The first time someone called me a faggot, I was nine or ten years old. I was standing on the grass near a chain link fence by a baseball diamond. I don’t remember why I was there, the park near my childhood home in Levittown, on Long Island. Maybe my brother was nearby, or my best friend, Suzanne, or my parents. Strangely, I remember the sky, which was blue smeared with grey. Windy, not yet Fall, but close. A boy I didn’t know asked me why when I spoke, I sounded like a girl. The boy next to him said: “Because he’s a faggot.” I went home for dinner and didn’t ask anyone what the word meant. I don’t remember if I already knew, but probably did; I remember the spike of it. The trend of me not telling my family what my days were really like would continue through middle and high school.
I like my life. But the spike is there, as if someone drove a nail through a thick board, hard enough to make sure it couldn’t be pulled out.
I got the idea somewhere I should write about the homophobic abuse, or bullying, whatever you want to call it, that I experienced from the age of ten until I was about eighteen. After college, I decided I was going to ignore an instructor’s advice to write short stories and learn how to revise and submit, and write a novel instead, which I planned to publish at twenty-five, thirty at the latest. I wrote the scenes, about the day at the baseball field, about moments from high school that had lashed themselves to me, but they felt diminished. This was what happened to me, and it hurt, so why did it feel like nothing when written down?
It’s difficult to transform real-life pain into fiction. I’m not here to teach anyone how to do that. I tried for a long time to write about what I experienced. I never succeeded because the subtleties are hard to get across. My novel isn’t about me. What happens to the character didn’t happen to me. I knew I’d fail to get across my own experiences, so I invented. I made a boy, someone I could love, and I do love him, and I tried to be honest about what I think could have happened to him, someone a bit like me, growing up queer. Maybe this character and my book exist because during the writing of it, they allowed me to process some of what happened to me through the filter of this boy I made up. Writing my novel wasn’t therapy, but it forced me to look at what I had decided to look away from.
I knew a boy in high school named John. He lives in my brain, unchanged. He’s been there for a very long time and he’s not leaving. I’m over it, I’m over it, I’m over it. But he sticks around. I don’t think about him every day, but I shouldn’t have to think about him at all. He was one of many, but he made himself memorable above the others. He became a voice in my life, an influence, though I doubt he thought about me when he wasn’t in my presence. He was tall and muscular and powerful, handsome, olive-skinned, a well-liked Long Island Italian boy. Once, he saved his mother from choking. We were told this over the loudspeaker at school. He was celebrated. Of course, I burned that day, set alight by the fact that I knew something other people didn’t know or knew and didn’t care about, that John was a monster, a cruel dark hole of trouble in my life.
He told me what I was. He whispered it to me, often with the teacher nearby. I remember what he said to me, but again, writing it down won’t do any good, and won’t be enough. He made others laugh at me. I wondered later if he was queer because he was so detailed about how he chose to humiliate me, but it doesn’t matter. I wish it did. Maybe he was in pain. It doesn’t matter to me. How could I forgive him for contributing to my hating myself? Because I did. That lasts. That hatred stains. It doesn’t scrub away easily. It held me back.
He brought up the things I dreamed about doing with men, and in his voice, they became disgusting, but not only disgusting, they became a joke. I think back now and wonder at this because now, I celebrate what he made me fear. The shame he made me feel before I’d even touched another man; I reject it now.
In my book, I made a monster, and I think I knew how to sculpt him because I already had the shape of John in my mind. He’s in my book. I didn’t realize that until recently, until just now, maybe. I’d rather he go away, but he’s in my book. I didn’t put him there intentionally. I didn’t write this book to exorcize demons. These realizations came after the book was done. John is in there, inside the character of Nick, who is beautiful and powerful and terrible—who has, like John, been poisoned and ruined by toxic masculinity.
I wrote a novel. Once I’d written a few drafts of it, I started thinking about the years prior. The roadblocks I put up for myself. I did this in every aspect of my life. Why would I do that? Why would I not live the life I wanted and felt? Why, if I was so certain I was a writer, didn’t I finish things, fine tune, submit? Why did I keep writing stories that went nowhere, only unraveled? I think it’s because I learned that there was something wrong with me rather early, and I believed it, some part of me believed it, despite what my supportive, loving family told me. That support is wonderful, but it doesn’t change how a homophobic society, a lake of bad feeling you swim through daily, affects you. It didn’t change the fact I hated myself. I didn’t sit around thinking about that self-hatred. But it was there, and it worked itself into everything. What you need to get through the writing of a novel is the belief that you will do it, you are smart enough. Brilliant enough, actually. Of course, you will, you tell yourself. What you are writing now is a novel! You’ll get to the end, and you’ll have a novel. The confidence this takes! I couldn’t have done it back then, even though I thought I could.
I’m not really a late bloomer, though I’ve called myself that many times. I always wrote, but I think I was writing in circles, afraid to move in a straight line, afraid I might end up somewhere and be seen. It’s possible to want something, to think you want it desperately—for me this was writing and publishing a book—and somehow without knowing, stop yourself from doing what needs to be done to get there. Or maybe I was throat clearing, the way you sometimes do when you’re writing a first draft, clearing away everything that’s been coiled up, all the information you think is important, but probably isn’t. It’s all keeping you from attacking what needs to be attacked.
When I started writing about gay people, my writing changed. I began to finish things. To not give up too easily. I started to submit stories. I wanted to be a part of a community of queer writers. I hoped to be. I still hope.
As a queer person, I think I needed to write for queer people. Not exclusively, of course. But I needed to write about gay people, about queerness, the uncommon architecture of our lives. Every day, I’m grateful to be a queer man. I’m amazed I’ve gotten to that place.
What I mean about writing for each other is not about writing to please each other, to satisfy every queer reader with your work. I mean let’s try to reach out somehow by writing. Writing toward each other. Here I am and there you are, and both of us know this secret. Perhaps things were once difficult for you and are now better; perhaps you fell in love; perhaps someone hurt you and you’re recovering or failing to recover; perhaps you are in love with everyone, your lover and your friends. Maybe you’re charting a new kind of friendship, a relationship unlike anything the straight world would understand or accept. Well, here I am writing about something like that for you to witness. I’m doing this now and refusing to forget about how toxic masculinity and homophobia hurt me, but I’m encouraged by those memories to lean into the queerness of my life (and my fiction). To celebrate it, to resist pleasing the straight world, to resist pleasing anyone but myself. To be happy, whatever that means. Maybe it just means doing what I want with my life and my work.
Brother & Sister Enter the Forest
By Richard Mirabella
Published March 14, 2023
Richard Mirabella is a writer from upstate New York. His work has appeared in Story Magazine, American Short Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. He is the author of the novel Brother & Sister Enter the Forest.