For more than half my life, I’ve lived in constant fear that my secret of being a gay man, who was a lifelong member of the Hip Hop community,
would be exposed. The heaviness that ensued while carrying this constant fear led me to do many things that were detrimental to my health, but shedding that trepidation led me to being the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life.
Growing up in New York during the ‘70s, I knew I was different from my male friends. I also knew (at an early age) that I was attracted to men. At that time, there was no talk of gay people and I could never comfortably join my peers when they awkwardly spoke about girls. I didn’t understand what was “wrong” with me and why I was different; I just knew I wasn’t like my peers. I very clumsily tried to come to terms with my truth while blindly finding my way through self-discovery.
My first experience with identifying myself as gay came with the AIDS epidemic of the mid ‘80s. It was the first time I heard someone speak about who and what gay people were and how they were seen by society. The only other examples of gay men I saw was through one of my mother’s friends and Billy Crystal’s character on Soap. Although I didn’t directly identify with the character or my mother’s friend, I could tell that people treated them differently and I couldn’t understand why. I did find myself connecting with the actor Rock Hudson. He was a gay man dying of AIDS who “acted straight” and was masculine enough not to “seem gay.” I was too young to recognize my own mortality, but I identified with a “normal” acting man that was attracted to other men. Despite having someone who I related to, I started thinking that the feelings I had could lead to my death.
By the time I reached high school, I realized that I didn’t find women repulsive but I wasn’t interested in dating or acting like them either. And from what I saw, gay men were “supposed” to act feminine and dislike women but I didn’t feel that way. I got these ideas from the discussions about Rock Hudson and how he “didn’t act like most gays.” Those ideologies were reinforced by society as homosexuality started to become less of a dirty secret.
During the same time, Hip Hop was exploding from local party music to a nationwide movement with a social message. Morphing into a culture that I deeply connected with, it started teaching me how to see the world. Hip Hop spoke of things that happened to my friends and I in ways that we could relate to. It helped me stay out of trouble and began as a path to me finding myself. But as I got older, it started to betray me as it began revealing that I was less than a man. Rap music started in on me too. Brand Nubian would rap things like, “Though I can freak, fly, flow, fuck up a faggot/I don’t understand their ways, I ain’t down with gay.” Other artists like NWA and Tribe Called Quest started telling me that I was soft and not a man, I was worthy of death, and that anyone like me were, “fucking freaks like Greeks.” I would rap along with the lyrics believing that they couldn’t have been talking about me because I wasn’t gay; I just liked men. Imagine singing along with music that said you were wrong and that nature made you a freak.
As the ’90s came in, it was very hard to find a rap song without someone using the term fag. It was used to attack one’s masculinity as if there was nothing masculine about being gay. It disturbed me to no end and I went overboard to act in ways that I perceived to be masculine. I started committing crimes, abusing women, and fighting. There was also no one in Hip Hop to look up to so I continued to hide who I was and acted like I was attracted to women.
Throughout high school and into my early twenties, I forced myself to try things I wasn’t interested in starting with alcohol. Malt liquor and 40’s were popular so I would get drunk to quiet my desires for men and force myself to have sex with women. After a few years, that no longer worked and I found a new drug; cocaine. Cocaine was a Godsend because it muffled my desires for men and made me only want the drug and nothing else. I would stay up for days consuming mass amounts of cocaine and crack as my tolerance to sniffing grew. While I steadily used drugs heavily, Hip Hop and mainstream society continued its relentless assault on my self-image. Fag was synonymous with anything that was soft, weak or worthy of nothing and deserving of death, and I knew I was a fag. I got deeper into crack and alcohol infused binges and tried to overdose several times. I figured, if I could smoke enough crack or drink enough liquor, it would all be over and I would no longer be confused or feel so lost.
Despite the homophobia, Hip Hop was there for me in every other way. It showed me the realities of others experiences and revealed how we could create change through words and have a revolution of the mind. But it wasn’t there for me on my path to discovering who I truly was. I would go to functions and spend most of the time staring at the ground out of fear that someone would see me looking at a dude too long. I never learned how to be around those I felt attracted to. Hip Hop taught my friends that but it didn’t teach me. It didn’t serve as that surrogate father figure like it did for so many others. It constantly bombarded me with lyrics about how I didn’t fit in.
I started surrounding myself with positive people and stopped looking to the culture that raised me to define me as an adult. I no longer dated women to fit in and began to accept who I was but remained in the closet in the Hip Hop world. Still not completely comfortable, I continued to hate others (and myself) while spitting lyrics that called for my murder and praised rappers who spit vile shit. I was so brainwashed to hate men who didn’t fit into the hyper-masculine world of Hip Hop, that I never gave myself a chance to really love who I was. Every event became a test of my ability to hold on to my sanity. I would try to balance being social without revealing my secret. I continued to lie about whom I dated, swapped the male names in my phone for female aliases, and even lied about a domestic abuse situation where I had my face shattered with 19 facial fractures so people wouldn’t know I was living with a man. Then, I contracted HIV.
For the first year, I considered it a death sentence and one that I rightfully deserved. After the shock of facing my own mortality, I saw it as a blessing and realized it could be used as a motivational tool to make changes in my life. I started making better decisions from a point of self-love instead of self-hate and began healing from the war zone that was my self-esteem.
Things got even better for me as I got older. I surrounded myself with better friends and ultimately got mentally healthy. And the biggest change came after my mother died. I really looked at my life, what my legacy would be, and how I could change that to be something larger and more positive. The decision to write this essay came with the price of letting go of the last bit of self-hate that Hip Hop and larger society had instilled in me over the decades.
My biggest hope is that someone will read this and understand that there is nothing wrong with being gay while being a part of the culture of Hip Hop. The Hip Hop community has more to offer those of us who are gay than slurs, slander, and hate. This community was built on love and overcoming shitty situations and there is a place for everyone who wants one. Things are really only as horrible as we allow them to be and there is always light at the end if we can find a way to see and reach for it.