The hi hat hits. The pace sets the mood. The slow roll-in of that all too familiar baseline beats against your soul. The speed increases. The knocks time your movement. The synthesized trumpet like sound repeats the call to the dance floor. The held pitched whine; mid-stretch cool down, you slow your movement. Then once again, the beat takes you back to the headspace: your groove. BOOM, full-on electronic dance tantric. The mindset where nothing else matters. The surrounding space, filled with your friends: gay, lesbian, trans. You look around you, the room spins like the DJ, like a slow-mo montage you see in the movies.
It’s Friday night in the club, a safe space for you to dance ’til you can’t anymore.
“Sandstorm,” your anthem…
I found my first gay tribe in the walls of an EDM-filled room, black painted walls and high neon signage. Enough room on the dance floor to basically become a mosh pit of jumping young adults. The club we all knew as Axis. My Friday night ritual: get all dolled up in themed outfits of the ’90s, queer club kid culture. Bathe in some fruity body spray: Love Spell. Match my visor to my shirt. Spiked bleach blonde hair, perfectly coiffed. Beaded bracelets in all the colors of the rainbow, stacked from wrist to forearm. New shoes, new accessories, new look: weekly.
These were the days when bills and responsibility were not priority. I had four roommates, shared a bunk bed with a friend, and let go of so many cares in the world. This was right at the beginning of my coming out days; when I was catching up for all the missed opportunities to be queer and youthful. I was almost 20, a baby lesbian… well, at least finding myself. I found friends who became family. I found a family to belong to and learn from: my drag family.
That’s when I truly began to find Sean…
In my school days, before coming out, I had participated in theater— plays or the occasional church road show. I found myself comfortable, hiding in plain sight in “men’s” clothes and roles. I gravitated to masculine presentation. I looked the part for all the slurs spit at me in the halls. Inside, I crumbled at the harsh words, fearing that I was exactly what they were saying I was. I feared the rejection of my friends who stood up for me— if only they actually knew how I felt.
The kids I knew to be queer were so brave. I tried to be close to them without giving myself away. I asked them how it felt to be so open, if they feared the bullying. Many gave the answer that they didn’t give a fuck what others were saying. It wouldn’t change them; it couldn’t change them. Why fight it?
I had so much to lose before I was able to freely say the words, “Jenny, you are in fact a lesbian. You actually belong with this group. You need to accept yourself.”
My only regret: I wasn’t brave sooner. Except I would not have experienced or had the chance to understand love, loss, and the real pursuit of happiness.
Love… my first love, my high school sweetheart. He was an amazing man. I did love him, for what I knew love to be at that point in my life. He held my hand, proud to be with me. He didn’t care I wasn’t like all the other girls. He held my secret just as much as I did. I didn’t know he carried that burden for as long as he did.
I’d found myself needing to connect with others that were like me. I didn’t know where to find my community outside the few people in school who were out. I couldn’t ask my friends for advice about the feelings I had. I certainly couldn’t ask my boyfriend about them either.
The glow from the screen, the only light in the dark room. He lay next to me, asleep— or so I thought. I signed on, the dial up tone pinging an echo in an all too quiet home of his out-of-town parents. The only chance to seek more, sneaking into a chat group. I typed the words slowly, my heart racing…
I began with a short intro, using an alias— Sam or some shit like that. I was so nervous, seemingly holding my breath for what felt like a lifetime. The room began directing comments my way. FRESH MEAT to be had.
“Hi, I might not belong here. I’m laying next to my boyfriend, with thoughts that I may be bisexual. I just need to ask a few questions…or connect…”
Shit…they are actually replying to me. What were you thinking? Run.
Except I didn’t. I sat there, as night turned to morning, and I assumed I was the only one reading the answers… and random advice, and… flirting…
I wasn’t sure when he “caught” me, but he’d read enough to know exactly what was going on in my head. Yet he carried that through graduation. He carried that through our first breakup, getting back together, trips and leave, and planning our future together.
He carried that through giving ourselves to each other. Through the letters and calls while he trained in the Air Force or deployed halfway around the world. He carried that right up to the very last moment in which I couldn’t hold it back anymore. I couldn’t even tell him without writing it. I was so ashamed of my truth, that I let that get between the friendship I didn’t want to lose.
It wasn’t the only thing I was holding back from him…
We’d conceived. I lost. In a moment in which I felt utterly alone, Motherhood bled from me before I could even consider what type of life I could give this baby of ours. Too young, scared I was loosing everything. I mourned in secret. I let the loss and pain of a life I carried for a brief moment be this new secret. A D&C, without a hand to hold through the stages I was about to face. I had to carry on like nothing was wrong.
It was all wrong.
Then I met her, my first girlfriend, while the man I waited for— waited to tell him the truth— served his country on the other side of the world. It was perfect…ly complicated. She had her own boyfriend. I had mine. We had each other.
It was a flash of a relationship, so hurtful as she threw my deceit in my face. She broke me. She broke me enough that I knew I couldn’t hold any of these secrets anymore. I had to tell the man I loved what I’d been carrying for so long.
It ended our future plans. It ended the dreams we had together. It ended our commitment. It ended my obligation to tell him I’d lost our child, as it felt like it didn’t belong to anyone but me.
His hate and anger lived on his lips for only a few minutes, the letter I dreaded in return. We’d planned a Christmas call. Little did I know that was the very day he opened that “Dear John” letter in which the first sentence read: I can’t continue to lie to you, I’m a lesbian.
He finally had reason to let go of the secret he carried from high school. He knew, even then, as he’d been watching me that night in his bedroom. He was angry and then he wasn’t. He wanted this to work in our relationship. But fairness.
It wouldn’t be fair to him that I held half of me for something else. It wouldn’t be fair to me to not live my truth. It would eventually ruin our friendship. That was not something I was willing to let go of, to try and make it work. The conversation ended, with no room to tell him any details; he just knew that I’d been seeing another woman.
He was a part of my past that absolutely helped shape my future. He was with me, holding my hand in high school, while hate spilled across the halls as I was outed by others before I even knew myself. He was there, in my heart, as I lost our child we’d not get the chance to meet. He was with me still, in the nights at the club, the thought of him elsewhere while I tried to figure myself out.
I had to explore versions of myself with people who I could turn to. After it ended, I spiraled into a world I wasn’t as prepared to explore. I primped to go out, eager to try on a persona opposite myself. Drag was the answer.
When I dressed in drag, this time among people like me, I was still young and naive. I was ready to move on from the shell of my past; he was there in my mind as I began to build what type of man I wanted to become: one who would stand up to the hate. One who would not let the secrets one carries be a divide in relationships. One who forgave.
While time has passed, many things have happened in our lives since our young adult days. The bad memories fade and the lessons learned are many. The journey continues, beyond youth into a middle life where the pace seems different.
Yet the anthem still calls, and I still dance, the beat setting my soul free.
Sean Childers-Gray is a designer, writer, trans advocate, and educator. This essay was originally published on his Substack, The Shape of Our Dignity.
Header photo by Mark Angelo Sampan, edited by the author.