Write the Unwritten, Become an Enforcer

Michael G. Williams (Durham, NC)

The very first time I had sex with a man, we were breaking multiple laws.

We were trespassing. It was in an old, abandoned quarry in the town where I grew up. We met via a series of handwritten notes in secret-ish locations where queer men cruised. I’d sort of picked up what cruising was but I couldn’t imagine anything happening in those places: too public, too easy to be interrupted. The places where communications were exchanged were like Grindr, except “location aware” meant you had to be aware of what locations to visit in the first place.

We stashed our cars behind trees and walked to the old quarry. The me who looks back on that moment – the current me, made wary by experience – feels cold fear when I think how far I was from help. Such are the conditions of experiences found outside the law, though. Every teenager is desperate to find somewhere to do it. I was desperate to make sure no one would ever discover. That meant no one could know to go looking for me if something bad were to happen.

We were also violating sodomy laws. I wonder if young queers today realize how big of a deal they were. It wasn’t just that we could get busted for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We could be charged with a crime for a degree of touch. Legally, the term “sodomy” in North Carolina described specific acts committed by specific combinations of persons. On the matrix of qualifying factors, we checked enough boxes.

When a kid in my high school came out to his parents at 18, they threw him out. He went from dependent minor to dropout waiting tables in less than 24 hours. It was 1990, and the unwritten laws said his parents would never tolerate a fag under their roof.

When a kid in my junior high was brave enough to ask another boy to the 9th grade prom, thus becoming the first person to come out in our school’s history, he was so routinely harassed and physically assaulted he ran away to Atlanta at 14. It was 1988 and the unwritten laws said he could not come out and expect to live there.

When my mother was driving me home from a 6th grade trumpet lesson and announced, with no preamble and no context, “Homosexuals really mess up their rectums.” It was 1986, and the unwritten laws said my body was doomed to mutilation before I even understood how I might want to use it.

Every time a kid got called “cocksucker”; every time I found another one of those places to exchange messages; the time I called a number on a bathroom wall and told the 40-something man who answered that I wanted to talk about what it was like being gay; when I had to hear the neighbors gossip about the gay retirees who built a home in the subdivision across the street; when I read the letters to the editor after I was pseudonymously interviewed about being young and gay in my small hometown; when I got to college and found out the easiest access I would have to sexuality would still be trespassing and would still be sodomy.

Each of those times, the unwritten laws were reemphasized. There could be no mistake: the unwritten law said it was not okay to be me and I would be punished if I persisted.

I’ve written essays in previous issues of IDDB, including one about how my reaction to others’ expectations and demands was to ball up my metaphorical fist and bust the rules in the lip. That is absolutely true. I was a rebel in any number of ways, and successfully so, and I don’t regret it for a second. I hold up my various acts of rebellion the way a marathon runner holds up a medal, or the way the winning driver pops the cork on a bottle of champagne.

The very laws that said I could not be were what made me.

My boyfriend and I were talking about this essay and I said I was considering listing all the times I could have been arrested for the sex I was having. At the same moment, we both joked it would be easier to list the times I could not have been.

“That would make for a pretty short pamphlet,” I said.

He replied, “It would fit in a tweet.”

Over and over again, throughout that rebellious youth and on into my still-rebellious middle age, I have had to accept that the way to change the law is to violate it, whether it’s written, unwritten, or both.

The very laws that said I could not be were what made me.

My boyfriend and I were talking about this essay and I said I was considering listing all the times I could have been arrested for the sex I was having. At the same moment, we both joked it would be easier to list the times I could not have been.

“That would make for a pretty short pamphlet,” I said.

He replied, “It would fit in a tweet.”

Over and over again, throughout that rebellious youth and on into my still-rebellious middle age, I have had to accept that the way to change the law is to violate it, whether it’s written, unwritten, or both.

That some unwritten laws have gotten weaker has, in fact, made those who hate us try to enforce them with even greater ferocity. I believe the ‘phobes know they’ve lost and it makes them angry. The arc of history bends towards justice, yes, and the unjust want to make it as unpleasant as possible by bathroom bills and intimidation and violence. Remember that.

When that guy and I were done, back when I was 17, I asked if he was in college.

“No,” he said, “I work for the police department.”

Heart pounding, I asked if he was a cop. Some of the messages on those bathroom walls were warnings about cops.

“Not yet,” he said, “But I really want to be.”

I drove away feeling terrified but I could not, at 17, have articulated why: that some part of me feared he wanted to be a cop not to change the system but to gain the cover of its protections. Eagerness to become a part of that power structure looked, at first glance, like it must at best be hypocrisy. I couldn’t imagine attaining power. I could only imagine attacking it.

These days, the structures of power have more room for us. One of the various hats I wear in life is to be an election judge. I’m the person in my local precinct who handles all the exceptional circumstances on election day: questions, name changes, and the like.

In a recent election, one of my staff sent a voter to me. There was, they said, “something wrong with his registration.”

“My voter registration says I’m female,” the voter said. He was blushing. “She sent me to you instead of letting me vote.”

I don’t know if the voter was a trans man who hadn’t updated his registration after transitioning, or a cis man who checked the “wrong” box on the form, or if someone at the county level simply hit the wrong key when typing him in. It didn’t matter. It has no bearing on whether he can vote. Even when the state of North Carolina was engaged in its ridiculous pursuit of a racist voter ID law, we were explicitly instructed to ignore gender identity and expression when comparing the voter in front of us to the identification they presented.

The voter looked worried, and the member of my staff who brought him over looked expectant.

“The state does not care what gender it says on your voter registration form,” I said to him. “And neither do I.” Then I turned to my staff member and said, with every ounce of my authority as the boss for that one day, “And neither do you.”

At 17 I was terrified of a queer who wanted power over others because power had only ever been used against me. I did not yet realize we could take power for ourselves. I thought I could only break the rules so hard everyone would be afraid to try enforcing them. Breaking the laws – written and unwritten – is not the only way we have to change them. We can create them, too. We can write new laws that recognize us, value us, and say we have a right to our identities. As old laws are swept aside and new ones written to support us, we can be the ones to enforce them. Maybe they won’t be universally recognized. Maybe we can only enforce them in our own heads.

Whatever our circumstances, we must at least do that.