Our Voices: A Poet's Pride

June 17, 2022
John Byrne

“Oh, by the way, you’re not my boyfriend,” I, an out and proud gay man, told my boyfriend, also an out and proud gay man, who definitely was my boyfriend.

We were outside the door to where my parents were staying while they visited, and he was about to be introduced to my 89-year-old grandfather for the first time. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that I might have to ask him to put up this façade around a member of my family, but he took the task in stride and fulfilled the role with ease. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s had to do this before; we all have.

“We,” of course—in this instance—refers to members of the Queer or LGBTQIA+ community. The majority of us learn from an early age to start putting on different masks for different situations. This isn’t the same kind of hat-wearing people do day-to-day, compartmentalizing different aspects of their personalities depending on the setting. It’s not the same as keeping work-place conversations professional and appropriate, not the same as refraining from using swear words in front of one’s parents, not even the same as behaving differently around one group of friends versus another. No, this is an act of self-preservation, brought on by a constant and very real fear of rejection, oppression, and in many instances actual physical harm, one which is not easily shrugged off.

I took my first overconfident steps out of the closet when I was a freshman in high school, which was very early at the time. I had a group of strong and supportive friends, two gay uncles, and I felt like I had a system set up to catch me if I needed it. And I wasn’t wrong about that, I still have many of those people in my life today, but the journey was far more complicated than I originally thought. My parents, for instance, were at first surprised and then cautious. How exactly does a parent come to terms with this news? They started questioning everything I did, every person I spent time with. But I learned to be patient with them. They were adjusting to a new future they hadn’t expected for me, and eventually—not without a few hiccups—they came to understand that I was still the same person I always had been, and they’re still learning.

In graduate school, when a literary magazine accepted two of my poems for the first time, I was elated. My mother was as happy for me as she could be without knowing the amount of effort that goes into getting work published in the literary world, but I knew better than to send her the link when the poems were finally posted months later. One of the poems centers very explicitly on the loneliness of dating in the gay community, and when she found out about the poem’s content through a family friend who saw my post about it on Facebook, she called to ask me to take it down. She was worried about my career prospects if someone were to find the poem online.

I tried to explain to her that it didn’t work that way, that the literary magazine now owned the rights to publish that poem per an agreement that I had signed, that it was a creative work of art that should not—and in the literary community, at least, would not—be taken as a direct reflection on me. Eventually we let it drop—but still, this small rejection stung. Somehow, I was being told once again that it was okay for me to be gay, just not okay for people to know it publicly. Worse, it felt like instead of being happy that I was finding my place and my voice as a poet, my mother was telling me that I needed to hide my art from people who may not understand it. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve stopped sharing my publications on Facebook and Instagram where I know she might come across them. As a poet, it has always been important to me to have a voice as a queer person out in the world, to translate my experiences into words that can reach and affect a larger audience. Still, no matter how out and proud I am, there are times when I unconsciously shrink myself down, to avoid discomfort and conflict, and to protect myself.

I could go on to list the times I was bullied throughout my childhood and in high school, the disgruntled customers I dealt with while working in food service and retail, the underhanded comments I’ve endured from friends, family, coworkers, all throughout my adult life. I could give a detailed account of the times I’ve been by myself or with friends or with a significant other and had homophobic slurs thrown my way from men in big trucks driving past or groups of men at bars on the weekend. The times I’ve been shoved or physically threatened or put into very real, very dangerous positions because of my sexuality. But June is Pride Month, and I would rather dedicate only a few sentences to those moments.

Despite any of the struggles that I have dealt with throughout my life, I am fortunate and privileged enough to be grateful for the relatively positive experience I’ve had as an openly gay man. I’ve grown up into a world that has seemed to be progressing more and more quickly past mere tolerance and acceptance toward something closer to support. I’ve had access to television, books, and movies that feature prominent queer characters in increasing numbers. I’ve witnessed the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the legalization of gay marriage, and countless other small victories for LGBTQIA+ people living in America.

This Pride Month, I’m taking time to be thankful for the love and support I’ve had along the way, but I’m also reminded that even while I still struggle to be myself around members of my own family, there are other members of the Queer community—specifically trans youth—who are facing greater hurtles every day. There’s anti-trans legislation proposed in over half the states in the country. There is constant fear-mongering and trans- and homophobia being thrown around by people with very powerful platforms for social change. Just this month, there was almost a coordinated attack led by 31 members of a white supremacist hate group at a Pride event in Idaho. During Pride we commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots and the innumerable protests and tireless activism of so many members of the LGBTQIA+ community and their allies that have allowed us to get this far—but we also recognize how far there is still left to go.

We celebrate a world that has come a long way, a world still making progress. We come together in June to celebrate the steps we’ve taken to get to this point, but also to show that we are still here, we are still proud, and we will continue to do what we have to do to make this world safe and loving for everyone. Period. Full stop.


John Byrne is a fiscal analyst in the MUSC Department of Surgery and a poet. He received his Master of Fine Arts with a concentration in poetry from the College of Charleston.