Carnegie Mellon University

“The Fear of Queer”

First Place for High School Prose

Princess Leia is my first celebrity crush. I sit on the shag carpet of my old, red-bricked home as my mom popped a VHS of Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope into the player. While my parents sit on the couch, I stay on the ground, digging my nails into the carpet, waiting for the girl on the cover to cock her hip and ask Obi Wan Kenobi for help. When I’m listening to the girl speak, I don’t hear Obi Wan Kenobi. I only hear, “You’re my only hope.”

            When my parents are sleeping, I pop the VHS back in and turn the television’s volume down enough that my parents can’t hear the words coming from the speakers but loud enough that I can still hear the raspy trickle of Carrie Fisher’s voice when she asks for help. I trace my finger against her cinnamon-bun hair. In this moment, my feelings are innocent. They are not lustful; they are not sinful.

            In the same year that I discover my six-year-old undying love for Carrie Fisher, there are 242 reported cases of aggravated assault, 448 reported cases of simple assault, and five reported cases of murder against lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. But I am too young for now to understand this. For now I will continue staring at Carrie, letting myself indulge in the tingly feelings that come with crushes.

           

My mom and I are alone in the car coming back from my dad’s house. The roads are twisted here. In the dead of the night, the car’s lights are the only source of illumination. The trees that line the road twist up, and in my anxious, 12-year-old mind, their branches look as though they’re reaching into our car. They reach in because they know I’m hiding something that not even I know is hidden yet. My mother’s face grows hollow in the slight dim of the lights coming from the car heading toward us. I bite my lip, feeling nervous guilt well up in my stomach, induced by the knotted faces of the trees and the conversation we just came back from with my dad. All at once I open my mouth and utter words I have been long reciting in my head, just waiting for the right time for the syllables to bubble out.

            “Sometimes I just wish I was gay to piss off Dad,” I say.

            My mother’s hollow face doesn’t change. She stares straight into the empty road when she speaks.

            “Well, are you?” she asks.

            “No,” I say.

            It’s a compulsory response, something trained by a force that wants to beat any thought beyond heterosexuality so deep within me that I wince at the thought of being anything other than straight. I don’t think about what I’m saying. I just say it.

            After Pavlov trained his dogs in 1897, he didn’t know it would offer any insight into psychology. He was a physiologist set on researching the digestive nature of dogs and the role of the olfactive sensory system in relation to drooling. In terms of classical conditioning, he started with meat powder to induce slobber in the dogs who smelled it. This is called the unconditioned stimulus because the dog doesn’t need to be trained to like the smell of food; dogs naturally like food.

            Girls are my meat powder.

            Next, he introduced the sound of a bell to call the dogs in. This is called the neutral stimulus because on its own, it doesn’t cause any drooling response in the dogs.

            Questions like, “Well, are you?” are my neutral stimulus.

            But Pavlov started noticing something weird happening with his dogs: they would start drooling from the mere sound of the bell with no meat powder introduced—the conditioned response.

            I noticed the same thing. When the thought of romantically liking girls is paired with the questioning, curt, impatient, accusatory tone of “Well, are you?” my body is conditioned to respond “No” only by hearing, “Well, are you?” I don’t even have to think about the social repercussions of liking girls. My body is trained to respond in the most acceptable, most normal way it knows. 

 

I’m sitting next to my mother on a hard, wooden pew. The smell of frankincense whisks through the room, exacerbated by the thick June air as Father John blesses the room. My entire extended family and I are here to celebrate the life of my grandmother who passed away from cancer. St. Abigail’s Byzantine Church was the place she had attended the last few years of her life. My whole family had grown to know Father John, a stout man whose stomach always stretched past his waist. His beard was always white while his hair was always youthful and brown. He wore moon-shaped glasses that made his eyes look as though they were reaching towards you.

            We start with a hymn.

            “Hosts of an-gels on high, give You glo-ry su-preme,” we all sing. It’s typical of Byzantine hymns to be sung in staccato-ed syllables, rising and falling rhythmically in a way that sounds both holy and cultish. Father John’s sermons are distinct in the same way: holy or cultish.

            He starts by thanking the congregation. Apart from my family who is three generations removed from Poland, the rest of the congregation either wears veils that cover their faces or babushkas, traditional headscarves worn by many Polish babcias, or grandmothers. Many of the babcias mutter Polish phrases under their breath as Father John leads us in Hail Mary. My grandmother was the only person in the family left that could speak Polish. I wish she were here so I could hear what they were saying.

            At the head of the altar is a long, white table adorned with doily-like cloths and candles. Behind the table is a golden arch with a ghastly depiction of Jesus on the cross. Tiny marble tears fall down his smoothed out, hollow cheeks as Father John continues the sermon. He is the Mona Lisa; his eyes follow me wherever I look. At 13, I start to wonder if I’m the reason Jesus is crying.

            “As many of you know, in this holy month that celebrates the birth of John the Baptist, your senators have let you and the whole world down,” Father John says.

            “Last week, the Supreme Court decided that sodomy is legal in all fifty states,” he says. Father John pauses and lets the thick exhale of sodomy sink into the cracks of our lungs before he continues.

            “They’ve decided that gay marriage is legal,” he says. “They will all go to hell.”

            With the stained glass windows closed, the heat lingers. It dances around our feet, crawling up our legs.

            “I am scared for humanity,” Father John says. He blesses us again.

            Behind the towering crucifix of Jesus, there is a fiery portrait of hell. In tide pools of lava, Hitler and Osama bin Laden are naked, floating down the stream and moaning in agony. Am I as bad as Hitler and Osama bin Laden?

 

My freshman year of high school became a renaissance. I lose 20 pounds over the summer between eighth grade and ninth grade, cut my hair down to boy-length short, come to terms with my being, and I end my six-year no-dating dry spell. In my freshman year I hold someone’s hand in a way that I never had before. And people stare at me in a way that I had never felt before.

            In the hallways, exchanged whispered are magnified.

            One day, a girl meets me in the hall to ask me a question.

            “Are you dating Sarah?” she asks. Sarah is the name of the girl whose hand I hold.

            “No,” I say. I run into my next classroom before she can interrogate me further.

            My response is another compulsory one, another conditioned response. After enduring years of newscasts’ worth of reports on violence against LGBT people, I decide it’s better to break her heart a bit than to risk dying.

            The next day she and I still hold hands down the hallway, but now my palms are sweatier.

            “Why are your hands so slick?” Sarah asks.

            “I’m not sure,” I reply. But I am lying. I know why my hands are slick. My hands are sweating as a response to our peers staring at our interlocked fingers: a conditioned response.

            She drops me off at my biology class before she heads off to chorus. As she lets go of my hand, she tells me she loves me. I don’t say anything back because I am scared.

           

In April, Omar Mateen goes on a trip to Miami, two hours and six minutes away from Fort Piece, with his father. While they’re strolling on the boardwalk, two men, like any other, kiss. Omar’s father Seddique Mateen tells the FBI that his son looked “very angry” seeing gay men exchange affection.

            Homophobia is a tricky thing not rooted in fury or religion but rather apprehension and tension. In a study, 159 heterosexual men were exposed to male-on-male erotic films. When neurobiologists scanned their brains, they found streams of neurons traveling along the brains’ anger highways, but what the neurobiologist later found out was that cognitive responses to homophobia are rooted in anxiety and fear rather than anger or sadness. Omar is scared.

            I imagine Omar Mateen in his house in Fort Pierce, Florida. Omar Mateen is preparing his attack. He’s thumbing the trigger on his handgun while his AR-15 is laid out on his lap. His wife, Noor Zahi Salman, brings him snacks while he flips through the channels. His three-year-old son plays with army trucks and plastic soldiers.

           

When I hold my girlfriend’s hand down the hall, we get stares. I’m uneasy, nervous, knowing what these kids might do to me. I’ve watched enough television, grown enough at this point to know that being a gay teen in rural Pennsylvania is akin to being covered in blood in a tank of sharks. We are vulnerable here.

 

Later, in June, Omar Mateen will travel two hours from Fort Pierce to Orlando to erase 49 lives.

 

One kid in particular likes to follow my queer scent down the hallway. He spits words at me, stepping on the backs of my shoes to see me trip as he calls me things that sink into the fibers of my body so heavy that it’s hard to speak or breathe in those moments. Not only am I exposed. I’m unarmed.

           

But Omar Mateem isn’t. On June 12, 2016 at 12:00 in the morning he will drive towards the Pulse Nightclub. He will think about those gay men and how scared he was seeing them kiss. At 2:00 he will open fire on a police officer standing outside of Pulse. At 2:09 Pulse will make a status update: “Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running.” He will open fire on an entire room full of Latinx LGBT people. He will kill 49 and injure 53. He will commit the worst mass shooting in recent U.S. history. After two shootouts with the police and a plea to the U.S. to stop bombing his home country of Afghanistan, Omar Mateem will be shot dead.

           

It seems like the whole world cries that night.

            As my mom watches the report, I can hear her quieted sobs. Numbers scroll across the TV: 49 dead, 53 injured. She cries because she realizes her best friend, my uncle, could have been one of those 49. She cries because she realizes I, her daughter, could have been one of those 49. She’s aware, and she’s scared.

            But I’m not thinking about myself in this moment. I’m thinking about Omar Mateen. When they flash his face on the television that night I cry because I am angry. I cry that night because I am scared. I am still scared.

 

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