For much the same reason that my career in journalism began and ended before I received my college degree, I was late to the gay loneliness article—not getting around to it until several days after it had trended on Twitter, Facebook, and “No, Kristine, I’m not doing meth” mom-texts. The Thursday it was published on the Huffington Post, I’d seen it mentioned, lauded, and mocked by the many cyber-gays I parch-thirst-follow but—consciously or not—I didn’t read it. Telling myself I’d check it out during my T ride home that evening or at the gym that night or as an alternative to my usual pre-bedtime ritual of stalking the darkest Instagram Story corners of high school acquaintances.
“Going to the bar at an effing Applebee’s,” I retainer-lisp out loud, temporarily blinded in one eye from squinting at my phone. “That’s so sad.”
Eventually deciding there was no better time to put a mirror to my melancholy quite like a Saturday afternoon, I sat down on my bed, set the mood with that Cat Power cover of “Sea of Love,” and tucked into the article. With two of my roommates gone for the weekend and the other at work, I had the apartment to myself that day. A rare occasion of solitude that allowed me to weep heartily from the diaphragm instead of lightly from the head, the latter being the sublimated kind of sad I’ve adopted since moving into an Allston shanty with walls about as thin as my chance of ever getting my jeans to properly hip-kid-cuff at the ankle.
This was nothing new for me, reading about the omnipresence of heartache in a gay man’s life. I’ve listened to Bronski Beat, I get it. I’ve lived it. I continue to live it. There’s a reason that it’s been a theme in works by and about gay men for as long as we’ve been depicted in movies and in books and in the walk-in closets of Real Housewives. As the article says, we were forced to figure out so much about ourselves in such a constant state of secrecy, of self-surveillance. It spoke to all the things I went through at 12 years old. The hot-faced anxiety of picking the most conspicuous corner of my middle school locker room in which to change clothes before gym class. The questions I had about the feelings a shirtless Jerry O’Connell in US Weekly gave me that, had I been straight and my parents slightly less Irish-Catholic, I could have asked them instead of figuring out for myself. The feelings, to this day, projected or otherwise, that the fathers of my friends will look at me with distant, cold, queasy eyes and that gay guys won’t look at me at all.
“I know we’ve been going back and forth here ~forever~~,” I texted the friend I’d made tentative plans with for that night. “But I feel like shit and I have an early start tomorrow. Rain check! I miss you!!!”
I knew what I was doing, reading an article as joie-de-vivre-y as “The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness” on a Saturday. I’d never be so flippant as to suggest I’m diagnostically one way or the other but your boy has his highs and he sure as shit has his recreationally watching YouTube videos of laboratory-tested-Beagles stepping on grass for the first time lows. The day before, that Friday, was a good one. I dog walked, I enjoyed a strong sun despite cold temperatures, I worked up the courage to go into a menswear boutique to introduce myself to its hot owner who direct messaged me earlier that week, and I got a free coffee at Caffe Nero. Bingeing in one afternoon every last bit of serotonin my central nervous system had to offer for, seemingly, the entire weekend. Whether or not I’d decided to pull a Narcissus in the sad-queer-boy pool that afternoon, I probably still would have passed on socializing that night. It just so happened that reading a line like, “Our gut reaction is to deal with things now the way we did as children” made it all the easier to dying-dog myself to an isolated corner of life.
Presuming my gloom was nothing 45 minutes on the elliptical machine and a middle-American-family-sized tub of hummus couldn’t fix, I found myself to be just as bummed later that night. Fresh out of the shower, my hair leaving an un-shampooed halo on my pillow and my nose looking as matte as it ever will, I had a feeling I’m usually only subjected to during my worst kind of hangover. Like I had these massive-ass un-weepable globs of tears stuck just behind my eyelids, weighing them down. But I have this thing, a thing I’m sure will be addressed in the next thinkpiece exploring gay psychology, where stuff in my own life doesn’t make me cry. I was a weepy kid, as I’ve been told by just about every family member who had the misfortune of babysitting me as a child, but I stopped crying around the time that I found XTube.com. Whether it was puberty or some socially-enforced narrative of masculinity or a conscious hardening of my own vulnerability, I don’t know. But as I get older, and as the urge to emotionally-purge hits me all the more often, I’ve learned to search elsewhere to find the things I need to feel. And so I went to my tried-and-true maudlin-spank-bank.
“The fuck?” I said, baffled that The Family Stone was nowhere to be found on any of the 13 streaming services I have a password for.
Missing one place, I searched another. The essay David Sedaris reads on This American Life about home videos and watching some long-lost clip of his recently deceased mother. Every song Eva Cassidy ever recorded. That Britney Spears interview from 2004 where she splits personalities halfway through after Diane Sawyer hounds her about her breakup with JT. My checking account balance. But, alas, I came up dry. Stuff that usually had me gasping for air after merely typing them into the search field still didn’t seem to hit the spot. Eyelids as heavy as ever, I logged into my freshman year roommate’s girlfriend’s Netflix account and searched for the only thing I had left.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I was barely three-and-half years old when Buffy premiered, 20 years ago this March. I have Jillian, my sister, eight years my senior, to thank for exposing me to a show that—had my parents been at all involved in our television habits—I would have been forbidden from ever watching. Even if the show did expose me to themes of sex, violence, death, and turn-of-the-millennium fashions I was too young to understand, thank God that it did. I would be a very different Brian if it weren’t for Buffy. A much lonelier Brian if I hadn’t watched a few episodes with my sister before catching it in syndication on FX a few years later when I was old enough to watch it on my own. And when I say old enough, I mean I was in the second grade.
“Episode six of season three,” someone in my family would yell out, initiating a game they’d come to marvel at.
“‘Band Candy,’” I’d squeal, consulting nothing but my own seven-year-old mind for a memorized register of every episode title from every season. “Preceded by ‘Homecoming’ and followed by ‘Revelations.’ All on disc two of the season three box set!”
Mind you, Jenny McCarthy hadn’t yet made the leap from posing nude on toilets to decrying the effects of vaccines so my family wasn’t overly concerned with my hyper-specific knowledge of a subject lost on most other suburban New Jersey boys. Instead content to lob me the only kind of ball I’d ever catch, indulging the only extracurricular I ever exhibited much interest in: TV. For as long as I had my own bedroom, I had my own television. Connected to both cable and a DVD player, there was no limit, no parental control, on what I was viewing. Though I could have come to an earlier revelation of my same-sex tendencies had I ventured onto late night HBO, I never did. Instead content to pop in disc after disc of Buffy, episodes I’d seen a hundred times—their dialogue long committed to my memory—giving me something new and providing me with something familiar.
To say I was obsessed would be look-it-up.gif reductive. Though I wasn’t brazen enough to admit to my five total friends how much I loved a show with “the vampire slayer” in its title, Buffy constituted my entire after-school life. Exhibiting about as much musical aptitude as I did interest in taking the late-bus home, I didn’t play an instrument. Shockingly, I wasn’t involved in any sports. And I argued my way out of attending an informational Boy Scouts meeting with a succinct, “I don’t want to eat leaves.” Buffy didn’t necessarily make me into who I am but it did allow me to be who I was.
Scrolling through the episodes on Netflix, I was amazed, but hardly shocked, at how well-acquainted I still felt with Buffy—none of the episodes popping up to me as some long-lost installment of a show I once worshipped. Each one instead serving as a little pathmark leading to a trail I could still walk down blindfolded, bound, and gagged. Considering I’ll legally owe 10% of any money I’ll ever make to Joss Whedon for single-handedly impacting the way I speak, write, think, and hyphenate, I don’t watch Buffy that often these days. But as I decided to watch episode 14 of season two, I anticipated exactly what it would do for me, already knowing what and who and which scene would make me feel, for 43-odd-minutes, like a child.
What’s funny about watching Buffy now as, arguably, an adult isn’t how much went over my head but how much went into it. The overarching “school is hell” metaphor, the post-Spice Girls feminism, Angel’s jawline, the emphatic queerness of it all, everything. Femme from the get-go, it didn’t take long for my elementary school peers to sniff out what made me different from the herd. And I understood that too, even though I didn’t have a word for it yet, even though I could have told you the title of the episodes that Larry says he’s gay to Xander and Willow comes out of the closet to Buffy. “Girly” became “sissy” became “fag,” taunts from classmates that bore more weight over time as I saw more of myself in each one. But to have admitted to anyone how much these words hurt would have, in the process, disclosed something about myself I wasn’t yet prepared to share. And so I went to Buffy. Where the heroes were pop-culture-referencing dweebs who hung out with their middle-aged librarian and kept their weekend antics, world-saving or otherwise, completely to themselves. Where a girl cosmically endowed with this mysterious force to battle demon after demon had to keep it in the dark, hidden from her peers, her parents, her world. My childhood self doesn’t quite deserve the credit of properly interpreting her secretive slayer status as some allegory for the loneliness of queerdom. But that’s not what the show was about for me. It may have emboldened me for all the struggles I’d yet to face but, at the time, all Buffy needed to do was take me in.
“Innocence,” the episode I’d picked to properly surface my sorrows, is about as perfect as the show gets. It’s Buffy’s 17th birthday, she has sex for the first time with her vampire-with-a-soul boyfriend, he turns into a demon post-coitus, and Sarah Michelle Gellar wears a transcendent pair of giraffe-print pants. Again, perfect. I’d made a habit as a kid of watching it every November 25th, celebrating my own birthday alongside Buffy’s. An annual tradition that stopped right around the time that I, too, would have been 17. Buffy was still beloved to me at that point but not quite as necessary. By then, David Fisher on Six Feet Under and Rufus Wainwright’s discography provided the reflection and the refuge I needed as an out gay guy—bits and pieces of myself prevalent in their repression, their sadness, their stuntedness. But it wasn’t “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” playing in my bedroom last Saturday night. It was Buffy, leaning into the warmth of her mother, a sad and knowing silence stretched across her face when asked what she did for her birthday. And right in time, my voice catching in my throat, Buffy and I said, “Got older.”