By Tre Johnson @trejohns1978
I became a “faggot” in the 7th grade after my first day at Fisher Middle School. My first day at Fisher felt like being on the set of a TV school; lockers, gym class, cafeteria, switching classrooms every 55 minutes or so was a far cry from the single-teacher, multi-grade, one-room classrooms of Bethany, the small private Lutheran school my sister and I had attended together. And so here I was; alone in a massive new school looking for Shane, my one lone childhood best friend. We spent our summers together on our grandparents’ block in Ewing, both of us temporarily living in their homes for various periods of time. He was a year older than me; in my eyes, a taller, handsomer, more suave version of me. Around town, we were commonly mistaken for brothers or cousins.
We had Tom Sawyer-like summers where we built imaginary forts made out of recently ordered appliance boxes and took hot, wooded, “dangerous” bike rides to-and-from Trenton State College’s campus and other points around Ewing . Nights we batted and captured fireflies, sometimes encasing them in cups or bubbles, watching their intermittent flashes fade and fade to nothing. In the morning, we’d find them on the back porch; black-bodied husks with dried-out yellow jellied bottoms where they used to glow. Sometimes we pulled out those lights in the fat-bottomed ones; clumsy, violent boy-surgeons in the battlefield; bug-based gold prospectors. Some nights we went back out to those forts for a few waning hours in the evening, feeling the summer breeze from our cardboard fortress, plucking and twirling blades of grass, making wishes; brothers-in-arms again, waiting only to have one of our mothers shatter the illusion because of bedtime.
So on that first day in-between classes I looked for Shane’s head amidst the throng of bobbing, babbling, bumpy faces in the hallway to buoy me, occasionally panicking when I didn’t see him for stretches of time. We were everything together: heroes, soldiers, spies, best friends in the trenches of an enduring war, so I knew there was at least one person there that would see me and make me feel safe.
We both rode the same bus home and so seeing him on the bus that first day, was an epiphany—on a day like that just the act of seeing someone that knows you can make you feel less invisible. I raced onto the bus, heading to the back where a mess of boys languidly sat propped up on their elbows in-between the sweating green seats of the cheese bus. Shane was already stuffed into a seat with someone else, so I meekly wedged myself into the seat with Cory, a cool upperclassman who rolled his eyes at the other boys who cackled and sized me up as he let me in to have the window seat.
It was still hot; all the finger-latch passenger windows were unhinged to the mid-point, so I sat against the window, I adjusted my backpack, turned my body away from the bus, and looked out the window as the bus rolled out of the school. I closed my eyes and let the sun sing to me through my half-open window, and relaxed my body slightly; all the coiled stress locked in my muscles leaking out. With my body raised on one knee in my seat, I leaned back; my butt pressed right against the middle of Cory’s back, causing him to jolt in the mid-sentence.
“The fuck you doing, man?” he snapped at me. “Get your ass off me, nigga, damn!”—the boys gathered in the back with us laughed at this—and then he spat what would be my middle-school name: “….faggot!”. The bus erupted in laughter.
Future bus rides proved unendurable; even as I started sitting at the front of the bus, the seats reserved for the misfits, I wasn’t safe: there was a stretch where a girl and I who started begrudgingly sitting together spent the whole ride slouched in the seats as lit matches were tossed at our heads.
I had become a ‘faggot’, which means that I became a target of scorn, mockery and contempt that went viral, metastasizing into an endless series of taunts and interactions—chiding chants of the word while at my locker; sneeringly tossed my way in the locker room while changing in and out of gym clothes; upbraided against my spine when I answered correctly in some classes. By October, I formed a parallel existence at the school from my classmates; I hid in the locker room to change a bit later than the crowd, showing up to my spot on the gym floor late. At lunch I sat alone for awhile, hurriedly eating my food while swallowing “gay”, “sissy”, and any number of diminishing slurs that came my way.
By November, I was walking home from school instead of taking the bus, using my new-found love of Tolkien books to devise a new, solitary imaginary adventure, where I darted on different streets and took illogical paths home to avoid the bus route and the group of boys who would taunt and chase me whenever they saw me.
One day, a local boy named Willis caught me on my way home, gruffly pinning me against a tree, spitting “faggot” in my face close enough to kiss me as he punched me in the gut. I remember that moment and others like it, like when I was chased by another boy and his pit bull, climbing on top of a car, denting the roof, crying. Both of those times looking outside of myself, to the sky, looking for Shane or someone to save me.
I am a heterosexual black male and yet, twenty-five years later I am watching Moonlight in a Philadelphia movie theater, crying at several points. You see, you don’t have to be Chiron, the movie’s main character on a journey, to know the pain of being othered, emotional man, and you don’t have to identify as gay to be reduced in the eyes of others. I both reveled and struggled to see the film; my socio-political self-champions the importance of seeing and promoting the nimble, nuanced story of black male queerness and love (really, go see the movie); while my emotional self, the one that finds itself echoed in art in so many places, loved seeing Chiron’s story because it was a story I could relate to, not out of sexuality but out of sensuality and intimacy.
Moonlight is not only about the taboo sexual relationships that we deny black men in our community, but about the intimate relationships and vulnerability we deny them, too; about how we choose to limit the definitions of who we can be to each other not only in the absence of women, but man-to-man, too. And it’s an important thing to distinguish because we too often conflate this sort of roundedness to being human—thriving and striving on intimate, meaningful connections—with being homosexual and vice versa. Both are conjoined in a way to suggest that it’s regressive, disgusting or diminishing to straddle any such identity.
There are times in the movie, directed in a Miami that at times looks like a beautiful shanty-town gob-smacked by a storm, that the most beautiful moments are between men. When Juan lays Chiron in the ocean, cupping his head firmly while the boy lets the saltwater lift his body, there’s not only an obvious baptism there of Chiron’s awakening of who he is, there’s something more important that happens there, too—communicated in that experience is an unmistakable love forming between these two men. It would be easy to position their dynamic as predatory in any number of ways or directions, but the movie shows us time and time again what the importance can be about having intimate relationships with each other. Each time, Moonlight tests us around these dynamics; there’s always something brimming beneath the surface for not only the audience but the characters, too, when they interact with each other. The scenes are often tense, quiet and without a strong narrative lead-in, and that makes you quickly process what your discomfort might be in seeing men so often share literal and figurative close space with each other.
I loved that about the movie; this quiet challenge for men to live in a social world where they define themselves without sex, in the absence of women. That so many of these situations in Moonlight aren’t sexual at all (even the ones that you think are/should be/will be) is the point, and mirrors my own real life; the beauty of this sort of intimacy amongst men. To entrust people with your tears, your feelings, your secrets, your happiness. To take turns laying each other in water and letting you float. Those are spaces of vulnerability we don’t often afford each other due to the persistent belief that cis-gender men don’t do this, shouldn’t do this, can’t do this—unless you’re really a faggot.
But there’s a world of difference between vulnerability and the type of masculinity that we’ve let define everything from our music to our elected president.
It is the difference of leaning against someone on the bus because you’re tired or walking home alone looking over your shoulder. It’s also the difference in being a face in the hallway and someone stopping you and saying, there you are; where have you been?
Tre Johnson is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, PA. He writes on race, culture, politics and pop culture.