As I sat in the theater waiting for Moonlight, now the frontrunner for this year’s Oscars (nominated for 8 awards), to begin, I thought about how Chiron the film’s main character had represented the type of man I had grown to resent in the last year – black, muscular, virile. Instead, I saw a man, 25, so weighed down by the desire to appear a certain way that he deprived himself physically and emotionally. He reminded me of me, an Ethio-Eritrean-American, then 25, just learning how to keep my inhibitions from thwarting my sexuality.
Moonlight’s first trailer melds a variety of images through a kaleidoscope: the muscled, gold grill-adorned Chiron (played by Trevante Rhodes) peering over his shoulder; his love Kevin (Allen Holland) French-inhaling, tightly shot while seducing the camera; Juan (the sublime Mahershala Ali) on the beach with young Chiron, meditating on the importance of following one’s own path. These are glimpses into what makes Moonlight a poignant, cathartic film for its countless gay, bi, or otherwise queer viewers (if not the ideal platform to reveal themselves to their traumatized, conservative, immigrant mothers, at least that’s how I felt when I backed out of seeing it with my own Mom).
Self-actualization and coming to terms with one’s identity were ideas burning into my mind before they were on the tip of my tongue. I knew I was bisexual by the age of 10. By the time I came out at 18, I had already been living in cold acknowledgment. Queerness was and still is a social more amongst Ethiopians and Eritreans, but a tangential concern compared to my value as a person.
As a child, my quiet demeanor and detours into heightened silliness stood out amongst my ball-playing, chest-beating peers. Parents held me up as the standard for their own children, an unusually good-mannered, often quiet boy who preferred to sit and read than run and sweat. Weathering my teens towards the dry-humored black hipster I would happily blossom into, provided enough cover for people to overlook my queerness as simply “offbeat charm.” Consequently, I’ve never felt the need to come out to my parents, although certain classmates, without fail, came to test me, leaving this awkward nerd desperate for role models to identity with and draw power from. Through trial and error, my education fortified me against the rigors of life.
I am very much my father’s son – analytical; diplomatic – raised by a doting mother habitually in fear for my life for reasons I couldn’t place, other than that she was strict. My mother wanted me to mature into a doer – handy, active, present. Worship of the fantastical armored my thin skin piecemeal from my toddler years onward, empowering me to shrug off aspersions thrown at my sexuality with a wit and verve that softened the doubt I felt towards myself.
As horny, inquisitive, first-generation American kids go, I had a wide palette to draw from. Daydreams of living out the adventures of superheroes, child messiahs, and intergalactic bounty hunters came with a curiosity that traversed religion, philosophy, and culture. I learned from the masters – the chic mysticism of the Sailor Moon cartoon and manga; the way Janet Jackson clapped her hands on her lap in the “You Want This” video; the self-mythologizing, self-revering rappers of the golden ‘90s; the lurid grunts shared between Javier Bardem and Olivier Martinez in Before Night Falls (2000); the rhetorical fierceness of Malcolm X; the unhinged self-love of the Ol’ Dirty Bastard; the wailing elegance of Morrissey; the regal campiness of Freddie Mercury.
Much credit is due to my varied role models from childhood to now, for helping me mature into a nuanced person partially of my own choosing.
Chiron is not as fortunate, backed into a corner by bullies. They torture him for being outside of that hypermasculine black mold. When he finally lashes out, he starts reinventing himself in the image of his father figure, Juan, a noble, nurturing but ruthless man, who is compromised by the same trap he sought to protect Chiron from. At his breaking point, Chiron assumes the mantle of Juan and buries himself in a construct; I swallowed hard for him.
When Chiron reconciles with Kevin at the end of the film, I cheered him on as a viewer and a peer. Identity is about choice as much as it is circumstance. The power to choose for one’s self is crucial, the confidence to do so is hard won.
I’m fortunate to know myself at 25 amid love, heartbreak, and conjugal appointments on the KIK app. Moonlight has shown LGBTQI youth their power, armed them with a hero like Chiron to emulate in the face of unyielding fuck-shit, and a sign that the Chirons of the world are on the right track. My friends, do not wait to seize power of self out of fear.
Follow her on Instagram @catbee643 for photos of cats, pizza, and colorful city living.