In one of my earliest memories, my socks are slick on the floor of my parents’ bathroom. Intentionally leaving the lights off, I take a plastic bin off the back of the toilet and gently place it on the floor. Between my pauses to hear if anyone’s coming, my fingers home in on a bottle of pale purple nail polish. I tuck it in my pocket and slip away into the hall to my bedroom.
About a decade and a half later, when I come out to my middle sister, she brings up a similar memory. Without missing a beat, she says, “Danny, I’ve waited for this moment since you were 3 and I had to scrub mauve nail polish off you before Mom and Dad saw.” She adds how jealous she was that, at 3 years old, I could paint a cleaner nail than 8-year-old her.
Several years later, my parents are out for the night — which, even after 22 years, remains a rarity. I’m staying up late with my cousin and two sisters, baking “dessert pizza” in the oven. I sit on the kitchen counter and try to interject while they gossip about early 2000s celebrities and boy classmates and not-present relatives. It’s moments like this — surrounded by sisters, cousins, aunts, Grandmom — that always formed the pockets of my childhood in which I felt like I most belonged. The kind of sisterhood cast by sitting around a room, eating junk and talking shit. An early conditioning for the queer Olympic sport of kiki-ing.
Without delving into too much detail, I had a tough time starting from about third grade until my coming out senior year of high school. In my sparse childhood memories, I remember quietly watching “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” with my mom and sisters, trying to figure out why it made me feel so… contorted. I remember loving “Golden Girls” marathons and twirling around the house singing “Cell Block Tango.” I simultaneously wanted to be Steve Irwin and Velma Kelly.
I also remember being 5 and bleary-eyed because other parents wouldn’t let me have sleepovers with my friends (who, with one exception, were all girls). Other kids in school called me a faggot. My parents tried gently and unsuccessfully to guide me toward an appreciation for yard work, power tools and male friends.
Eventually, I stopped my singing and twirling and attempts to reference Blanche Devereaux to other 11-year-olds. By middle school, my introversion kicked in, and I retreated into the archetype of “weird, sciencey smart kid.” Because that was better than not getting to be Steve Irwin or Velma Kelly.
It’s September 2012, and I’ve recently come out to everyone in my life. I decide to drive downtown to cover Greensboro Pride for my high school paper. I regret that idea the second I step on the quad and see my first otter in a neon jockstrap. I’m suddenly very glad I forced a friend to come with me.
After wandering through a maze of booths with T-shirts and pride flags, we find an open patch of grass so I can settle down to get out my recorder and notepad. Forty feet to our right, two queens are turning it out to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”
There’s a sea of rainbows, bears in jean shorts, twinks in nothing, lesbians with strollers. A deep pang of anxiety resonates through my body. I pause for a moment before leaning in and whispering to my friend, “I don’t belong here. I want to leave.”
I didn’t know what that worry was at the time, but it’s a feeling I’ve come to be intimately familiar with as I've aged. Deep, transitive fear (don’t they know how much attention they’re attracting?) meets profound jealousy. An unshakable feeling that I’m not queer enough.
Summer of 2016, I took an internship in a city I didn’t know anything about. From the instant I dropped my last bag in my fourth-floor apartment in Richmond, the isolation was overwhelming. The only people I knew were my co-workers, most of whom were years older than me. I worked copyediting hours, which meant my personal time was basically mornings, Sundays and Mondays. And as far as I could tell, I was the only queer person in five floors of office space.
Throughout the summer, I spent most of my free time driving up to see friends in Washington, D.C. When I wasn’t traveling, you could find me sitting in my bed, drinking wine, eating pizza or Chipotle and watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” I fell in love with it.
The closest I got to making a friend in Richmond was a barista with a buzzcut and polka-dot button-down who — out of the blue one day — asked if I wanted to go with them to a queer vigil for the victims of the Pulse shooting. I had to say no because of work, but after that I started going to that cafe every afternoon.
At some point during the two months I spent binge-watching seasons 4 through 7 of "Drag Race" and speaking to no one but people who made me coffee, I became a whole hell of a lot queerer. There’s something to say for exploring your identity when you’re anonymous in a strange city.
We have another hour to waste before pint night at a local movie theater. My friends and I are sprawled out in the back of Nordstrom Rack, talking loudly about drag names and clogging around in ugly discount heels.
When my friend exclaims in pain about squeezing into a pair two sizes too small, a woman from the next aisle over chimes in, “Now y’all know how it feels.”
We all laugh, but part of me feels that pang of anxiety creep in. I suddenly remember there are other people here — people to whom boys who wear heels are a “y’all,” not a “we.” I realize it’s irrational, but I’m too anxious to try on anything else. After a few more minutes, we leave.
It’s hard to reconcile that feeling. I’ve been openly gay for almost five years, identifying as queer for two and so obnoxious about it that I write columns dedicated to drag queens for a community newspaper. If I can do all of that without a second thought, why do I still give in to that anxiety?
Why do I still scrub nail polish off before I go home or into meetings, and why do I consider using a non-binary pronoun to be the most intimidating idea possible? When I try on heels, how is it so fun and empowering while also making me feel so profoundly undesirable?
When I said earlier there were two feelings — a fear of reprisal and jealousy of the queers who aren’t afraid — I lied. There’s another feeling mixed in those pangs in my stomach. Deep at the root of feeling “not queer enough” is a sense of guilt. A nagging that I should be more radical, more femme, more unapologetic, more of a groundbreaker.
Because if queer people could survive centuries of oppression and violence; if gay men and women before me battled AIDS while their government turned a willfully blind eye; if trans and genderqueer people of color can persist in today’s world — what excuse do I have to be afraid?
I still don’t know. What I do know is that along with all those anxious feelings, my queerness brings me immense joy. To me, being queer is freedom of choice in gender expression; it’s a sense of community; it’s a challenge to myself not to remain stagnant and complacent.