My Gay Roadshow
Words by Lara Thomas
We each have three best friends: your past self, your current self and your future self. Each one should be kind to the others; each one should look after the others. How? I think I may know the answer. To explain it, I have to tell you I’ve been going to a life coach, which feels strange to admit but I’m trying to form a habit of admitting – of resisting the urge to appear only strong. This is how I put it to my oldest (and far braver) friend, Bee: “I’m going to a life coach and I’m going to tell him that we need to come up with a plan to help me tell all my special people I’m gay and if he doesn’t encourage me to do it, I’m just going do it anyway.”
It turned out – as is their custom apparently – that my life coach had his own ideas. I was, according to him, not entirely ready to execute my ‘plan’. He said: “There’s this incongruence. Part of you is saying, ‘I’m gay’ and the other part is looking at this person as if they’ve just been sold out and is saying, ‘I’m really not gay’”. And, so, what my life coach actually helped me create was a space where that disgruntled part of me felt comfortable enough to raise her hands in the air and say, “Okay, okay, guilty, I am gay.” It took that part of me a little longer to slowly drop her arms and cross them – more than a little pissed off that being gay was her truth. And it took a little longer for her to uncross her arms and, finally, to surrender into who she is – into who I am.
On my life coach’s couch, I learned to project memories onto a white blank wall. Some of these memories have been haunting me, some have been keeping me company – both kinds were doing me no favours. A timeline was given to each memory: a decisive point before each event when everything was okay; and a point after the event when, again, everything returned to being okay again. Sometimes I was told to run through the memories backwards, stopping only when my mind had travelled from one point of okay to the other. And sometimes I was told to run through the memories so quickly it was as if I was holding the DSTV remote, fast forwarding through the adverts to get to the Good Wife (pun intended). While I played memories only I could see, my life coach would tell me to, “Turn the scene black and white.” And then to “Scribble over it with red ink.” And then to “Make the picture smaller.” We were manipulating the memories, taking their power away, changing their configuration. At some point in the process, my life coach would tell me to imagine my current self (the one on the couch) going up to my younger self (the one that was okay before the incident) to tell her, very gently, what was going to happen to her. For the one memory, my younger self was at a bar so I sidled up to her, squeezing between the crowd and while she tried to catch the barman’s attention, I whispered her imminent future. I also told her that, though difficult, she would be okay.
“How do you know?” she asked, no longer interested in a drink.
“Because,” I said, “I’ve lived it and I’m okay.”
As I understand it, that’s how your current self looks after your younger self: by knowing things she couldn’t possibly know; by telling her that this too shall pass; by unpacking her baggage and then putting it away for good; by being stronger for the years passed.
How then does your past self look after your future self? To explain that one, I’m going to tell you a longer story. It’s set in Yangon, Myanmar. You’re probably frowning, wondering where that is. Well, if it helps, it used to be called Burma. Still frowning? It’s surrounded by – going from north-west clockwise – Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam, Thailand and then there’s a whole lot of the Bay of Bengal and then you find yourself back at Bangladesh. After a month of travelling the country (which I highly recommend) with two very dear friends, I had about seven hours in Yangon on my own before catching my flight home to Cape Town.
I had time to kill and the only thing I had to do, besides getting to the airport, was go to the post office. My first stop that morning was Scott’s Market because I still had some Kyat (the Myanmar currency) left and wanted to buy one special token to remind me of what had been one of the best trips of my life. While I was making my way through the vendors and commuters and cafes that sprawled their miniature pink plastic chairs onto the pavement, a woman from South America – I can’t tell you which country; I’m bad with accents – stopped me on a crowded street to ask for directions. I told her to follow me. You see, I knew Yangon by then. Since arriving in the country, I had returned to the city three times – I had walked her humid and colourful streets, lit candles and hung garlands of flowers at her famous gold gold (and another for luck) gold paya; and admired her colonial buildings that have taken on colours the British would never have approved of. At the market, I bought an old, turned-green-from-time, buffalo bell. I chose it as my Myanmar treasure because I wanted to remember the sound of the cattle – each with their own bell – moving, unseen, through the green tea fields of Hsipaw as if the hymn came from the hills themselves.
Bell in my camera bag, I walked Yangon’s streets one last time, taking photos of the turquoise buildings and the impossible amount of wires running between them. In no hurry, I stopped at every intersection to witness the way the pedestrians own the streets – only occasionally and very lazily moving aside for the hoot of a taxi. And as I took it all in, I gave in to a thought I had resisted for a month. My stride quickened. My trip was so nearly over and its end meant there were no more excuses. I was in transit: somewhere between contemplating being brave and actually being it. I was scared, sure, but when I tunnelled into myself and pushed all that fear aside, there was something else there too: excitement.
For those who don’t know me, I’m not generally a scared person. I was in a foreign, pretty hectic city on my own and besides this basic fact, no one knew exactly where I was or what I was doing that morning. I had only enough currency to pay for the postage of my ten envelopes and get a taxi to the airport. My visa had expired (sorry, mom and dad, it’s true). According to the Lonely Planet a study found that one in every four food-stalls in Yangon contain the bacteria that causes food poisoning. It’s the Russian roulette of hunger. That didn’t stop me. I had eaten at way more than four places so I was either really lucky or my stomach was really strong. En route to the post office, I bought two pancakes: one chickpea and coriander, the other banana and coconut – both of them hot from the same dirty wok; both more delicious than I can tell.
I ate as I walked, suddenly conscious in a way I hadn’t been when my friends were with me that my shorts were probably too short; that my top should’ve probably covered my shoulders; that the locals were staring at me with what could have been wonder (and often was) but what was, on that morning, probably a bit of disapproval. It didn’t faze me much. There was more than enough to distract me from the attention: In that part of Yangon, every street boasts its own theme. Whole lanes are devoted to shops that sell neon lights intended to turn kitsch pagodas kitscher. Other streets are dedicated to books: open libraries spill onto the road alongside tables showing off slices of watermelon and green mango. I like to think that on that day, I chose to walk down the paper street because the idea of all those envelopes and letterheads escorting me to the post office appeals to me but the truth is I can’t really remember and when I try, a street full of spare car parts – exhausts, shock absorbers, break-pads – comes to mind and that’s not nearly as poetic.
At the post office, I bought ten stamps – each boasting Bagan’s temples in a dusty orange light. When I tried to lick and stick one, it didn’t work so I borrowed glue from the three people working at the entrance. It came in a plastic rectangle – similar to those frozen guava juices we used bite the corners off as kids and suck the nectar out of (you know the ones?). I squeezed out a bit of glue, smeared some onto each stamp and pressed one onto the corner of each envelope. I was posting for three of us. Some of the envelopes were going to Perth; one to London; some to Durban; others to Johannesburg; and a few were destined for Cape Town. One of the envelopes was addressed to me; it was also from me. In it was a card on which I wrote a few lines from one of Emily Dickinson’s poems. I’ll tell you what the card said but only right at the end. For now, you’ll have to be satisfied with this: I – my current self – was sending my future self courage. Why? Because I was afraid I’d lose my nerve. I was afraid that my bravery would need reminding; that my future self would get a little too comfortable at home, tell herself that she didn’t really need to do what she promised herself she would – she didn’t have to go to everyone she felt dear and close and special to her and tell them that she was gay; she didn’t have to choose this life that seemed so terrifyingly different.
I sent that postcard on 30 January 2016. There was no sign of it in February. What did happen in February was I went to that life coach for the first time and he taught me to look after my younger self. I immediately loved the idea of protecting my more reckless, more afraid, more searching self. There was no sign of the postcard in March. What did happen in March was a friend told me about those three best friends and I was grateful for an explanation for what I already instinctively understood. It turned out my courage didn’t need much prompting. I went to see my friends, one by one, in Cape Town and then I flew to Johannesburg with the sole intention of doing the same. There were moments when I felt too scared to say the words, “I have something to tell you” and then follow them up with “I’m gay.” To summon my nerve, I imagined the words I had written on that card on their way to me; and if that didn’t work, I told myself, like a sacred mantra, that I am the daughter of Ian and Moira Thomas and the sister of Clyde, and that when I felt none of my own, I could channel each of their strengths because I am of their making. In that belonging I found my fortitude. Most of the time the words didn’t come out easily. At first it involved so many tears that when I finally got it out, my audience was hugely relieved that I wasn’t dying. And on other occasions, when I started to realise that it really wasn’t such a big deal, I was a bit too casual about it and friends thought I was joking.
In the last two months, I’ve been on what I dubbed a gay roadshow. A marathon of DMCs. And though I became more and more certain that each person I told would react well, there weren’t many conversations when I didn’t feel my heart beating too strongly in my chest or as Sylvia Plath conceived it, bragging in my chest (I’m gay so now I get to drop references like that). In the last few weeks, I’ve looked many of my closest people in the eye (I’m sorry for those I couldn’t or didn’t reach) and said the words I was too scared to admit to myself for years. And then I waited, locking eyes with them, searching for their first reaction. I put myself in their line of sight (and for a while I considered it a line of fire); I did it because I didn’t want to lose them; I did it because I wanted them (read was forcing them) to come on what I considered a scary journey with me. I did it because in any adventure and in any mischievousness and in anything society has instructed that I’m not “supposed” to do, I have always looked for accomplices.
Reactions to the news varied. One said, while hugging me as I cried, “Oh La… I know”. Another, “Never!” Another, “Who’s gay?” to which I repeated with a smile, “I’m gay.” One jumped clean off her chair in a restaurant cheering as though she’d won a trip to Spain. My mother – who I told over a year ago at the dining room table – said very calmly, “Why are you crying? We love you.” My father affirmed that unwavering love in the next breath. My brother said, “It doesn’t change anything.” An aunt said, “I think it’s beautiful.” Others did not so much as blink as though I’d made a bland comment about the weather. A cousin wrote, “I am always here. I will always be here.” Another cousin wrote, “the more authentic you are, the more of you there is for the world”. One friend typed, “As in you’re happy or a lesbian?” Another asked, “Why the &$*^ are you only telling me now?” What they said and how they softened my stare was particular to each but their reactions were also all the same: They received my news with love – with so much of it that as I write this, I struggle to remember why I was so scared to begin with or what that fear even felt like. I expected to go through this incredibly difficult time. And, in some ways, it was. It was emotionally exhausting – a roller-coaster spanning across two cities (more if you count the letters and whatsapps) that was filled with a lot of fear and relief and, bless them all, love and love and more love.
I know not everyone is as lucky as I have been. I know that when I say people deserve the benefit of the doubt – a chance to rise to the occasion – that some really don’t deserve that vulnerability. I know that faced with the same news, there are some that react in fear and misunderstanding and, bless them too, even hate. I know that not everyone can go on a roadshow (even if they wanted to which they probably don’t because it’s a pretty outrageous idea); nor could they gain momentum with each person they told because sooner or later someone would stop them and say: “Cool your jets, and by the way you’re going to hell.” I know there are too many tragedies of families disowning their children and friends turning their back on someone who only wants to live their truth. And not for a single second do I suggest to be some example of the best way to come out because I am the furthest thing from that perfect template (not that I think there is one). Despite all this and with some level of fear, I want to add my story to the narrative; not because it’s worth more than anyone else’s – it isn’t – but because maybe, just maybe, one person will read this and it might make them trust their friends and their family enough to reveal their authentic selves. Or, even braver, they might not trust them and decide to do it anyway. Maybe there are others like my younger self that I can look after in this very small way.
Though often very nervous of going on my roadshow, I was, at other times, hugely optimistic. To protect me from potential heartache, my mom would say: “Not everyone is going to like this, La. Not everyone is as open minded as we are. You will lose some friends.”
Some days I believed it. Some days I felt the sadness of that inevitable loss. On other days, I struggled to believe that anyone I loved could do that to me and I’d say with a certain smile that is reserved for her and my occasional rebellions, “I don’t know, mom, I think I might have a clean run.”
My mom would follow her warning up with, “But you know, La, then you have to ask, were they ever really your friends to begin with?”
Before I told anyone outside my immediate family and my very closest friends, I hoped for a clean run. In my mind, that was the best case scenario. By clean run, I meant that no one would outright act negatively: No one would tell me to get out of their house; no one would tell me I was a sinner; no one would try convince me I was confused or that the love I sought was worth less than any conventional idea of love. A month ago, a clean run seemed like a bold thing to hope for. What I got was not clean. It was colourful and bright and funny and awkward and affirming and nothing short of magic. It was filled with more light and love and gratitude than I have ever felt. What I got in the faces and the words and the tears of the people I so adore was one fundamental message which, as it happens, one of our closest family friends uttered (she also happens to be very religious): “I love you more.” Again and again, in their different ways, my tribe rose, circled me and promised to love me more for one simply reason: they could finally see all of me.
My postcard card arrived almost exactly at the end of my roadshow: two and a half months after it was sent. With it, I got a sense that the universe was giving me a nod. And, call me crazy, but lately it has felt as though that nod has developed into a bit of a bob – as if the universe and I are subtly dancing to a song that I have only just began to hear.
As promised, I’ll let Emily have the last word:
If your Nerve deny you—
Go above your Nerve—
He can lean against the Grave,
If he fear to swerve—
If your Soul seesaw—
Lift the Flesh door—
The Poltroon wants Oxygen—
Cover image by Archer Inspired
Lara was born in January 1986. She grew up in Johannesburg, studied in Cape Town and then returned home to complete two years of law articles. The child of a story-teller and a woman who can make just about anything with her hands, Lara left law a little too early to call it a career, in the hope that she would create something of her own and have the words to retell it.