As a kid, knocking around the neighborhood with your friends can be a formative time. The experiences from those years can resonate for decades. Matthew Lewis of Milwaukee shared a story about finding his identity. He told it at Ex Fabula’s StorySlam ‘Identity’ event held in March 2020.
(The following story has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
I was super happy that the theme tonight was ‘Identity,’ because it’s also in the neighborhood that I grew up in. My parents live two blocks that way. This neighborhood is a huge part of my identity. So I thought about the times when I was growing up and what I really loved was my block I grew up on. My block was just really special — we regularly had block parties.
In the summer, I had my crew. So there was my house and my — I’m going to call her my sister because that’s basically what she became — my sister’s house was two doors down. Then I had another friend two doors down. And another friend. So basically, every other house was a friend of mine. We would knock on each other’s doors and come get each other during the summer every day.
What was interesting though — there was my brother’s generation which was all boys on our block. They would be in the back playing basketball and doing things they were not supposed to be doing. Then I would be in the front.
I was weird, because everyone had had their children spotty by that point. My sister was older than me, but there was no one in her generation quite yet. So she was stuck with us because we were the only other people she was allowed to play with.
And then there was my generation. I was the only boy, which I didn’t think anything of because it was like, “Oh we just all play together and eat grass.”
Then came the summer where my sister was kind of getting to the age where she is like, “It’s not really cool to, like, hang out with y’all anymore.”
Which I understood. You know, at that point I was still trying to play Powerpuff Girls and she was like, “I don’t do that anymore.”
She made this friend with a girl from across the alley. Now, there’s a big difference in blocks. There was my block and there was 54th Street. No offense to anyone on 54th Street — y’all just not as lit as 55th Street. But once you cross that alley, it’s just a different world, you know?
She would come across and she was just mean, you know? And I was her target. I remember every time we hung out she always had to dig at me. Usually it was around like, “Why do you always hang out with all the girls?”
I was like, “Cuz ain’t nobody else around, that’s why. And also, I was here first.”
I remember one day we were all walking. She and my sister had gotten pretty cool. But I had that innate little sibling jealousy of, “You’re taking the person who I’ve been used to spending every day with away from me — and doing so in a way that’s pretty shady to me.”
And so she asked me again while we were walking up the block. She’s like, “Why do you hang out with all the girls?”
I was like, “Well, you know, I just I like it. And, you know, I just fit. I’m not like a normal boy.”
And I remember her looking at me and she was like, “You’re gay?”
At this time, I’m seven. So I was like, “I don’t know what that means, but your face says it’s bad. So no.”
I remember being really offended and quickly swallowing everything I had just said so that she would not blast this any louder. It had to become just a moment between us.
I also remember the rest of the day — I just felt really apart from everybody. I became really aware that I was the only boy — and that things like playing “Little Sally Walker” with everyone was not comfortable anymore. It wasn’t fun.
That summer, I remember going in the house a lot. When the doorbell rang, I’d be like, “No, I’m going to stay in.” Those things that you kind of want to hide from — so that difference that everyone keeps pointing out, doesn’t keep being the thing that sets you apart from everybody.
Needless to say, everyone saw what I saw in this girl about two months later and she was no longer allowed in anyone’s house or yard. But, it was that thing that I kind of carried with me. I identified that first moment — I am, in fact, queer. But every time someone would police that — or kind of sense it in me — I remember quickly backing away.
So there’s never this feeling of being in the closet, but always being like, “Nope, don’t claim that word. Because once I claim that word, you can officially push me out.”
But that’s my story. So thank you for listening.