The 21-Year Itch

a wait­ing game

Hello Mr. Magazine - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - Text by H. C. Pho­tog­ra­phy by COLIN ROBERSON

“I love your ear­ring.”

I looked up from my phone. Clammy fin­gers darted to my ear, run­ning down the length of the sin­gle piece of sil­ver dan­gling from my right lobe I’d de­bated wear­ing in pub­lic for hours ear­lier that night. I smiled. “Thanks so much.” He brushed a hand on my shoul­der, an­gling his body away from the door. “Of course, babe. Where’s it from?” I’d bought it in Spain, I said, but as soon as I hinted that I spoke Span­ish, his thick Colom­bian ac­cent went from zero to sixty as he switched to his pre­ferred tongue. Shift­ing from a sharp and pur­pose­ful English to a sweetly flow­ing Span­ish, he told me his par­ents moved to the US from Colom­bia and Ecuador 25 years ago. I told him mine moved from Pak­istan around the same time. I tried to apol­o­gize for my wan­ing flu­ency, but mis­spoke.

“My tongue is very liq­uid tonight,” I said, and he gig­gled. He heard Santigold play­ing in­side and his eyes lit up. “Are you com­ing back in?”

He touched my hand and said some­thing – it was prob­a­bly re­ally cute, but I was too busy star­ing at his jaw to re­mem­ber – and sud­denly all 6’1” of his dark, toned body floated past the bouncer and through the tiny door, glanc­ing back with a smile, his skirt bob­bing side to side.

Out­side, ev­ery out­fit wait­ing in line looked like it was pulled from a mag­a­zine or off one of the In­sta­gram models whose lives I knew bet­ter than my own. Straight-cut denim on smooth legs longer than half my body gave a starched struc­ture and bal­ance to cropped tanks. Ban­danas worn as as­cots framed bearded faces with winged eye­liner. Matte stilet­tos paired per­fectly with bouncy, loud rompers that bil­lowed in the sum­mer night’s breeze. The kind of peo­ple I would have done any­thing to meet back in Texas cov­ered the en­tire New York City block.

My heart thumped to the bub­blegum beat pour­ing out of the build­ing as I watched oth­ers fol­low in rit­ual pro­ces­sion. As their turn came, they ei­ther flashed an ID, gave a name on the guest list, or had a friend come grab them be­fore pass­ing the hal­lowed vel­vet ropes. Most paid the $12 cover, but for some, mak­ing the bouncer

bend to their charm seemed al­most a sport. I had $15 in cash but my glar­ingly ob­vi­ous fake ID was burning a hole in my pocket, not to men­tion that my only friend in­side was too busy work­ing to get me in, and I def­i­nitely wasn’t im­por­tant enough to be on the guest list. I stood, waited, and watched as satin, lace, sil­ver, and gold traipsed their way through the door.

I had only landed in New York three and a half hours ear­lier, on a flight booked just five days be­fore. Fu­eled by noth­ing more than limited ex­pe­ri­ences with queer nightlife and some in­tu­ition, I bit the bul­let and paid the air­line fee to move my flight time, ar­riv­ing in the city just in time to drop off my bags, put on a cuter out­fit, and get to Brook­lyn for a Face­book in­vite that seemed too good to miss. The en­tire se­quence was al­most ro­man­tic, like life’s lov­ing em­brace was telling me to at­tend this party. I sim­ply had to go. It was the third an­niver­sary of Papi Juice, head­lined by two of my fa­vorite artists, and it was on the very week­end I was set to ar­rive in New York for the sum­mer. It was meant to be.

Make no mis­take, I have never shied from ex­ert­ing due ef­fort to be around other queers. Since the first time I left the strictly 21+ gay club scene in Dal­las (bar­ring a sin­gle scary and sparse col­lege night) and made the 6-hour round trip from my home­town to Austin for Tuez­gayz, I was hooked. Af­ter years of se­cretly pop­ping off in front of my sis­ter’s full-length mir­ror, find­ing a club with a lazy Tues­day night bouncer changed my life. I was re­born, a sweaty phoenix in a col­or­ful land­scape of bod­ies rang­ing from cor­pu­lent to skele­tal, each with ther own past, present, and fu­ture.

The morn­ing af­ter my first Tuez­gayz, I woke up on an air mat­tress in my friend’s South Austin apart­ment full of pride, hope, and pure joy. My legs had never been so sore, my sneak­ers were smudged with a cock­tail of spilled drinks, sweat, and mud, and I glowed at the spat­ter­ing of mes­sages in my phone, we should hang out. It was a free­dom I had never ex­pe­ri­enced: to al­low my body to move the way it wanted to in pub­lic.

I felt rad­i­cal, revo­lu­tion­ary, in­her­ently po­lit­i­cal, and I falsely gave all credit to the space it­self. The night­club, I thought, al­lowed me to dance as I wanted, to cre­ate com­mu­nity, and to live my truth. These mo­ments made me re­al­ize what the club was, what the bar meant, and what the dance floor could be, and for a time, I fully em­braced this ideal. I made the trip down I-35 as of­ten as my sched­ule al­lowed for a free Tues­day night to drive and Wednes­day morn­ing to re­cover, and I will for­ever be grate­ful for these for­ma­tive mo­ments: scream­ing FKA Twigs lyrics with the first group of gay friends I ever had and mash­ing faces on the dance floor with boys who saw some­thing cap­ti­vat­ing in the chunky brown boy in an over­sized t-shirt.

But when I came home af­ter that first time, I was yet again re­minded of my re­al­ity. The peel­ing plas­tic of my Ok­la­homan al­ter-ego’s ID didn’t prove suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence that I was of age to any­one in Dal­las but a few gen­er­ous bar­tenders, and each time a bouncer laughed in my face, I grew in­creas­ingly ea­ger for my long an­tic­i­pated 21st birth­day. I hoped and prayed I would stum­ble upon a sim­i­lar haven in my own city be­fore then, but in the mean­time, I went back to at­tend­ing par­ties at my univer­sity. I went back to apart­ments full of en­gi­neers and biochem ma­jors, I wouldn’t drink too much, start shak­ing my ass and be­tray the leftist in­tel­lec­tual im­age I so care­fully cu­rated for them. I ached for the dance floor, but more than that, I ached to be in a phys­i­cal space where other peo­ple would look at me the way I had started to look at my­self: gor­geous, tran­sient, com­plex. I ached to be seen.

But where my nights at Tuez­gayz were for­ma­tive, they soured when I had my vir­ginal con­fronta­tion with a threat that’s now be­come a near-con­stant in my life. Af­ter an hour of stand­ing guard over my friends’ drinks as they hit it off with dance­floor suit­ors one af­ter an­other, I lobbed a drunken grin to a white guy with a nice

beard, and he set me straight with a slurred “I don’t like browns.” He made his way back across the dance floor, and as I watched him laugh­ing with his friends, I started to tear up. Not be­cause of him in par­tic­u­lar, but be­cause in that mo­ment, my im­age of “go­ing out,” as gay celebri­ties, lead­ers, and icons had helped me imag­ine it, was shat­tered. Af­ter years of cold, one-sided on­line in­ter­ac­tions with men who wanted noth­ing to do with my com­plex­ion, it fi­nally hap­pened in per­son, and my con­fu­sion, my shock, and my bub­bling anger slowly trans­formed into re­lief. It was as if once the wool of $3 vodka Red Bulls and hourly drag shows had been pulled from my eyes, I could see it all. All the times I had seen Face­book posts about com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ships with al­co­holism and nightlife, heard friends’ haunt­ing sto­ries about sex­ual as­sault in club bath­rooms, read ar­ti­cles plead­ing with bars to stop prof­it­ing off queer nights with­out stop­ping the vi­o­lence creep­ing out of the pe­riph­eries. As soon as I could no longer per­form what I had been told was an av­enue to lib­er­a­tion, to com­mu­nity, and to an al­ter­na­tive fam­ily, I was, in a sense, freed.

I slowly re­al­ized that no mat­ter how old I was, no mat­ter how good my fake ID was, and no mat­ter how many bounc­ers I could slip by, these spa­ces would never be safe for me and for most of my friends. I be­gan to re­al­ize that the longer I con­tin­ued to search for sat­is­fac­tion and for mean­ing­ful in­ter­ac­tion in these spa­ces, the longer I would be dis­ap­pointed, de­jected, and lonely. But where was I to go oth­er­wise?

While al­ter­na­tive and com­mu­nity-cre­ated spa­ces can be more in­clu­sive to­ward younger folks, peo­ple of color, and many other com­mu­ni­ties, they are ab­sent where they are needed most. With the rapid brain-drain of queer artists, ac­tivists, and thinkers in the South, I am left a queer teenager in North Texas, with noth­ing to do but cruise dat­ing apps and chat rooms for hours upon hours, sit­ting in my bed­room re­fresh­ing my phone with a ghostly con­cen­tra­tion, hop­ing to find some­one within a rea­son­able ra­dius to just ap­pre­ci­ate me. Beyond that, the only in­sti­tu­tional pres­ences of queer cul­ture I know of are health cen­ters and night­clubs, and I’m not ex­actly sure how to go about mak­ing friends over STI tests. My place­less­ness has only been in­ten­si­fied since I at­tended New York Pride this sum­mer. A cel­e­bra­tion heavy with the weight of post-Or­lando grief, punc­tu­ated by trib­utes, memo­ri­als, and re­mem­brances, the pa­rade some­how still man­aged to wash away the real po­lit­i­cal mean­ings that un­der­score the tragedy, tuck­ing them away within the folds of Bank of Amer­ica rain­bow flags, a glitzy NYPD squad car, and a flood of beads and flyers shriek­ing homona­tion­al­ism. With­out a space to call my own, this is what I must re­turn to.

“I ached to be in a phys­i­cal space where other peo­ple would look at me the way I had started to look at my­self: gor­geous, tran­sient, com­plex. I ached to be seen.”

If you’re not 21, lib­er­a­tion is not for you. If you’re not 21, you should go some­where else. If you’re not 21, you need to wait your turn.

The funny thing is, I have been wait­ing. I’ve spent the bet­ter half of my 19 years on this earth wait­ing my turn. My white peers, teach­ers, and men­tors have told me I should be happy with grad­ual progress and that each suc­ces­sive di­ver­sity work­shop would save me. But fam­i­lies still stare at me with wide-eyes on the street, it can take me hours to clear air­port se­cu­rity, and once a white man laughed as I wiped his cum off my chest when he asked if I was In­dian and I re­sponded with “No, I’m Pak­istani” be­cause “it’s the same thing dude.”

So when peo­ple tell me to wait my turn, ex­cuse me if I laugh, but I know this wait­ing room all too well. Ex­cuse me if the safe spa­ces you’ve sent me to weren’t safe at all.

But, as I wait, I cling to the mo­ments of free­dom I do have. Break­ing my Ra­madan fast in a Har­lem apart­ment with de­frosted lamb ko­rma along­side a ta­ble of queer and trans Mus­lims. Go­ing to small per­for­mance events filled with queer brown and black folks in Dal­las, from Le1f and Jun­gle­pussy to Princess Nokia and Cakes da Killa. Stand­ing in the cor­ners of al­ter­na­tive art spa­ces, talk­ing to the Chi­nese girl with a labret pierc­ing about de­colo­nial poetry. In these mo­ments, I felt seen. These mo­ments give me hope and strengthen my re­solve.

And it is with these mo­ments I ques­tion the vision for the fu­ture I am pre­sented with on a near daily ba­sis. More mo­ments like these would cre­ate a fan­tas­tic queer fu­ture for us and our sib­lings, a fu­ture cen­tered around artis­tic and in­tel­lec­tual cre­ation, com­mu­nity, and ar­tic­u­la­tions of mu­tual ap­pre­ci­a­tion beyond nightlife. Progress has been made, but I still sit in the mar­gins, wait­ing for my turn as we move to­ward a fu­ture that is con­stantly seek­ing to do bet­ter. And though I know it's fu­tile, the piece of me that just wants to dance will never die, so I still stand in lines on Satur­day nights, hop­ing I'll find an easy bouncer, a back door, and a place to feel free.

The girls I had been stand­ing next to for the bet­ter half of 90 min­utes were chat­ting about how sad it was to see so many good out­fits be­ing turned away at the door, a waste of hours of thought, thrift­ing, and thread­ing. I matched their frus­tra­tion with an ex­as­per­ated nod and we talked for a minute about how rude the bouncer was be­ing, un­til she sud­denly de­cided she wanted to let in a group of three. The pair crossed the thresh­old with­out any is­sue as the bouncer asked for my ID. She stared at the thick piece of plas­tic, crafted in the cor­ner of an east Dal­las shop­ping cen­ter be­tween a con­sign­ment fur­ni­ture mart and a ware­house flea mar­ket, flick­ing her pen­light across the sur­face as she asked for my zip code. I froze. The anx­i­ety of the mo­ment pre­ceded it­self and I couldn’t re­mem­ber a thing, so I stut­tered a num­ber, pray­ing Al­lah would, for once, do me this solid.

She squinted and asked me to say it again. Laugh­ing at my at­tempts to even re­call the same num­ber, she flicked the card in my di­rec­tion and shooed me away to the sound of my fee­ble protests.

"It – it’s my par­ents’ house. They moved.”

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