I begged my parents to let me go out for a drink with my friend Neuza. Little did they know I was lying and I was really going alone to the gay bar. No one knew I was there. I felt so empowered and independent doing this for myself, by myself. Full house, I stood at the bar to ask for a drink. Whilst waiting, looking around, I felt all eyes on me. People watching me, I felt like a young fragile prey. Watching me, whispering a language I barely understood and smiling and watching. I feared it. Fresh meat. I liked it. Ordering a drink was tricky. Shy, fearful and silent as I was, getting in between the crowd was difficult.

I finally ordered my energy drink. A man left me his seat, trying to make eye contact and conversation, I wasn’t interested. I sat down at the bar and felt the bartenders talking about me. Then, unexpectedly, he came to me from behind. A handsome man, friendly and chatty, asked for my name and I asked him to speak in French because I couldn’t speak flemish. He was half French, and we immediately connected there. He asked me whether I was alone, I was. I really was alone. I really was lonely. He suggested I joined him and his friends. I looked over to see who they were. There was another young guy, cute, so I agreed. After that, I only remember feeling anxious and scared and worried about time, my parents, and these strangely friendly people.

He asked me to go to his place for a while. I had never gone to anyone’s place. The cute guy was his boyfriend, he was about my age, so we walked together. Anxiety made me forget the way there. Knowing myself, I was probably just very silent overthinking everything in my 17 and a half years of life. I remember entering his apartment, his boyfriend kissing us both good night and going to sleep. As I sat at the kitchen counter, he served me a drink and suddenly walked up to me, standing between my legs. Kissing me. I remember the smell of beer and cigarettes, I remember his soft determined tongue over my lips, looking for my tongue. I get anxious writing these words and going over this memory. I pulled him away and told him not to because his boyfriend was right next door. He said it was okay with him, I had never heard of such a thing, but he looked sincere and somehow it made sense to me.

He came closer again and kissed me more passionately this time. Not making an effort to be silent or seemingly hiding anything. Fearless. Pressing his big hands on my crotch, whispering how beautiful and sweet I was. I felt so loved I couldn’t believe I was living that blessed moment. My stomach was exploding in excitement. My phone kept vibrating, and I knew I was in trouble. My mother had called so many times, I knew she knew I had lied. I wanted to go but he insisted I stay just a minute longer. He liked me. I felt wanted, desired, beautiful. I was so hard, I was so turned on, I was so hungry. He opened my pants, I was so shy, I told him I wasn’t clean. “It’s okay, I like it”. A knot in my throat. Nothing was okay, but I was so horny, everything was okay. My phone kept vibrating, something was up. I can only remember now him passionately sucking my cock, eating it and moaning with pleasure letting me know how tasty I was. I recall saying I had to go now, so he sucked me harder. He wanted my juice in his mouth, he said. 

A decade and a half later, memory fails somewhat. I can’t remember what happened exactly after this, yet the body has a way to store certain memories, especially the traumatic ones. This encounter marked the beginning of a very toxic relationship and the renewal of a second toxic relationship: a two year and a half relationship with a man double my age at the time, and my relationship with myself. And these relationships were modeled after the only relationship I had witnessed so far – my parents’ -, and their relationships with themselves. The silver lining in this encounter, that episode, that evening out and evening in, was the inspiration I found to start building the courage and energy to come out to my parents a couple of months later. Witnessing all those people I met in that bar living their truths, looking happy and unapologetically queer, I realized my hope of hiding my queerness from my family and my dream of living a double life was not what I wanted. 

Little did I know that coming out wouldn’t wash away all the years of engrained shame and interiorized homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia, misogyny. Coming out didn’t teach me how to live my truth. It didn’t teach me nor my family how to be accepting. Since I can remember, I struggled with gender identity. These words and these photographs today feel like more of a true coming out, at 32. Revelations. Since a very very young age, I’ve been mocked for being “too fem, too shy, too weak. Not man enough. Faggot. Pédé. Paneleiro. Homo. Jeanet. Maricas.” Then came the struggle with sexual identity.

To survive, I picked up queues around me from what was necessary to feel I was respecting the codes of maleness, and what was acceptably different so I could still feel the “I” inside of me was still alive. The noise suppressing my sense of Self. This constant internal quest would translate itself into an external performance in the hope I’d be accepted, wishing for my existence to be validated. I performed for years the Tiago I thought was expected of me. I performed maleness, in school, at work, at home, on holidays, on dates, in bed. In this performance, I was always looking at the audience, trying to guess what they were seeing, what they wanted, and changing myself following their body language until I’d feel a sense of acceptance. Who am I? I’d run away from this question. Anxiety would cripple my mind, I’d feel uncomfortable because I knew I wasn’t myself. I was ashamed for not knowing how to be myself. I didn’t know myself because I was ashamed. My body wasn’t mine. I was looking at myself through the lens of shame. 

Understanding the ways in which shame had shaped me, the ways I had interiorized all the voices that had made me small – from school bullies, street bullies, other gays, family, friends, media representation of queers…-, realizing and admitting all the years of abuse – mental, verbal, physical -, exploring the ways in which my body and mind had been terrorized, I found freedom. In self-acceptance, I found the freedom and power to let go of performative masculinity and understand I am not a gender. I am not a boy. I am not a girl. I am a boy and a girl, and I am… I. Shame led me in front of the lens of Tale of Men. Loving liberation from yesterday. Today & tomorrow.