Exotic. The handsome owner of a popular eatery in Boystown, where I'd been living for about six months, is telling me that back home in Greece, the men would just go wild for me because You, Wancy, are very exotic. And what he's talking about is my being Asian. I consider my chubbiness, or the lilt in my speech, but what I want to ask is this: Is there actually some place I might be wanted?
In 1997, Chicago's Boystown became the first officially recognized gay neighborhood in the country, and it coincided with the year I attended my first Pride parade. I was 18 years old, my hair was streaked blond, my ears were pierced, and the rainbow rings strung around my neck jangled loudly as I scurried out the door.
I went with a good friend's uncle and his roommate. As we walked the few blocks from their apartment, people began to pour out from side streets and the Addison L stop. Boystown was Elysium—all rainbows and laughter, glistening bodies, tremors of joy, and men kissing men. As Bruce and Todd locked lips, it became beautifully obvious they were much more than long-term roommates. It was exhilarating to be in on it. I wanted to find my place in this menagerie. The place seemed magical.
Naperville was, and still is, affluent white suburbia at its maximum. My high school was lifted from any TV show based around the setting. There were popular kids—mostly jocks and cheerleaders—and also druggies, nerds, foreigners, and the anonymous. From time to time, the fresh-off-the-boat Asian contingent, or "FOBs" as they were referred to, would call me a "Twinkie"—spongy yellow cake on the outside with a creamy white filling.
I had many firsts in Naperville. Though not all of them were wonderful. The first blowjob I gave was to a married white man who had chicken legs, a hairy belly, and a balding head. He introduced me to the (mostly white and married) tearoom culture of our local train station. It's the busiest from 3 to 5 p.m. You know, when all the guys are coming home from work, he said after I'd jerked him off into the toilet.
Nearly a year after high school, I moved to the city. Tired of the stiflingly manicured lives, fighting with my parents, sleeping in my car, I jumped at the chance to pick up extra shifts at work, borrowing money to get myself out. In the middle of summer that year, I headed to my very first apartment, just a half block off Halsted in Boystown, with everything I owned—I dared not leave a single piece of myself when I left.
As I was just 19 years old and without a fake ID, a whole sphere of gay life was cordoned off from me. It would be another year before I had my first drink, and I had zero confidence in my ability to dance. Walking around Boystown those first few weeks, I was beaming with expectant cheeriness. In my teenage romantic naïveté, I thought there'd be candlelight, holding hands at the movies, and bashful kisses in the vestibule of my apartment building. But hardly anyone was down with my Pollyanna-ass smiles and hellos—which quickly unraveled a lot of the fantasies I'd had for my new life. When I got a job as a barista, it gave me some hope.
I asked guys out from behind the counter at my new job, on the street, on the bus, on the train, at restaurants and cafes, anywhere and everywhere. I kept a tally. By year's end, I'd asked out almost 100 men, two of whom gave me their numbers. Most were friendly rejections. One stood me up, and the other was only visiting from New York.
One guy told me he just wasn't into Asians. I remembered the train station, faces of anticipatory delight fading away as stall doors opened and the other guys saw my face. Or, I began to wonder, was it just my eyes?
Perhaps in the same way folks believe they'll be discovered shortly after arriving in Hollywood, I believed I'd find myself among a gaggle of gay friends and score a boyfriend in a flash. But the lasting friendships I made from that time in my life are all women, and I wouldn't go on my first date for another two years, in a different city 2,000 miles away.
I tried to have other needs met via Craigslist, where I encountered ads that ended with a phrase now commonly seen on a myriad of dating apps: No Fats, No Femmes, No Asians. I was all of those things.
In what other ways could I be excluded from love?
A new fantasy emerged. I would lose weight, build muscle, alter my speech and voice, and save enough money to have eyelid surgery, increase the size of my nose, adding depth to my brow—and then I'd be a viable candidate for love. Years later, I would live in West Hollywood, obsessed with my body and always wondering who was looking.
Did I feel betrayed by gay men? I did. But more than that, I felt I had double-crossed myself. Perhaps, in order to find what I was looking for, I had to lose myself, my sense of identity, to truly arrive.
Now, 19 years later, it matters so much less—who is looking or where I live. I've got my eyes on the real prize. And the prize is me.