The Gay Playground: Welcome Back to the Dollhouse

Remember the playground?

It's a key symbol of our youth, the childhood version of the after-work bar, where happy hour typically lasts anywhere from 15 minutes to the duration of gym class (which, for me, was an hour that was anything but happy). That's nothing compared to those long, seemingly endless school days, but it's enough time for a lifetime's worth of mental damage to be done.

If your childhood was anything like mine, it wasn't all fun and games on the playground. In hindsight, it was a place better left forgotten, the site of recurring nightmares, some of which were real, some of which unfolded entirely in my head.

In class I could be the perfect student and hide behind my knowledge (I was the sort of bookworm who read biographies and encyclopedias for fun), secure knowing that my schoolmates admired me too much to ridicule me in class. After all, I had all the answers...or most of them. I could also recite all of the U.S. Presidents, from first to thirty-ninth, in second grade. Who else could do that?

Unfortunately, that didn't matter on the playground. My gift of memorization, all the trivia I'd collected and crammed into my little head, didn't detract from how awkward I was in my own skin. I never felt more like a lonesome loser than I did on the playground. I didn't throw right. I didn't catch right. I couldn't run right. I couldn't walk right. I couldn't talk right. I could never get over that damn wall on the obstacle course, and my fear of heights made me terrified of climbing to the top of the monkey bars.

It wasn't until years later that I'd realize it wasn't so much the way I moved as much as what I was. I was a gay boy living in a straight world, and I never felt more off than I did on the playground. It was the first place where I ever felt out of place (and, incidentally, the first place where I ever heard the N word, coming, ironically, out of the mouth of a black kid in my kindergarten class who told me it meant "a tall person"), and I carried that misfit feeling with me through my childhood and teens.

I didn't want in. Fitting in has never been an option. I was (and am) a square peg, and I knew I'd never be able to squeeze into a round hole. I was after acceptance for who I was -- a black boy with a strange Caribbean accent who was turned on by other boys. That's still the thing I want most from other people

It gets better, they say, and they would be right. Moving to a place like New York City helps. Yet, even in a gay mecca like the Big Apple (or Buenos Aires, or Bangkok, or Cape Town, or Sydney), it's easier to be straight. And for that, I blame us as much as I blame anyone.

Gay life can be such a playground, another nightmare where we are constantly being told we're not good enough, where many of us once again get to feel like we're on the outside looking in. The twist: On the adult playground, it's not just the other team making us feel like we're not good enough; it's also our own teammates. Look at how we're constantly tearing each other down and making each other feel inadequate. Grindr and online dating didn't invent this curious and unfortunate dynamic; they only put it into words.

Be masculine.

Be straight-acting.

Be white.

Be black.

Be Asian.

Be fit.

Be blond, be brunette, be ginger.

Be tall, be thin, be muscular, be lean.

Be hung, be top, be bottom.

Be active, be this, be that.

Every time I read another gay checklist, I'm transported to sixth grade. I'm back on the playground hoping that just once, I won't be the last one picked to be on one of the teams.

How quickly we forget where we came from when we're making our lists and checking them twice. So the rules of attraction are bound to be more strict than the ones that govern friendship. Fair enough. But when they're so explicitly stated and used as a blockade to prohibit the unwanted from crossing the line into our orbit, they only feed into the insecurities of those who don't measure up literally and figuratively.

We leave one hell of impossible expectations when we're in the closet only to enter into another one when we come out.

Some retreat. Others turn themselves into clones to be more desirable, to fit in.

Get muscles.

Get fashionable.

Get pierced.

Get tattooed.

Get the right hairstyle.

Get the right soundtrack.

Get right.

Being gay, particularly in the big cities so many of us flocked to in order to be among more of our own kind, has become demanding and difficult in a way that has nothing to do with straight people and their brand of homophobia. Is this the subculture we want to create, one that fosters the same insecurity and feelings of inferiority that we used to feel on the playgrounds of our youth?

Are we challenging homophobes for the title of our own worst enemy?

Why is it never "Be smart, be funny, be kind"? The mind is a terrible thing to waste, but it so often seems to come a far second to superficial qualities. Some might say it's not a gay thing but a guy thing. Men are visual. For us, attraction is ruled by appearance. Does that mean we must hold each other to the same impossible standards of beauty that women spend their lives aspiring to? Are we all fucked because we're pretty much programmed to be assholes?

Gay hook-up and dating apps didn't create the problem, but they've exacerbated it. In the good old days, when more gay men went out, we were exposed to an assortment of our peers, including the ones we wouldn't necessarily sleep with. Now that more gay men are increasingly building their social and sex lives almost entirely online, we've become strident in our quest for physical perfection, picky in a way that we weren't when it was still possible for someone who wasn't quite our ideal "type" to win us over during the course of face-to-face conversation by the bar.

Narrowing our playing field to such specific physical attributes can lead to a sort of isolation and segregation that hinders acceptance and tolerance in our own community. If you no longer "go out" and you're creating a mental blockade against certain types and groups when you go online, you're being exposed to only a small fraction of what's out there. Hooking up might become more expedient for those who want to handily weed out the undesirables, but how does that help the gay community progress?

"No Asians," "No blacks," "No whites" -- "That's just my preference." If "preferences" are so hallowed, is it OK for a straight person to prefer not to be around gay people? Or is "That's just my preference" only an acceptable excuse for exclusion when we're looking for sex? Shouldn't we start extending the sensitivity we demand from straight people to each other?

If getting what you want supersedes all other concerns, how about trying this: Keep your checklist to yourself. You may have to weed through more undesirables, but if young gay men don't keep reading everything they need to be, or shouldn't be, maybe more of them will be happier being who they already are.