by KY Gao

For the entire fourteenth year of my existence, the sky in Beijing was rarely blue. Air pollution was on top of the National Agenda. At the People’s Representative Congressional Conference, the Beijing spokesperson urged the government to do something. Meanwhile, every time I took a breath, I saw particles of pollutants flowing through the gap between the mask and my nose, stream by stream. I imagined some of the black dust flowing through the mask fabric, into my nostrils, dodging my nose hairs like a Star Wars spaceship. The grime flew into the million chambers of my lungs and wiggled with my palpitating heart. The fatal but invisible disease brought on by the pollution was all too familiar to me, a gay person in Beijing. 

The swamp of homosexuality. I read the line on my cracked iPhone 4 screen,  dimmed to the lowest brightness bar because my mother slept a hallway away. The familiar shape of her body covered in sheets of textile was carved into my subconsciousness. This was before I started locking my door. The swamp of homosexuality. I scrolled down, watching the words disappear into the black edge of my screen. In a swamp. Is that what everyone thought about homosexuality? All I had been doing was walking, like everyone else, but from a specific moment the soil under my feet turned muddy and now I’m lying in a swamp, facing up, feeling the stickiness crawling under my clothes. A faint voice told me that was the fate of gay people. One day, the mud will eat away the last bit of my body, silently. What would happen when the tip of my nose is under the surface? Would I be able to breathe under the mud? Will my mother be able to find me? In three months, the curtains that let the moonlight shine through would be taped tightly to the window frame with layers of duct tape. I was eleven years old.

At twelve, I learned that they called homosexuality a sin, a crime, a threat to the human population, a perversion, an escape from responsibility, and an excuse. Guo Jingming—a popular Chinese writer—was entangled in a sex scandal that year. What made the scandal a particular spectacle was not the writer’s notoriety but that both parties were men. The writer was also mocked for his height.  “Small person, big appetite,” wrote one online commentator when the scandal broke. The comment section agreed that he was gay to make up for his shortness. “I don’t think that’s true,” I remembered my mom saying, “Your dad is short. I think people are gay when they are egotistic. When they love themselves too much they start to love people who look like them.”

At thirteen years old I moved to another school. The new part of the city was gray. Even when it was sunny, it was gray. The buildings encroached on the space in between them. The school fences seemed to capture the sky. Everywhere I walked I passed under something—a tall building, a billboard sign, trees, even the sky seemed to have eyes. I liked walking on the packed sidewalk. I felt invisible and very normal, and thus very safe—just another student, just another ordinary person. Sometimes I would see a couple, their fingers intertwined while flowing like a river through the streets. I could see the girl putting her head on the guy’s shoulder, her long, silky curls draping softly. Her untied hair, airy and swinging gracefully, was unlike mine, tied behind my head so tight that it created a sharp silhouette of my scalp. Maybe this future was not in store for me as I could never walk hand in hand with my loved one on the street like that. The picture of love or happiness was only a few feet away from me on the cement sidewalk. I wanted to have a piece of this too. A little piece would be fine, but I didn’t think I was going to get it.

I looked at myself in the mirror often, constantly inspecting my reflection. I didn’t want to look straight because wearing a watermelon-colored skirt somehow turned my stomach. I didn’t want to look gay either. The fear, that others might see me as gay, made my stomach turn in a different way. I knew what they did to gay people. No one ever told me, but like everyone else I knew. I heard the things people would say to distance themselves from their gay friends; some didn’t even bother with an excuse, ending every conversation about homosexuality with “what a shame.” Some gay people were sent to conversion therapy, some suicided, some appeared to grow out of it. The closet is big, a coffin in the air with room for everyone.

Disguise was about survival. On car windows, glass doors, and stainless metal poles I couldn’t resist checking out my reflection. I looked for flaws— “tells” as they were called online—anything that would ruin my carefully maintained plausible deniability. The Uniqlo gray jacket of the same color as the cement sidewalk was my camouflage. I could hardly breathe under the monotony, the on-the-edge-ness under my gray blanket of skin. They must not see my feet sinking into the swamp; I won’t allow them to. But I can feel the waterline rising.

Laying on my bed, under shadows of branches that scored my body, I looked down and saw my torso in the sharp-edged dark and pale blocks. In this exact position, I texted pages of notes to my best friend that I never sent out, and lyrics from songs by Leslie Cheung, one of the first publicly gay singers from Hong Kong. Lying on my bed and listening to the song about a teary-eyed life, I remembered the swamp.

When I was 15 years old, homophobia finally knocked on my door, or rather, it came to me every night when I was alone, thinking about who I would become. I feared I would never return to normal, that I would be swallowed by the same black hole that swallowed all the other gay people. I have heard about pretend marriages—marriage cheaters—but also just disappearances. For the tens and hundreds of nights that I laid in my bed, the window fence splitting my body into boxes of dark and light, I thought about death, and I wondered if I was real. If I was, then how could no one see me? How could none of the 20 million people in Beijing, be like me? How can anyone survive this? What lay ahead of me?

I immigrated to the United States later that year. If this was a fairy tale, then it would have ended here, with fireworks in the background, trombones playing triumphantly. But for a city like Beijing the question is not how to get there; the question is how to leave. I was born and raised in that city, and every time I inhaled I breathed in a little part of the city. Beijing’s air sustained me, the polluted, fatal particles flowing in my blood, growing deep into my bones. When I dreamed, I wandered back to the city. I dreamed of being the same child walking the sidewalk, head down, the dirty gray jacket wrapped around my skin. You are no longer in the city, I told myself. No one cares that you are gay. Quit these self-pitying fears. Grow up. You are in a better place now. I came of age consuming the commercials of plays in the elevator, the red, white, and yellow political slogans that one could see half a mile away, the Peking operas playing through cheap radios. How can I ever say that I’m not from Beijing? If I have been breathing the silence and suppression, the fear and pessimism, if the silence of people like melted like molasses, thick enough to cover the sky. How can I not be transparent? This is a neutral question: how?

Sixteen. The first time I met other gay people as a gay person was at SpeakOUT Boston, an event featuring a group of LGBTQ people who travel around Boston to tell their stories. One of the people I met there was Lauren, who wore a straw hat that covered half of her face. She was quiet with a voice that flew like water—a gentle presence that was beyond the chatter in the room. Most importantly, she was a transgender woman in her sixties, which left one phrase echoing in my mind: she survived. She’d swum out of the swamp. She’d defeated the swamp! Whatever life threw at her, she didn’t die or disappear. That we rode the same train back home was almost cinematic, destined in retrospect. We stood, face to face, bodies swinging in the clunky box charging into darkness. Attempting to capture the secret rune of surviving the world as a gay person, words slipped out of me. “It must be hard, being transgender. I can at least pretend to be normal.”

I don’t know if she was offended or if she understood what I meant when she said, “We are all normal.”

People, or influencers, have told me that I’m empowered, human, powerful, everything, but not “normal.” Normal was a word that I parted with when I realized my feelings about the girl in my third-grade class. Normal, was the appearance I tried to feign through blending in with the city. I missed normal like a long-lost friend. Not success, visibility, or even acceptance can outweigh normal; normalcy is the pardon. If I’m going to suffer because of other people’s bigotry, I might as well just do it with the person I love.

The subway churned, a patterned noise that hurried people forward. In the half-empty subway cart, between the squeaking noises, I felt that I belonged to myself. When the subway stopped I was breathing for the first time, standing up straight, walking up the stairs from the platform. The words came to me: I will rise. Higher than the buildings that used to shadow me, higher than the gray, polluted sky.

KY Gao is a writer from Beijing, China. They aspired to become a writer since they read At the Back of the North Wind. They hope to use their words to make more people feel seen.

SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 9 • June 2023
Header image by erhard.renz.