Guernica Magazine

Some Other I Before Me

On books as mentors for those of us who grew up in the wake of HIV/AIDS. The post Some Other I Before Me appeared first on Guernica.


Like most queer people, my parent are straight. I was raised in the country, in rural Washington State. We couldn’t get cable, so my dad installed an antenna rotor on our roof to help with the salt-and-pepper static that clouded NBC, but this was before Will & Grace. All I knew about being gay is that it would get you beat up as a kid, and then you’d die from AIDS.

I was in college before I learned how gay men had sex. I’d been attracted to men by then—my first boy-crush was a lanky, tall boy who played basketball in the intramural league it was my campus job to organize. Walking home drunk from a party, a straight man told me that gay men fuck in the ass, but I didn’t believe him. This same straight boy often got too drunk and asked me, slurring his words, to slow dance with him, shirtless.

“What did you think gay men do?” he asked. I was 21. I wanted to fuck men, that much I knew, but I had never thought about how. 

If sex between men seemed impossible to imagine, intimacy seemed even more so. Intimacy between men seemed then — like it sometimes seems even now — to be a foreign language spoken in a country where I was only a visitor, dependent on a dictionary even for banalities: ordering an orange juice for breakfast, a gin martini at a bar.

“What did you think gay men do?” Two weeks later, home for spring break, I stuck two fingers inside myself and vowed that, after college, I would end up in a city where I’d be able, finally, to learn. 


Alexander Chee, smirking, in black and white, stares at me from the cover of his new book of essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Inside, there is he again, a grid of him, smiling widely here, flirting there, making, in my favorite image, a kissy face. These photos were taken in a photo booth in Iowa, where Chee did his MFA, to send to his then-boyfriend. They’re intimate, sexy, playful, a glimpse into his life and a relationship he had, and lost, decades ago. 

Like me, Chee grew up before the internet and in the middle of nowhere.Unlike me,

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