The Boy from Virginia leaves London (Chronicles of a Return Home)

February 12, 2012 around 4:00am

I crept into my shared Brixton flat still damp from the night out I’d had with my friends, a group I’d lovingly dubbed the BBoyz (which stands for both “Barcelona” boys and “Brown” boys). Somehow-as always-I’d allowed them to persuade me to spend “one more hour” out on the town and seeing as it was my final night in the United Kingdom, I obliged. I tossed my vintage London Fog trench onto my bed and tried to heat myself up. My tuxedo shirt was soaked though with my dance-sweat and my H&M combat boots needed to be peeled from me and packed into the suitcase I’d finished pre-loading only days before. It had been 2 years and one month that I’d spent in London, and the memories, trials and the overall tribulations had swarmed my mind in a rush of images. I blinked them away as I desperately tried to make sure I’d packed every single thing I needed and had all my alarms set so that I could hop on my one-way flight back to Virginia, a place I’d hadn’t lived consistently since I was 14 years old. Was home an accurate term for America anymore?

            I had so many thoughts (a trait that has seriously become my downfall), and as I tried to filter them and make sense of the flurry of emotions I only thought I’d prepared myself for, my mind kept going back and forth between two things: the death of Whitney Houston only 2 hours prior, and what would soon be the end of the life I’d created across seas. Between my grieving for Brandy Norwood (yes, I thought of her heavily at the time because Whitney was her mentor) and trying to process how such a legend could be snatched away from this earth, I only kept thinking that if I were to die, I’d need to leave behind something of which I could be ultimately proud. I didn’t know what that would be back then, and even today, I’m not sure if what I have to give to this world is as significant as my voice. Yet, maybe the idea is merely to give freely of oneself in the best way you know how. Even in love; give. The taking is easy. The giving is courageous.

            I’d given so much of myself to a country that had given me the worst exit process ever. Getting out of college wasn’t as difficult as leaving the United Kingdom (Thanks UK Border Control…), though even that was hard too, if I recall correctly. But unlike other places I’d given myself to, I felt like things were actually reciprocated in London. When I laid a foundation, my English universe around me helped me build a house. And I felt that in my journey to the past (England is five hours ahead of Virginia), I’d be demolishing the house that Tommy built. So I did the only thing I knew how to do in my mind: Deny.  I denied that I was leaving for good and vowed to return if it was the last thing I did. So, with prayers for Whitney Houston and her family on my heart, prayers for my safe return home in about 6 hours, and a body that had finally got some heat from my duvet, I warmed up to the idea that a return home was not permanent and would ultimately be for the best.

 

February 12, 2012 around 9:00am

If I dreamed at all that night, I’m sure it was about something fun because I awoke prepared and with no fear.

My best friend -an Italian gent and former RSAMD classmate who I considered family-called my phone to tell me he was ready to accompany me to the airport. It was time. The leaving was real and I couldn’t deny it any further. So he’d come to flat early in the morning to help me schlep my luggage to the airport via the Tube system.. I said goodbye to my lovely roommate, who had become like a big brother to me, gave him my keys and he locked the door behind me. I walked confidently out of and away from my Brixton flat, luggage in tow, my best friend at my side. With each step I pressed into the pavement, the ground soaked up the despair I’d swallowed deep into the pit of my stomach. I felt the wind try its best to blow away at the thick skin I’d managed to wear that day. But the silly banter and conversation between my Italian brother and me served as a barrier to its breezy attempts.

As far as I was concerned, I was going to make it to the airport with no tears, no regrets, no sadness, because as I’d said the night before, I was going to return home to London. Period.

My friend seemed to have the same thoughts. He treated me as if we’d be hanging out at his house the next day, talking all things theatrical and gorging ourselves on homemade casserole. He was in denial too. And I appreciated him so much more for it.

An hour’s train ride later, I arrived at London Heathrow Airport and my brother and I looked at one another and basically gave each other hugs and both said, “This isn’t the end.” There were no tears (thank goodness, because I would’ve looked at him like he was crazy) and it was the simplest “see you later” I’d ever experienced with him. He watched me step through the door into the departure gate and if he did shed tears upon my leaving, at least he had the decency to wait until I disappeared behind the double doors.

I had two hours to kill until take off. So what better way to spend that time than to send goodbye texts to everyone? I decided if I was going to be schmaltzy, I would at least do it along the lines of of a high school yearbook (you know, “You’re an awesome friend.” “Never change”. “K.I.T *happy face*”)…but with my signature honest/ loving style. I’m very sure I sent all of the BBoyz a text thanking them for their contributions to my London life and for being my family when I felt I had none. I thanked every single person, teacher, mentor, coworker, friend I could via text. And the most important person I thanked was the last person I texted: a friend of mine who I credit with helping me discover the true meaning of “adventure.” He was a person I swore I would write a novel or a series about someday as his presence in my life gave me a confidence I’m certain I’d never have if I’d never encountered him two years prior (um…that was along sentence). So I told him all of this in the sappiest text message I have ever sent to him. And fortunately, I got a sappy text back. (But not a seriously sappy text as Brits still manage to keep a certain awkward, stoic, aloofness about themselves.)

“Now boarding…” began the announcement and I knew that after a flash of my ticket/ passport and after a walk down a long cold corridor, I’d be terminating everything. “Hasta la vista, London.” With departure imminent, I began to think…

“I’ve managed to perform a multitude of shows while I was here…I just performed a lead in a phenomenal workshop with a well known playwright…I have been well reviewed twice in this country by The Globe….I’ve been on a set with both Dev Patel and Ed Westwick…I’ve met one of the coolest British celebs I’ve ever come across and have been privy to see him multiple times in London…my agent has been the most phenomenal agent I could’ve asked for…my friends love me…I’ve done so many things that I’d never have done in America…I’ve been to SPAIN and spoke Spanish with the natives!!!… I’ve loved…have I made a difference here?…did I leave anyone behind who may have loved me enough to try and keep me here? (That last question is definitely going to remain unanswered in this lifetime I’m sure).”

I felt the plane pull away from the gate, and like the best move I’ve ever watched, I replayed the entire duration of my two years in five minutes. I saw myself getting on a plane in Virginia and leaving my family behind to start my graduate career and eventually my theatrical career in Scotland. I saw my first day at grad school. I saw myself graduate with my Masters at the age of 24. I saw me performing and being both happy and sad at some of my experiences. I saw loads of successful and rather unsuccessful auditions and conversations with my agents after all of them. I could hear myself singing at Cellar Door in Covent Garden and I could see how many times I’d hung out with the people who had become my family. And as the pressure inside the cabin increased, and I felt the plane begin its ascent into the sky, I descended involuntarily into tears.

Window seats can be blessings. I didn’t have to face the other passengers who were prepping the seven hour flight home by watching in flight films. So I looked out the window as the clouds began to blanket my view, and the city that had once appeared huge to me became a net of streets and tiny cars driving on the wrong side of the road. Had it been a dream? These past two years? Had I truly lived away in another country and gained love, respect and ultimately freedom for myself?

It felt like I’d gone over the rainbow, overstayed my welcome, and was being forced back into the world of sepia, black and white. And true…I guess there is no place like home…but what if you couldn’t discern which home was the right one?

Image

The Boy Virginia Made Breaks the Silence

I was hoping that I would never have to write a blog like this. Ever. I never wanted the information that I’m about to share to come to light in this way or at all even, but it seems like pent up anger inspires me to articulate my feelings in a more controlled fashion. If you are not in the mood to embrace reality today, CLOSE THIS ENTRY NOW. It would be of no benefit to anyone if you decided to read this and give up halfway through because it changes your mood.

My purpose with this blog: to attack ignorance, to inform that all actions have a consequence, and to encourage discussions about tolerance. Otherwise, this world’s future is in danger. Now, where do I begin…I guess it all starts with a sweater and ends in abuse…

September 3rd, early morning (between 2:00am and 3:45 am)

The whole day had been filled with anticipation. It was the day when I would go clubbing with my best mates; people who, in this huge city, would take the time out to acknowledge my existence in a genuine way. We’d been planning since Monday that we would finally get together (after not hanging out as a group for over 4 months). I decided that I would do something different with my clothes. There was a pink sweater in my closet that I had only worn three times that I could remember. Once was during my Master’s Program, the other was when I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in London, and the final time was earlier this February when I went clubbing. The sweater was always complimented by others as they thought it made my skin look good so I figured what the hell, I’ll wear it. And as a recent wearer of shorts (I’d boycotted them for years)I decided to bare my calves to the world. To top things off, I threw on my signature hat, which all my friends, family, and admirers love. My firm belief: If you are wearing something you really like, you’ll feel good about yourself. And for the bulk of my evening, I did!

My night was filled with loads of spontaneity (which I actually did attribute to the sweater and my mood) I caught up with someone who gave me my pink slip (in the romantic department), bumped into an old colleague from my former job, had dinner, and finally, after meeting ¾ of my friends in central London, we decided to head out to the club.

I’d managed to sweat through my sweater and hat by night’s end. My friends had managed to find other ways to entertain themselves as one got treated to drinks and the other got a treat to take home. I, feeling a bit worse for wear -and a bit down even- decided to take a stroll to the only restaurant I know that stays open late on the weekends: Balans in Soho. First thing on my mind: ‘It’s been over a year since I’ve eaten their blueberry pancakes and they were the bomb!’ So off I went, legs against the breeze, to eat where the food was delicious and the service was…camp.

It was 2:52 am that I realized, over my maple syrup-saturated pancakes, that the couple in the booth next to me was on a date. Here I was, sadly scarfing down breakfast and washing down the memories of my evening with milk. I thought to myself ‘Just like my favorite fictional literary character, I will never win at love.’ (Sometimes, I love a pity party, I must say.)

“What has you so down?” My waiter had crashed my party without an invitation.

“Oh, nothing” I sigh forlornly, wiping my mouth as to cover the dribble of syrup that’s oozed down my lip. I explain that my mates have gone their separate ways for the evening. I somehow end by saying, “But my friends are great looking. Of course they are going to have post-club fun.”

“And what are you?”

I think, making sure to squint my eyes a bit to make the pondering look more effortful. “Normal. Nothing spectacular,” I offer with just the right tone of humble blasé-ness. The waiter leaves. I cut my pancakes and prepare for another blueberry-filled bite when in comes a foursome of friends. My iPod Touch tells me that it’s after 3am, and I’m very concerned with the amount of energy one-half of the couple is exuding.

“Oh my God!!! This is crazy. We met right here in this booth!” squeals the enthusiastic party. I roll my eyes and chomp my pancakes to bits, hoping quietly that the rest of my meal won’t involve their shenanigans. For the next 15 minutes, I’m treated to watching the couple make-out in front of me. Their friends constantly reprimand them for being “all over one another.”

“I’m an Aries! He’s a Taurus!” the other half shares. That ain’t gonna last long, I think. But then I remember…they met in that booth, God knows how long ago, and it’s still lasting. I just wonder if that initial meeting was filled with as much tonsil hockey as it is now…

A thought suddenly enters my head: Maybe I’m on the wrong mission. Could it be that I’m going about life in the wrong way? What if my calling isn’t art? While I begin to get all existential on myself, the couple across from me begins to devour each other and I know at once, that kind of love definitely ain’t what I’m looking for. I’d rather ravenously devour the things I love at home out of public view (call me old-fashioned). My mission is clear: go home.

I take my hat, which is cold and damp because of my dance-sweat, pay my bill, and leave the restaurant. Onwards and Upwards, I think, though I know good and well this is a mantra that would take some convincing. One thing was for sure, I would not be taking myself out to eat at 2:45 in the morning again…

I crossed Shaftesbury Avenue to do my usual journey through Chinatown to catch my bus.

Before it even happened, I sensed the ominous air. There’s nothing like a good old dose of harassment to put you back on your guard after a successful evening on the town. I immediately felt a twinge of fear (let’s be real, the London riots were not that long ago) and as someone walking alone, I felt that the slightest retaliation could cause me to end up stabbed on the street. In my mind, I told myself “keep quiet, don’t say anything, avoid eye contact, keep it moving.” The hope was that I would blur right by the group, compiled of ten to fifteen black men in hoodies (and whatever else current urban fashion suggests), with as minimal contact as possible.

My legs were feeling the cold as I zoomed by but my heart raced faster than my feet as one of the thugs screamed out to me, “Ay! Ay!”

Oh, shit, I think. He’s talking to me.

“You gay?”

My arms were folded, and I was walking with purpose. I hoped they couldn’t see my shivering. Granted, it was cold, but I didn’t want them mistaking it for fear.

“You gay innit?” His mates sniggered. Some mumbled insults that I couldn’t hear, but they slowed their speed expecting a response. I looked up at them, kept my eyes neutral, and looked back down at the ground thinking ‘Fuck!’ and hoping to God that this would be the end of it. I was still blurring by.

“You gay!” It wasn’t said as if it were a question anymore. That upward inflection had disappeared. This sentence was declarative. Fact. He was labeling me. I kinda rather have been stabbed.

“Yeah. You gay.” His confirmation statement.  More laughter. “…And you need to take that hat back to the shop!” Roaring laughter this time.

Not only had they felt the need to question my sexuality (based on what, I still have yet to discover) but they insulted my favorite hat, the hooligans!

If I were in a sitcom, there would’ve been a close up on my face as my mouth dropped open in genuine surprise at the comment, and I’d have touched my hat as if petting it to give it comfort from the mean insult. Instead, my face was terse and my head was hurting. My stomach was in knots and I’m sure it had fuck-all to do with the pancakes. Instead, the pancakes were to blame. All I could think was ‘Fuck me for wanting blueberry-fucking-pancakes at 2:45 in the fucking morning. If I hadn’t…’

But was the problem pancakes? Was it me? Was it my pink shirt? Was it my demeanor? Was it the gang of hyper-masculine dudes? Why me? Would it have been someone else if they’d chosen to walk down that street in Chinatown? But what was hurting me the most was that people who looked like me (young, black, probably intelligent men) felt I was so different than them that they needed to call me out. They (all ten to fifteen of them) needed to feel what? Better than me? More manly than me? Stronger than me? No matter how you put it, bullying/harassment is not a tool for making people feel better about themselves. It is the result of a very intolerant mindset. But my belief is that no one should have to stand for intolerance at all.

I deserve respect, not juvenile taunts from a group of cowards who felt the need to prove their masculinity. I mean, for fucks sake, all I was doing was walking down the street, wearing a sweater and a pair of shorts and a hat! My arms were folded because I was cold, and while I was thinking “these shorts are no good against this London cold,” these hoodlums were thinking….well…they weren’t!  That’s apparent. Why couldn’t I walk down the street without being left alone? Am I not allowed that luxury? Instead, these men would chortle away at themselves and their awful deed and I was to be left with the burden of mixed emotions.

Ever felt angry, powerless, sad, and guilty all at once? I have. I was angry because I said nothing. I know that saying nothing prevented me from the threat of unnecessary violence, but I felt like I committed a crime by doing nothing. I mean, this is the second time in the UK where I’ve encountered some sort of harassment (most people remember me being called the N-word in Scotland last year). For some strange reason, I thought -for a second time- that because I was in London, that I would be exempt from such behavior. (I mean, London is considered a cultural Mecca!) It is also the second time I said nothing. Last year however, I sort of laughed off the situation. Maybe because racism for me has been less frequent in my life. This Chinatown type of situation, however, has reared its monstrous head on more than one occasion with me over the course of my entire life.

I can recall so many instances in my life where I’ve been taunted/ teased/ disrespected whatever you call it. Funny enough, my effeminacy as a younger kid was to blame, I guess. I am willing to admit that flamboyant wasn’t accurate enough to describe me. I was constantly being told that I “acted like a girl.” And the moment it was said, something was sucked out of me and I went into fits of momentary depression, where I’d spend about 2 hours thinking, how can I change this or that about myself. I have a swish when I walk. Oh, no! Change it! I talk like a girl. Stop! Change it!  In other words, when my “otherness” was pointed out to me by others, I decided that “me” was the wrong way to be. When I look back on how many times I’ve had to adjust myself, I think, ‘who in the hell am I, now?’

I think I’m the man I wanted to be when I was younger. I’m definitely living a life that will not be lead by anyone else. Happy and sad moments aside, I’m living the life I worked hard for. But I can’t help but think…the only reason I work so hard is to overcompensate for the fact that the way I’m perceived (as far as my assumed sexual orientation-something undefined-) is considered my biggest flaw.

When I had to make “adjustments” to my behavior as a child (as to not embarrass or bring shame to my parents/family, or to gain friends in elementary/ middle school, or to deflect conversation away from me in college), I overcompensated by reading loads, immersing myself in schoolwork, watching loads of television, and finding a story in every single thing I saw. The Arts was my ultimate escape (and I guess the reason I’m an actor has something to do with this).

I also became very observant. I watched women work hard to keep their grace while being single mothers. I also learned how they felt about the world they were living in and how everyday, they lived with a bit of caution as they walked down the street, drove a car past a certain hour, or fell in love. I grew up around these vulnerable, yet strong women who educated me from their perspective.  I watched the way men talked to one another, about women, and about topics in their lives. I watched my father, my uncles, and other men who came and went in my life and I found them ALL disappointing in some way. Adultuerous, dilinquent, disrespectful towards women (because society told them they could/should be), materialistic, unreliable. I vowed to never be like them, but I also told myself that whatever masculinity they had, I needed to get as their version of masculinity meant survival. Survival to me meant less teasing and harassment by others. But these men didn’t teach me. Therefore I had to learn, over many years, to find a masculinity that was acceptable, yet didn’t compromise my spirit. Still, there was the little fact that my behavior was rooted in “otherness.” So…when I would slip (as I guess I did by wearing my pink sweater on Friday evening), I would get brought back into the harshness of this world by having someone try and ostracize me, usually publicly.

What I have failed to speak about thus far is the fact that the bulk of my shunning has come from members of the black community. Let’s be honest, ALL of it has come from the Black American community. If any of it has come from the white community, I have yet to hear about it, or I laugh it off (as I, personally, do not measure myself to the same standards as white Americans. White commentary is usually to do with the question surrounding my “mysteriousness”). Therefore it pisses me off to no end that the people I work so hard to make proud, the people who I hope I’m helping by living a very non-stereotypical life, the people who I grew up trying to help out in as many ways as possible, will never ever be proud of me because of how they see me in one word.

This fact keeps me working diligently, but it also makes me feel that my work is in vain.

You see, for those of you out there who can’t seem to understand why I should care that anyone is trying to label me, you do not understand that the issue IS “being labeled.”  The argument is that labels makes people feel comfortable, but I think that someone stamping you with a seal of their approval is nothing but a declaration of power. It is someone saying, I know who you are already, and I didn’t need to get to know you. At all.

I have never understood the psychology behind being so preoccupied with someone’s “otherness” to the degree that you need to harass or taunt them about it. What I do understand is that this awful behavior begins at a young age. I believe that many parents, especially very ill-informed, intolerant, ignorant parent do not discourage their children from bullying others. In their heads they go “That’s wrong” and reprimand their child only because society tells them that that’s what they should do as parents. Yet, they don’t tell their kids about the consequences of their actions; how another child (the victim of the harassment), no matter how strong he appears on the outside, will go home one day and hang himself because his peers at school never accepted him. Or he feared his that his family would never look at him the same. Or he feared he’d never be able to move further in his life without being labeled first, and then taken seriously later. I’m generalizing a bit, but I can say this…when you are constantly teased, every single instance remains etched in the front of your mind for an eternity. You never forget the rudeness, the harshness of tone, the disdain, or even the disgust that hateful words can bring. Here’s my proof:

History of Harassment:

Age 5 (one of the youngest memories I can recall): I could scream in a high pitched voice. I did so a lot if I got excited or was playing outside. I remember before church one Sunday I’d screamed high pitched one too many times for my mother to handle. Her words to me: “Do you want me to put you in a dress? Because only girls scream like that. I can put you in a dress if that’s what you want!”  Lesson learned: a lower voice makes you a man and keeps you out of dresses.

Between 5 and 11 all the taunts were the same from boys and girls alike. “He acts like a girl, talks like a girl, ugh! This statement was normally followed by laughter. Lesson learned: something about me was “not quite right.”

Age 11: I depart the after-school bus on an autumn day. I’d just gotten a new outfit and I was happy about it because it was red and I thought red was cool. The walk home normally takes 10 minutes from the bus stop and as the bus pulls off, I notice a car driving towards me. The car drives scarily close to me.

The teenage boys inside laugh, “Faggot ass!” The car zooms away, carrying their laughter with it. I say nothing. I keep it moving. Until I look up and see that the same car has circled the block and is heading directly for me. I run up on the sidewalk and the car follows me onto the sidewalk. I realize that this car is about to hit me. Or either they are trying to scare me…

They swerve away, laughing as if BET’s Comic View was playing live on their radio. The 4 of them in the car are screaming insults at me, but I am in tears. I wait for the car to round the corner and then I bolt home just in case they decide to circle the block for a third time. It took me 5 minutes to get home that day.

I tell my mother that I think a gang tried to hit me with their car because I was wearing their color: red. It was a lie. Lesson Learned: Lying can come in handy, sometimes.

Age 12: I’d gotten into a fight with my best friend over a girl who once ‘went out’ (if you can call it that at 12) with me and then him. She found out he was cheating and somehow, I was blamed as the one who’d told of his adolescent infidelity, when I clearly had no clue. The day after the fight, all of his friends, who were also mine spent an entire school bus ride sitting within earshot of me. “Oh you know that gay ass n*gga right there? Don’t talk to him. Faggots always be trying to fuck up your life”

I was talked about from the start of homeroom -as my once-upon-a-time friends ridiculed me- until I was able to sit down at my desk. That encounter made me so depressed that I sought counseling with a very important woman, who eventually introduced me to an option that would free me of my closed-minded community: private school. If I could escape my community, I could escape feeling like shit every day. Lesson learned: Being smart could take away the pain, or at least help you run away from it.

Somewhere between 12 and 14: I recall going to my godmother’s house. At some point, talks of careers came up, to which I remember saying I wanted to be a model. “They make lots of money and all they have to do is take pictures.” The smile on my face was huge. While I was being encouraged by my god-mother…my mother threw in her commentary.

“Models ain’t nothing but faggots. Why you wanna be that?” I didn’t understand where that comment came from, but the harshness was there. Even if it was meant as a joke, it was a sick one that put a knot in my stomach. Uncomfortable laughter from the outskirts. The smile I had faded into oblivion. I felt like I’d been hit with a ton of brick and could say nothing back to the tyrant who’d birthed me. Humiliated isn’t an accurate enough word to describe how I felt. Lesson Learned: Model behavior was not to be coveted.

Age 14: During a Spring Break from high school, I’d gone home to visit a childhood friend. I discovered that my friend was friends with someone I considered my worst enemy: a short, twerp who hated every single thing about me, yet always needed my help when it came to academics. I saw him and retreated into the living room with the adults. I did not elect to play Playstation or hang out with the guy who represented what I hated most about middle school. My mother went to speak to my friend at some point, and when she came back, she had a look of calm on her face, but her eyes masked anger.

On the trip home, we have a conversation:

“That boy. He’s the one you don’t like right?”

“Yup.”

“Is it because…he think you gay?”

Silence.

“I heard him say it to your friend. I heard him call you ‘the gay boy.’” My mother’s tone was so calm. So comforting even. She sounded more hurt than me. Actually, she sounded as if she’d been the abused one, which proved to me that the slurs weren’t always directed towards me. Some of them were an attack on her as well.

“I don’t want to talk about it. I hate him.”

In my mind, I forgave my mother’s outlandish commentary from before because I felt, for once, she could see the harassment I was going through. We drove home with minimal conversation and pretended the incident never happened. Lesson learned: No matter how old you get, people still remember you as they think you were.

High school: I began to wonder whether or not what people had said about me was true or not…because up until then, I didn’t even know. Until I thought of killing myself during March of my freshman year of high school. A terrible winter season coupled with the loss of friends, made me consider ending my life. But one friend, who possessed a different type of “otherness,” saved my life and is now like a sister to me. There was also a teacher who gave me sagely advice. “All fiction begins in a wound.” I began to find ways of writing about my life and articulating my thoughts. I was finding my legitimate voice and possibly my manhood.

On the issue of harassment, despite one major incident of racism (I was called a “nigger” and a “black coon” on a voice message to my room), I escaped high school without one (direct) comment about my previously criticized “otherness.” I felt like I’d found me.

College: The bulk of my career is eclipsed by a rumor that I am inappropriately linked to my best friend. I have to live for four years with people thinking falsely about me and my relationship with peers. I have to actively distance myself away from certain male friends of mine, as being close to them would damage their reputation. Other incidents occur similar to the one below:

On a random night in Philadelphia, I’m finishing clubbing at the Walnut Room and the woman with me is hit on by some nondescript Philly man in an oversized t-shirt and baggy pants. She links her arm around mine.

“Yo, ma. Let me holla at you for a sec.”

“No thank you. I have everything I need right here.” She pats my shoulder, tenderly.

He looks at me disapprovingly. Up and then down. “You sure, ma? Your man here look a bit like a faggot. I know I can do much more for you.”

That good old dejectedness made a return. And while this sweet young lady on my arm went on to try and defend me (why she felt the need to, I’m not sure), all I could think about was going home and making myself more manly. But at this point in my life, was changing myself something I should actively try and do anymore? I was a man, but somehow, the type of man I’d become was not enough. Lesson learned: I am an obstacle of some sort…or I represent something that warrants a challenge/attack.

Have I brought these situations upon myself?

Today

I have sat and wondered why am I writing this blog? I’m wondering “why now?” when the intolerant comments and bullying have gone on for 20+ years. I’ve analyzed my life so many times that it doesn’t take me long to figure out the answer to that question: Silence. In every single instance that I have been verbally attacked, or called out, I have said nothing. Nothing! Instead, I’ve retreated into myself. Yes, silence has been self-preserving, but as an active means of bringing change, silence has been destructive. The true lesson I’d learned in my life was how to counteract all the negative things said about me by being extraordinary and phenomenal. You see, I have a fighter’s spirit. I get that from my mother, the same woman whose toughness on me made me the man I am today. I get it from the friends with whom I have surrounded myself; who have loved me as much as my own family. I get it from being granted the privilege of waking up and experiencing everyday differently than the one before.

My story is not an exclusive one (which may have been one of the underlying purposes in writing it). What is exclusive, however, is my outcome: who/ how I am today. I always knew that I was worth more than the value of a single, restrictive word. Unfortunately, there are people out there (adolescents mostly) who are constantly victimized by the peers. These young men/ women feel that how they are described by their peers equals who they are and will always be. These are the people who are still searching for their personal strength to live on despite abundant ignorance and hatred. I know how they feel because I used to be one of them.

There was a point, not too long ago in my life where I would’ve preferred being called the N-Word as opposed to something regarding sexuality. My logic was that who I am automatically contradicts the nature of that word and that since it’s rooted in racism, I could easily prove to people that I am not solely my race. I have a myriad of other hats I wear as a human being on this Earth. But when it comes to labels in general, I feel that no one should have the right to place a label on me just to make themselves comfortable with me. I am simply Tommy. Period. Yet, when I am labeled, and there is a perceived negative connotation attached to said label, I mostly feel like I’m combating disgust. It’s a tone I can hear beneath the taunts and the harassment, and that tone unsettles me.

What unnerves me more is the fact that there might be someone out there experiencing the exact same pain as me, and may not be strong enough to stand firm in who they are. They are the ones who feel that ending their lives is a better solution than having to live in a world full of hatred and repulsion. While there is a campaign out there convincing ostracized children that it will get better, the feeling isn’t immediate. A goal should be to tell people that it will get better with time, education, and active change. Who will be in charge of making that change?

I urge parents to start the education at home. For those in the black community, we have to stop punishing “different people” with vicious words. Yes, we all have opinions, but my thought is that bashing is the same whether it’s with words or with fists. The effect caused is still pain. Instead of only teaching things like “Black is beautiful”, teach that differences are beautiful as well. In my life, I have learned more from someone who was unlike me than from someone who was too much like me. We keep ourselves boxed within these narrow horizons when we have the capacity to broaden them. We blame or get jealous of others who have declared their individuality within society. We envy their eclectic tastes in music, style, and culture, yet none of us go out of our way to develop our own selves in a similar manner. There is a huge difference between being in a community and existing as a part of a collective. The world is the collective whole. Our goal should be to find our place in this world, but to never alienate and ostracize those who are still finding theirs. Encouraging people who pursue a different life path than what is “normal” should be the norm. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go on that front when our mentality is so deeply rooted in fear, confusion, and ignorance.

Still, I get so fed up trying to counteract the mindset of narrow thinkers in the black community. Instead, I choose to be a living example of perseverance, tenacity, and success. At the end of the day, I’m surviving, right? I’ve acquired a terrific education up through the Master’s level. I’ve lived away from home since the age of 14 and I’ve even crossed an ocean to discover more about the world and myself. In my family, I’m a pioneer. Doesn’t that make me as much of a man as any?

Today, I think about my early Saturday morning encounter with more clarity. One small incident in my present day dredged up so many instances in my past. My link between them all was equal parts anger and silence. When anger boils does it turn into steam? Mine turns into words.

Words as we all know, have unforeseeable powers. Therefore the words I’ve decided to publish are my way of regaining the power I’ve lost to others. By allowing people to define me on their terms, I have relinquished my voice. But not anymore. The blogs I write are mostly for the purpose of examining my life and where/ how I fit into this world. At the end of the day, my experiences, my emotions, my thoughts are quintessentially human. So with the words that you have read, I hope I’ve made you privy to the “me” who didn’t believe his voice was necessary; the me whose silence was a cold sanctuary from bravery; the me who felt powerless. With these words, I stand firm in my humanity and my determination to bring forth light from the darkest abyss. Can a man try and change the world? Well I am a (Hu) Man, and I think I can!

The Boy from Virginia Auditions

I bet that if I could have seen my reflection in the mirror of Studio 7 at Pineapple Dance Studios, I would’ve laughed at how ridiculous I must’ve looked. I mean, there I was, a skinny black American boy standing among a collection of around  30 or more black Brits, trying to keep a hold of my smile (or else I’d faint from Hairspray dance exhaustion). My royal blue stretch cotton T-shirt was drenched with sweat and about 2 pounds heavier than when I put it on at the start of the dance routine. Surprisingly, my feet were fine, considering I danced the whole routine in Converses. But the thing I couldn’t get off my mind was my face; ‘Do I look like a wet dog right now, or a runaway slave?’ I thought.  And when I was sure no one else was thinking about the sweat on their faces, I heard a female voice murmur:

“What kind of make-up are these girls wearing? Sweat proof? My face is melting!”

Well it was reassuring to know I wasn’t the only one concerned with how I looked post-dance call. The group of  us (guys and girls) were waiting to hear whether or not we’d be called back to sing for the casting director and his panel which included the Dance Captain (who’d pointed me out a couple times earlier that day for landing in a lunge instead of second position and for not “listening to my crotch”). The energy was fizzing in the room. We were all smiling for our lives…and secretly hoping that our names would be on the list in the casting director’s hand, if not the tip of his tongue.

“Well…I must say to you all,” he began, “this was the best dance call we’ve ever done! (I figured ‘that’s because black people know how to let loose, when we need to’…but I kept that thought to myself) “But, that being said…some of you are not right for our show. And it’s at this time that we are going to call the names of those who are. If your name isn’t called, you may gather you things and take your leave for the day. Those who are called back, we ask you to stay behind and sing for us.”

Talk about a Top Model moment. I half expected him to hold out our headshots and hand them to us so that we’d know we’d made it to the next round.

Thought it only took about three or four minutes to call my name, I felt like I’d been smiling for twenty five. (Actually, I’d been smiling like a My Buddy doll since I started learning the damn routine.)

“…Tommy Coleman…” and I didn’t hear anything else he had to say because MY name was the goal that day (though hearing my name with a posh London accent was quite jarring) and it was achieved! The world did slow down for a second or two once I registered that it was my name he called, but I didn’t have too much time to process it. I needed to think about what was next: the singing. I couldn’t believe it;  after all that hard work, dancing to such high energy music, and feeling like my heart would leap out of my chest, I realized I had done something right! But what exactly?

Was it all about wearing the right dance clothes or having the right headshot and resume (C.V. to you U.K.-ers)? Was it the fact that I shaved my face so I would look prepubescent? Was it the fact that I had continued smiling my happy, yet reserved smile even though I wanted to call up all my homies back in the U.S. and get a little hood? I’m quite sure that all of those things played a part. But the sure-fire answer was the following: I’d begun to take control of my life, and began surrounding myself with people who believed in me and my potential.

A week before, I didn’t even have an agent…and now here I was, being seen by a major casting director… all because I decided to sign with someone? How did I get here?

The Week Before

It was supposed to be a business trip and it was for the most part. I’d planned 5 outfits, for 4 days, to meet with 3 interested agents, who I’d wow with one of my  2 pairs of suspenders (braces to you UK people) and all so I could eventually find the 1 person fit to manage my career. The search was on!

I’d arrived in London on Monday evening, very happy that the only traffic I had to endure was that of the city. And after having a lovely ride down, I ended up at a classmate’s flat. (It’s funny how not seeing someone for four weeks makes a big difference) Well, because I’m secretly a fat boy, I was hungry and decided to try out this restaurant that so many people were raving about: Nando’s. During the MOBO award time here in Glasgow, the new boy-band group JLS ate at the UK chain, so I figured, if they eat there, why not me? When I tasted the infamous Nando’s “Hot” sauce…I knew why.

I had a tough time figuring out whether or not my mouth was on fire, but once I realized that it actually was, it became apparent that a glass of Sprite wouldn’t be enough to douse the inferno blazing on my tongue. All eating habits aside though, it was an experience I’ll never forget and one I’m sure my friends will continue to find hilarious.

The next day started later than I’d wanted it to, so of course that meant I’d have a late day. I was supposed to wake up at 9, get some breakfast and then leave for my 12:30 meeting at 11:30 so I wouldn’t get lost. I woke up at 11 instead, threw on a pair of gray pants, a long-sleeved, ribbed, navy blue shirt and finished everything off in red (red suspenders, red belt, and red Converses). I chucked on a hat as I raced out the door with my headshot and CV in tow. Dammit…I didn’t know where I was headed.

In a nutshell, I got off at the right stop luckily…10 minutes after my meeting was supposed to begin. Panicked, I called the interested party to explain that I was on some crowded corner looking for a landmark. She giggled at my confusion, but directed me to her office and in 5 minutes I was sitting across from her, sweat collecting under my hat.

We introduced ourselves. I apologized. She asked me what I was looking for in an agent. I actually didn’t know the answer to that question. I apologized again. I searched deep for questions and answers that sounded feasible and honest and I managed to successfully fumble my way through my very first agent interview. The woman was great (though she asked me to perform a monologue and of course…I froze…and apologized once again) and made me feel comfortable, but at the day’s end. Something just didn’t spark. And it was all me, not her. I couldn’t help but feel inadequate and unprofessional. I mean…I’d arrived late, didn’t have any questions to ask, didn’t know what I wanted, and I felt completely lost.

Then I went home, complained about how awful my day was to my friend, checked my e-mail….and found that I had an offer! Well, I guess befuddlement was still an endearing quality to have.

The next day, was a day I was happy to see come. I’d be meeting with the woman who tracked me down after my showcase (a good sign with me. It meant that she was truly interested and wasn’t afraid to show it). So I threw on a new concoction of colors (gray jeans, red shirt, turquoise suspenders, and my red Converses) and headed into London-town.

Arriving on time, I was happy to see a familiar face. We’d chatted, got to know one another, talked over some items….and then we started talking about my grandmother. And during that topic, she confessed to me that she read my blogs (which is when my heart said “JUST CHOOSE HER NOW!!!”) She’d gone the extra step to find out who I was before taking me on? That’s a woman I wanted on my team. At the end of our meeting I’d agreed to a trial contract and she was submitting my details to Hairspray and Wicked (two shows I would kill to be a part of).

Thursday was a simple day. I toured the city of London and caught up with a friend from Glasgow, a friend from high school, and some friends from this past schoolyear.

Friday came. It was my final day to meet with an agent (another woman) and again…I was late…this time 20 minutes late. (I should’ve seen that as a sign) Traffic was atrocious during midday and the Tube was moving at the speed of snail. I was appalled at myself for getting into this mess a second time. Lateness? When did that become what I was famous for?

I was to meet this woman at a Starbucks and when I got there, she wasn’t. But my phone was vibrating and when I answered it was her telling me that she hadn’t received my messages until that very minute was was on her way back to meet with me.

She came in, bought me a coffee, we talked. She was very pretty. Nice, even. She was very smart and knew all the right things to say….but my mind was made up. Yes, she did see one of my shows from this summer, but would she ever know me? (Basically, would she ever read my blog?) I felt like it was a no go. She was brilliant, but just not for me. No spark.

But something else was igniting. My phone once I had returned to my friend’s house. It was the Wednesday agent calling to say that the casting director for Hairspray was interested in seeing me for an audition the next week! All I could think was ‘not only did she believe in me enough to read my blog, but she is already willing to put me out there. She’s the bomb-dot-com.

The Next Week

And so, I ended up at Pineapple Studios in Studio 7 preparing myself to sing for the Hairspray panel. After the others were dismissed, the remaining people were told that we needed to sing the part of our song that had the “money notes.” Well, there went my first song option. I was going to sing a cute Sam Cooke song that was a personality piece. Time to pull out the Stevie Wonder! I hurriedly thought of a new way to cut and paste “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” and quietly rehearsed. The lobby of the area was swarming with dancers: people for Hairspray auditions, people for dance classes, and the sweaty remainders from my session. I’d changed from my wet clothes to my gray skinny jeans, my red button-down with white sweater overtop, a navy blue tie, and of course my red Converses. I also took in my newly shaved baby-face. I wanted to make sure I looked relatively 60s. They called my name Lucky for me, I was already standing by the door, trying to control my perspiration, and ready to sing.

I ran to the piano, went over the song-cut with the pianist, and I trumpeted Stevie’s lyrics and melody from my mouth. I was happy to have gotten this far and I know it showed. (Besides, I can hit an A flat now…when only last year I was not singin above E flat) I watched as the choreographer’s eyes widened in surprise. (I bet she was surprised I could actually carry a tune), and I watched the other panel members smile, and relax a bit. Good sign! Once the song was over, I gathered my music, smiled a polite exit and jogged out of the door (literally, I had to jog because they were needing to see people rapidly)

This was only the beginning, but it was what I’d hoped for: a chance to be seen, to prove my worth, and to show people that I am a fighter. Now I’m just waiting to have the chance to fight some more whether it’s for a role on the West End of London, a role in a Broadway show, or even a role on television. But, I feel, fighting is what gives a person clout in this industry. And I can tell you now…I WILL have clout! I will have to do some waiting, but boy-oh-boy when the time comes to fight, I will rock’em and sock’em. Until then, however, I ain’t gonna worry ‘bout a thing…