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I am only two generations removed from experiencing one of the worst dictatorships in world history—governed by a man who was infamous for being a mujeriego, a womanizer. Leonidas Rafael Trujillo, also known as El Jefe, among many things, was known as someone who sexually engaged with whomever he pleased, whether she consented or not. He contributed to a culture, like many others, that normalized rape, sexual assault and patriarchy in the Dominican Republic. His beliefs and practices were normalized and along with many Dominicans who migrated to other places around the world, during his reign and generations after, so too did the idea of  machismo. Many Dominican families who migrated to New York City and elsewhere, like my family, carried these chauvinist ideas with them. It was culturally engrained.

You have to be white (at least perceived as such) and possess a bottomless sexual appetite. You need to have financial stability, if not wealth. Consent is not necessary (if you want a woman, you can have her). You have to possess machismo to be a successful man in the world. It’s common that if you have a girlfriend, fiancé or wife, you have at least one relationship outside of that one. Those beliefs were central to the conversations about relationships between men and women that I was exclusively a part of as I matured in the world. Around the age of 11 or 12, something inside me began to signal that maybe I didn’t want to be with girls. That maybe this conversation was not providing everything I needed to grow into myself. So where does that leave someone like me? People like me? It leaves us on our own—left to create our own paths despite the difficulty in doing so.

I can’t remember, for example, when the kids at school first started calling me “gay.” The way they would drop their wrists when I was near or what it felt like to be made to feel less than great for being myself in my community are memories that no longer weigh on me as much as they once did, but do give me pause.

I’m interested in seeing what happens when we can see self-expression that is not based on limiting expectations such as machismo and masculinity, but rather as what it is: an infinite possibility.

The verbal taunts and juvenile actions were overwhelming in a middle school that occupied one floor out of five in a traditional New York City public school building. I wasn’t just a number; I had a name among a relatively small student body. There were only about 300 students. Whispers are louder when there are less people around to drown them out. I was in the same school as my identical twin who did not have an identical experience, that further confused and frustrated me. Like many Black boys who have yet to discover their queerness, however, I realized that if I couldn’t be the cool kid and was going to be made fun of regardless of what I did, I would be the best and brightest student in the school. Academics came to me somewhat naturally, and I assumed my intelligence would be my ticket out of an environment that did not always show me love or at least earn me the respect of my peers (spoiler: I went on to become co-valedictorian).

If you’ve ever been made fun of or bullied at school, you might know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by festering frustration and resignation. Being singled out because of difference robbed me of a certain confidence. I didn’t play baseball in the school yard during lunch. I wasn’t swaggy or rocked the newest pair of Jordans with my uniform. I didn’t smirk or blow kisses at girls at school. Honestly, I wasn’t checking for most people, regardless of their gender, at that time. I was busy trying to figure out when I became different and what to do with that.

I cried a lot as a young person. I didn’t know how to articulate my feelings. So when the tears flowed as a pre-teen, I was told to stop. At home, I was told I was too grown to cry. I couldn’t cry at school either. Crying equaled weakness. Weakness, to some, signaled gayness. So I cried in the tight space between my top bunk mattress and the wall. I cried in a hallway at school during lunch when there was no one around. Or in a closet-turned-library that gave me more comfort than the crowded cafeteria during lunch. I went inward.

What do little Black boys like me do when they aren’t sure how to ask questions about what they are experiencing? What do little Black boys do when they don’t want to fight everyone and just want to be left alone? What do little Black boys do when they are told they were a maricon or fag or “swings that way” or the butt of another’s joke based on the insecurities of the people around them and not a true understanding of who they are? What are little Black boys to do when they are not what the world wants them to be?

I have spent most of my life navigating my proximity to masculinity until I understood that there were more options and sometimes less words needed. Sometimes you just need to be you and words are not always necessary for that to happen. The complete embodiment of whatever masculinity is constructed to be is a way of being that I will never fully live up to. My existence, and how I continue to develop in expressing my gender and sexuality, is my form of resistance to the rules. I continue to learn and am thankful for some incredibly brave people around me that demonstrate, on the daily, that you get to create who you want to be. For me, that means I may not always determine who I am based on the rigid rules formed for us. I will do as a I please. That is not an easy task and as someone who is read as masculine regularly, I have a certain privilege in the ways I express myself. However, I’m interested in seeing what happens when we can see self-expression, which is not based on limiting expectations such as machismo and masculinity, for what it is: an infinite possibility.

Kleaver Cruz is a Bronx-based writer and creator of The Black Joy Project, a digital and real-world movement to center Black joy as a form of resistance.