But as a gay teenager in Utah, I keep one foot in the closet.
I didn’t always live out here. I was born in New York City. I grew up for a while in a series of identical tri-state suburbs. Then my father lost his job in the ’08 crash, and we lost all our money along with it.
The house went first, then the car. We lived in hotels and cabins half-abandoned in the woods. Our lives were held up by a string of good luck days. Once, the car broke down on the side of the road the night before Thanksgiving. An old couple happened by, complete strangers — they let us borrow their Mercedes. They had three. That kind of a good luck day.
In 2013 our savings ran dry. We couldn’t pay rent. We had family in Salt Lake City willing to finance our excursion and to let us stay with them for a while. My mother decided it was time to move west.
My friends told me it would be a culture shock; they worried I could get jumped, assaulted, or excluded because of my sexuality. I ignored them, chalking their fears up to too much media hype over the LGBTQ community’s fight for rights, some lazy stereotype about red states. I thought that no place in America could be that bad.
But I was wrong. I was spoiled by New York. Here’s what I’ve learned living as a gay teenager in Utah.
Homophobia is the norm (even under the guise of acceptance)
“One foot in the closet.” That’s how I’ve described my situation. I’m out to close friends and am comfortable with myself, but the vast majority of people I interact with on a daily basis think I’m straight. I doubt I’ll ever tell them otherwise, because almost everyone, no matter how accepting or open-minded they appear on the outside, is at least a little homophobic.
I made the mistake of being too frivolous with my sexuality early on in my Utah life. Back in New York, I was out to practically my whole school by sophomore year. I was an active participant in the Gay-Straight Alliance and would give anyone who asked directly, “Are you gay?” a straight yes. (I valued those with enough courage to ask me directly rather than listen to rumors.) I think people respected me for it. I was one of the first people in the relatively small, fringe-rural school to openly declare my sexuality with pride.
When I arrived in Utah, I tried to repeat the process. No rumors and respect this time: I bombed like a lukewarm blockbuster, quickly and quietly.
If I’m lucky, I can have a five-minute conversation about my sexuality with a friend, cold and uninspired. “Yeah,” one of them might say, “my aunt is lesbian, but we don’t really talk to her much.” They’ll avoid it like a cliff without a guardrail, punctuate sentences with sighs; “gay marriage is legalized now,” they may say with a straight face. Even modest, passing comments about a cute boy in English class are met as if I’m coming out all over again, as if they’re just remembering: Oh right. You’re still gay.
I don’t need to talk nonstop about how I like it in bed; I’ll always be the first to say that there’s so much more to people than their sexuality. But I don’t feel truly open. Even people who will smile and say they’re “accepting” are hesitant to ever bring up the topic again, against attending even a vaguely LGBTQ-related event, closed off when you ask them for advice related to sexuality. (Of course, you’re still expected to be their wingman for straight pickups. A gay guy is always less intimidating as a sideline bestie.)
Acceptance here is a promise not to jump you in the parking lot, but it’s nothing more than that. Be gay, fine, but don’t come to our dances — one of these once-every-six-weeks affairs where kids drop $2,000 in a single night— with a same-sex partner. Don’t expect to make much contact, either: On the dance floor the closest thing you’ll get to same-sex partying is a sweaty soon-to-be frat boy accidentally bumping into you while falling out of the mosh pit.
I’ve gone with women to these things before. The expectation is always the same: You’ll drive around, maybe you’ll try some Vicodin or Oxy, probably you’ll end up making out with your date on some person’s couch, somewhere in town, tired and sweaty from dancing too long. Or you’re a prude. Or you’re not a good Utahan, where all the conservative, religious stigma in the state can’t stop some liberal rule bending around heterosexual sex, so long as you don’t mention “the gays.” If you do, it’s stares and disapproval all around, even from the “accepting” ones.
High school support networks are abysmal
If you’re like me, unable to break the barriers of the gay clique at your local high school (assuming there even is one), you’re left with the internet. You can go to chat rooms and liberal havens like Tumblr in an attempt to feel included in some kind of community or support network, but that’s all.
I’ve never attended the GSA at my Utah school, but from secondhand accounts I know it’s pretty much a facade. The club consists mainly of straight “allies” (read: more pseudo-supporters, vain acceptors) who come to eat food and talk to friends and perhaps, once, mention an issue related to the LGBTQ community before returning to their snacks.
It’s not like they’ve had any backing from the school administration; the GSA isn’t listed on the official student handbook as a chartered student group, and it is for all intents and purposes banned from advertising events beyond word of mouth.
The GSA in New York was years ahead of this one. Sure, we were underfunded, and we clashed with the school administration on more than one occasion. But we were a presence. We planned and executed the first-ever Pride Week in our area, devoting each day of the week to a different sexual minority and celebrating diversity in sexuality. We made the local news. At our largest meetings we drew in around 30 kids; I’d be hard-pressed to find 30 kids at my current school in Utah who can even name what all the letters in LGBT Q stand for, let alone define those terms past G.
Which leaves a scary hole in the support network of Utah that everyone seems keen to ignore. Last year, a student at my Utah high school committed suicide. Two years ago, another local high school had five suicides within nine months. I don’t know how many of those, if any, were motivated by sexuality. But back in my New York school, we never had a single one.
In a way, the flamboyant ones have it easier
I’m not flamboyant. On the outside, I “look straight,” “talk straight,” “walk straight.” When I came out in New York, at the beginning of my freshman year, reactions from friends and family landed largely between shock and denial. Never a pregnant pause waiting for the second half of the sentence. Never: “I knew it all along.”
I think if I were more like what people imagine when they think of a gay teenager, coming out in a place like Utah might have been easier. The flamboyant ones know what to do after they come out. They cluster into cliques and circles, backs turned out to shield each other from bigotry. Everyone knows the crowd that hangs in the choir classroom at lunch is “the gay crowd,” and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to see it. Sure, there’s a lot of talk about them behind their backs, rumors spread about who’s with who — sometimes they’re even beacons for bullies to prey on, verbally and physically.
But at the end of the day it’s a brotherhood bound together by a common knowledge of each other’s sexual orientation and the way the world deems them second-tier. The more a society pressures them, the more they push back in any way they can. Call it equal and opposite, hair dyed cyan and pink as a warning to all those bigots who pass: This is not your crowd. We are not your friends.
I am not part of this club. I never have been, and I likely never will be. I look too much like the straight guys who have oppressed them for too long; they’re understandably wary of letting me in. Why would you trust someone who looks like a threat? This is an exclusive club, and admission requirements are fierce: a strut like Beyoncé, a rainbow flag buttoned to your backpack, and a wrist flip as you tell off an outsider.
But I’m an outsider to the mainstream too. I’m stuck. I’m not flamboyant enough for the gay clique, not fraternal enough for straight culture. But here in Utah, there’s hardly a middle ground.
Straight guys are a lot more willing to be touchy
I recently went on a field trip that involved rooming with three other guys. Two were acquaintances, one I hardly knew at all. We were paired up, assigned two to each bed, and I discovered something strange: The other guys became remarkably close, in a way that would be considered borderline sexual back in New York.
I would come back from a coffee run in the lobby to find two of them lying side by side under the blankets in bed, eyes gleaming at each other, talking in hushed voices like girls at a slumber party. Games of footsie were common, and sharing of household items —socks and deodorant — was a daily occurrence. They had no qualms about being naked in front of each other, even if I demurred. Sweat and secrets: That Hilton room became a den of testosterone and camaraderie for a good four days. I was shocked.
But in retrospect, it makes sense.
In a conservative state like Utah, we don’t talk about gays. There’s never an assumption that anyone is gay; the few who exist are the ones in the choir room, relegated to their own social circles. Otherwise it isn’t a part of ordinary life.
The idea that someone could appear masculine and also be gay is ridiculous in a society like this; more than ridiculous, it just isn’t considered. So there’s no fear of footsie. There’s no worrying about what the late-night pillow fights or stark, aloof nudity in the hotel room mean, because it will always be just two straight buddies playing around.
It’s the same sort of attitude you see in organized sports: Butt slapping in the locker room is no big deal until one guy out of 20 is gay, and then it’s weird because what if he means something by it? What if he hits on me?
In a strange way, it’s almost more sexually liberating than the climate back in New York. Men aren’t afraid of being labeled homosexual, so there’s no reason to hide a brotherly love. My first time in a Utah locker room featured multiple men openly stripping down, showing it all, and nobody batting an eye. While doing a bench press, my spotter shoved his groin in my face. “You don’t want this, do you?” he asked, prompting me to move down on the bench. It was casual, fraternal.
But this is the height of heteronormativity. Homophobic slurs are still casual, part of the cultural norm. “You don’t want this, do you?” No, of course I don’t. Because I’m straight. It doesn’t even need to be clarified.
The oases of open-mindedness are that much more special
The pressure to conform is intense for everyone in high school, but arguably no teenage minority group has received more attention in recent years than the LGBTQ community. Teenage LGBTQ suicides are marks of a time we can only hope is coming to an end, albeit slowly. Gay marriage is now legalized nationwide, but there’s more work to be done. Homophobia is an ugly illness in the midst of being treated, but it will be generations before the symptoms are gone — if they ever disappear at all.
Too many areas of the country are still caught up in past decades, openly oppressing those who don’t fall into the mainstream, those who are too loud or flamboyant, “too gay to pass.” A typical day is filled with a million subtle, mostly unintentional digs at a piece of who I am. Every passive comment between buddies about a “hot chick” or “cute babe” is a reminder that you’re different. It’s the definition of living as a minority: The world is built for the powerful, and you aren’t it.
I’ve lived here for almost 18 months. I have another year before I can leave the state for college. I’ve realized in that time that the people who accept you — truly accept you, not just on a surface level — are the people you remember most.
My best friends, interestingly, have not been met inside school; rather, they’ve been met at the oases of open-mindedness: coffee shops and universities, queer-centered events. I don’t disregard the love I garnered in New York, but it was ultimately expected. It’s a place bound to accept people of all personalities, sexualities, shapes, and sizes.
In Utah, acceptance is hard sought and, therefore, much more precious when it’s found. I know the network of friends I’ve made here will last because it’s built on a mutual drive, a fight against that which cages us. I know we are a force to be reckoned with. It’s much more than equal and opposite. We want to push back, at least in the little ways.
William Wheeler is a high school student living in Salt Lake City with his family.