I am Brian Kornell and I grew up in Mentor, Ohio, twenty miles east of Cleveland. Depending on where you were in the town you could see the skyscrapers of downtown. They were often hazy, just barely visible, but there was the idea of something bigger beyond where I was living.
There is being seen and there is being visible. They are different. Being visible is often a choice. You want to present yourself to the world and, sometimes, dare it to see you. Then, there is being seen. Being seen can happen when you least expect it, especially when you are trying not to be seen; you hide hoping not to be seen, you try to be invisible. As a gay man, I spent most of my life trying to be invisible.
Few people saw me. There was the man on my father’s indoor soccer league that declared me a sissy when I was seven years old. He tried to toughen me up by kicking me. Other men on the team stood around and watched this happen. I threw a soccer ball at his head, which surprised him enough to let me run away. My legs and back covered in bruises, later my father asked me if I was hurt. I said no.
There was the bully on the school bus that would mouth “elephant shoes” giving the impression that he was saying “I love you.” He would say to me, what am I saying? I dared not respond. I knew it was a trap. Another kid would tell me that a man can only tell another man he loves him if it is done in secret when no one can hear it. I stayed quiet.
Some kids would yell, “faggot,” as I walked the halls in school or shout it out from the school bus as it drove past me. School officials dismissed their behavior by saying it was a part of growing up. I know now that when you don’t speak up or act against homophobia, or any form of oppression like racism or sexism, you are passively contributing to the problem. My parents didn’t know how to help me. They said they never had this problem.
In the late eighties and early nineties, being gay was not something to be proud of. There were no safe zones in the school. There were no people around me who were out. Any of my teachers who may have been gay lived in secret. There were no out gay celebrities. Gay people were not visible. In the early 90s, gay men were either invisible or dying.
When I entered high school, I kept to myself to avoid potential bullies. One day, in my junior year, I arrived to school late while classes were in session. I was at my locker when Sheryl, a girl I had known since sixth grade approached me. We had barely spoken for the last three years, until this moment.
“I’m sorry,” she said to me.
“For what?” I said.
“He was your friend,” she said.
She was talking about a boy named Mike. The Principal had made an announcement that he had died the night before. It didn’t take long for word to get around that he had killed himself. I couldn’t place the name. It wasn’t until I saw a yearbook picture of him that I knew I had spoken to him once at school. He was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Madonna from her Truth or Dare movie. I’d asked him where he had gotten it. He said, “They’re sending me home to make me change my shirt. Don’t bother.”
That had been our only exchange.
“I didn’t know him.”
“Oh,” she said, and looked down.
“What makes you think I knew him?”
“Because,” she said, “You’re both. You know. Gay.”
I didn’t know what Mike’s experience at school was, but I imagine his experience was similar to many other LGBTQ youth.
Queer people are expected to be invisible. That is the horror of heterosexuality. It is the mask of invisibility that permeates the world we live in. Teachers and administrators dismiss bullying as part of growing up. Queer people are oppressed from an early age through binary constructions of gender that separate boys and girls, men and women, in public spaces. We are taught to internalize our homophobia—to dislike ourselves. We are taught not to be visible.
If there had been gay adults living openly, visibly as queer people, I would not have been left with an impression that being gay led to suicide. I did not want to be gay, but there were no visible models for me to understand what kind of life I could have. I suppressed my feelings to the point that I made myself believe that I was attracted to women.
Eventually, I met a woman I cared for. We got married. I didn’t love her the way she loved me, but I didn’t want to be alone for the rest of my life. Our marriage ended nine years later when I could no longer ignore that I was attracted to men. At the time I was finishing an M.F.A. in creative writing. I did not know whom to turn to for support, so as a writer and reader I turned to books. I couldn’t find any. All I had were my peers and professors and there wasn’t anyone who was outwardly or visibly queer. I was alone.
Today a growing number of public figures are openly queer. They celebrate their achievements in their biographies. They are easy to find. I look back and think about a different path that should have led me to those writers. To know that there were queer people like me would have saved everyone a lot of heartache and stress. Yet, for whatever reason, then and now, writers are still invisible.
How can queer writers who feel lost and alone find community if members of the community don’t want to be seen? Both young and old we need to see ourselves—we need to see and imagine our potential. It took me a long time to feel comfortable about being seen. I like to believe it was my writing that kept me going—it kept me alive. And living can and will be easier when queer writers stop being invisible.
Brian Kornell’s essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review online, The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, Older Queer Voices, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He received a Lambda Literary Residency fellowship to attend The Sundress Academy of the Arts residency as well as chosen as a Jane G. Camp fellow by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). His essay, “Goodbye: A Trilogy” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.