When I was in elementary school, my grandma had a friend named Luís. He had a big and shiny baldhead. Every time he came to visit, he wore at least one piece of rainbow clothing. Usually it was a tight canvas belt (sometimes accompanied by a Richard Simmons-type sweatband). He walked with his head high and smiled whenever he could. Pride had found away into his skin despite the pain I’m sure he endured for being himself on streets that did not always know how to love him. He was the butt of some jokes after those visits to my house. To me, he was a caricature that I could not take seriously.

I couldn’t see myself in Luís. The sashay in his walk, the tightness of his clothes and the lingering “s” in his pronunciations all were cause to be made fun of after his visits. I remember mimicking him in a way that made my brother and grandma laugh. My impressions were funny enough that when my grandma told him I had done so, I was deeply embarrassed. I’m sure he laughed with her, but knew it wasn’t funny. He was my understanding of being gay and didn’t reflect who I saw myself to be. Gay felt distant during those years. Maybe I needed a different mirror.

In 7th grade I played cards at the concrete checkerboard tables in the yard of my school building during lunch whenever it was warm enough to be outside. I was usually one of the few boys amongst a circle of girls and it felt safer there. I could be the version of me that felt right. I didn’t hate playing sports; I hated the feeling of failing to be the boy most of my classmates expected me to be. The competitiveness in these sports often felt more like a race to gain points on masculinity score cards and less about winning at HORSE or a school-lunch inning of baseball. At the checkerboard tables all I had to do was play cards and sit around. There weren’t as many expectations in that corner of the yard. As a 5 foot-something middle school student who wore “husky” sized clothing I had enough angst. An added layer of social rejection and alienation was more than I wanted. Too often, I hid myself because I was the butt of gay jokes and I didn’t know how to love myself enough to stand up to the hecklers. Gay was something I could not be.

A friend told me once that when we begin to critique and question others, we must turn those questions and investigations onto ourselves. I spent a lot of years questioning people like Luís, my middle school self and whoever I was after that. The truth is that I’ve been trying to figure out what it means to be someone outside of these norms since before I had the words to describe these experiences and the thought to question them.

Even though it’s easier for me to identify with gay (in terms of defining my attraction to men), it is not the word I would choose to best describe this part of myself; it doesn’t feel like it completely fits who I am. It’s that shoe you buy in a half-size too big: It fits your foot, but not right. I can’t remember exactly when, but at some point in the last few years I learned about the term “queer”and that seemed more accurate for me. I don’t want to subscribe to any one label for fear of being boxed in again, but choosing queer creates political solidarity for me and offers a more nuanced understanding of my sexuality.

I do know I love men. In full honesty with myself, I’ve been attracted to other boys since at least 1st grade when I made my first best friend that wasn’t my brother. I’ve known since the first time I kissed another boy and that part of my being had finally shifted in a direction that made sense. I do know that I’ve become an excellent listener and observer in part because I spent too long studying everything and everyone around me to see if they could pick up on who I actually knew myself to be. I do know that I’ve been blessed to have people in my village that not only love me for who I am, but consistently invite me into spaces to grow that love and share it. I do know that accepting this truth of loving men has allowed me to love myself deeper and live freer.

My heart tells me that to live fully I must be myself fully, in all spaces, all the time. Directing that outward inquiry and questioning inward is not easy, but the necessity of that work is apparent because it is in those moments of rigorously and honestly loving myself where I can be the change I want to see. Nina Simone once said in an interview, “Freedom is no fear,” and I want to know what that feels like; I wish for that same liberty. A step towards that vision is constantly embracing and falling in love with my queerness.

Loving ourselves in a time when the visibility of the state’s trigger-happiness is at an all time high, in a year when there were 23 trans women (the majority of whom were Black) killed and too many LGBTQ folks of color still continuing to struggle to gain access to basic qualities of life, is a critical act. I love me for that. I love you for that.

Kleaver Cruz, is an Uptown, NY native, is a writer, dreamer and lover of travel. Cruz is also one half of the poetic duo, The Delta, which has performed at The Nuyorican Poet’s Café, Bowery Poetry Club as well served as judges for the Wordat4F Poetry Slam. His work has been featured on TravelNoire.com. racebaitr.com and African Voices Magazine among others. Cruz believes in the power of words because they allow him to write what didn’t exist when he needed it the most. He loves being Black and Latino with the understanding that for him they are two parts of a whole.

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