love letter to us.
by Michael King
Red. It’s a warm night in Astoria, and we’re en route to a Korean chicken restaurant. For a Friday, the city feels a bit sleepy, lamplight pouring out of apartment windows, but we’re a walking commotion. Eight gay men, brought together only recently, already in the habit of greeting each other like family.
For the moment, I fall to the middle, momentarily quiet, following somebody else’s lead. I glance beside me and notice a friend also walking in silence. I ask a question, innocuous, and he answers. A few sidewalk cracks later, he confesses he hasn’t come out to his parents. I can feel his eyes studying my reaction.
I’m not sure what to say, but I want to get it right. I think back to the days before I told my family, the weight of holding two lives at once. You’re wonderful, I say, and they may not know it yet, but, if they let themselves see you fully, they’ll love you even more.
His eyes water, and so do mine. Pride month, and it feels like we’ve come so far, and we’re still battling ourselves just to believe we deserve to be seen and loved.
We fall back into step, rejoining the group conversation. Giiirl! We toast, laugh, pose for pictures together, arms wrapped around one another. Hold each other, and –– some nights –– hold one another together.
Orange. I spent the summer of 2013 as an intern in Indianapolis, and my first boyfriend spent the long weekend with me there. His own internship was unpaid, so those were days of stretching resources thin –– pasta with butter and pepper, cookout food taken home in plastic tubs. If we can make it through this, he’d joke, we’ll make it through anything.
He was wrong, but neither of us knew it at the time. We were in our young twenties, and love, honest love, was new for both of us. We’d no imagination it might crumble. So we carried on mapping out futures in sidewalk chalk, not yet introduced to the concept of rain.
Yellow. The first time they told me their pronouns, I thanked them for sharing them with me. I would then go on to mistakenly call them ‘she’ or ‘her’ a dozen times, each time stammering to correct myself. Dude, they’d say, it’s fine.
I met them as a first-year student moving into my residence hall. They were nervous, eyeing the front desk warily beside their parents, as I walked out of my apartment. Can I help you, I asked, and then gave them some resources and invited them to hall council. They ran for a position that week, and they won by a wide margin.
One night, I walked out of the building to find them sitting on a bench alone. It was around ten o’clock, and I’d just committed to the mistake of a late-night food run. I almost breezed past them with a mere wave, but my intuition pulled me back. I talked to them, for a minute, about some of what they were carrying. I wished them good night, got into my car to drive, and traveled instead to the store, where I bought them a pack of happy socks. To this day, we exchange bright socks.
One day, after I used the wrong pronouns, and they promised I was fine, I told them no. It’s not fine. You matter to me, and I will do better.
Green. Metro Nightclub is a gay bar on Massachusetts Avenue in Indianapolis, Indiana. The first time I stepped into it –– the first moment I ever spent in a gay bar –– I discovered I was holding my breath. I was a little worried I’d see somebody who knew me.
I was with my boyfriend and a few of our shared friends. Let’s go hit up some gay bars, one of them said, probably hoping to help us get more comfortable being ourselves out in the open.
Our first steps were tentative: Captain and Diet from the bartender (did you hear, he called me ‘honey’), glances around the room, scattered rainbows and pulsing music. Eventually, smiling, I grabbed his hand. His eyes widened, and he squeezed in return.
Our first time being able to do this, be together, in front of other people. Later, we danced, laughing like children. We stopped, and he grabbed my face, pulled me into a kiss.
A few years later, I awoke to news of a disastrous shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. My heart sank, and I wept as the reported death count grew higher and higher. All those people, beautiful and brave and resilient, walking into a place they could simply be.
I opened my social media, unsure of what to say.
If I am ever killed for who I am, let my life be a love letter to courage, authenticity, and love itself.
Blue. Queer people are often commended for our courage and strength. It’s remarkable you’re so brave, people will say, or, you’re one of the strongest people I know. These are wonderful things to hear, great ways for us to feel powerful as we face down the various mountains in our paths. They’re also, for better or worse, often the only option we have.
I don’t know the journey of every queer person, but I do know that most of us had to wrestle with dilemmas not faced by our peers. When you contend with the idea that being yourself might cost you the love of your family, the welcome of your church, the safety of your body, you’re forced to tap into whatever wellsprings of courage or strength live within you.
I tattooed ‘brave’ on my arm, something I did for myself, a reminder and an encouragement. Sometimes, when somebody’s eyes travel to my forearm, I wonder what assessment they’re making about me. How do I explain to someone the depth of this word’s impact on my footsteps here?
We are brave, and we are strong. To get where we are, we had to, at the very least, risk letting go of things and people and communities that made us feel safe. Some of us, maybe most of us, lost important things along the way. The roads to our honest selves are littered with ideas and communities and people that might have convinced us to shrink.
Violet. Love letter to you, the nineteen-year-old boy who sobs in his bedroom after learning his girlfriend is realizing his secret. Love letter to the way your hands go gentle for others, never in fists for very long. Love letter to the strength you find to ignore the notes slipped into your locker, to all the moments you find joy despite the weight of holding your heart beneath the surface of water.
Love letter to the Britney Spears cassette you listen to on repeat, dancing behind your bedroom door. Love letter to all the times you stammer no to are you gay, to the way those build to the moment you stammer I’m gay, to the way you say it today, unapologetic, certain. Love letter to the way your hands reach for other people still married to the idea that, if they shrink some parts of themselves, then they will be worth loving.
Love letter to the night your heart first truly breaks, the way you spill in ribbons across the floor, calling your younger sister and eventually laughing, heartbreak is fucking terrible. Love letter to your wide-eyed sincerity, the way you hold onto it despite the breaks in the road that might convince you otherwise. Love letter to the strength that swells in gentleness, to the courage that blooms from forgiveness’ branches.
Love letter to life in every color, to the pain and hope and love and trying again, to the days of shaking in our honest steps, to the nights of holding one another together, to the mornings of beginning again. Love letter to you, me, them, us, all of it, proud and brave and sincerely alive. Love letter to love is love is love is love is love.