special every Thursday. Then remind us how good we have it these days. We will keep moving forward, trembling.
Jonathan Gleason is a queer writer wondering how long he can call himself a recent Northwestern University graduate. He loves research driven nonfiction as well as formally innovative and uncategorizable work of all genres. His essays have been first runner-up for the Helen G. Scott award for best creative essay. You could tweet at his poorly maintained twitter @j_a_gleason, but urgent requests are best sent via message in bottle.
Gregg Williard’s fiction, essays, poetry and visual art can be found in Diagram, Requited, The Collagist, Your Impossible Voice, and Sein und Werden. He produces a storytelling audio art radio show, “Fiction Jones” on WORT fm (wortfm.org).