Last Sunday, Chris and I went to Ikea Coquitlam. We were there for my sister and her boyfriend. They plan to buy a place together in the next few months, and the reason for our trip was to find a number of items to help stage her townhouse before potential buyers arrive for viewings.
Debbie asked for my help because she likes how I decorated our house in Maple Ridge, and because, well, I'm gay, and, as she says, I got all the decorating genes and she got none. In fact, not only did she not get any decorating genes, she's hopeless. Utterly hopeless. You'll have to take my word for it that she needs help.
Anyway, I should have known Ikea would be crazy busy. What a gong show. The whole store was swarming with people. Generally, there's ample space to move around the wide aisles and displays, and to take a breath, but not so much then. I think half the Lower Mainland was there.
It was on that stage of people all around us that I became aware of some of them watching me, particularly the straight young men, their pretty wives close by. What was that look on their faces? Did they see something that surprised or perplexed them? Was that disgust? I couldn't be sure, but I didn't need to be a UBC graduate to figure out why they were looking.
When Chris and I are out in public together, we're pretty much low key. Over time, I've made a conscious effort to downplay some of my tendencies so as not to attract negative attention to me or to us. But this is not a problem for Chris. He's the man in the relationship, and, like straight men, his gay tendencies, if he has any, are well in check. In fact, I think he could pass for straight. If anyone gives us away, it's me.
It's not that I was gesturing wildly in the middle of Ikea, or sibilating, or that I'd turned up my flame so high that the ceiling nearly caught fire. But there I was, zeroing in on specific areas of the store (we were in a bit of a hurry), taking stock of items, and expressing opinions about them loud enough for people around us to overhear. Was it what I said or how I said it? Perhaps. Whatever it was, I became aware that I was doing it, and I stopped doing it right away.
Now, don't get me wrong. I don't live my life for anyone else. Who cares if people's attention is drawn to me because they figure out I'm gay? I am gay, for goodness sake. I'll always be gay, whether I like it or not. What's the use in trying to hide it? Besides, I knew I'd never see these people again, so what did it matter if I said the word "fabulous" a few too many times?
No, the issue for me wasn't what other people saw when they looked at me, but what I saw of myself in their gazes. I didn't see how I'd most like to project myself, what I'd most like people to see in me, what I'd most like to be. I didn't see the masculinity that seems to be so effortless for straight men, and for a few gay men who are able to hide their sexual orientation better than others.
Remnants of low self-esteem? You bet. Internalized homophobia? Absolutely. Am I angry at myself? Sure. Fifty years in, better off now than I've ever been in terms of being settled in my own skin and in my life, I still feel those pangs of shame rise up when I let my guard down and allow who I really am out of the closet.
Does anyone have the right to judge me because I'm gay? Not a chance, and, in most circumstances, I wouldn't tolerate it. But it's not anyone I'm worried about. It's me.