Brick, New Jersey, early spring of 1998 and there’s a crowd of young children playing on one of the towns many elementary school playgrounds. A young boy and his best friend Kimmy are especially excited to be outside for recess. Titanic is sweeping box office records around the world and the only thing equally as popular that year is Celine Dion’s hit theme for the movie, “My Heart Will Go On.” Kimmy and her friend have made the playground their own Titanic, running its course together belting out the Celine Dion ballad. The children beside them are their fellow doomed passengers, the sand below is the freezing ocean, the twisted metal and plastic of the playground the Titanic’s own body. Kimmy and her friend run to the highest point in front of the playground, still singing for their lives, and together they take the iconic pose as Jack and Rose did at the front of the Titanic. Just like Jack and Rose, there’s a world ahead of these two young souls filled with happiness, love, memories and, of course, hurt. In that moment, though, there’s no time to fear or contemplate the future for the only thing that matters is that careless moment.
Being gay was never a question for me. I knew I was different and I knew I thought differently before I even knew what gay meant. I can remember being a small kid in elementary school and having other kids ask me if I was gay. I wonder, now, how kids even knew what that meant but moreover why they cared. The question of “are you gay” haunted me through my entire adolescence and every time someone would ask me the question, it made me resent myself and wonder “why me?” I wondered all through high school “why me?” and as the familiarity with my sexuality grew, my internal struggle did, too. My shame of being gay only led to disliking myself and I learned to comfort that dislike with food. I can tell you, without question, one easy way to stick out in high school is to be fat and gay… kids have a lot of material for that.
It was not until my senior year of high school that I realized being gay was maybe not the worst thing in the world. I became friends with the most outwardly gay person I had ever met and by far the most outwardly gay and proud person in our high school. He was a junior, a year younger than me, the star of our schools fashion program, and the absolute best and fiercest cheerleader on our high school squad. I had never met someone so free and so careless of what people thought about him and that inspired me. John was someone who lived for himself and lived to be true to himself. I never did come out in high school but instead saved it for my early years of college. It was freeing and it was the first time in my life I felt I was being true and being the truest version of myself. Thankfully my friends and family have been nothing but supportive and me being gay was truly not much of a shock to anyone. Still, though, it’s comforting to know that my sexuality does not define me to the ones I love, it’s just a small part of who I am.
During college I was entirely uninterested in the social scene on campus. Ramapo College for me was an actual prison; in my eyes I was surrounded by white-straightness and it was there and then I realized I desired more than that for myself. I started to venture into New York City then as an escape and as a chance to give life to my freshly awakened true self. It’s an understatement to say my love for New York City happened fast and boldly. Nothing else mattered to me at the time and my entire existence revolved around leaving Ramapo College and getting into the city. It turned into a period of exploring theater and Broadway, internships, and underage drinking in any bar I could sneak into. I would rather be passed out drunk on the floor of the Port Authority bus station in New York than in my dorm in New Jersey.
Thankfully now that I’m an adult, I no longer sleep or even often venture into Port Authority—though I will never forget the humble beginnings of my life in New York. I live and work in the city now and the love affair carries on. New York has everything to offer and it has even more to offer when you’re gay. Working in theater and in the Broadway community, it’s tough sometimes to imagine that the rest of the world is not as gay as my life is. Frankly, I am surrounded mostly by ladies, gay men, and some really awesome straight guys sprinkled amongst us. The Broadway community accepts everyone for who they are and there’s not room within it for discrimination of any variety. Broadway shows and the Broadway community have taught me being different is cool and being different is exciting. That scared little boy in school does not have to worry about being questioned in this family.
Being in New York is no easy task; the city can be dirty, it is exhausting, it is expensive, it is crowded. Being gay in New York, I find, often only escalates the stresses of this island. Gay New York is full of different types of people and places for which a long time intimated the hell out of me. I felt the societal pressure of this gay culture to look like everyone else or to act like everyone else. It can be incredibly frustrating to walk into a gay bar and feel as though everyone looks great and amazing and chic, except for you. I generally hangout in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood which is full of young gays like myself, lot’s of theater queens also like myself, and a lot of VERY pretty people. Someone once told me I need to hangout in more “bear bars” since I am chubby and apparently physically more in the category for that scene. For a long time the pretty factor did nothing for my confidence and I would often avoid certain places because of fear; deep down inside I was still that kid in school being asked about his sexuality and wanting to hide in shame.
It was in these moments that I remembered to be myself, my true self, good or bad just like John did in high school. In New York no matter who you are, the only person to be is yourself. The second I started living to be myself, was the second New York fully embraced me as I had been embracing it and life in the city has only grown to be more incredibly fun. I’ve learned being gay does not mean I have to hangout all the time in gay bars and being gay and chubby certainly does not mean I have to be in bear bars. It’s this type of mind set that I find often separates us as gay people in New York. Personally, I go where I like, and whether the other people around me approve of me, or think kindly of me really does not matter to me. I care about my friends & family and colleagues thoughts of me; everyone else is just an opinion. I’ve learned, in time, being myself might not always be the most likeable or the most pretty, but I am myself and good or bad being myself is what matters to me. New York let’s you be yourself and it especially lets you be yourself when you are gay.
As tough as New York is and as tough as they gays of the city might be, I know that they have taught me to love myself and to be free. Gay means happy, gay does not mean stereotypically pretty, and that makes me the gayest homosexual in New York City. I have friends who could be models and have no confidence in themselves. I am happier than ever and though I may not be the prettiest boy in the bar, I very well might be the most fun. Despite what being gay tells us and despite what New York tells us, there’s a lot more to life than looking like you just came out of an underwear ad. I am happy to live in a city where being gay is accepted and being gay is normal. Walking hand in hand with another guy really does not get a second look, and it’s strange to imagine living in a place different than that. This city is not for everyone and it also is not something everyone can handle. But, for me, there’s no other place I could call home right now.
I never did tell John from high school what he meant to me and how he helped me to realize being me was the only choice. As Oscar Wilde once said (though I learned it from being quoted in Kinky Boots) “be yourself; everyone else is already taken.) John and I both live in the city now and chat here and there about our lives now. He’s still very chic and works in the fashion industry. Judging by Instagram we probably live a very different lifestyle, but I know we can still get drinks and have a good laugh. I think it’s due and I look forward to the day.
As I grow up, it’s a nice feeling to know I can again be that boy on the playground belting out Celine Dion (and I still do). By freeing myself of imposed stresses and worries, I can again sing out, run, and live for the moment—rather than for the future. Below me now is the concrete of New York and it supports every dream, aspiration, and ounce of love for myself. New York has let me be my true self and for that I am every indebted and grateful of this wild, energetic, beautiful, and amazing place.
Written By: Christopher Rosenow