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From Shame to Pride

Portrait of Edgar Gomez
Photo: Courtesy Black Mountain Institute
Illustration: Ryan Vellinga

Edgar Gomez reflects on the pain and joy of the journey chronicled in his work

Edgar Gomez’s first book, the memoir High-Risk Homosexual (Soft Skull Press, January 2022), follows the author’s journey of self-discovery, from his roots in Nicaragua, to his experiences as a gay, Latinx teenager and young adult in Orlando and L.A. Through a difficult, and often dangerous, exploration of identity, Gomez comes to peace with a label his doctor gave him, and which he uses as the book’s title. He talked to Desert Companion for the first episode of the Black Mountain Institute Conversations podcast. An excerpt, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Las Vegas has such a large LatinX and LGBTQ+ community. Do you feel at home here?
I've already been joking with my boyfriend that I think I want to move here. I really like it. There's so much to do. We just went to Red Rock Canyon and went on a hike. But then there's also the bright lights and glitz and all that other stuff that I really love. I have to be by a gay bar. I have to be around grocery stores that carry LatinX products. And yeah, [Las Vegas] has all of that.

High Risk Homosexual opens with a powerful juxtaposition of two scenes … interspliced descriptions of, on the one hand, animal abuse and exploitation, and on the other, an attempted conversion, essentially, of a pubescent gay person — it's dark and disturbing, and I felt that this stood in contrast to most of the rest of the book, which is so funny. So, I wondered if it was difficult for you to write that.
Yeah, it was very difficult to write that first chapter. But one of the reasons that I am so drawn to writing memoir is that I grew up in a machista culture. That made me a very avoidant person. Whenever something bad happened to me, I would kind of just shrug it off and keep it pushing because that's what I was taught men are supposed to do. And through memoir writing, I basically am sitting down for hours, days, weeks, months, sometimes years with whatever the memory is that disturbs me, or whatever questions I have about life, and it gives me the opportunity to really process those things. I don't think memoir writing is therapy, but it can be therapeutic in a weird way, where it almost felt like exposure therapy because I would keep going back to the same traumatic scenes over and over and over again. And specifically regarding that chapter, when I first started writing it, yeah, it didn't feel great to write and to revisit those memories that I locked in my brain. But after the 15th, 16th time that I revisited that scene on the page, it sort of hurt a little bit less. I sort of was forcing myself not to avoid it — and reclaiming that power.

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Speaking of machismo, you've said before that's really a main theme in the book, along with pride and queerness, and that the trajectory is a journey from shame to pride. And you've also said that you overcome the challenges of writing memoir — there are many! — in part by seeing it as an act of defiance against the systems that would oppress you or silence you. So, these two observations kind of made me wonder who you're writing for. Do you have a reader in mind?
I think it took me some time to really figure that out. I was in an MFA writing program. And when I was there, I started writing the book. But I was writing to my classmates, almost to get their approval, and to my professors. And that sort of muddled my voice. I had to really step back and think like, who am I writing for? Because a lot of the feedback that I was getting in my MFA program was, Oh, can you define this word? Can you explain this experience? And there were … people who I imagined reading the book (for whom) I wouldn't have to define a word. I wouldn't have to explain machismo, or a gay slang or whatever it is that I was talking about. In the end, I realized that I wanted to write it for queer Latinx kids — particularly teenagers who might still be struggling with shame (or) know what's possible for them.

At your event at Black Mountain Institute in September, you read from your poem, I Love Being Gay, which is a celebration of all the joyful things about queerness in your experience, from your 20-minute moisturizing routine (to) not having to socialize with boring homophobic relatives. It ends with: “I want all of this on a T-shirt under a big “I” and a heart so I can wear it around like loving gay is a place I've been, that way I can remember it when I'm not there.” … Is this place — of loving being gay — easier for you to find as you get older, or are the systems of oppression that force you to code switch just too pervasive?
When I was thinking of what the narrative arc for the book (ought) to be, I thought I wanted it to be from shame — starting with that opening chapter and the cockfighting rings and the woman who is supposed to take my virginity — to pride. But as I wrote the book, I realized that pride is a lot more complex than just like, “OK, I'm happy being gay, and I'm super-proud with myself,” because there's still other things that queer people have to navigate — specifically regarding safety. Like, I can feel very proud, I'm painting my nails, wearing a more feminine outfit. But at the same time, I have to be aware that when I step out the door, depending on where I am, somebody might try to commit a crime against me. I wanted to end the book on a hopeful note. And so, I realized that navigating safety isn't necessarily always everything, and that the times that I feel most proud are when I'm around my community, when I'm with friends who don't care what I look like, or how I'm dressed down.

I think a big change that happened within me was that earlier on, I was filled with a lot of self-hate. And that is something that I've learned to shed — that self-hate, that shame, that self-loathing. And now I'm able to recognize that those things don't come from inside me, but come from the larger culture, from other people. And that there isn't anything wrong with me. At the same time, you have to be safe.

You're Shearing Fellowship at Black Mountain Institute involves community outreach, and you've decided to host a book club. Tell me about that.
I'm hosting the LatinX book club out of The Writer's Block, and it's just something that I've always wanted to do. I know that when I was first starting to write my book, one of my biggest fears was that it was never going to get published, because I didn't see a lot of books written by people who looked like me, who came from the same places as me. And so, I wanted to host a book club that would highlight Latinx voices, to show other people that it is possible for us to tell our stories. That's another of the reasons that I'm really drawn to nonfiction in particular is because it gives us the opportunity to reclaim our stories and tell the world who we are, in our own words, without apology, and correct the narratives that have been told for us by people who don't belong to the community in the past.

In June 2017, Longreads published your essay about the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. And you have since adopted that as a chapter in High-Risk Homosexual. Just a few months after that Longreads publication, on October 1, we had the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting here in Las Vegas. I noticed something that I interpreted as optimistic about your piece. You go through and kind of enumerate the times that the gunman could have been stopped, (when) the situation could have been prevented. It was a way of holding society accountable for its failings, but not letting the shooter off the hook at the same time. I wondered if that helped you.
That was one of the hardest essays to write for a lot of different reasons. One of the reasons was that it had just happened the year before. And, like I said, I'm very avoidant person. And so, I did just want to shut my brain off and not really think about it. That's part of the reason that I moved to Riverside, thinking that I could get away from it. But when I was there, and alone, I was even more confronted with what had happened because I had lost my community and moved away from the community that was left. And I still couldn't avoid it there. I was thinking about the people who were immediately impacted by the shooting, the survivors and the survivors’ families. And I thought, if this ends up being successful, if anybody publishes this, there's a high chance that they're gonna read this, and I don't want to come off like I'm trying to be too sympathetic or trying to empathize with the shooter. A lot of times, when there's a mass shooting, a big profile will come out about the shooter trying to humanize them. What I was trying to do is figure out how something like that could possibly happen and find some resolution for myself. And to do that, I really had to do a deep dive into the shooters’ life and figure out what were the circumstances that led him to commit such an atrocity. And as I investigated his life, I saw a lot of eerie similarities between how he was raised and the things that happened to him, and how I was raised. He was not Latinx, but our cultures were similar — [where] men are encouraged to not have emotions. He was briefly in a criminal justice program, just like I was. He was expelled from high school, just like I was. He experienced a lot of homophobia and racism, similar to me. And I thought, all of those things, for some period of my life, made me really, really bitter and filled me with hate. But I didn't go buy an AK-47 and step into a gay bar. And he did. And so I'm not like letting him off the hook.

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You mentioned earlier the privilege of queerness, that it kind of allows you to sidestep the systems that would oppress you — like the Catholic Church, capitalism and other things. I've wondered if that's true of the U.S. political system, too. There's nothing overtly political in your book, but you do refer obliquely to some political movements and moments, and those things must have a significant impact on your life. Do you not address that head-on because you feel like you have that privilege and you've been able to sort of sidestep it?
I remember once an interviewer said, “Oh, your book doesn't come across as super-LatinX, you don’t talk about Latinidad too much.” And in my mind, I was like, “Well, I'm just an LatinX person living in the world.” I don't feel the need to address it, because it just comes very natural to me. Were I to address it, it would be for some other audience that I'm not necessarily trying to center. I felt similarly regarding queerness and the political nature of it where I was writing to queer LatinX teenagers. I think they know plenty about what's going on. I just wanted the story to speak for itself. While, at the same time, every now and then, I know that there are some things that they might not be as educated on. For example, the Compton’s Cafeteria riots that happened in San Francisco, which were a precursor to the Stonewall Riots a couple of years later. And so, regarding those things, I was like, OK, I do want to educate them about that, I do want to educate them about the history of HIV — and how that has led to a fear that many call irrational — and other political things like that.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book was your description of how you came to writing while you were in college. It had to do with the poverty that you found yourself in. Your understanding was that you were going to college so you could do something to make a lot of money. But then you realized that you were poor anyway. So, you thought, “Well, I might as well forget trying to get a degree that's going to lead to something big and just do what I like.”
Yeah, the degree that would lead somewhere big (was) a business degree. And it was really hard for me to imagine myself in a business setting because I didn't see a lot of people like me in those settings. When it came to writing, I was really drawn to it because it was free. I had majored in TV production, and there's a lot of people [to whom] you are held accountable and [for whom] you have to ask for permission. With writing, a Word doc is all I needed.

Yeah, it's a kind of freedom. I think you mentioned that your next book is going to be an exploration of poverty. And you've also said that it will probably be more narrative than High-Risk Homosexual, which is an essay series. Can you tell us any more about the upcoming book?
It is a memoir titled Alligator Tears, about growing up poor in early 2000s Florida (and) all of the weird things that capitalism forces you to do to make it. And I also tried to unpack the idea of what it means to make it because early on in my life, I think I really bought into all of the basically lies that the world tells you, that if you work really hard, and if you're humble, and you don't complain, you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps. While when I was young, those things sort of offered me a little bit of hope. Over time, I realized that what they were really doing was silencing me and keeping me complacent. And that many people would just work and work with that dangling carrot of financial security or whatever it is keeping them going, but many of them don't make it and that's just a big epiphany that I had in the pandemic — especially when we were calling people essential workers and heroes. That's nice, and they are those things, but what are they getting? That’s a lot of lip service.