You’re only here because you have to be, I tell myself for the thousandth time that night.
I’m 21 and employed at an events company – not exactly the best job for someone who wants to work with words, but better than the call centre I came from.
Tonight, our company is hosting the launch of a sports calendar at an exclusive cocktail lounge near Sydney Harbour.
Everything’s all so performed and cliched it could be a movie. Occasionally a woman smiles at me sympathetically; the gay men avert their eyes. Between the noise of champagne bottles popping open and air-kisses being blown between strangers, I hear the flash of a camera. A social photographer, working the room.
“Smile!” he enthuses, but he barely needs to instruct any of the socialites here. Posing is their full-time job.
I think about my old friend, Sandy, living in Melbourne and how I really fell in love with her the time she proclaimed that: “To live a life of wine-drinking, going out and false laughter makes me ill to my very core.”
I wish, not for the first time, that I had Sandy’s brains, so I could live the same solitary life she does, so I wouldn’t have to be here.
“Can I take your photo?” the photographer asks.
I clutch my glass of juice in surprise. Me?
The photographer discreetly motions to my two nearby colleagues, ushering them to the side of the room and snaps the pair standing together.
As the night progresses, I watch with wry amusement the way this photographer plays a skilful game of dodgem cars, careful to sidestep me at every chance.
I’m the only person not drinking here, and I count that everyone gets photographed in different variations at least twice, while I leave the event without any documentation of my presence.
Honestly, I like it better this way. It’s not jealousy I feel, more like surprise at how little changes no matter how we age. What is it they say about high school never really ending?
Thinking back to those days, I remember a girl screaming at 14-year-old me because my backpack brushed against hers.
Now the pimples have gone, but the gauche shadow has grown stronger, a brooding reminder of the freak I still am.
I walk to Circular Quay train station, desperate to get home and eat something other than insubstantial canapes.
In my head, I begin writing a letter to Sandy: I think of clever metaphors for my nausea, how I was the bush turkey amongst peacocks.
Already I am imagining Sandy’s barbed voice.
“The joke,” I can hear her saying, “is on them.”
Beauty is, arguably, one of the most subjective tastes of all.
But as a gay man, I learned that the definitions are dangerously narrow: walking between the boundaries of acceptable and shameful was like squeezing through tunnels; each breathe could be my last.
I am ugly; that’s not a cry for compliments or reassurance, it’s simply the truth. Being gay, I’ve come to learn, is like most things: easier to do when you’re attractive. I wish I could say it’s just because of where I live or the people I know but, truthfully, after traversing 38 different countries, I am as freakish in Spain or Singapore as I am in Sydney. I accepted and maybe even understood why people at school wouldn’t approach me, unless they wanted a cheap laugh: I told myself ‘gay men will be different’ but because of my face and my body, few want anything to do with me. I have been on dates with men who are capable of building an impenetrable barrier between us even when we’re seated face-to-face in a crowded restaurant; I give them nightmares or a reason to rush straight to gym. My face makes sure I am not the sort of person who is easy to forget; this is as close as I will ever get to the world of models.
At times I have imaged myself living in Paris during the seventies, publishing a counter-culture magazine called Ugly from my home in Montmatre. That dream has gone. Now, I want to erect billboards overlooking Oxford Street, Sydney’s gay mecca. I imagine my face, untouched by any editing software, with the lyrics from Sleater-Kinney’s ‘Call the Doctor’: “I’m your monster, I’m not like you; I’m your monster, I’m just like you.”
As a teenager, I stopped watching television when I realised that the lives on screen were not mine, and had no chance of being so. For a time, I tried the US version of Queer as Folk, simply because it was all that was available on the TV and aired so late at night my family were asleep; but when one of the main characters, Justin, told another man: “All you are is yesterday’s fuck,” I realised that I belonged here as much as I did on the football field. My passport simply wasn’t valid.
Since then, gay capitalism has boomed and films like Love, Simon or Call Me By Your Name have raked in money from an audience that is – understandably – hungry for their stories.
But the truth is that it will always be hard for me to watch movies that are still conforming to traditional beauty standards. (Yes, even arthouse movies are just as guilty of this: emaciation and heroin-chic are sexy, it seems). As a high school English teacher told us: “There must be a lot of amazing actors out in the world, somewhere.”
In being outcast for my ugliness, I initially let beauty standards consume me, too much, for too long. When I met gay men, my first thought was often: why would he want to talk to me? Or else I’d look at others and think: so long as they have that face, that body, they will never understand how it feels to move through this world with the constraints I’m up against.
“No one ever messages me,” I once complained to a housemate who was glued to Grindr.
“Because you’re ugly,” he said, and in that moment, the kaleidoscope of shattered glass shifted into something beautifully transparent.
Ugly. Four letters: sharp like crystal. The word glows, at least for me, making my body tingle with some kind of cosmic electricity. Yes, no one wanted to take a photo with me, or sit next to me on public transport, and the only messages I received on apps were from lecherous older men; but I could swim in the ocean without fear; my life didn’t depend on the number of likes my topless photo attracted. By untangling myself, I had reached the freedom that comes with invisibility, and that was a power, maybe even a super-power. And, at last, it feels great.