John Brooks, Frankfort, Kentucky
On the word “queer”
I turned 40 in early March, so I grew up mostly in the 1980s. When I was a kid, I never heard the word queer unless it was a slur hurled by people usually my parents’ age or older. In my memory, queer was usually plural and preceded by the word fucking, and it most often seemed to be a general complaint or a way to scapegoat, rather than a denigration aimed at a specific person. But as a kid, you often don’t realize what is specific and what is general. Adults have a way of coding language that feels confusing and dirty and forbidden.
Queer wasn’t a word kids my age used; if they wanted to insult they would do so with the word fag, and fag was an epithet that I got accustomed to hearing said about myself a lot.
I was born and raised in Frankfort, which essentially functioned as a small town. I went to a small Catholic school and was mostly miserable. I was an earnest, smart, sensitive, somewhat effeminate boy who was naturally inclined to want to do well and please adults, all of which is a great recipe for being teased, which I was. Mercilessly. Thankfully I never suffered any physical bullying, but I was teased and taunted to no end. Those wounds cut deep and I still carry them with me. I cried a lot. I wanted to run away (I even did once, briefly) and start again.
I fantasized about moving to Iceland (which seemed remote enough that no one would find me) and either starting a new life there or (I have never told anyone this) living as a girl for a while before returning to Frankfort and my Catholic school as this new girl.
I did not want to be a girl, was not confused about my gender identity but the teasing was so relentless that it seemed a logical solution to my problems.
If everyone seemed to think I was so “girlish,” maybe it was better to just become the thing they thought I was.
I’m glad I didn’t do that, of course, because that wasn’t who I really was. I was just a boy who liked other boys. So simple! It took me a long time to realize that, or at least to admit it.
I neither understood the measure of my sexuality nor the measure of myself, but I just knew that the way I related to other boys was different than the way that they seemed to relate to each other.
As a kid, I knew no gay people, had no idea of visible gay role models, so being gay not only seemed like something that wasn’t an option, it was something that seemed terrible and forbidden (which was what the Catholic Church taught and still teaches). My only exposure to gay people was what filtered through cable television, mainly HBO, MTV, and occasionally on the Golden Girls, none of which I was technically allowed to watch.
Elton and Annie
I have two vivid memories that stick out: the first – I think it must have been broadcast on HBO – was catching a glimpse of Elton John performing on his Live in Australia tour, dressed as Mozart in a costume designed by Bob Mackie. I remember being intrigued and befuddled. I asked my mom why he was dressed that way. She hesitated, then replied, “Well, John, he’s a homosexual.” My mom is a kind person (and has been supportive as an adult) and I don’t think she meant this response to be unkind; it was simply factual. But it stuck with me.
If I was a homosexual, is that what I was, how I was supposed to be? Flamboyant and sensational?
I didn’t think it felt like me. But there was an otherness in Elton which I felt drawn to. But it was Annie Lennox toward whom I felt the most affinity. Ironically, she isn’t (to my knowledge) part of the LGBTQIA+ community, but she is most certainly some kind of other. Perhaps all great artists are. The first time I saw the video for Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” I was completely transfixed. I had to know – who was this creature, dressed in a man’s suit and bright orange buzz cut? She sounded like a woman but dressed like a man, and did it all with confidence and the most incredible presence.
Annie’s image was the first time my eyes were opened to the weird, artistic other world that existed beyond the borders of Franklin County and Kentucky. Even thinking about that image now gives me the strength to remember to be as weird as I want to be.
But neither Annie or Elton were in my real life. And I was stuck with the ever-increasing weight of my different sexuality. I prayed it away, prayed to be relieved of it, to be relieved of myself. Prayed to be someone else. None of that worked, of course.
FORE! Gay Golfer?
The teasing continued through the early parts of high school, but thankfully a couple of things happened: I made some great friends who were supportive of my full self, even if I wasn’t yet out to them, and I also became known as a golf star (yes, you read that right), so my identity expanded.
I was no longer just that fag, I was that fag who was also really good at something, which caused my peers to start to look at me differently. That isn’t to say that the teasing stopped, but it lessened because, I think, I started being seen as a more complex human being. (The teasing really only stopped when one day I responded to my chief tormentor by saying: “Yes, I am gay. Why, are you interested in me?” He never teased me again).
My view of identity is that it is complex, and that complexity should be celebrated and cultivated. I describe myself as a gay man, but I have come to see the appeal of the term queer when applied to the larger community, and I’m happy to be considered part of that community, though queer is not a word I would use to describe myself. I don’t think my sexuality defines me, and it probably isn’t the most interesting thing about me.
I’m also an artist, a poet, a husband, a poodle-dad, a son; I’m interested in the natural world, literature, music, cooking, and am passionate about cars; I’m an agnostic and have suffered from severe depression most of my life; I like traveling; I played high school and college golf and participated in three USGA national championships and the prestigious Links Trophy Championship at St. Andrews, Scotland; I’ve lived in Charleston (South Carolina), Lexington, Orlando, and have spent 9 of the last 16 years in Louisville, with several years in between in London, England and Chicago, Illinois; my partner Erik and I have been together for almost 16 years, and we’ve been married for almost 4. All of those things – and more! – comprise my identity.
My advice to any young person coming to terms with their identity is to just let it develop, let it unfold. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t be defined by any one aspect of yourself. Being and becoming a human being is a complicated process and that is ok. As a member of the queer community, I am most certainly an other, but I don’t think am only an other. As a young person – most notably on my college golf team, where my perceived sexuality became a huge problem for the coach and many of my teammates – and even sometimes as an adult, my otherness has been both a hindrance and an asset – but I refuse to be defined only by my sexuality.
People often want to define and limit other people, to distill them down to the simplest form, in order to classify and categorize them.
Why does it have to be so? Because I am gay doesn’t make me any less of a golfer. Because I am a golfer doesn’t make me any less of an artist or a gay person. I am a part of all of those communities.
I would advise young people (and anyone, really) not to dismiss anyone outright because their sexuality, politics, religion, or any other number of variables differ from your own. (There are, of course obvious exceptions like outright racists, Nazis, and Donald Trump). It is wonderful to be able to highlight and celebrate our differences and our otherness, but we should also find ways to connect to other human beings because, like it or not, we are all connected. I try to remember our nation’s original motto: E pluribus unum – “out of many, one.” Our society and our planet would be much better off if we could find more ways to connect to each other.
“My scene is my studio…”
I’m not really sure what comprises the “mainstream” queer community, so I am not sure I am a part of it. Drag culture, bar culture, dance culture – none of those are really my scene, but I celebrate their existence. I’d like to feel I’m welcome at any of those places, and for anyone to feel welcome in any of my spaces.
My scene is my studio, my home, the woods. I feel at my best with my partner, or my friends, or in the mornings walking in the woods with my standard poodle Ludwig, listening to birds, watching the world as it is. I feel at my best when I’m writing or painting. I feel at my best when I’m in Berlin, or London, both of which I consider alternate home places, or at the top of a small mountain on a Greek island listening to the sound of nothing but the wind. I feel at my best when I am connecting with nature, with the natural world, with something grander and greater than myself. I like feeling diminished, unimportant, like a nothing. I think it’s grounding and very healthy to be reminded of all of the happenings in the universe that have absolutely nothing to do with me.
Becoming a human being is a lifelong process – ideally we never stop growing and developing. As a kid, I was influenced by my parents, my grandparents, particularly my paternal grandfather, who was a talented artist but wasn’t able to pursue his passion because of familial and financial responsibilities. He also fought in five major campaigns in WWII; his intelligence, decency, and strength continue to influence me even though he has been gone nearly a decade. Musical artists like Annie Lennox, Joni Mitchell, Michael Stipe, Natalie Merchant, Leonard Cohen, Marianne Faithfull, Patti Smith and Tracy Chapman, writers like Margaret Atwood, Hermann Hesse, Milan Kundera, Christopher Isherwood, Robert Walser, J.M. Coetzee, James Baldwin, William Carlos Williams, Matsuo Basho, Kobayashi Issa, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Nikki Giovanni, Mary Oliver, Joan Didion, artists like David Hockney, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann, Pablo Picasso, JMW Turner, Marlene Dumas, Philip Guston, Peter Doig and Mies van der Rohe have all influenced my life. And, of course, my partner Erik, with whom I have developed and cultivated a life.