having a public life when you’re no one in particular

One of the weirder things about my life is that I’m a pretty public person. Some of this is really just because I’m a bit of a low filter individual. As an only child who didn’t really have a lot of friends growing up my life was necessarily private whether I wanted it to be or not, and I didn’t always have the opportunity to learn about when to share and when not to. But I also grew up queer, in the 80s, in New York City, which meant that Silence = Death wasn’t just a feature of the political landscape that surrounded me, but something I took to large, and perhaps in appropriate, heart. Somehow, I decided that survival, my survival, absolutely, positively depended on me telling my story as much as I could.

Sometimes, that’s made things worse. Certainly, it’s been a huge contributor in online bullying I’ve experienced. I can ping people’s who does she think she is? buttons pretty hard, especially when you combine my ambition with a worldview that’s about making sure other people can never use me against me. It’s not, despite what some folks think, always (or even often) an “I’m so awesome” thing. A lot of the time I’m just trying to beat someone else to the punch. If I call myself a horrible person, it doesn’t really mean that much when you call me a horrible person. At least, that’s the theory.

Practically, let’s just face it: I’m really sensitive, and I shatter easily, although I’m also, thankfully, damn resilient and extraordinarily stubborn. But that doesn’t mean that my not quite deserved or useful public life is easy for me to navigate or comfortable for me to have.

The fact is, I’ve been performing myself on the Internet for over twenty years now. And during that time I’ve learned how to show you a projection of my private life that is deeply sincere and entirely a truth. But it’s not everything; it can’t be. Among other things, there’s a gap between the actual logistics and intimacies of my life and the way I show them to you, just like there’s a gap between the New York City apartments on television and how we actually live here.

Having that sort of public face is, in a lot of ways, utterly unremarkable. It’s something we all do in some ways in some parts of our lives. But for me, who’s ambitious, who has never really stopped being that kid who wants to be famous, it’s created this weird situation where I have a lot of the downsides of being a public person (strangers on the Internet deface my picture and say mean things about me) and pretty much none of the benefits of being one, because, dudes, so not famous, which has sort of made me wonder what the hell all of this is for, especially on the days when it’s not fun.

While usually it’s just odd, being a not-really public figure can kind of completely blow sometimes. It sort of requires all of the graciousness and comes with none of the insulation. For someone as hot-tempered and brittle as me, it’s really maybe not the best plan. And I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year wondering what the hell this situation is for and how to step back and undo it all so that people will just leave me alone, even while still having the opportunity to do the stuff I love in the ways that I love to do it. Without giving in. Without becoming silent.

Last night, in one of those 2am light bulbs that only really come when you’re dancing around your living room watching your reflection in your windows and lamenting that you don’t look like more of a rock star, I finally figured out that the purpose of this public life isn’t just about faking it until you make it (although, seriously, that works — it’s astounding) or telling bullies to go fuck themselves or making sure no one can ever blackmail me for being a big ol’ homosexual.

I figured out that my public life certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t get to have a private life, no matter how much it may make people feel free to discuss, not the value of my ideas or work or performances, but my own actual worth as a human being. This public life is here so that I can have a private life. So that when people talk shit about me, they’re talking about the me I perform, and not the me who really needs to go buy groceries and who makes dinosaur noises at her girlfriend. The purpose of the public life isn’t to remove the private life — it’s to give it room to breathe. My private life is big, and it’s able to be big because I’ve put a shield up around it that’s even bigger. What I didn’t get until last night is that the public life isn’t the target; it’s the insulation.

Which means it’s time to stop feeling awkward or ashamed or undeserving of that public life. I have it, for better or worse, thanks to years of steps and missteps, a few successes and probably things like having Rhetoric class in school and growing up with a dad in advertising and thinking that maybe David Bowie’s Berlin albums were enough to save my life when I was a teenager.

When I started to live in the world and perform myself in the world, I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew that I thought I should be famous and had parents who spent too much time asking me why I wasn’t yet. I don’t know that if I had it all to do over again knowing what I know now, that I’d do it in quite the same way or care about the same stuff. Truthfully, I don’t even know if I’d have much control over the process — we’ve already gone over the details of my tendency towards overshare, and I’ve become pretty certain that a public life is, no matter how much you seek it out, a thing that, by its very definition, happens to you often beyond the reach of your fingertips.

Years ago, my friend Anton gave me the subtitle for my old LiveJournal blog. It’s big life; small space and I’ve never really known if he meant my flesh or the reality of New York City apartments. It’s never really mattered, simply because it’s always been true.

6 thoughts on “having a public life when you’re no one in particular”

  1. I can’t imagine how you do it. I have a pretty low public profile and already I’ve felt myself pull back after nasty comments have been made. There are no real photos of me to be defaced, thank the gods.

  2. I love the thinkythoughts I’ve been reading from you lately, and what Glee fandom is putting in my own head lately, of how people perform and what they perform. Because it’s such an anti-American ideal in terms of the common narrative, like bald-faced honesty and righteous truth and whatever are the things we’re supposed to value (and that I do, hugely, always) but even that is a layer through which we receive life, especially when we’ve only got so much willingness to be vulnerable, and so many times people with no sense of nuance think performance = lying. I think being self-aware of how and why you perform yourself, as long as you’re willing to be open to that deeper level and the thought of WHY the performance is there, makes that “okay” in a way we’re usually taught it’s not. But even more, I think it’s brave to be public and at the same time admit what’s deliberate about public vs. private, the way you personally are doing.

    I tend to do this obnoxious thing where I put all my feelings and my energy out there in a loud, angry flurry of ~everything, but only if I know there’s a chance of people responding to it on a metatextual level. Like obviously the media I consume and the things I love are loved because of how I relate to them personally, but I need that buffer in order to get there. My more private and intimate moments and worries almost never get disclosed, often they’re not even disclosed to myself, unless I can frame them in that way because that helps shape my understanding of myself. Otherwise it’s so easy to get caught up in the person I feel I should be, the psychology of how I’m supposed to behave and what I’m supposed to think and feel – I suspect that’s what comes from a therapist mother and a therapist kind of outlook, where how I feel and what I feel has been deconstructed in my head and given every kind of childhood context. It’s so easy, with that background as practiced as it is, to talk about and describe myself as the person I SHOULD be, or the person I know I’d be if I just tried this this and this, rather than the person I really am or the things I really want.

    I have no idea where I’m going with this, other than how it’s interesting.

  3. Thanks…this was actually very helpful to me, even though I know it’s your revelation. I used to be far more public, and then I withdrew, but withdrawing hasn’t made me happier, really.

  4. I have always loved that line so much. It encompassed so much – your lack of closet space for your clothes to the number of lives happening all at once within you. I still think of it as one of the best lines I’ve ever created. It adds new facets every year.

  5. Yes! This is an insight that for me, comes and goes. But every time it comes around, it’s a friend.

  6. After watching a tv bio of Johnny Depp 3 or 4 years ago, Becca and I discussed the idea of public and private lives for celebrities. One of the things that looks true from the outside is that public lives effectively become characters with a life of their own. If the celebrity decides that their public life and their private life are identical, this often goes very bad places, but if the person keeps them separate, the result looks to often work quite well.

    I can ping people’s who does she think she is? buttons pretty hard

    The impulse to put someone down like that is one I have never remotely understood. I wonder if this is a social class issue. I was raised in a social environment (and as an only child) to assume without hesitation that no one was better than me, but many people are not, and I wonder if that’s why some people react this way to people being “too” proud, happy, or demonstative.

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