I got my teeth kicked out when I was five-years-old.
Two minutes into Moonlight, the critically acclaimed new film by Barry Jenkins, my heart raced as fast as little Chiron’s legs as he ran away from a group of bullies who were calling him gay. I could relate, and like Chiron, I wasn’t so lucky. I was walking to my grandmother’s house with my cousins when they got into it with a group of kids. We were outnumbered and while they were fighting I was grabbed by three boys. Two held me down while one kicked me in the mouth. I remember biting my way free and running home.
Growing up, I was a little different from the other boys in school. I knew from a young age that I didn’t have the same mannerisms and interests they had. I loved to double-dutch and do hair and play with dolls. But I also enjoyed riding bikes, playing football, and partaking in other stereotypically masculine things. At the time, however, I always felt like I had to choose. I couldn’t just be me—the kid who like to braid hair and play ball—I had to fit into a box, one that would describe what kind of boy, and man, I was. As I watched Moonlight and saw Chiron struggle to define himself, it felt like my own life was being played out on the big screen. Though affirming at times, it was also the first time I dealt with the trauma of a past riddled with the pressure to perform a certain type of masculinity in order to be accepted in society while suppressing who I actually was inside. I called it, “the gift and the curse.”
In Moonlight, as Chiron tries to figure out who he is, his mother spirals out of control from occasional cocaine user to full-blown crack addict. She often leaves him alone, and he finds an unlikely protector in a neighborhood drug dealer named Juan. With the help of his girlfriend Theresa, Juan helps Chiron navigate his conflicted feelings about his sexuality. After asking what a faggot is and how he’ll know if he’s gay or not, Juan tells the young boy, “You ain’t got to know right now, all right? Not yet.” In that moment, he gave Chiron a gift—the opportunity to define himself in the future.
When I was younger, I had my own Juan who played the role of protector and gave me the same gift. My uncle and cousins had my back. After I was attacked by some older schoolmates, my protectors took it upon themselves to handle it the best way they knew how. My uncle took my cousins back up to the school before the first bell rang, and when they found the boy who’d kicked my teeth out, they fought him. When his father tried to jump in, my uncle handled him too. The chaotic scene sent a message to the school, and my other classmates, that I was not one to be threatened or harmed again. After that, my cousins took me under their wing as their little brother, teaching me sports and how to defend myself, knowing it wasn’t going to be an easy road for a little gay boy in Plainfield, New Jersey.
This “gift,” as I saw it at the time, was the safety afforded to me that many LGBTQ children never have. I was provided with protection and guidance through assimilation into heteronormative culture while blocking my own natural feelings to being who I was. This “gift” faux-straightness helped me to survive and gain knowledge into a culture I could have never fit into otherwise. But it wouldn’t be until I was much older that I realized this “gift” was also a curse, my Achilles’ heel.
Similarly to the main character in Moonlight who assimilates into traditional ideals of masculinity, attempting to fit into heteronormative culture affected me throughout my entire life. My uncles and cousins taught me how to be tough and perform “straightness” as a means to protect myself, but it was also a curse when it came to being comfortable in my own identity as a Black gay man.
It started from a very young age when all I wanted to do was be accepted and protected; so I tried to fake it the best way I knew how. Faking it meant learning how to play football, baseball, basketball, run track and participate in any sport that could deflect from the effeminate mannerisms that were natural to me. In middle school, it meant forcing myself to have a girlfriend as a sign that whatever I was going through was just a phase, all the while knowing that the natural urges I felt were getting much stronger as I underwent puberty. In college, I joined a fraternity hoping it would silence any doubts about my manhood and help me find a way to slip into hyper-masculine culture.
My sexual maturity was affected as well. I didn’t engage in consensual sex until I was almost 21-years-old, and because I struggled to fit into traditional masculinity, my sexual exploration occurred in a way that was not healthy or safe. I made poor sexual decisions, hid my life from others, and lived a double life, keeping what the world saw much separate from what was done in the dark. As a result of my risky decisions I contracted HIV. During the midst of my confusion, I also started going to the gym and tried to pack on muscle, telling myself I was just working on my body when I was really trying to protect the little boy inside who couldn’t look out for himself.
Suffice it to say that none of this actually worked.
As I began to reflect on myself and gain an understanding of who I actually was verses who I was taught to be, I had to unlearn the lessons I amassed during the first 25 years of my life. Once I began to come to terms with my sexuality I talked to my friends about it, but they mostly laughed at me because they already knew I was gay. I then spoke to my mother and my grandmother, who also laughed because they ALWAYS knew I was gay. Eventually, I became more involved in causes that affected the LGBTQ community, and learned there were so many people like me with similar stories who were just as comfortable in their own skin as I was becoming. Through this process I learned that I was enough just as I was. I also realized that anyone who denigrates those who are “different” in the eyes of society because of their gender and/or sexuality are no better the racist, bigoted antagonists we’ve grown to rail against.
Becoming a man can be a difficult and confusing process, particularly when you don’t fit into traditional ideas of masculinity. Moonlight reaches far beyond stereotypical meditations on homosexuality and manhood to reflect a journey that many men—no matter their sexual orientation—go through as we try to reconcile who we’re taught to be verses who we are deep inside. The curse of trying, and failing, to alter myself to fit into a society against my own better judgement has now become a gift again. Instead of assimilating into limited notions of masculinity and feeling miserable, I’ve used my experience as a catalyst to rail against conformity and gain (and advocate for) a deeper understanding about the spectrum of sex and gender identity of Black men. Juan was right. Chiron didn’t have to figure out exactly who he was as a little boy—and neither does anyone else. We just have to give them the space and freedom to find out on their own.
George M. Johnson is an activist and writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has written for EBONY.com, Pride.com, Thebody.com, and The Huffington Post on topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education. He has a monthly column in A&U magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson.