I’m on something of a misguided odyssey this week. I flew out to California with emails sent and a heart full of hope that I could maybe, maybe, squeeze my way into seeing certain graduate programs on an official visit. The idea of showing I was serious by appearing on the doorstep of a lab, like some kind of strange, science orphan held some appeal. I’d heard some professors of mine talk about how they’d put in impromptu appearances as eager young students to some success. These notions probably sense in an earlier time or in a better funding climate. The universities on this coast are opaque as the ones back east and I’ve begun to wonder how anybody gets accepted to anything. In my first run at getting into graduate school I sent dozens of emails into the ether, only to hear nothing back. It’s been no different this time. My cousins, my hosts, career academics both, have been immensely supportive, telling me that it isn’t me, that it isn’t personal and that this often makes no sense.
Trying to make something positive out of this situation I went wandering though San Francisco yesterday. My legs are in open rebellion now but I feel good and pioneering, taking some pride in being able to navigate a strange place without problems. Granted the smartphone did most of the work but it still feels like something. I revel in the feeling of motion, of the ocean being on the wrong side, the unfamiliar languages and sights. I make my way out to the very edge of the city, Land’s End, The Sutro Baths, having heard about them from an urban exploration blog. They’re a modern ruin, left behind from a failed tourist attraction, pummeled by the Pacific, set against the cliffs. I wander the sandy paths and watch the waves crash. The changing rooms are tidepools. A tunnel to a natural spa has been turned by time into a frightening sea cave where the sound and misty touch of surf can be felt but the waves can’t be seen. This was also the site of a First Nations settlement, demarcated now by the colorful flags of an archeological dig. I wonder what will be found when San Francisco is gone, what stuff of ours will be reinterpreted.
I hop on the Muni back to the center of town. I hop a couple more. I end up in the Castro. Across the street from the Castro Theatre, under the giant rainbow flag I’m struck by a sudden, real, sense of belonging, something I very rarely experience. In the lab I work alone and dread seeing people other than my mentor and lab mates. I walk the halls on eggshells, earphones shoved deep inside me, avoiding eye contact. When I’m out in public with my boyfriend I want to hold his hand; I want to kiss him on the mouth and cuddle with him on park benches and in bars. But I don’t. Even though my city isn’t LGBT-hostile it doesn’t feel friendly so we keep things subtle and unseen. Now in the Castro I’m suddenly surrounded by tons of gays. I see them holding hands. I catch casual kisses. Rainbow flags abound, triumphant heraldry. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so relaxed in a public space.
My body decides I’m hungry and I find myself in Orphan Andy’s eating stuffed French toast amidst the lunch rush.
In the corner a couple hugs it out, looking serious and sad. A gay man introduces his daughter-in-law to the city. A woman with a Saharan sense of humor sits next to me and snipes good naturedly at familiar patrons. The staff is kind and chatty. I find myself staring at the red-headed waiter’s tight stonewashed jeans. I realize that nobody cares. Frantic, joyous texts over lunch to the boyfriend. He’s less enthused. “I like Provincetown better but I’ve been to San Francisco.” I press him for details and he demurs. I call him a cocktease. I miss him more than ever. On Folsom street I see men openly wearing collars, some with harnesses tucked under their shirts. My tribe is everywhere.
It’s tough to articulate this feeling. So often in as a gay man I’ve felt fractured, forced to subcategorize myself into four or five lables. Are you a bear, cub, otter, wolf, pup (and if pup is it bodytype or kink or both)? Are you masch? Straight-acting? Are you white, black, Hispanic, Italian, Asian, mixed race? Are you old or young? Do you actually know anything about gay culture, whatever that means. While these things make sense for a hookup app I’ve always felt like they’ve ground me down to a few physical attributes. I’ve felt like my people, my lovely gay people, are balkanizing into strange factions. Masculine hating on drag queens, bears against twinks, to say nothing of the way gays marginalize and ignore lesbian, bisexual and trans people. It’s a point of contention between my boyfriend and I, he with older notions of who belongs to “he and his”. When I start to suffocate in this atmosphere of subdivision he’s there for me but doesn’t understand why I choke. But here in the Castro I’m breathing easy. Maybe it’s because the pressure is off, the people are open and it’s just part of life here. Maybe it’s because this coast has less flinty, insular Yankee tribalism. I don’t know. All I know is that I feel free here, I can breathe. Hello, San Francisco.