Identity, Adversity, and the Weight of Conforming
“…I thought he was gay…”—five words that haunted me for the first twenty years of my life. I heard them whispered through the halls of my middle school by the “popular kids” that I wanted so badly to impress. I felt their scornful and demoralizing intentions in the concerned words of my Sunday school teachers from backroom conversations I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to overhear. I bore the unbearable weight of frequent lapses into self-loathing, daily exhaustion from a perpetually heightened sense of self-awareness, and twenty years of trying and trying and trying in painful desperation to convince myself and the fiercely heteronormative world around me that I wasn’t that heart rate-quickening, spine-stiffening, unspeakable one-syllable of a word—I wasn’t gay.
Those five words were gaudy interstate billboards reminding me that my façade wasn’t nearly as foolproof as I liked to believe day-in and day-out. They were parasites that took host in the 7th-grade bully who looked me straight in the eyes during our middle school theater production and mouthed the words “So effing gay” to the amusement of his friends. I quit theater less than a year later.
They found strength in the innocuous jabs of my teammates on the pool deck that following summer who accused my light blue cell phone of looking “too girly to be seen in the hands of a straight guy.” I begged my parents to buy me a new one the instant I got home. We weren’t a family with exceptionally deep pockets, and I knew that. But in that moment, my fear and my shame eclipsed any regard or sympathy for our socioeconomic status.
In the summer of 2014, the words became five malicious rumors circulated throughout my local swim team by my fellow head coaches, embittered by the fact that I was a 17-year-old receiving the same 4-figure weekly salary as my college educated twenty-something coworkers. Whatever their objective might’ve been, it worked. The following week, I negotiated for a pay cut and relegation to assistant coach status—anything to prevent my peers from bringing into question my sexuality in the workplace.
When I arrived at Vanderbilt, I was certain that things would be different. As a first-year student from an economically distressed school district in a small city hundreds of miles away, I came to Nashville knowing no one. But more importantly, no one knew me. Attending Vanderbilt was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent myself and bury any lingering suspicions about my homosexuality once and for all.
For the most part, my freshman year seemed one Commons omelet shy of perfect. I excelled socially, academically, and emotionally to heights that exceeded even my own lofty ambitions. From an outsider’s perspective, I was wringing every ounce of opportunity and excitement out of my Vanderbilt experience. And they were partially right. I loved it here. I still do. But I couldn’t help but feel as if my day-to-day thoughts and words and actions were guided not by my own desires but by an omnipresent pressure to fit so precisely into this foreign mold of my peers’ assumptions, conjectures, and campus-carved expectations of me—expectations to be overinvolved, conjectures regarding my perceived extraversion and natural sociability, and, of course, affirming yet admittedly unsettling assumptions that I was straight.
The pressure to conform was ever-present, sometimes even self-inflicted, and I endured it for a time. But that didn’t stop it from slowly eroding away my sense of sincerity and purpose and identity as a student and friend at Vanderbilt until eventually I cracked.
In a nightmarish semester saturated with insecurity and self-hate, I was forced to abruptly confront this tsunami of external expectations after falling in love with an individual and a budding relationship that flew in the face of my own heterosexual and salubriously utopian façade. I labored 24 hours 7 days a week to pick up the pieces of my shattered charade and restore my previous image of fabricated perfection. But before long, the paranoia became crippling. The pressure of impossible standards combined with obsessive and futile attempts to reinstate “normality” drove me to spend many nights alone atop roof-accessible buildings and parking garages, contemplating the value in my own existence. For nearly three months, I felt worthless, abandoned, and alone.
In retrospect, the feelings of doubt and dismay from that harrowing semester remain relatively vivid, but the paranoia and compulsion to uphold the supposed perceptions of so many others feel more distant. Since then, I’ve not only learned to more lovingly accept every part of my identity, but I’ve braved the storm of coming out to my parents whose reactions were even more heartbreaking and alienating than I could’ve possibly prepared for. I realized that, for so many years, I’ve compromised my own sense of self for the sake of conforming to the expectations of the world around me.
In college, particularly as a first-year student, it’s all too easy to find yourself striving toward an elusive ideal crafted by your loved ones and peers. While the opinions of others can be constructive and empowering, it’s important not to lose yourself in the scramble to appease those around you. You can only hope to find true personal contentment and friends who embrace all sectors of your identity if you authentically commit to displaying 100% of yourself 100% of the time. It’s undeniably easier said than done. Doing so necessitates overcoming frequent and foreboding apprehensions—apprehensions that still prevent me from even claiming this essay as my own.
I’ve come a long way, but feeling comfortable in my own skin is a luxury that still evades me more often than not. I hope to follow my own attempt at wisdom in reminding each and every member of this Vanderbilt family that while you might not have the power to alter your past thoughts, actions, and projections of your identity, you do have the final say, from now until forever, in determining what defines you as a validated and invaluable member of this campus, this community, and this world.