Those words have been said directly to me many times in my life, but there are four instances that I remember as clearly as if they were tattooed onto my face:
- I am 9 years old, at swim practice. A group of Asian boys around my age who regularly pick on me jeer at me across the pool. "Hey, Ugly!" the ringleader calls, a tall youth with a lean build. I want to drown, because I'm secretly attracted to him and used to steal guilt-ridden glances at him in the showers.
- I am 13. I've now gained a significant amount of weight. I attend a prestigious magnet school. I am still awkward, with a limp wrist and a lispy stutter. I eat lunch with my sister and her friends, who are kind to me. One of the popular girls in my grade drops a note on my plate as she walks by. I read the scrawled handwriting. "You're ugly."
- I am now 18. I've just broken up with my first and only girlfriend. I'm counting down the days to when I plan to come out. At my college's dining hall, my roommate, an aggressive womanizer, cracks a joke. "It helps that I have an ugly roommate." I laugh along with everyone.
- I'm 22. My first boyfriend stands at our doorway, carrying the last of his things. I beg him not to leave. He's strong and handsome, with dark, Greek features. He's emotionless and rushed. I lose my temper, and yell at him, "You're a selfish asshole!" He turns to me, eyes flashing, and says it: "You're ugly." Simple, succinct, devastating.
I won't specify the times I've heard others use it, but I hear it on a common basis, especially in the gay community. I used to run with a couple of WeHo boys who regularly tossed it out like daggers to describe complete strangers. When I called them out, when I said that it was unnecessary, that it didn't make us any prettier, they'd scoff at me. "You were thinking it, too," they'd always say.
That doesn't even begin to describe what goes on in my head when I hear that word.
I am a gay man of color. I've tried and failed to describe my past experience as one, but I'll try here: I was born into a box within a box, and the keys are always dangling just out of my reach, jingling in the dark. Houdini has nothing on me.
To grow up a minority in America is an odd thing; there's nothing I wanted more than to fit in, to not stand out as an easy target for bullies, but fitting in meant forsaking my identity. And the slow realization that I was gay crept in at the same time I wondered why every image of the "American ideal" looked, sounded, and acted nothing like me.
So as a kid, I would look in the mirror at my features, my smooth skin, my black eyes, and it was easy to feel ugly. It was easy to agree.
And when I came out, there was no parade celebrating my diverseness. Instead, I entered a subculture that strove even harder to fit in. When a group of individuals grows up with a perpetual reinforcement that we are subhuman, that our emotions are inferior, that our love is dirty, how can you blame us for this? The Adonis factor is not narcissism. It's self-defense.
I worked so hard to hear that I was attractive. I had something to prove, that I was no longer that sad, effeminate boy doggy-paddling at the shallow end of the pool. So I hit the gym and sculpted my body from obesity to lean muscle. So I built a persona of hypersexual confidence and took an obscene pleasure in breaking hearts. So I went through long periods of promiscuity and drug use when I used my sexuality as validation: "If you fuck me, I exist."
And I was miserable.
Let me be clear: I know now that I am not ugly. Actually, I am a profoundly beautiful person. But for me to say this, for me to put this in writing, I first had to crawl out of many holes. I had to rewire the neurons in my brain. I had to rewrite history.
First, I had to realize that up to that point, there were two sides to my identity. There was the part of me that was all reaction -- reaction to racism, homophobia, ignorance. That part of me was bitter and dark and, yes, ugly. I named him Yellow Peril. (My last name actually means "yellow.")
Giving him a name made it easy to separate from him. I gave him a voice on my blog I AM YELLOW PERIL, and I began to write my stories, my life, my pain. I wrote down the words that were written on the walls of my box within a box. And the more I wrote, the more it became clear.
The part of me that isn't reaction, the part of me that isn't stained with the insecurities of others and the darkness of human history, is pure and shining beauty.
So if there is a God, I'm incredibly thankful. Thank you for taking me and folding me into intricate origami. There has been nothing more beautiful for me than looking inward at my own soul. Each time I do, I discover something indescribably blissful. I fascinate myself. Being a gay man of color has been the greatest blessing. I wouldn't have it any other way.
I can't speak for other gay men of color. My own identity as one is complicated enough; I wouldn't dare to even begin to fathom the experience of another. And to date, I've personally known three gay men of color who have taken their own lives.
But at 25, I finally see that there are no boxes for us, just limitless possibility. And while I hate to speak in generalizations, I know this much to be true when it comes to me and my fellow gay men of color:
This piece also appears on Justin Huang's personal site, I AM YELLOW PERIL.