As gay men many of us are obsessed with popularity. We seek it out on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat; at clubs, parties and bars. We edit photos and add filters. We count how many likes we get and tailor what we say to fit our audience. We do this daily and we do it for senseless validation.
We are obsessed with popularity because a prominent majority of us never had it when we were growing up. We were the outcasts, the bullied. I know this to be true because I am one of those people.
Obviously, this isn’t applicable to everyone. So, before I hear chants of ‘I don’t care what people think’ or ‘I was loved in high school’ shooting their way forward from the back of the room, I’ll politely ask you to just sit back down and hear me out.
I have never been popular. From childhood zipping right through to this very moment. I never have, and I suspect I never will be, popular.
In primary school kids would tease me because of my squint eyes and magnifying-glass strength glasses. The only time I can claim popularity was when there was a rare lunar event and the kids would line to use my glasses as a telescope. Other than that I’d just scuttle around the playground by myself, looking like a cock-eyed bug, more mouse than boy.
As an adult I carry around a pungent awkwardness; causing me to say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, and continue with feverish repetition. That classic ‘misunderstood’ label has stuck to my chest for years; my very own scarlet letter. This unpopularity is something I, like many others, have learned to live with. And it was in secondary school that I first properly started to feel disliked.
It wasn’t because my awkwardness shone brighter than your average teens’. Nor was it because I insisted on dressing like a homeless person at a Marilyn Manson concert – seriously, zoom in on any ‘class’ photos and you’ll get a moody shot of me looking angsty and tense, drowning in XXL hoodie. I was the poster child for gothic-teens. No, my unpopularity started when I begun to tell people that I was gay (the rest was just wood for the fire.) But coming out was the birth of a journey for me, and to this day I still have a slight emotional limp because of it.
I came out very early in high school and by doing so lobotomised my campaign to become popular. In an exercise of social ostracism akin to that of the Salem witch trials, I was tossed into the flames. I went from being a nobody to being that ‘gay’ kid. There’s a common misconception floating around that, when you come out as gay, your life immediately gets better. On social media when you see cute videos of gay, lesbian or bi teens coming out there’s (mostly) no aftermath or fallout; it’s just a Tumblr worthy moment and once it’s over, that’s it. The hardest part is done. We watch them, we sob, we click like or share and that’s it. We’ve helped another gay level up. That was touching. Now let’s move on.
This is a mentality that’s perpetuated by social media ignorance and by people that have never had to ‘come out.’ If you’ve never had to announce who you are to the world then you can’t possibly comprehend. Coming out is only the first step; you’ve made a fraction of the journey. It takes years for you to reach that place of self-love and comfort, but some of us never do.
The crippling humility that comes with being disliked for simply being who you are isn’t something you ever shake off. Regardless of what age it starts, it shapes you as a person. It alters aspects of your personality on a subconscious level. I have authority problems which likely stem from being told what I’m doing, or rather who I am, was wrong. Being disliked in high school caused me to be louder just so I would be heard. To this day I find myself wanting to amplify aspects of my personality purely as a defensive mechanism. A way to convince myself that I no longer need to apologise for being me.
Addressing confrontation head-on is something else that many of us feel compelled to do. For me, I need to do it because in school I suffered in silence so as an adult I refuse to be bullied back into the corner. If someone dislikes me, I need to know the reason. If a person stabs me in the back, I demand an explanation. If you were unpopular, bullied, mocked or disliked when you were younger you feel injustice like nobody else. You’re on the defence daily, and you lash out at the wrong times, for the worst reasons.
I don’t have many redeeming qualities, or even just mildly interesting ones. I have a fat ass, a penchant for speaking my mind and awful social anxiety. When most people think of me it’s usually followed with the words ‘stuck up’ or ‘rude.’ They say I’m snaky. I’ve batted off remarks about being ‘overly body confident’ and ‘loving’ myself. I’ve heard vicious lies about myself that on some days makes me want to give up. They make jibes about how I’ll ‘write about them’, or say that I fabricate my stories – when all I ever do is tell it how it is. By the way, if you wanted me to write warmly about you, then perhaps you should have treated me better.
What’s funny is none of this could be further from the truth (well, maybe the writing part, but it’s a creative outlet.) What’s funnier still is that I don’t feel the need to defend myself anymore – and neither should you. I don’t need approval, I don’t care for popularity. You don’t like me? Take a number.
We all know the dynamics of school. The popular kids: they walk right by you and don’t smile. Yet I can’t help but feel that high school never truly ends. I wander into clubs and social situations and I am often greeted with the same sneering, pre-judged mentality I was in school. People ‘know’ X, Y and Z about me but none of this information is factual; half of it isn’t even rooted in truth. It’s all an ill-conceived notion based on what others have said. It’s all bitchy whispers and hearsay. Even though it has been (many) years since I finished high school escaping that mentality is nearly impossible, because that mind-set seems to be hardwired into our society.
When we were younger other people told us we were wrong for being ourselves. Being you is why you are unpopular. They said that we were fat or ugly or that being gay is wrong or that we had strange taste in music. Now, as adults, we tell ourselves the above. The former bullied end up bullying themselves. Sometimes we then channel our self-loathing and insecurities onto other people. We judge them before they judge us. And that’ll continue so long as we seek validation from other people.
These days I survive with a few solid friends whose values align with my own. I suppose that’s part of adulthood; a lot of people navigate in and out of your life, but the real ones stay.
So, that’s me. Gay, unpopular, but happy.
As RuPaul said, ‘What other people think of me is none of my business.’
NOTE: The popular kids never grow up to be interesting and interesting kids are never popular. In my experience the popular kids/bullies grew up to apparently suffer from male pattern baldness and a gluten intolerance. Karma’s a subtle queen.
NOTE: If you managed to get to the end of this without hearing Kristen Chenoweth sing ‘Popular’ in your head I salute you