The Cameo Twin Theater sat on Broad Street in downtown Newark, New Jersey. I’d passed it by for years on the bus and wondered what was happening inside. I knew the theater was for adults, but had no clue what the adults were doing. It was intriguing.
Whenever the bus would pass by, I’d stare back at the theater as long as I could to see who was walking in and out. Usually, I would not see anyone, but on occasion I’d catch a quick glimpse. It would be some black man, usually dressed down in shorts or sweats, hastily walking in; head bowed.
As I got older, I began to imagine.
I would imagine what the man was going to do. I’d imagine what the man’s body looked like underneath his clothes. I imagined what it might be like to sit next to him in the theater. I’d imagine what he smelled like. How did his skin feel? And then, I’d feel the stickiness on my thigh and remember I was surrounded by people on the bus. I would immediately think of flowers, puppies and other innocent shit, so I wasn’t tenting my khaki uniform pants.
Imagination was all I had.
Creating vision boards is a mainstream practice now. Manifestation through externally processing dreams and aspirations in visual form, is common. The idea is cute, but relies heavily on the notion that the dreams and aspirations one would express could be externalized without fear or judgment.
My vision board at 14 would have left me without family or friends, so I believed. I also thought I would die if anyone knew what was in my head - either by someone else’s hand or my own. I couldn’t just go through my teen magazines, or old Sears catalogs and clip out letters to spell out:
Take these feelings out of my mind.
Be attracted to girls.
Make my father feel the pain he causes me.
Be better at being a boy.
Make them love me forever, regardless.
Instead, I had to manifest in silence.
After years of internalized pleading - the feelings didn’t go away. I wasn’t attracted to girls, my father seemed to be in no pain and I was still lousy at being a boy. Over time, the mental vision board changed:
Find sex, somehow.
Keep the secret.
The Cameo used to advertise in the local paper with a coupon. For years, I looked at the coupon contemplating how I could clip it, save it and use it one day. The summer I turned 18 I decided it was my time. I lived in a house that was never empty. You could never do anything without anyone asking what you were doing. It was my grandmother’s home. Nana, I called her. The house was full. There were sometimes 13 of us living in her two bedroom home.
You’d go to the fridge and someone would ask what you’re doing. You’d go sit on the porch alone, and there would be questions. If you walked across the living room, someone asked where you were headed.
Certainly, having never clipped coupons before, I couldn’t just sit down and start
cutting up the newspaper. I spent more time contemplating how to cut the Cameo Theater coupon, than I actually spent jerking off that entire summer. I was consumed by the thought of being there. In my mind, it unlocked some mystery. There would be men there that held the knowledge I needed to be equipped as a man who loved men. It never occured to me to just pay full price. The act of clipping the coupon became its own rite of passage.
Eventually, I decided on just taking the whole newspaper with me when I left the house. I was a nerd. No one would question it. They’d think I was just being my “not like other boys” self and assume I was going to read on the bus. Once the paper hit the recycling pile at the front door, I scooped it up and headed out.
Fantasizing about going to the dingy porn theater is a lot different than actually hopping on the bus with the intention of going inside. I was terrified. My whole life to that point had been almost squarely focused on avoiding my attraction to men. To be leaning into my desires was disorienting.
The bus wound its way from my neighborhood towards the theater and in that 30 minutes, every awful thing I have said and thought about myself came back to me. By the time I made it downtown, I hated myself in all the ways I have before, with some new levels of self-loathing for good measure.
I felt common.
I felt low.
It was one thing to be gay, it was another thing to be going to a theater full of strange men with the hopes that at least one of them would see and want me, even if for just a moment.
I was the Sophomore Class president at Hampton University. I was about to pledge a fraternity. I was handsome and smart. The world was mine. And, there I was, on the bus, hoping a stranger would have sex with me in a theater. A summer earlier, I was a named Teen Aids Force Ambassdor after taking some courses on safe sex as during my summer job at the National Urban League. I knew better. I was better, I thought.
Still, I stayed on the bus and clipped that coupon. I had no other choice. There were no role models. There wasn’t anyone I could ask how to deal with my feelings. So, I sought out the darkest place I could to begin exploring my desires. I could leave it all there and then go back to being the model student and son as soon as I got back on the bus headed home.
I didn’t know this then, but my quest for dark and hidden places wasn’t born in me. It was created. The people I loved the most, who quite frankly didn’t deserve my affection, sent me there - unprotected and unprepared.
Growing up, I was a gifted kid who was profoundly insecure about not being good at just being a boy. It shouldn’t be that damn difficult to be something that you already are. But, I failed miserably at meeting the standards. One summer afternoon when I was about 5 or so, I was hanging out with my father and his friends as they rode around drinking, smoking joints and hitting on women. My father was a shit-talking, smooth, Army vet; tailor made for the seventies. He was one of those men that all of the other men wanted to be around. I honestly have no idea how I am his son.
All of the fellas were married and all of their wives were my “aunties” who pretty much raised me. This is how some men teach their sons how to be men; how to do whatever they want and to learn that not even their own mothers deserve their full respect. It was training, but I didn’t know that. So, when I got dropped off at my Nana’s apartment and was asked what I’d been doing, I said, “Daddy was kissing on some lady.”
My Nana, my aunt and my uncles all laughed at my naivete. They asked more questions and I gave more answers. By the time my dad came to pick me up, they were waiting for him. My father was a charmer and he’d known my mother’s family for a long time. They were all from the same neighborhood. He laughed it off and per usual, I became the joke. I was the clueless boy running off at the mouth about grown folks’ business.
It was fine until he got me alone and called me a little girl. That was the deepest insult you can give a five year old boy. He said it with such disgust. I never recovered.
He seemed to still love me through gritted teeth. My father, like everyone else around me at that time, encouraged my bookishness. It was the one thing that seemed to make everyone proud. His pride in my intelligence aside, I was deeply insecure because I knew I wasn’t the son he wanted. He played football in high school and briefly in college before being drafted. He wanted that same thing for me, his namesake. To drive that point home, he would play catch with my cousin Raheem who was three years younger, which is basically a decade in elementary school years. He was essentially a baby and there he was tossing a football with my father, in my face, while my dad beamed. Raheem has two Super-Bowl rings now and coaches in the NFL. I never stood a chance.
So, since I wasn’t athletic in that way (or any way), I leaned into the smart thing and aimed for perfection there — as a shield against the taunts for not being like other boys.
Maybe he’ll leave me alone about football, if I am smarter than everyone else, I thought.
I scored through the roof on the standardized tests, so back in the 3rd grade I was bussed across town to a gifted and talented magnet school. I hated it. It was the first time that I had been surrounded by white people and more shockingly, it was the first time I had not felt attended to by the adults in a school building. School had always been where I felt seen. However, I instantly became invisible each day I walked through those doors. In fact, I was so invisible that no one seemed to notice when I began hiding in the building to avoid being in class.
The one thing that felt somewhat good was recess. Recess had not always been a place that felt comfortable. Schoolyards are chaotic. Regardless of interests, boys get pushed to one side with footballs and basketballs. Girls are pushed to the other with hopscotch and jump ropes. The adults keep watch over the proceedings like guards protecting gender normative boundaries. But somehow, I slowly inched my way over from football games I was pretending to care about. In this one way, being invisible was a good thing.
I made my way to this small group of Black girls who had carved out a little corner on the asphalt just for themselves. The first afternoon I approached, they giggled and chased me away. It was a learned response on how to act when boys get into your territory. They saw me as a disruptor. The next day, they still giggled, but then one girl said, “Jump in.”
My heart raced. The rope ticked on the ground in a syncopated rhythm and then I jumped in and got completely tangled up. They laughed, but it wasn’t at me. I laughed too. Then, I tried again, and again. Each day, I couldn’t wait to see them in the yard and jump rope. Within a couple weeks, I was a Double Dutch pro. And, for about 20 minutes a day my heart sang.
It was the early 80s. No parent was waiting for me at the bus stop. I was lucky that most days there was a parent at home waiting for me to arrive, or there was a lady’s apartment I would go to and wait for my mother to get off work. This one particular afternoon my dad was home. I knocked and he opened the door and just stared at me. He didn’t move to let me in. I had no idea what was happening, but every cell in my body knew something was wrong. I had been hiding in school and I knew eventually, my parents would find out. When he finally stepped aside to let me in, I noticed the belt.
“The teacher called today,” he said.
My heart sank. I didn’t know how to say that school scared me and that I was not going to some of my classes.
“She said you be out there jumping rope with the girls,” he said, seething, “That true?”
I froze. I knew jumping Double Dutch was worse than missing school. It might have been worse than anything else I could have done in the 3rd grade.
“Is it true?” he shouted.
He lifted the belt and I braced myself. I was eight years old, scared at school, and now scared of my own home. He held the belt up to my face, “I better not get no more calls about you jumping rope and I’m going to be watching the playground every day to make sure.”
I wish he had just spanked me and said nothing. Maybe then, I wouldn’t have spent the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, being concerned of what people might see. I learned to be funny, as survival. I also became good at hiding in plain sight. And since I couldn’t really talk, I began to write.
The hiding started with Double Dutch, but it didn’t end there. I started to hide everything. So much of what other kids were afforded in terms of guidance, was not available to me. On the flip side, the Phill they knew was protected and uplifted. I went to private schools and felt love for the version of me I presented. I couldn’t let them down. I had to be who they believed me to be for their sake and my own.
This hiding took me from innocent games of jump rope, to me standing paralyzed with fear, sandwiched between men twice my age pleasuring themselves. In the darkness of the Cameo Twin Theater, I began to believe that this was my lot - filth, funk, depravity. There was no light.
That first time in the Cameo, all I saw were zombies. They walked up and down the aisle, some eventually settling into a seat away from everyone; some settling in next to someone and lowering their heads into a stranger’s lap. It was like a horror film, except I wasn’t running and screaming. I waited for the eventual bite that would turn me into one of them. So, I began to wander the aisles just as they did, with no idea of what I was doing or really looking for. I was lost. Most frighteningly, I was alone.
My son is just a little bit younger than I was when my father threatened to beat and stalk me for jumping Double Dutch. I look at him and I am reminded of how little I was when the emotional terror started. For years I isolated my father as the reason I lived with so much pain, but that isn’t fair. When I came out to my family in my 20s, no one was surprised. In fact, many of them brushed me off with a “I been knew…I love you.”
You love me anyway?
For years, I had the Afterschool Special reaction to not being disowned. I felt relief and pride in my family’s response. Then, as I grew older, I became angry. They knew and they let me be alone. They had to have known how scared I was, but they let it ride out in fear.
Maybe you don’t say to a kid, “Hey, you’re probably gay and I still love you anyway.” It would have been enough if they just let me hold my wrist how it seemed to fall naturally, or let me hang out with my girl cousins without commentary, or jump rope if I felt like it. That little bit might have been enough to keep me from going completely into the dark.
I still don’t have a vision board even though I could dream out loud now. I just live. Somehow, all those years of silent manifestation turned into a life that is filled with more than I could have ever imagined. As a professor, I teach courses on LGBTQ film and media and I even teach a whole entire college course on Janet Jackson, a subject I once used to cloak as pubescent crush. I also found light. I see it every morning when I wake up to my two children asking for cereal and telling me what they’ve dreamt about while they argue over the television remote. I see it in my husband, who smiles when he sees me everyday.
The most astonishing source of light is in myself. I never thought I’d see light inside of me the way that I do now.
The Double Dutch Fuss is a creative nonfiction memoir that examines living outside of the prescribed paradigms of blackness and masculinity. There are two sections - ‘Becoming’ and ‘Being.’ In my becoming phase, I am just starting to figure out who I am and trying to do so with the noise of everyone else's rules and expectations. I learn very early that whatever it is that I am feeling inside, is a problem for the world outside - so I adjust as best I can. The hiding and fear grew during this time in my life, because it was all about suppression as survival. Then, over time, I moved on to the work of being who I was supposed to be, even while I was fearful or uncertain. I just kept moving towards freedom and joy, even though I didn’t always believe those two things were possible for me.