The Boy From Virginia Takes a Leap

“Success” means a myriad of things to many people. For some it means living out the mythical “American Dream” of having a big house, picket fence, 2.5 (I still don’t get that .5) kids, and some sort of pet. For others it can mean riches. For some it means living another day. And so on and so on.  I found myself wondering late last night what does being successful mean to me now, in this very moment?

            If you asked me what success meant to me about three years ago, I wouldn’t have had a clear answer, but I would’ve expressed that it meant changing lives and social perceptions via the artistic medium. Today, I am certain that my success still has its foundations in remaining artistically relevant. Achieving fame and fortune, however, has ended up on my list of undesirables. Being financially stable is one thing (and necessary), but if there is anything I’ve learned from my experience in a failed/ unprofessional shows, it’s that selling one’s soul to make a buck is about the most draining thing one can do to his/her spirit.

            Some people have made soul-selling into an art. And I guess it furthers what we perceive as their success. An unfortunate example: The Kardashians, who are now being paid forty million dollars for a “reality” show (which I am happy to say I STILL haven’t seen), when as a family their contributions to American society are the equivalent of what a hangnail is to a digit on the hand: unnecessary, lingering pain. And I won’t begin to mention any “real” housewives or “bachelors” or anything else that suggest “reality” at the expense of actual realism. My reality at the moment isn’t eventuful, nor is it lucrative, but it works for me.

            I know that there are many who would ask me, “So if you got a chance to make millions of dollars for acting a fool on screen, you mean you wouldn’t do it?” Let me just say this: There are loads of people “acting a fool” on screen and the internet at the moment so joining their company isn’t going to make me feel like I’ve broken new ground. One of my favorite artists (who I can admit, I’m a HUGE fan of), Brandy, just did a VH1 Behind the Music special in which she said, referencing her time has a young artist in the entertainment industry, “For me to have had it all, I was the most unhappy teenager in the world.” If having it all means feeling like that, then someone else can have it.

            But Brandy also said something else that was very interesting. She said that she knew she would be a star and she never ever doubted it. Then she went on to joke about wishing she still had that courageousness she once had as a youth. I understand wanting that feeling of invincibility to return all too well. When you’re young you feel you can take on the world. And every door seems to be opened to you until its closed, and even then, you think that you have the power to re-open those doors. As of late, I’ve been feeling as if I’ve hit some sort of plateau. But did I reach this place because of outside forces or because I stopped believing that I could be on my Michael Jackson status someday?  I can only attribute my feeling of paralysis to one thing: fear.

            Many people who read my blogs in the past have probably given up on waiting for me to write anything new, as it’s been so long. It’s not as if I haven’t had some fantastic topics to sift through. On the contrary, I would begin to write and then stop because I felt like I didn’t have enough, or because I was afraid that no one would really give a damn that I was writing anything, despite me having a readership (albeit a small one). Also, I had some crazy obstacles to overcome as well and when I was figuring out my priorities, writing always came in last place. I needed to deal with the tangible before dealing with the technological. If I am completely honest, I was much more fearful that nothing I would write would be as great as my “Breaking the Silence” entry which was so in depth and so full of me that I felt I’d given all I could give. (I guess I did put an invisible ceiling on my artistic life, just a bit.)

            Two days ago, however while I was putting final touches on a cover letter that I was sending out to start my process of self-promotion, I felt a surge of energy…no…I felt a surge of power. It was a feeling of such surety that I became overwhelmed. I found myself happy and fearful simultaneously to the point where I was sure I would combust. It was like seeing something glow and knowing that glow you saw was actually coming from within. The exact thought I had at that moment was ‘Something spectacular is coming my way and I’m going to be so blessed’ and immediately after I thought, ‘Am I ready for the responsibility that comes with these impending blessings?’ I then thought one last thought: ‘Have I been working hard enough to deserve whatever it is I’m about to receive?

            There are some people who’ve been on this journey with me from the start and they will vouchsafe and say that I’ve never stopped working. I will say that I’ve been working as hard as my circumstances will allow me to. Every single day, I’m pissed at the fact that I’m not enrolled in some sort of class somewhere, but I also know that given the right situation, I’ll go out and get what I need and God will make a way, somehow. I will learn as many monologues as my mind can hold and I will practice songs for as long as my voice can tirelessly carry a tune.  But I’m also not going to overwork myself either. Up until February 12th, I was in a country without any family, except the friends I adopted over the years, and I had to survive on my own. I worked every day to the best of my abilities and was fortunate enough to work in my chosen field and meet loads of significant people who have influenced my life in a positive way. Keeping myself afloat as a foreigner in another country was definitely hard work so if I give myself enough credit, then yes, I’ve not stopped working.

            But after a fun yet tumultuous end to my London adventure (I had an emergency surgery during my final show in Scotland, had to fight with the UK Border agency to return to America, and ended up spending all of the money I’d just earned in a desperate need to come home), a holiday was in order…even if it was just an excuse to reintegrate myself into the life that I’ve been absent from for many years. Still, people who know me also know that I don’t know how to rest for too long.

After two weeks of just breathing and being with the family, I searched for local representation and got it, as well as some on-screen work which, so far, has been pretty rewarding. I even worked on my very first union film and I couldn’t have been more pleased. You see, a goal of mine when I returned, was to do my best to break into television and film as I’ve spent the past 13 years of my life gaining stage experience. I need a new challenge and I am ready to embrace it, if the opportunities come my way. Of course, I have to encourage the universe to work with me. How is anyone going to know what I want to do if I don’t put it out there, right?

            After returning home and being privy to the success of many actors/ actresses who I’ve worked with or met in passing, I’m starting to feel like there is room for me to excel in this industry as well. Before I left London, I had the chance to witness my former classmate, Da’Vine Joy Randolph electrify the West End Stage with her original portrayal of Oda Mae Brown in GHOST the Musical. Having been Hamlet to her Gertrude in college, I felt triumphant knowing that someone with tremendous talent was getting to exhibit it in a phenomenal way! She is currently on Broadway showing the world, or at least NYC, her capabilities. Also, in late 2007, I was fortunate enough to meet and be inspired by Leslie Odom, Jr., who I discovered is a fan of my blog series! If you are not familiar with this gentle spirit, all you have to do is tune into NBC’s SMASH or go see him play Isaiah in Leap of Faith on Broadway. His skills shine! And I can’t even begin to mention all of my London, Philadelphia, or Temple University connections that continue to make me proud each day. Their successes have prompted me to take action.

            In the past, I’ve been quite blessed in the way that good things did seem to just come my way. I was a chosen child, I guess. Or so I thought. If I took a microscope to all of the situations where it seemed like I was being “given” a wonderful opportunity, I’d realize that I’d already put in the work somewhere else. Rewards don’t come to those who don’t work. Nothing is luck. I’m of the school of thought that if you meet God halfway, then he’ll do the same. So two weeks ago, I began drafting out a cover letter to send to any casting director who is willing to read what I have to say about my overall experience as a performer. I intend to send about 150-200 letters because someone is bound to believe in what I have to offer. Someone is going to trust my talent enough to hire me and not be disappointed. Someone is going to care enough to give me feedback. Someone will hear how eager I am to stay in this business that I love, for all of its thrilling ups and dismal downs.

            Funny enough, when I sat down to write the letter, I couldn’t think of a way to talk about me (which is odd because I write a blog that’s ALL about me). I fought with how I would be perceived, whether or not I was including enough information or too much. But mostly, I thought to myself…There are thousands of people in the U.S. trying to be actors and working at a high professional level. What makes me standout? Then I thought to myself…someone will think I’m perfect. To some casting director, myself will be enough. So yesterday, I sent out 11 letters (my first wave of them) in hopes that someone will say, “This Tommy guy is interesting enough to employ. Let’s give him a chance”

            There are 139-189 more letters to send, but I’m sure this is going to be my biggest lesson in stepping out on faith. In the past, I left home at 14 only because I knew I’d be stepping into a great experience. I ended up at Milton Academy and subsequently Temple University.  I left the country in September 2008 for the same exact reason: I knew greatness would come of going abroad. So far I’ve been lucky enough o continue working in my field since my return. Coming home may have not been my goal, and yes, my work will never be done as an actor, but there is a future here that has been waiting for me. (“We’ve had this date from the beginning.”) So in sending out the cover letters, I’m hoping I’m stepping into a future that I can handle. That’s all I can hope for when I step out on faith: A future that I can handle…and one in which I can thrive and showcase the best me that there is to show!

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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 Emerges from the Grave (The Hiatus Series)

“There’s always another chance. Another chance to make a change, to make new choices, to say sorry, to offer and accept love, to embrace responsibility, to understand, to create  romance, to make amends, to escape, to break the chain, to see the truth, to tell the truth, to reassess, to rebuild, to be reborn. Give yourself a chance to live. Give the world a chance to be wonderful” –Rikki Beadle-Blair

Last Friday, I performed a small interpretive dance piece about fair trade gold for Africa Fashion Week. The next day, I cut off my hair and went into work for a Burlsque night in central London. Then, on Sunday, I began my new job as a waiter in a restaurant. Only two and a halk weeks ago was I sitting in my room feeling as if I couldn’t move. Now here I am, moving as much as I possibly can. Things do turn around, don’t they?

The following was originally written on August 3rd

What a hiatus gives a person is the following: 1)serious time to think, 2) a clear head to figure out what’s next, and 3) a refreshing feeling that no vacation has the power to give.

So I thought. A lot. And I tried to pinpoint the root of my problem with God and with my situation and it boiled down to something quite simple. I wasn’t angry with God because I didn’t get a role in a play. I’ve NOT gotten roles before. Instead, I lost faith because all I wanted was a job that was going to help me get out of financial debt before leaving London. I lost faith because I figured that getting a role was such a small thing to ask God for. But He couldn’t do it. Or better yet, he chose not to do it. He’d rather give the rich even more riches and keep the poor, struggling no matter how hard some of them fight to make life better.

So I questioned him. I questioned Him hard. And it made people very mad I feel because of some unspoken rule that says He’s not to be questioned. Here’s my theory:  I don’t think God punishes negative thoughts. He doesn’t reward them, obviously, but why punish when he has bigger fish to fry? The world has tons of negativity. Instead, he tends to show you what he has in store. The more I questioned, and the more insecure I became, the more I began to care less about God and His miracles. But then, calls came in and doors opened and I figured that it would be stupid of me not to put in work to make good things happen for myself (which is why I now have a couple jobs to help me for a bit). So from now on, I will say, “Question God,” because he will definitely show you His answer. I think a cowardly entity would just refuse to show up at all.

I think God showed me an answer through a death. You see, it was Amy Winehouse’s death that made me think, this isn’t it for me. I still have a legacy to leave behind, and a mark to make on this world. To just quit my career (which is what I was considering) would be a testatment to failure, and people who know me well know that I only fail at relationships, not my career.

I love my job waaaay to much to just give up on it. Moments like the one I experienced are considered a “scuffle.” Like any other relationship in which you love something, you are bound to get hurt, and you need to recover from that hurt in your own way. This industry is something that most people love and hate at the same time. To be able to love/hate simultaneously shows the depth of my involvement in the craft. It’s like family; Only real family members know how to piss you off, and then make you smile 5 minutes later.

This is a journey that I am constantly on and the only relationship I know how to manage. I wouldn’t be surprised if I feel the exact same way about the industry in later years. Yes, I recognize how specific my situation is to me yet, for those who’ve forgotten, I write my blogs not just for myself, but for those people who aren’t near me and want to know how I’m living my life. That includes being candid with my readers and not stiffing them on the details that make my journey a real one. Not everything I write will be comfortable, nor understandable to some. Remember, regardless the emotion, the essence of me doesn’t change.

One of my favorite lines of any movie is in Scream 2 where Sidney Prescott says “I’m a fighter.” Her graying drama teacher looks at her with a hint of challenge and disdain and says not once, but twice “I don’t believe you.” She looks at him with a combination of determination and fear, and says with more than enough internal power, “I’m a fighter.” This is how I feel every single day of my life. I start my days with question marks about the things I believe in the most, and by the day’s end, or the next morning, my questions marks have turned into periods or exclamation points.

My personal plea to my friends and family and readers is this: Know me well enough to know that I’m fine and will always pick myself up of the concrete when knocked down. I’m not a hopeless case who will end up in a hospital somewhere for slitting his wrist. That’s too played out. People are remembered most for their actions, how they persevered and lived through even the worst of times.  However, also know me well enough to know that my hiatus was a form of rebellion. I don’t get to rebel often because people think that I am happy and together all the damn time. It seems selfish for people to want meto be happy for them as opposed to myself. So if feeling sad for a week, or a month, makes me feel happy, respect it.

For a time, during my hiatus period, people were suggesting all types of ways to diagnose my “problem” and I kept wondering if they knew that my problem was merely financial. If they had a get rich quick scheme, then I would take that on in a heartbeat. But the question of problems remained. Do I have a problem?, I thought. Yes, I do. It’s called “feeling too much.”  When I get caught up in something, I feel it to the nth degree. But funny enough, there is nothigng wrong with that. Most people don;t feel or care enough. I don’t want to be one of those people no matter how foot-loose and fancy free they appear to be. From my personal experience, I’ve come to realize that being considerate of others is rewarding, even thought it can get a bit stressful as well. Therefore, I need to find a balance between giving and not giving a fuck.

But a word to the wise, when it comes to me, I ask my friends to let me come to conclusions on my own. I have to live with myself 24 hours a day and no one knows me like I know me, so don’t try to solve me as if I am some sort of emotional equation. I can usually solve myself with silence, some well thought out words, and my laptop.

Sidewak drawig at the Southbank

The Boy Virginia Made Dies a Little (The Hiatus Series)

“If you’re brave enough to say “good bye”, life will reward you with “hello.”–Paulo Coelho-

Last weekend I decided to die. Not in the literal sense, as I’m quite aware that’s never the route to go. But I did need to let go of the “me” that felt bottled up. The hiatus has been a long time coming, if you ask me, and I’m just surprised I didn’t think of it sooner. But the elements of a “good bye” were clearly in place as far back as last Tuesday.

July 19th, 2011

“Thank you. That’s all we’ll need to see today,” said the woman from the audition panel. I gathered my black H&M duffel bag from the floor (the one with my dance clothes and shoes inside “just in case” they called me back to do a dance call) and started my journey from the Dance Attic Studio space in Fulham back home towards Clapham. I called my agent (as is the usual procedure) to tell her that I’d sung the song they gave me to learn, but that I unfortunately still needed to use the words (because upon first sing, I got nervous and they all went from my head). while we ended our conversation very cheerily, I began to think, ‘well maybe this door closing is for the best. Maybe God is preparing me for the next best thing! Maybe I’ll be able to get this role, pay my bills, and leave London on the highest of high notes!’ So I got on the tube.

Somewhere between Fulham and my full thoughts, I found myself alighting at Piccadilly Circus. A celebrity on my Twitter feed had tweeted about an art gallery in the area, and I decided if I couldn’t be a part of art, I would go look at it. I spent about twenty-five minutes strolling around, looking for this suggested gallery and felt more or less like I was trudging towards the gallows. You see, the whole time I was walking, the more and more, I was thinking “I’m never going to get the life-changing call. Oh my goodness, I am going to be stuck in retail, giving out free sugar scrub hand massages to every old woman and pretentious teenage girl for the rest of my duration in London.” As a thunderstorm started in my soul, an actual dark cloud began to hover over Piccadilly. So I walked with as much speed as I could muster, and made it under the Ritz awning as the first droplets of rain began to fall.

I weaved my way around a school of Spanish students  and in-between Chinese tourists taking pictures of themselves in their newly purchased Wellies. Then it was back out into the drizzle to try and stop the thoughts that were catapulting to the front of my mind.

“No news is good news.” My mom said this to me once…and when she said it, it turned out to be true. Sometimes, she’s a prophet. But in this instance, she was a false one. That phrase “No news = good news” makes me think immediately of the word “hoax.” Think about it; if a person, company, or any interested party legitimately wants you, I highly doubt that they’d leave you in limbo about their enthusiastic desire to have you on board. On the contrary, I believe that you’d hear from  them as soon as humanly possible. Silence, to me, confirms rejection.

That was how I felt as I somehow ended up walking through Hyde Park, where people rollerbladed blithely around me and horses trotted respectfully on side paths. That same feeling continued as I somehow ended up in Mayfair trudging thoughtfully past homes I would never be able to afford. Then, the music on my iPod changed and Jill Scott’s voice was filling my ears with serenity. Unfortunately, the sounds of Jilly from Philly weren’t synching up with the aesthetic of London town. The sentiment of her song “Slowly, Surely” however, was resonating someplace deep in my soul. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was a message in her lyrics that I wasn’t quite hearing…

But then the thought came so suddenly, it was as if I’d been hit by an oncoming black cab in the middle of Grosvenor Square. If there was ever an epiphany for me it was this: Both in business and love, I want to be what someone wants. I don’t want to have to alter anything about myself, nor should I feel the need to lie to make myself more appealing. I want to be enough for someone, period.

Eventually, I’d made my trek to Covent Garden, where, because my job was short-staffed and I was in desperate need of cash, I signed up for more shifts. And immediately after I took them, I wondered hard to myself, if this hard work and willingness to help was genuinely appreciated. I went home, and prepared myself for work the next day.

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of that same week were very similar. I would work, come home at around 5 or 6ish, and immediately go to sleep. I did not eat. My appetite was non-existent and all I seriously wanted was quiet. I could’ve cared less if anyone needed me. I just didn’t want to be bothered. My blackout curtains remained closed. Dried laundry remained uncollected and I refused to contribute to making dishes as that would mean coming downstairs, bumping into a roommate, and having to make idle chat which I had no energy to do.

I would wake up late some nights, around 2:30 am, hoping to have received some messages from friends, or responses to Twitter postings, and I realized that NO one was contacting me. So on the Friday, I figured it would be a wonderful idea to remove myself from Facebook for a while. It’s not as if it’s serving a purpose for me at the moment, I thought. So with the click of a button I was “deactivated.”

The fear came immediately. What was my removal from the social world meaning? Was I hoping for peace or was I crying out for help?  I think I was so jumbled up inside when I made the decision that I couldn’t find a coherent answer. All I knew is that a weight had been lifted in some manner. The only thought I had from that moment was, ‘if my real friends want to contact me, they will find a way. Facebook isn’t the only way to communicate with me. It’s the lazy person’s way out.’ I was clearly in meltdown mode and I was going to discover who my real friends were soon enough.

July 24th, 2011

When I woke up on Saturday morning, I had no clue that it would be my final day of work, but it was. Granted, I’d put in my month’s notice about two weeks prior, as I was going to look for a job as a waiter (a job I have secretly craved since December 2009). During the week, however, I’d been reminded that I actually don’t like dealing with customers who constantly complain that our shop “smells too much”, that “your shampoo still uses sodium lauryl sulfates”, and that we “don’t have enough options for liquid soap.” I also got a bit tired of unsupervised children coming into the shop and basically having our staff babysit while they continued to shop elsewhere. Last time I checked, I wasn’t a father and I’m damn for sure not a father-in-training for pretentious children. On the way to work that Saturday, I decided “no more!” So I quit, and made my emotional load even lighter.

There should’ve been fear about how I was going to manage with bills and whatnot, but there wasn’t. I just knew that deep inside, my personal happiness takes precedence over everything else. As lovely as my colleagues were over the past year and a half, I needed to move on. My chapter at Lush was over and the thought of stepping into the unknown was delicious.

I must point out that I don’t think I had a clear thought process during my mini-meltdown. I was acting as I felt purely based on instincts; instincts that I’m sure no one would understand unless they were me. But I was also acting with one goal in mind: to make myself feel better. Then during the day, after I’d made the announcement that “today is my last day” another announcement came through that would be heard around the world. In the staff room, a colleague exclaimed with slight disbelief and aloofness, “Ohmigod, Amy Winehouse is dead.”

Talk about an exit. My figurative death definitely had nothing on her literal one. However, I (being who I am) instantly began to search a lesson in her life from which I might learn.

To be honest, Amy’s death is partially responsible for the clarity I gained over that weekend. She’d caused me to do go back to my old methods of “removing and assessing” to start planning my future. So when I left work that evening for the last time, I decided that the next stop after my graveyard shift would be to pull myself up out of the grave I dug and into a new life.

I was about to experience a personal renaissance.

The Boy From Virginia on Christmas (Part 2)

On Christmas day, my peaceful sleep was disturbed by the joyous sounds of children remembering that there were presents downstairs that needed to be ripped open. I opened one eye, thanked God for my blackout curtains, and closed it again. Little did I know, I would drift in and out of sleep for the next couple of hours due to the sporadic vibrating of my phone (friendly texts wishing me a Merry Christmas). I heavily considered turning the power off on my phone,  but my sleep was so relaxing that I didn’t care. But I was in a state where I couldn’t be arsed with dealing with anybody or anything. But then a phone call from a friend made me retract that feeling because I always had time for her.

            I officially work up at 1:15 in the afternoon to speak to my friend about the issue that had been plaguing me for two days: my friend’s divorce. I explained the effect it had on me and why I so wished that their relationship could’ve worked (because I felt I would learn something by watching them). She listened to me and gave her opinion and very astutely came to the conclusion that “if the husband could step out of the relationship now, then things must not have been solid for a while.” She was right, in her own way. Yes, there were things that the couple needed to work on, and some things that they really needed to be honest about with one another. But my feelings are as follows: when it comes to the point of even considering divorce, the statement being made is “There is no way to fix this relationship. We have exhausted all possibilities.”

            But if people are in love, how can you ever tire of it? I’m the first person who would say love isn’t enough, but I don’t understand how people can get tired of this feeling of supposed bliss…unless it was never love to begin with.

            When I finished talking to my very observant friend, I decided to actually get out of bed and leave my room. So I did…to go downstairs to the kitchen. It may have been the afternoon, but any time is a good time for coffee. (Besides, coffee tends to clear my mind when I first wake up and can’t seem to think coherently) The day tended to go pretty much like this: me wandering aimlessly through an empty flat, wondering why I was totally ok with receiving no presents this year, while I’m sure the rest of London found themselves feasting unappreciatively with their relatives. The mere thought of relatives made me aware about the fact that mine were still an ocean away.

            Therefore not only had I managed to think about divorce and love, but I’d also managed to fit my family into those thoughts. My day was turning out to be a melted marshmallow in hot chocolate. I needed release. Thank God (and Bill Gates, I guess?) for iTunes! I figured I’d download whatever was new, current, and danceable. Once I heard Dirty Money’s “Azz on the Floor” I put my feet on the floor and did some homemade cardio. But who knew that a little dancing could be dangerous.

            I’d forgotten that I’d lit a candle on the table near my bedside. As I got up to dance, I’d somehow knocked my bedspread onto the open flame. It took 2 seconds for me to smell smoke, and I’d pulled back my spread to find a burn mark. Here I was trying to burn the dance floor and I almost managed to set my room on fire. I laughed at myself for being so clumsy, and then realized that I was actually having fun, alone, on Christmas day. Granted, that “almost-fire” was the only major excitement of the day, but it did jolt me away from the sadness that was beginning to creep into my heart.

            And like all parents who feel the despair of their children, no matter how far away, my mother called me to wish me a Merry Christmas. Though a small gesture, it meant more than presents to me. And it was more than satisfactory knowing that she and the family were well.

            Not long after, I cooked my humble dinner: boneless chicken breasts and roasted potatoes (with cheese). Then it was off to watch “Going the Distance” on iTunes because I heard it was decent movie (Yes, I went iTunes crazy on Christmas day).

            About thirty minutes into the movie, my illusion of a silent Christmas day (where I could sit with my own thoughts) was broken. As I sat, looking quite disheveled in my pajamas and robe, my hair uncombed, the door to my flat opened and in walked my roommate with his family from Singapore. My eyes bulged as I realized that, even if I’d bolted up the stairs once I heard the keys jingling, there would be no way I could put on a decent pair of jeans or run a comb through this wooly crown of mine and make it down in time to greet the family. So I greeted them looking like a homeless person. And they didn’t seem too taken aback, as they smiled. But if they were anything like me, they’d be saying to themselves what I would say if I met someone for the first time and they looked a mess: “Damn.”

            I finished my Christmas day watching the rest of the movie and preparing for the next day. I had two shows to do the next day, and unfortunately, one day off was not enough time to rest up. But I decided I would go into work feeling better than I did days prior because divorce was no longer on my mind, and all the holiday shenanigans and goings-on would be over. My energy wouldn’t be so concentrated all things pricey (but then again, my energy was never focused on gifts in the first place).

            But before I drifted off to sleep and away from Jesus’ birthday, I began to think, what gift have I been given this Christmas that would outlast any gift I’ve ever received. I realized that I had been given love. From the small amount of texts that came through to the phone calls and even conversations on Skype (I forgot that at one point, I ended up on skype with a very good friend), I managed to get and give love on Christmas Day. Hell, it’s what the world really needs, isn’t it?