“I Don’t Have to Wait for you to Give me the Key.”
By Andrew Rimby
I spoke those words when working through my writer’s block during a Zoom writing session a few weeks ago. When I said this, Tiffany Sowa (fellow contributor) looked at me and said “Andrew, that’s it. That’s where your writer’s block has been stemming from.” It felt so good to speak the writer’s block out loud and to start to realize that it was rooted in the oppression of the closet. A tingling sensation of empowerment started to emanate from me when I said “Tiffany, you’ve helped me voice why I’ve held the key to my own, very openly, queer voice, as an educator, writer, scholar, and performer, all along, and don’t need permission to have access to begin opening the creative doors around me.” Let me explain the analogy between writer’s block and the closet by starting at the beginning… my coming out story.
It was October, 2008, and I had decided that today was the day to voice my attraction for other men. Who should I tell first? That question was swirling in my head for the past year once I began to realize that I was romantically attracted to men (well, at that time the middle school boys in my class). I will always recall that discovering the keywords “gay literature” in my public library was the moment when I first stepped one foot out of the closet. And, this was the same time when I was taking a sex education course, with one of my favorite physical education teachers, who had just discussed how it’s “normal to feel attraction towards the same-sex, so no need to repress or feel uncomfortable with those feelings.” Oh, how I value that experience with my teacher who also showed the class And the Band Played On (a 1993 tv docudrama based on Randy Shilts’s 1987 non-fiction book, currently on HBO Max), and he spent much time discussing how the HIV/AIDS crisis pathologized gay men. It was during that moment that I felt “seen” by my teacher but most importantly, could voice who I was and how I wanted to be free from society’s judgment and pathology. I recently reached out to this teacher, who is now retired, to thank him immensely for helping me through my coming out journey. We had such a nice exchange, and I will always value how he helped normalize my experience (thank you from the bottom of my heart).
I would find the key to my coming out moment in the place where I always searched for my authentic voice…the public library. While I was recognizing my budding attraction to men in the sex ed classroom, I sought out narratives that explored this desire in the library. So, I set foot in the Margaret Heggan Library (in my hometown in South Jersey), and began to walk around the young adult section, where I analyzed the spines of book covers to figure out what series to start next. By 8th grade, I had gotten to know the young adult section quite well, and going to the public library was and is still a nostalgic memory. Ever since I can remember, but I know it began when I was in preschool, my mother would take me every weekend to the library to pick out “whatever I wanted,” and oh how I loved devouring everything from Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater videos to The Magic Tree House series. But, by this time, I was still in the midst (and always will be) of my horror obsession, and so had found Christopher Pike’s young adult novels, but thought, in 7th grade, why not explore that unknown section of the library…adult fiction. It was here where I discovered the fanatical horror aura of Stephen King. Carrie’s cover spoke to me right away, and I was mesmerized by the image of a female face whose hair covered her eye (symbolism of her outsider status). Once I saw this image, I knew that I had begun to find my way out of the oppressive closet that was restraining me.
This was the first key to unlocking the taunts from fellow classmates, mostly boys, who tried to make me feel unmanly and emasculated for being a ballet dancer, actor, singer, and writer. So not only did King’s prose help me connect to Carrie White, who was also figuring out how to process her trauma from being bullied (which deeply resonated with my own), but I began to sense a queerness was inside of me that had to be released. That’s where Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name makes an appearance.
I didn’t know then that Aciman’s novel had only been released one year before I discovered it, sitting there waiting for me to read as I went to the Jersey Shore (most likely Brigantine or Atlantic City) in need of beach-reads. Well, I discovered something much more than a quick page turner, I found my budding sexuality within Aciman’s lyrical, magical prose. I remember how nervous I was when I typed in “gay literature” (LGBTQ+ Lit. was not yet a search term), and Aciman’s novel came up first (and so many more that I quickly got my hands on…I think the next was Anne Rice’s queer narrative in Interview with the Vampire and then Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy). I slyly looked around, with the book in hand, and went to the checkout desk where I knew all of the librarians since I was a wee toddler. I thought they were going to interrogate my sexuality right there and then, and call my parents. “Your son is checking out an illicit book about two men having an erotic experience with one another.” But no, I was given the usual response… “Andrew, we hope you enjoy this book, and see you again soon.” I have to give a shout out to those at the Margaret Heggan Library who have always been so encouraging of my passionate reading and consuming of new narratives. Well, I quickly read through the book and discovered how closely Elio’s journey was paralleling my own (but I don’t want to spoil that intimate knowledge since I discuss that in my LGBTQ+ talk premiering on the podcast on June 19th…stay tuned).
But, back to that moment when I sat down with my parents, around our kitchen table, and declared “Mom, Dad, I really have to open up to you about something.” I thought they were going to respond the way I saw Marco’s father react in Degrassi…where his father tries to ignore Marco’s sexuality and deny acknowledging who his son actually is. But, I received a different response…”Andrew, we thank you for telling us but are you really sure that you are gay, are you sure because we worry about how those around you will try to use your sexuality against you or worse try to bully you every chance they have” (I acknowledge I can’t quite recall the exact wording but when discussing this moment recently with my parents, this was close to what they said). I was adamant about not relinquishing control of my coming out experience, and so was determined to make it clear that I am now out to you, so will no longer step back into that closet. Soon after, I joined our high school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), where I found others in the LGBTQ+ community who embraced one another and offered different intersectional perspectives (for example, how being LGBTQ+ intersects with one’s race, social class, religion, and family’s politics). It was near the end of my high school journey when we had a GSA mixer with other local high schools, and wow, what an affirming experience that was for all of us…to not feel alone in our LGBTQ+ journey.
When I came home, after sharing disco fries (such a Jersey diner affair) with my friends, my parents said “you really seem so happy and alive” and I responded “you know, I think I’ve found what makes me truly content in life and that’s being around those who validate those around them.” My parents hugged me and said “we will always support and validate who you are, which is our gay son.” Did it take my parents some time to process my coming out experience? It did, but they have become some of the best LGBTQ+ parental allies I have ever met (and I am biased; they are my parents, and I their only child). Thank you to my mother and father who continue to show up as allies and activists like attending my LGBTQ+ Lit. talks or going to Philadelphia Pride with me. I can’t wait to see where the rest of our journey leads us.
This was the key of acceptance and validation that gave me access to the creative house that I now reside in… but oh there have been many more keys along my journey that have given me access to the library, the parlor, the dining room, the bedroom, the guest room, but never one to reopen that closet for me. That closet is always there waiting for me…beckoning me to go back into heteronormativity’s embrace, where I can be defined by social norms around me… but as my parents just told me (after our recent vacation) “Andrew you have always marched to the beat of your own drum and helped others figure out their authenticity.” And, I will continue opening up the authentic rooms in my creative home, like the key that I received from Adam and Erika that led me to my Jewish familial roots, or the one that Mary and Bente gave me to speak truth to graduate student concerns, the one my therapist handed me that led me to open up about my sexual assault and find fellow LGBTQ+ survivors to talk with, and the one that my mentors continue to provide me…the one that is engraved with the following message:
“Open the door and you shall find your voice…others will be there on the other side in solidarity.”
- For a nice definition of “heteronormativity” look here: https://dictionary.apa.org/heteronormativity (and don’t worry, the irony isn’t lost on me that the American Psychological Association that once pathologized the LGBTQ+ community now provides an accessible definition of “heteronormativity”)
- A #MeToo Survivor Healing Series: https://metoomvmt.org/the-work/survivor-healing/
What’s to come in Part 2 of Andrew’s Big Think? Part 2? Yes! There will be a part 2 on June 30!
As I go back to my dissertation chapter on Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and his homoerotic poetics, I think “who is picking this text up and finding themselves reflected back?” When I return to reading James Davidson’s The Greeks and Greek Love, or even, turn to my pleasure-reading of Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, I continue to ponder “who opens this book and begins to find one key at a time that unlocks their authentic voice?”