In OprahMag.com's series Coming Out, LGBTQ change-makers reflect on their journey toward self-acceptance. While it's beautiful to bravely share your identity with the world, choosing to do so is entirely up to you—period.
Adam Swanson is the Senior Prevention Specialist at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, and has held fellowships with Lambda Literary and Writing by Writers. In this personal essay for OprahMag.com's Coming Out series, Swanson reflects on his harrowing experience reporting an incident of sexual assault in a Chicago emergency room.
As a kid growing up in the Midwest, Swanson writes, "A queer life felt too dangerous to even imagine." Now an adult, Swanson has come to terms with his sexuality. However, he wrestles with the still-pervasive danger people within the LGBTQ+ community face, which he opens up about in this story. Swanson's writing is reminiscent of a sequence in HBO's recent series I May Destroy You, in which Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) recounts his sexual assault to dismissive police officers. Both Swanson's essays and I May Destroy You alike grapple with the unease of "coming out" in an unsafe environment.
The night I came out to police officers in Chicago, I also watched an emergency room nurse in blue scrubs and latex gloves carefully fold my white waffle t-shirt and seal it inside a clear plastic bag. My favorite shirt, and my pants, my underwear, my urine and my saliva—all of it was enveloped in rape kit plastic and placed inside a cardboard box labeled “evidence.”
With my clothes in bags, I stood naked on a paper sheet and shivered. The nurse talked me through each step of the exam with kindness and care. He asked me to hold my arms out and I did for what felt like an eternity. With a small comb I can only describe as a disposable cafeteria utensil, he scraped over every inch of my skin and combed through my hair in search of fibers and whatever else could be pulled loose.
Microscopic pieces of me—and of them—fell on the paper underneath my feet. I was a site of evidence. I tried to tell the nurse the details of happened, but words were hard to form with all the mucus running down my throat and the panic in my system.
Growing up, a queer life felt too dangerous to even imagine. School hallways and classrooms were labyrinths crawling with toxic suburban boyhood. I tried to get by unnoticed, but again and again, my name was found in bathroom stalls, written alongside variations of words like gay, faggot, cock sucker. But unlike boys fists, at least I could color over those words with a black marker. Outside of the school building, there were the presence of oversized church steeples that extended as far as the horizon of our town’s Midwestern cornrows. They said God hates fags. Coming out there, even to myself, was not an option.
But later, of all places, at an out-of-state university in Kentucky, I existed in a place where I was unknown to anyone. There, imagining my life became less frightening, and in my sophomore year, I put words to that deeply repressed part of my life. I came out. I busted out! In one day, and out the next. Of course, we’ll always love you!, they all said, and the relief of telling my family and new friends felt like the life of a new body.
So I grew bolder, and with a budding sense of self and independence, I found a summer job in the city after my junior year. Chicago. Summer in the city. I lived in a small sublet apartment with a turret on the north side of the city, not far from Boystown. Still too shy to go the gay bars too regularly, I just loved living among the many sure signs of other queer lives being lived. Couples holding hands. Rainbow flags propped up in little glass jars at cashier counters. Drag queens at stoplights in sequins.
We met on one of the city’s Lake Michigan beaches. D. was dashing—so handsome—tall, slender, funny. Perfect teeth. He was the type of handsome that makes you glad for socially sanctioned staring when you’re engaged in conversation. He’d been a dancer. He wore small orange swim trunks, and I liked his legs, the look of the cords of tissue rippling under his long and lean skin.
I didn’t see D. for months after that day at the beach. I didn’t see him again until it happened. Rape gets complicated for some people to understand when the act is juxtaposed with a perpetrator who was also once an object of desire.
In a quiet, private exam room of the emergency room, I told the nurse about the apartment they took me to after the bar. I told him everything—how I met D. at the beach earlier that summer, the shower, what they did to me—but as I was telling him all of this, I couldn’t remember the name of the bar that they took me to, the one with tinted windows. It was a gay bar in the heart of the downtown, and you had to go down an alleyway and up a set of stairs to get inside. It was a hidden little place.
There was growing sense of shame as I spoke to the nurse that came on as permutations of the same questions I’d lived with over a lifetime of fearing being gay: How did this happen? How will I keep this a secret? Why?
The nurse in blue scrubs knew the bar’s name. He said it aloud before I could.
My crying paused to recognize his knowing, the buzz of shared and momentary relief. “Are you gay?” I asked.
He looked in my eyes and nodded. “Yes,” he said.
Sometimes a shared truth can offer overwhelming relief, a moment of clarity, to feel yourself reflected in another’s living skin. The nurse then moved about the room preparing the exam materials while I lost the ability to speak for a while.
My eyes were dry but nearly swollen shut by the time I was asked to repeat all of the details of what happened to the police officers. A detective stood by the door with broad shoulders and asked me questions. Tell me every detail you can remember. A second, taller officer stood behind him and held a clipboard. Their uniforms jingled and the second officer clicked his pen when he wasn’t making notes. Exhausted, I repeated everything I’d told the nurse. The details were this: Summer in the city. It was my last day in the city before going back to school. D. and his partner and their two other friends invited me to join them for an afternoon drink, downtown. Make it a celebratory day before leaving, I thought.
Come have a drink with us!
I got too sick after one drink at the gay bar; so sick I couldn’t talk by the time we arrived at their apartment. All I could do was look into the white of a toilet bowl and wait for the next round of what felt like a death. Breathe in, breathe out, I told myself as I waited to vomit more. So out of sorts, all my brain could do was repeat those words—breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. My only thoughts were words directed toward survival—breathe in, breathe out, stay alive.
D. and his partner, T., suggested I try sobering up in the shower. They ran the water and adjusted the temperature and left me alone in the bathroom. I stepped into the sensation of warm summer rain, vomited more, and then laid on the bathtub floor. At one point, T. came into the bathroom, opened the shower curtain, and when I looked up he was holding himself. And in that moment, I said no, pulled the curtain closed, and passed out on the floor into darkness. When I came to, inhalants that make the body’s muscles soften were being held to my nose.
Articulating the sequential details of everything I could remember to the police was difficult: The way I said no. The way the shower drain looked before I passed out. The way they were holding me and moving me. My mind was too full of disjointed images and sounds and random things they said and thoughts. Like the sound of water running. Like the thought, is this what happens before I die?
I needed rest.
The detective was puzzled by the inhalants. He didn’t know what “poppers” were. I tried to explain that they’re little bottles of chemical liquid that, when inhaled, force the body’s muscles to relax. He responded like I was any other Friday night. “You know we get these gay guys that go home with each other every night, and then they wake up with their wallets missing and expect us to do something about it.”
So tired, all I could do was breathe. I was more than a wallet.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
My questions about justice were left to linger. Even with D. and T.’s full names and their address, the police didn’t question them until almost six months later. They never visited D. and T.’s high-rise apartment. Their bodies were never stood on a paper sheet or swabbed for traces of my DNA. My urine test came back as “inconclusive” for any evidence of date rape drugs. And before leaving the ER, I sensed agitation when I asked an officer if I’d ever get my white waffle t-shirt back. My favorite shirt.
I was discharged at the hour of not-night and not-morning with a pile of papers, prescriptions, and a thin carbon copy of the police report. I woke a few hours later on my friend’s couch with the early light. A cracked window let in the murmurs of a waking city below. Car horns and diesel engines and the grind of brake pads in the air.
Dressed in borrowed sweatpants and a borrowed sweatshirt, I rode the elevator toward the bustle. Outside, the city moved along as cities do. I rubbed my eyes awake as delivery trucks lumbered and beeped. The train clicked along in its usual rhythm. I thought about the kind nurse. I cried.
Maybe justice can only be about living through moments of embodied truth. Maybe it’s a practice of self-preservation while you’re still breathing and alive.
Eased by the sounds of living, I began to walk with a lost sense of myself. All I knew was that I needed a new underwear and a cup of coffee. And in the amber of the morning light, the sidewalk looked like skin; all the little lines pulled along by time. I saw hope in those cracks on the surface—the little bits of wild grass.
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