Imagine you live in a small town.
A lot of people fantasize about it. Put yourself in a place called Live Oak. The name’s innocuous enough; there’s a few places across the US that share it. But this one’s often called "Dead Oak". There is quite literally a plaque on a building near the center of the town that reads:
"ON THIS SITE IN 1897: NOTHING HAPPENED."
Nothing ever seems to happen. A dying withered husk of a community. The sort of people who'd cut the drama program to fund additional equipment for the school football team.
It's a joke, one that hangs over your head like an ill omen, like that little gasp of fear lurking behind your breath every time a truck whizzes by you, always just a little too close to the sidewalk.
Sounds a scary place to visit. Imagine you've lived in this town all your life– but still you're an outsider. They look at you through squinted, hateful eyes; muttering bile into cigarettes and sweet tea. Little old ladies huddle their shoulders together like penguins in a snowstorm, shuffling their grandchildren across the street whenever you walk past. An aura of fear and disgust has grown within the quaint little community, the shadow of the evil one having sprouted up in their midst. A monster lurks in this town. It threatens all that they love and stand for.
That monster is you.
The creepy small town with their folksy ways, mistrustful of outsiders sounds like some X-files episode, but it is a waking reality for “the monster”. The stares, the whispers, the beer cans and vile slurs alike that crash against your ears persist long after one’s put their netflix binge on pause.
When they hit “Play” again, the monster won’t be found prowling around in the shadows— unless those shadows make for dramatic selfie lighting. They don't leave their spooky house to prey upon unsuspecting children; they hardly leave the house at all. Stop pretending now. You aren’t the monster. I am. And I'm more frightened of the world than it is of me.
Wincing beneath the veneer of a cackling demon, I’m still a child standing in front of the bathroom mirror in my boxer shorts, staring and crying in confusion at the hateful ink smudged across my body and forehead is forever imprinted in my brain.
Those kids burnt it into my soul. Down my arms. Up my legs. Across my forehead.
FAGGOT. FAGGOT. FAGGOT.
I was smaller than the others. I didn't go out for sports. I spent my time writing crappy poetry and ghost stories in a little black book. In a small redneck town, that was enough. I was tattooed a threat to their masculinity and Christian values. I barely knew what the word meant; I'd heard it enough to know that faggots weren't someone you liked. A faggot was something you hated. It was someone you wanted to see taken out back behind the barn and shot.
For years, I wrestled with that self-hate and internalized homophobia. I knew, but didn't want to admit. My teenage hormones were burdened by irrepressible shame.
Gay thoughts were the devil attempting to lead you astray; only prayer and constant devotion could save you from the clutches of evil. I was at the altar every night, crying and begging. There wasn't a more fervent and pious teen in the youth group.
My mother once remarked that I had to seek God desperately. I was desperate all right: desperate to be anyone but me.
By chance, a friend of mine introduced me to Nightmare on Elm Street. I was inspired and fascinated as Nancy turned on Freddy Krueger, fighting back against all the fear and pain he tormented her with.
"I take back all the energy I ever gave you, you're nothing! You're shit!"
It was the first time in my life I'd identified as anyone but the monster in the closet. Freddy became, to me, a monster created by the sins of the community, a spiteful menacing figure preying upon the dreams of the community's children, my dreams. Nancy's courage taught me to fight back against those voices.
I'd had enough, hating and throwing myself on the mercy of a calloused and indifferent God. I came out to my mother that same week, bearing the brunt of the screaming tears: that was when my mother stopped being my best friend.
The support of my family was ripped from beneath me. I was alone. I could see the confusion, pity, and disgust on their faces every night at the dinner table. How could this have happened to them? How could this happen to their baby Christian boy?
While I was out to my family, I hadn't come out to everyone in town yet. At first the stares directed my way were those of suspicion, not hate. Then my baby sister in her well-meaning ignorance used me as bragging rights to everyone in her classroom. She was proud of her artistic older brother, proud of what I'd done in coming out to Mom and Dad, and she wanted the whole world to know.
I'd been promised, all my life, that my church would love and protect me if I said and did all the right things. Absolute. Horse. Shit. Love cast aside for traditional values. There were hateful messages sent to me in comments on my MySpace page, violent threats in emails, tuttering church ladies with dire warnings of fire and brimstone. Others outed without their consent have lost their entire livelihoods. I was only made into a social pariah, the local pervert, a disappointment to the community. I think I got off lucky.
My other sister wasn’t so open-minded, in the end. She remarked to me once in a voice dripping with disdain that I needed to "tone it down" in front of her and her boyfriend. My mere existence made them both uncomfortable; in her own words she admitted she didn't know how to love me without “compromising her values”.
One time her boyfriend came to pick me up from class and he caught me flirting with a guy I liked. He told my sister, who told my mom, who confronted and screamed at me. That's when I dropped out of college. It’s the source of my greatest resentment. The harassment that derailed my future continues to go unspoken, like any small town secret worth its mettle.
After years of this, Live Oak finally succeeded in driving the monster out of their midst. The quiet bigotry eroded my sense of safety. The slow gradual nature of my banishment has stunted me, and years later I'm still scrambling to find my place in this world, to piece together the shattered fragments of my identity. My scars sting as freshly as the day they were made.
I still have nightmares about that town, about having to go back to that place. Each time I've set foot over the town line I can feel myself instinctively retreating into the closet. I lower my voice several octaves and speak in a harsher tongue in an effort to sound more masculine. Half of my wardrobe goes unworn in favor of jeans and a t-shirt, anything to make myself invisible in their midst. It's survival, and hurts almost as much as the abuse.
Every time my family asks me to visit, my stomach ties up in knots and the panic attacks are so bad I spend the next six hours vomiting. All the while I'm desperately coming up for excuses, hiding from the real truth, hiding from them.
In the mirror I see the monster, a pink-haired faggot in a dress. Embracing that aspect of myself has opened up new doors, and given me just enough confidence and power to function; barely. The makeup and the skirts are like climbing into a suit of power armor, and it's just enough to let me go through my day without wanting to kill myself. At the end of the day when I wipe it off, the illusion fades. I'm still that scared little kid staring at a vile word branded across their body.