Today marks the official end of my 20s. As a gay man, I know I should fear the Gay Death—the impending loss of my youth and desirability, or whatever, that comes with turning 30, but I super don’t.
A. I'm black so I'll look like this for the next 30 years.
B. I’ve always had a thing for daddies, so…
C. My 20s were a mass of insecurities, rage, and sadness, punctuated by the disappointment that comes with an ambition that outweighs one’s means and an optimism blinded by the harsh light of reality.
Now don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed my 20s. I drank all the drinks, did all the drugs, got thrown out of the finest establishments, banged some really hot dudes and yet somehow managed to avoid getting any STDs. All in all, I had a good run. Miraculous, really. But I’m glad I’m finally turning 30. I’m overfuckingjoyed.
But in a way, I am dying. My 20-something self—that hot mess piece of garbage rolling around in the gutter—is dead. Sweet gal, but she was a handful. These 30 thoughts are my attempt to exorcise some of the pain, anger and hurt that have hindered and hobbled me most of my adult life—as well as to relish in the 30 years of it that I have been lucky enough to turn. If you can take something from them, well, all the better.
Here’s to growing old with whatever dignity I have left.
1. Friends are family.
My friends have been the great loves of my life. Propping me up, both figuratively and literally, with their love and support when I didn’t have it for myself. I can confidently say I would never have made it to 30 without them. I’ve slept on their couches, eaten their food, borrowed money that both of us know I’m not paying back—and they’re still hanging around. Because they love me, yes, but I think they also believe in me and see something that I perhaps can’t always see. We can’t choose our families, but the family I have made has saved my life.
2. Other gay men are not the enemy.
For a while, I hated gay men. Honestly, I still kind of do. It’s hard not to. The looks of downright derision you’ll receive in a gay bar, the string of unanswered emails littering my outbox, the innate competitiveness among us—as men and as minorities—that comes off as just plain cruelty in the waning hours of the night. In an article for The Advocate, one queen, defending hookup apps on their impact on “gay culture” wrote, “Gay men have always hunted for sex, objectified each other, and treated each other poorly.” But that misses the point. The truth is, the majority of gay men that I’ve met over the years—whether through friends or through apps—are almost all uniformly amazing. Incredibly smart, talented, cultured, and successful. If anything, being gay is a gift and so we shouldn’t treat each other poorly. Not when there’s a world out there all-too-ready to do that for us, and not when there’s so much non-physical beauty within our little sexual ghetto.
It took me a while, and I’m still learning, that other gay men don’t intend me harm. We’re all looking for something to make us more whole—whether it’s an actual hole or something more filling (ha!)—and in that pursuit we don’t consider each other’s emotions. Probably because as men we don’t do well at considering emotions—our own, let alone each other’s. Maybe it just takes getting older or maybe the kids coming up now know something we don't: They can see positive, numerous, and varied depictions of gay life that were all but absent in my youth.
3. Grindr is not the enemy.
I credit this article I wrote on quitting hookup apps for "launching" my career in its current incarnation. It was written out of desperation, after years of groping blindly, hoping to find something real I could hold onto in a digital world of torsos and dick pics. Sure they breed cowardice, exacerbate racism and internal homophobia, further complicate making genuine connections, and also spread rudeness like the plague. But Grindr and all the others, at the end of the day, are just apps and we have the autonomy to use them any way we choose. Love is everywhere and you can find it anywhere—maybe even a few hundred feet away.
Still, the biggest failure of my life to this point has been my inability to find romantic love. Whenever I tell anyone that I’ve never been in a relationship, they immediately look at me as if I’ve suddenly grown a second head. I’ve always prided myself on being able to accomplish whatever I put my mind to, but dating in New York as a gay man of color is something I could never hope to understand. I thought I had found it once, love, but it was just some silly dream I had. It's a silly dream to fall in love with someone who’s incapable of loving you back. But for a brief, shining moment I knew what love was. I never thought I would. When I thought he might feel the same way, the world opened up. Everything seemed brighter. I was free. Before being plunged into the dark once the truth revealed itself. He was afraid of my love—so was I—so sudden, so intense and looking back on it, so innocent. He had been hurt as so many have and as I would only learn; he feared my love that it would bind him when I only wanted us both to be free. Together.
5. Heartbreak is not the end of the world.
I thought I was going to die. I wanted to die. The first time I fell in love, I was 27. I never got to experience teenage heartbreak as I never got to experience teenage romance and teenage relationships. He came to me like a star in the night, where I had been waiting, burning alone for millennia, only to realize his light was a distant memory that perhaps no longer existed. I thought I would die alone, that I would never feel this way about someone again, that no one would never feel this way about me.
But I'm prone to dramatics and fatalistic thinking. Of course it still hurts, and being my first heartbreak, I don't think I'll ever truly get over it, but I also can't wait around for someone to fall in love with me. If I learned anything through the ordeal, it's that I have to try. Telling him I was in love with him was the bravest thing I ever did. It didn't turn out the way I had hoped, but at least I tried. God did I try. So I can't have any regrets about what transpired because I did my best. I guess in this case, it's better to have said "I love you" and lost than never to have said "I love you" at all.
6. “Hold fast to dreams”
This Langston Hughes poem has stuck with me since childhood—because it’s eight lines and was one of the first things I memorized and—because it took on greater significance as I grew older:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow
As you grow older, your dreams grow older too. They don't seem as realistic, as vital as they once were. You start to settle, to give up on your dreams, in effect giving up on life. Even if I fall short of my dreams, the journey alone is worth it.
7. Cash Rules Everything Around Me.
Some people don't like to talk about money. Those are people who usually have it. As I've never had much to speak of, it's often all I talk about. My 20s were all about that starving artist life, which got real old. Real quick. Often I've wondered why I couldn't just work a normal job and get a normal paycheck like everyone else. Then I remember, oh right, I did. And I hated it. I could have a stable 9 to 5 if I wanted; a 401k; I could not live in a trap house; I could do a lot of things. But I'm doing this because in effect I can't do anything else. Writing has been my passion and salvation and has taken me far from that bespectacled voguing queen you see above. No, I haven’t chosen the easiest life for myself. Or the most rewarding. Or the most lucrative. But in many ways it chose me. And I’ve found something perhaps greater than money (for now): my voice. The money will, hopefully, come, but one can’t put a price on creative expression, especially when it’s all but forbidden in some parts of the world.
8. The whole is greater than the individual.
Millennials are often accused of being self-centered to the point of solipsistic. Indeed, I am far and away my favorite subject. I'm very well-versed in me. But my generation, for all its numerous faults, is the most connected of any prior; we’re more informed—what we do with that information is up for debate. With so much knowledge at our disposal it's lazy and irresponsible not to use it. Knowledge is like love—you first have it for and of yourself, then your surroundings and finally the world. The older I get the more I want knowledge of the world and the more I want to make sure I'm contributing something to make it better, no matter how small.
9. Pride is as much asset as liability.
Pride has often been the only thing I have in the world, but at the same time it has prevented me from asking for help when I needed it most. It gets in the way and makes life harder than it needs to be. It's important, however, to differentiate between pride and a lack of shame. I have an abundance of both, and they tend to cancel each other out, which in mathematical terms, leaves me with approximately:
10. Just let it the fuck go.
There are two things that I'm great at holding: my booze and a grudge. I'm a Scorpio so I attest at least one of those qualities to that. Holding onto anger, though, just corrodes me from the inside. It's unhealthy and it's tiring. I mean, how many revenge schemes can I realistically pull off in my lifetime? Two...three dozen, at best. And that just scratches the surface of my mental enemies list. So it's time to just—
Let it go.
11. “Masculinity” is bullshit.
What is “masc” anyway? Is it having a beard, or hair on your chest? Is it working out, drinking beer, or playing sports? Is it not having a sibilant lisp or a limp wrist or being unable to walk in a slingback? I was Barbie-toeing out the womb so I never stood a shot and was always resentful of gay men's obsession with masculinity. Especially when gender is so fluid and, for me, part of being gay was the fact that I didn’t have to conform to this so-called masculine ideal. But for gay men, masculinity represents a number of things, from sexual desire to personal insecurities, internalized homophobia and probably some daddy issues. Because it’s so many different things to so many different people, why does it even matter? One of the greatest things I’ve ever seen was this giant man—he looked like the Brawny paper towel guy,red flannel shirt and all—getting a manicure in the West Village. It was basically Bugs Bunny and Gossamer from Looney Tunes come to (and giving me) life:
It was amazing, but it also proved to me that masuclinity is not being a man, it's simply acting like a man. It's all an act. What do flannel shirts matter except for the people in them? If we could only all dip our patties in the water of acceptance.
12. It’s OK to like white boys.
I can’t begin to tell you how much guilt I have had over liking white boys. It felt not only like a betrayal of my race, but an indictment of my own blackness. I don’t think white boys have guilt over liking black boys, but from the discussions I’ve had with other black gays—the struggle is real. It’s as if we’ve been trained to love all that is white—through the media and through centuries of complicated history—but when we reach out to touch what we’ve been programmed to desire and it doesn’t respond to our touch, or recoils, it leaves a scar.
I'm not going play the "I find every race attractive" card—even though I do—but if I'm being honest, I definitely have a weakness for white boys. It's not a preference because race is not a preference. There's just this insecurity within me about what it means if I like white guys more than black guys—does it mean I don't love myself, that I don't love being black, that I'm a hypocrite? Fuck. After a while, I have to ask myself: can a bitch just find a man and not have it be some political act, or a social commentary?
The sooner I get over whatever guilt I feel about my attraction, the sooner I can find something resembling an actual relationship.
13. I am more than my body.
I didn't get what one might call “hot” until well into my 20s. I was a chubby kid: nerdy, effeminate, weird. I was pretty awesome. But I was chubby, and 'til this day, I still feel like that chubby, nerdy, effeminate, weird kid. Still pretty awesome, but plagued by body dysmorphia. When I started working out in earnest, the boys took notice, and as the boys took notice, my body dysmorphia worsened. I was never big enough, never ripped enough, never achieving the body I had craved as a child still figuring out the basis of my desire, and constantly comparing myself to others who had, erupting into a cycle of shame and, ultimately, more working out.
My body became a crutch. Instead of focusing on what else I had to offer, I offered my body.
Though it was never that religious of an experience.
14. I am more than my sexuality.
I identify as queer. Gay defines my primary sexual attraction, whereas queer is my view of the world. When I was first coming to terms with being gay and what that meant, I immersed myself in gay history, gay film, gay literature. I saw myself as a gay man, first and foremost, until I realized that's not necessarily how the world saw me. And I also realized, concurrently, that there was no real “gay community” to speak of. That was something that existed before people were out and free to be who they were and when being gay or straight were the only choices. I had to get over being gay in order to embrace the other facets of my identity and of my personality.
15. I am more than my race.
I began to come to terms with my race the same way I came to terms with my sexuality: by reading a lot. I read Roots, The Souls of Black Folk, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Beloved last year to better understand the black struggle in America. But in understanding that I began to understand my identity as an American, which I never truly identified with. I was born in Guyana and am still technically a citizen there, but most of my life has been spent as an American. And all that entails. Meaning the deeply entrenched racism of this country affects me whether identify as American or not. Meanwhile, my Guyanese heritage has informed my experiences as well, as discussed in this excellent opinion piece in The New York Times by trans Caribbean author, Gabrielle Bellot, or the Man Booker Prize-winning novel by out Jamaican author Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings. Dealing with the intersections of one’s race and sexuality, as well as cultural homophobia and the racism within the gay community is draining and depressing, but as the books I read to better understand what it meant to be black like me, sharing those experiences speak volumes.
16. I am not disposable.
I'm going to tell you a little story I plan on turning into a much longer story some day. I went on a date with a guy who was otherwise perfect on paper. He was gorgeous, Ivy League-educated and had an ass that must have been working overtime since it sure as hell wouldn't quit. We met where dick pics go to die, Adam4Adam, so I should've known that was the first warning sign. Our date wasn't until 2 a.m., which should've been the second. But he was nice enough, and having lowered the bar on kindness for attractive gay men in New York, I soldiered through.
What followed was an evening-into-morning after hours party where I was lucky enough to witness my date surround himself with a group of black dudes who were all too eager to ignore my presence all together. Then, with the sun coming up, we went to some other dude’s apartment, out came the drugs and about 10 more guys, and I got to watch my date get fucked by some of them.
We eventually got a chance to sit down and talk around noon, he bought me breakfast and we went our separate ways. He went back to the orgy after-party, and I went home wondering what the hell had just happened. Still, I texted him after the fact, in hopes of, I dunno, a real date—a real date that never manifested.
I saw him on Facebook the other day, a friend of a “friend,” and for some reason I requested his friendship. I was still desperate to have his validation. Why? To prove that I was smart enough, or sexy enough, or that I could hang? I had proven that at various stages of my life, why did I have to prove it in one night to one person who clearly didn't care one way or the other? Why did I want this guy who had treated me kinda nicely but mostly like a disposable, interchangeable piece of ass. He never accepted, and it's probably for the best. No matter how perfect on paper, because I deserve more. I deserve someone who doesn't treat me with actual kindness and consideration; someone who doesn’t treat me as if I'm disposable. At the very least, someone who doesn't have sex with other people on our first date.
17. Rejection is necessary.
One of my first memories of being gay in New York was going to the Stonewall for college night. It might have been my 18th birthday and I didn't have a lot of friends yet, but I went out with about three other kids from my dorm floor. There was this cute boy there—tall, white, nondescript but pretty—I had my eyes on. After some gentle prodding from my new friends, I went over to talk to him. What was the worse that could happen? I tapped him on his shoulder, intending to ask him to dance. He turned around, looked at me, then turned back around to his friends. I walked away dejected and with the unshakable feeling that this is what would happen to me every time that I tried talking to any guy. I've never really gotten over that defining moment and to this day I don't go up to guys that I'm interested in. Which is a shame. I much prefer to meet guys in a natural setting—as natural as a gay bar can be—but the fear and the insecurity grip me every time. How many opportunities have I missed because I shyly glanced away from meeting a stranger’s eyes across a crowded room? Or because I was too self-conscious to smile while passing on the street? Rejection happens to everyone, but it rarely has anything to do with the person being rejected.
18. Don’t take every thing so goddamn personally.
Rejection is the result of the cognitive dissonance between expectation and experience. I used to think it was due to some personal failure of mine, but then I got to see what it was like when the show was, reluctantly, on the other foot and I was the rejector. I really didn't know a damn thing about the person on the other end. It wasn't personal at all. Rejection happens in a snap. Either something rises inside of you or it doesn't, which is personal for everyone. So to that nondescript but pretty white boy on the dancefloor at Stonewall a million years ago, it's cool. Though a smile wouldn't have killed other of us.
19. Use a filter on more than just photos.
The desire to share everything is hard to resist in this world of instant gratification and/or disappointment. I'm as guilty of this as anyone—I mean, my sex life is more or less public knowledge at this point in the game—but I’ve always viewed it as my duty as a writer to be honest. No matter how hard or embarrassing or potentially incriminating in a court of law. I've also learned to reveal a lot without revealing anything at all. The idea of my life is an open book but the actual details are mine and mine alone. Privacy is now more privilege than right, but I've learned that doesn't mean I have to share everything that's happening. I quit all of my social media last year just to see what life would be like without it. I didn't miss it. I missed the people for which social media is our only channel of communication, but I didn't miss updating my status or tweeting my myriad thoughts on the MTA. I'm back now but with the understanding that my privacy is a privilege and is something I should work towards maintaining.
20. Smoke weed everyday.
Of all the rap lyrics that perfectly define my life—and there are a lot—Nate Dogg’s epilogue to Dr. Dre’s 2000 classic, “The Next Episode.” I've tried most drugs because I'm a curious bitch, but nothing does it for me as much as one Miss Mary Jane. It calms me and does wonders for the creative process. But that love, like all love, comes with a price. Over the summer, I got a ticket for smoking pot at Riis Beach, the gay-friendly but apparently weed-hostile beach in Queens. Now, I've been smoking in public in New York for about 10 years and considering that was the first time I got caught, I can't get too mad. Even though there were literally a dozen people around me also smoking who were less black than I, but whatever. It could have been a lot worse. Like if the cops did anything about the tiny bag of coke left over from the night before that they surely saw while rifling through my stuff.
Either way, lesson learned: use vaporizers.
21. Binge drinking is no one’s friend
Speaking of my run-ins with the law, I got arrested arrested last year. It was a rough year. Long story short, I was drinking on antibiotics, I went to a hookup that didn’t go well, cut to me bereft on the sidewalk slamming my hand into a shop window, which—to my surprise—broke. I had to get six stitches in my hand, spend 11 hours in jail, another three hours in court and $125 to clear my name. In comparison, getting caught with a roach on the beach cost me $250. The criminal justice system could do well to get its priorities in order, but my point is, booze will fuck your life up if you’re not careful. I’ve been blackout drunk all through my Twenties in New York and—thankfully—that’s the worst thing that’s happened to me. In all seriousness, I should probably be dead or in jail by now. Better luck next time, life/NYPD!
22. Confidence is the sexiest trait.
The best date I’ve had in a long while was with a pocket cub. Literally 5’5” of beard and sass. Swoon. He was also a teacher, which, for whatever reason, also turns me on. Furthermore, his Grindr profile said he was a “proud faggot” and nothing gets me going more than bucking unhealthy trends while subverting derogatory terms. Fellas, amirite?! We eventually met up and had a really nice date—it was so easy. It also made me realize that I’m as attracted to someone for their spirit and their energy as much as (or almost as much as) their physical attributes. There’s simply nothing sexier than the confidence to be yourself.
23. A sense of community is essential.
When was the last time you really got your life? You know, when everything in the world just lined up for you so that you could see the past, present and future as one glorious creation? For me, it was hanging out with the kids behind The Tenth Zine. I met two of the co-founders, Khary and Kyle, as part of some assignment I never did, but we soon hit it off and next thing you know, I’m writing for their second issue. After that had wrapped, Khary and Kyle had some of the Brooklyn-based contributors over to their studio for a kiki with BRIC, during which, and after, I got all of my life. Being around other artistic, queer, black dudes who fully understood, but were in no way limited by, the intersections of their identity was, in a word, life-changing.
24. It’s not “just sex.”
I talk a lot about sex. But like most people who talk a lot about sex, I don’t have it very often. I often go months without sex, to the detriment of my sanity, because sex is more than just a physical act for me. It's something spiritual and mental, something really beautiful that's tainted by having to say goodbye forever. I don't have sex so much as make love; when I love, I love with my entire body; and when I am hurt it is with my entire body. So casual sex doesn't exist as a concept for me.
25. Penetration is overrated.
Some of the best sex I’ve had didn’t involve penetration, but rather, hours of kissing, dry humping and cuddling. The traditional roles of top and bottom aren’t really necessary anymore, not when there’s a perfectly good mouth on your face.
26. Group sex: worth a shot or two.
I regard sex in the same way I do drugs: how do you know you like it if you don’t try it? The heterosexuals seem to finally be getting on the threeway, and occasional fourgy, train, but gay men have been partaking in group sex since...well, since gay sex was invented. Generally, group sex isn’t my personal jam—mostly because I don’t care for groups of people, naked or otherwise—but I’ve had decent experiences. I will say, there’s something to be said about a couple of naked dudes genuinely enjoying each other physically and sexually, but, also as with drugs: safety first, kids.
27. Open relationships are nothing to sneer at.
I’m never been in a relationship, so I’m not the best person to advocate for the best types, but I do know that they seem to work for my friends that have them. Open arrangements are not for everyone, and I can understand arguments against them, but I can also understand the need to spice up your love life every now and then. And while I believe in monogamy, I don’t think it’s necessarily the most practical or realistic thing for gay men, or even for 21st-century couples. I have, however, stopped hooking up with dudes in open relationships because I hate sharing.
28. Music is life.
I don't have much to say here so I'll just let the music do the talking. These are just a few tracks that have gotten me over:
29. Freedom is not being afraid.
Same. All my life I craved freedom but I don't think I understood what freedom truly was until I heard Nina Simone put it so eloquently and efficiently. Freedom is being unafraid of life, of failure, of rejection, of shame, of all the negative things I let bog me down in my 20s. I went through it and I came out the other side, fearless. Free.
30. I am enough.
If 20-something me was a handful, 30-year-old me is about to be the whole goddamn armload. Life hasn't always been easy or fair or even all that pleasant sometimes, but who am I to complain? I live in the most privileged country in the world, I make a living doing what I love and I can basically wear a onesie 24/7 if I wanted to. And have. It's been one hell of a ride so far and I like to think that I've learned from everything and that I regret nothing. I got through it! And sans hesitation but with a bit of reluctance, I must admit that I'm better for it, I'm happy I made it, and I don't want to do it again.
See ya in hell, 20s!
Les Fabian Brathwaite—grown woman doing, more or less, whatever I want.