I have been waiting in the lower gym forever, thinking I might as well end up sleeping here at this point. My high school’s open-house tours have begun, and I’m waiting along with many others for the tour to reach its final destination as the people spill out into the club and teacher sections of the basement.
I get flashbacks to when I attended my school’s open house, when I was searching for a high school a few years ago. I’m excited to talk to people about my school and why I love it. Even though it can be stressful, and even though I encounter those who cannot stand to see others succeed and be different, I have confidence that my school helped make me who I am today.
I hear the murmur of a distant crowd rise up, slowly growing into a roar as they descend down the stairs. I go to my table with my friend, straighten up the rainbow flag and look toward the door.
The crowd runs almost like water, spreading throughout the room, but not to our table. No one comes by. At first, I’m indifferent, thinking that the crowd is just nervous being here. I remember being nervous to talk to people at the open houses I visited. I understand, or at least I thought I did.
I see people talking with ease to the other clubs: the Speech and Debate Team, the Science Olympiad, the Aquatic Science Club. That’s when I notice the stares. I can tell what they mean. It’s not a blank stare: their faces contort, bending and twisting in ways to show displeasure. I guess it’s worth the wrinkles. No one comes by in the first two waves of completed tours.
One of my teachers walks by, asking if we’ve talked to anyone yet. When he hears no one has, he remarks in a jokingly sad way that no one has visited him either, so he hasn’t made any friends. He makes me feel better about myself. For just a moment, the rubber bands that feel like they are tightening around me loosen until he walks away.
“So what exactly is this?” someone remarks.
What a remarkably odd question. How can you see a gigantic rainbow flag and poster board with smaller rainbow flags glued to it and not know what this is? He was standing there for a minute or two, off to the side, confused before he asked that question. I wonder if he was confused about what the club actually was or if he was just confused it was allowed to exist at my Jesuit, all-boys school.
Maybe he saw me giving him a quick glance and then felt like he had to say something so it wasn’t too awkward. Before I can ponder his ignorance, I remember that my school’s “model student” would smile and do what he was asked to do. I give him a quick explanation of the club. He awkwardly says something and goes on with his night. That interaction is one of the most polite.
A mom walks by and stares before tapping her husband on the shoulder. He stares too. You can tell what makes the stares cynical through the body language: they’ll slow down as they walk, putting too much pressure on themselves to look natural. They don’t look at the table until it is almost out of their line of sight. It is a look of righteous disgust.
A woman pulls her son towards herself and away from the table as they walk by, with her grip releasing after they pass by our table. I guess she’s scared that we’ll damage them somehow if they are within arms reach of us. One man stares me up and down, making it a point to sternly look into my eyes. I’m uncomfortable, I’m objectified and I’m the cause of his disgust.
I fake a smile, something I’ve become increasingly good at as the night has progressed, and I go get water in the gym, seeing how none of the sports tables or academic departments are receiving the stares I have.
One prospective student slows before coming to a complete stop. His face squints and contorts, before shaking side to side violently as he walks away. Or their smiles disappear into blank oblivion as they walk by, just to have them reappear when they make it past us. After asking me what my club was, one mother laughs awkwardly and sidesteps to the club next to me, mumbling erratically.
I wish I was sitting at the chess club table across the gym. I notice more and more people not only misshaping their faces but their entire bodies as well; many people twist their shoulders and upper body so that we are not in their line of sight. My friend and I make jokes, imitating their homophobic actions. We laugh. I can’t say why he’s laughing, but I laugh so I don’t start to cry.
I take a stool from the engineering table so I can finally sit down. I’ve been standing, trying not to crumple from the weight that I feel being a queer student in the context of an elite, Jesuit, all-boys school. The person whose stool I took it from comes over, looking at me disapprovingly, half joking. Before he can speak, I say, “Please. I’ve had so many people stare in disgust. Let me have the stool.”
He’s surprised by my statement. I’m not. I realize how pathetic I must appear, seeking pity so I can sit on a stool. But I don’t care how I look right now. At least this way, the stares continue while I’m seated.
One man comes up to us asking how it “honestly” is for us. I say it’s tough sometimes, but the good outweighs the bad, and how the homophobes are in the minority at my school. I’m more and more unsure of the words as the days go by. He says how it’s such a good thing and an improvement from when he went to high school in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I can’t imagine how, I think to myself.
I feel uncomfortable in certain resource centers because I know if teachers see the tab for my school’s LGBTQ affinity group on my laptop I’ll be looked at differently. I feel uncomfortable around certain classmates that find my “lifestyle” innately sinful and wrong. I feel uncomfortable because I hear the gay insults. I hear the slurs and I feel the way people transform when I say there’s a meeting of my school’s LGBTQ affinity group I need to attend.
One time, a classmate told me my eyes sparkled and the teacher said to tone it down. I also hear teachers say how students cannot say “homosexual” or “bisexual” because it’s outdated language, which to me just shows how there are serious flaws in how to discuss my existence. Of course, I do not want my existence to be defined by my sexuality, but it would be nice if part of it were not considered a dirty word.
Obviously, it isn’t all the teachers and all of the students that make it difficult to be queer at my school, but I hate how some people use that excuse and then act like the problem doesn’t exist. I also hate the connotation that people should somehow be proud of the progress. Just because we progressed from a horrific place to a terrible one now doesn’t mean we need to be grateful and celebrate it.
A mom approaches us. She goes on a long speech about how awesome it is that we are here, and about how she wants her son to know about all of these different things related to LGBTQ topics. It’s a nice sentiment, a bit over the top with a hint of a savior complex, but I’d rather have aggressively and ignorantly nice than the revolting crap I’ve received all night.
“You guys are so brave,” she says, trying to use her most compassionate smile. Her hand reaches for my shoulder. I recoil, desperately trying to not spasm with a panic attack that might have reached its final straw. “Thank you so much,” I respond.
I don’t want people to say I’m brave. I don’t want people to say they see me. I want change. The truth is I’m not brave for being what I am, I simply am what I am. I’m not brave because I desperately want to run from here and go home. I’m not brave, but it’s another thing people assume when they see me sit in front of a rainbow flag. They assume I’m gay, but I’m not. You can tell I’m not brave, especially when I announce sexuality and my voice softens and bends like it may break.
Having an offhand mention at one assembly in my time here isn’t enough. I’m fed up. My friend is fed up. We leave ten minutes later. I say good night to the teacher from earlier. Even he can’t relieve my anxiety now.
“There’s a rat,” I say as we walk towards the subway. We were talking about how terrible the open house was. I’m desperately trying to think of anything else, anything at all. My friend is silent. I then realize something. I can’t think of anything else.
“You know what I just noticed?”
“I looked at that rat better than anyone tonight looked at us.” We walk down the filthy subway steps and into the station.
A couple walks up to us on the platform. They ask us if we go to my school. Their faces lit up with some kind of eager excitement as they mention a school with a prestigious reputation. I’m tired of this question. I’m not the mode student that appears to be appreciated and praised, nor one that is encouraged. The couple should ask someone else.
I thought getting on the honor roll in junior year might change that thought. I thought that winning the sports intramurals tournament might change that thought. I was wrong. This type of wrong doesn’t feel like when I’d fail a biology test wrong. This wrong feels worse, like the wrong when I was called sexist for my sexuality, the wrong I felt when I was called a f— in the cafeteria.
“Yes, I’m a senior,” I tell the couple. They speak to us effortlessly, treating us like I saw all of my friends at other tables treated. When the rainbow flag isn’t behind me, the attitude shifts. They ask questions about the college process, inquiring about how we like our school. I lie.
“I’m ahead of the game,” I say. “I love my school,” I say. I hate this. I get on the subway with my friend. We stand in silence, numb. I wonder if I’ll feel anything else but numbness.