White Girls Were (not) Us

CW: Suicide

“Standing above me and around me I see how we are all the same, that none of us are white women or black men; rather, we’re a series of mouths, and that every mouth needs filling: with something wet or dry, like love, or unfamiliar and savory, like love.” – Hilton Als

All the gay boys wanted to be Samantha; we were no different. Back then, I was living in the projects of the South Bronx. I didn’t know I was gay but I watched gay porn in the living room computer on the odd days when no one was home. Back when a webpage took a long time to load. Before we started living in the realm of social media. I presented myself as studious, focused, reserved. But in my solitude I let my mind wander, and when I could, I gave in to those desires for which I had no language.

This is how I divided my life, unbeknownst to myself: who I was when I was alone and who I was with other people.

In the midst of self-delusion and the kinds of psychic leaps queer and trans kids have to enact to survive, I found my selves merging only when I talked to my cousin Junior on the phone. He was four years older, a five-hour plane ride away where we grew up in Santo Domingo, and though we hadn’t seen each other since I left our home years before, we continued to be friends. Adolescent angst often heightens our experience to the frequency of melodrama, and books, television, and the house phone felt like my only ways out of a life which felt to me like a cage.

I didn’t tell him I watched gay porn or that I fantasized about my male teachers. It was impossible to face what to anyone else might have been obvious: Our feminine mannerisms, our circles of female friends, our concerning disinterest in finding girlfriends. Shame is as blinding as it is convincing. We filled our conversations instead with our shared obsessions: the sardonic but brave heroine of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the deviant and seductive Paola Bracho in the Mexican soap opera La Usurpadora, the rebellious lesbian (or so we thought) duo t.A.T.u.

Of course, our favorites were the white girls running the streets of New York in Sex and the City. Carrie’s endless pining over unavailable men. Charlotte’s romantic search for the one. Miranda’s uncompromising independence. All of it was thrilling to us. But we were drawn to Samantha best because she talked openly about cum and threesomes and anal and we liked that about her, this vernacular of liberated sex. That she could say what we could only dream of saying. That she could do what was impossible for us to live.

“Girl, when I finally move to New York, we’re going out. The outfits, the dancefloor, fine ass men, that’ll be us some day.”

That’s a fiction of what Junior said, best as I can remember it. That’s how we talked about the future then, like we would never end.

Much has been written about the failures Sex and the City’s writing of LGBTQ folks. The sharp transphobia passed as humor, Samantha’s rocky lesbian relationship, even much of the writing of gay men, though the creator is a gay man himself, has come short. The Sex and The City criticism deepened and expanded with And Just Like That…, which found itself fumbling as it folded in non-binary characters into its exploration of sexuality and gender.

These days, we understand the power of seeing people who more closely reflect you on television, in books, even on ads. We call this representation and hang on to this idea so much of our hope in the development of self-regard.

But back then, years before we came out, before I kissed a boy, before we were critical enough to understand how this show reduced people like us, we found a home there in the longing of our favorite white women.

We didn’t have examples of Caribbean and Black queer representation in media and culture. Very little in Anglophone television, much less in the Spanish-speaking world. This isn’t to say that queer Black art didn’t exist. Noah’s Arc came out in 2005, the same year we were wrapped up in Sex and The City. Randall Kenan had written his novel A Visitation of Spirits in 1989, before we were born, though I didn’t discover Kenan until I was in my twenties. It wasn’t that we were disinterested in finding art that aligned closer to our lives, it’s just that it was more difficult to access. White women were abundant, accessible, and had the cultural capital to reach us in the Caribbean, and later, in The Bronx.

In our current culture of absolutes and performative certainty, when identity is treated as something that is static, natural, and essential to our being, I am trying to contend with how the lines between Caribbean queer boys and white girls were blurred in my youth. What did we lose and what did we gain in that leap across difference?

I know that it made me flexible, curious, adept at getting used to new places, circumstances, and people.

I also understand that making that leap alienated us from ourselves. Who were we, really, when we weren’t aspiring to live like white girls?

Junior saved me a lot. Like the time a group of boys ganged up on me at the school yard. It didn’t matter that he was already starting to build a reputation as a maricon. We were young enough that the only thing that mattered was that he was tall, older, that the brown birthmark under his eye made him look mean when he got serious.

Or the time a pack of dogs chased me down our street. I was sure I was gonna die. But he looped back around the street on his bike and chased the dogs away by throwing rocks at them as hard as he could.

He showed up even when we stopped being kids. I was seventeen when I developed an anxiety disorder. For months, I’d wake up every night at 3am in a panic. I’d walk outside as far as my legs carried me, trying to exhaust my brain from the cliff of panic. On one of the worst of these weeks, Junior came over to keep me company. He pushed our beds together to make one, held me until my anxiety subsided and I was able to sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night, but when I tried to slip outside, he stopped me. Not to lecture me about the dangers of going out on a walk at 3am in The Bronx. Not to demand that I be normal, that I calm down, as everyone was asking of me then.

“Wait for me,” he said in the dark, and threw on some clothes to join me on my walk.

Just in the nick of time, like a proper hero.

Years later, on the night before he killed himself, my grandmother asked me to call Junior.

I was making dinner. A biting November wind seeped through window. I looked at my phone sitting on the counter. Just then I thought about a promise I had made him, about how when he joined me in New York we would be like those white girls in Sex and The City who wear nice clothes and go out dancing and fuck whoever they want. While our parents were dreaming of a good job and stability and buying a nice house away from the city, we were dreaming about the club and love affairs with men who loved us episodically. Our own little American dream.

How trite, that our unrealized dream would flash in my mind the night before he died. That I never focused enough to make it happen. But what is a thought, if not a warning, if not too late?

That night, he and I were mad at each other about something which is so inconsequential I don’t even remember what it was. We were brothers, in that way. I told myself I’d swallow my ego and reach out, but I was tired, and busy, and anyway, I thought, we were so good at talking. I thought we had nothing but time.

When someone you love dies by suicide, you start looking for answers in easy places. Why? I know that question has no end, but I can’t help it, sometimes, my own facile meaning-making. If representation is so important to the development of self-regard, would things have been different if we hadn’t been so overexposed to white women’s fantasies? How did this obsession with white women distort our self-image, our visions of success, our relationships to our sexuality? His debilitating obsession with beauty. His deep disillusionment with life. Would we have been better off surrounded by stories of people who looked like us?

But I also understand that these conversations about representation flatten the complexity of living. Why should I blame a lack of representation when there was so much else wrong with our lives? Our parents left us on the island to migrate to New York. We were raised by alcoholics. We were poor. We inherited a cruel legacy of anti-blackness that our grandfather had no language to unpack in his own life, much less to explain to us. We were queer in violently homophobic spaces. And when we finally grew old enough to have relationships with men, we didn’t know how to love them, much less how to let them love us.

The reasons for self-destruction are abundant. It’s a miracle any of us make it through. Perhaps representation in art and media is just another distraction from getting us to talk about what’s here, in the real world, all around us.

I am seven the first time I identify with a white girl on screen. I’m sitting next to Junior in our shared bedroom in Santo Domingo, wide-eyed in front of the television, our janky VCR burning through the tape. The ship is sinking. The surface of the water is littered with bodies. Our white girl protagonist lays on a wooden slab, her lover just below her, dying. She looks up at the stars, at the light from the lifeboat come to save her. Then she realizes he’s dead. Her freezing lips shake with sorrow. Our stomachs tighten. It doesn’t matter that we’ve never experienced heartbreak, that we’ve never been lost at sea. Her loss translates to us across lived experience, and we cry like we feel it, her overwhelming grief.

There we are timeless in my memory, a series of hungry mouths. Before we knew white girls were not us. Before we knew what America was. We wanted so badly to be loved.

The Ruins

There was something about being a boy here.

Rap Rights

Hip Hop was my first love, and it didn’t love me back.

Of Uncles

What have I offered the uncles I’ve sought out, and how will I know whether I’ve held up my end of the bargain?