"This town is too small. Everyone knows everyone. Friends are secretly enemies. Enemies make more enemies. Rumors and lies spread like wildfire, and before you know it, everyone’s behind your back; even people you’ve never met before.
You try keeping to yourself and somehow you’re still the gossip. You try forgetting about your mistakes but you’re constantly being reminded of them. You try introducing yourself to new people and yet somehow they already know so much about you.
They say you shouldn’t dwell on your past so you don’t. It’s everyone else. They forget all about the good you’ve done, but they never forget the bad. Then you start dwelling again; dwelling until it consumes you whole. Until it makes you afraid to let anyone in; to let yourself out.
A bad reputation can never be fixed, so you stop trying to fix it. Instead, you shut the world out because it’s just easier that way. Sure it’s lonely, but it hurts less. Friends can’t betray you because you don’t have any. People still talk about you but you can hardly hear them. You start to slowly disappear but never completely. You become stronger and weaker at the same time.
I’ve screwed up way too many times in the past. I’ve made myself look like a total fool in front of people who will never forget it. I’ve left such bad impressions of myself and no matter how hard I try to change myself for the better, nothing I do will ever change their views about me.
I wrote that back in January 2013, when I was in my third year of university. Back then, I had been dealing with a slew of rumors about me that had been circulating since high school. Aside from occasionally writing about my feelings, I dealt with it all by removing myself from people's lives, hoping that keeping to myself would stop others from making me a topic in their private conversations.
It was effective for a while, but ultimately, it was far from an end-all solution—fast forward years later and I'm still being haunted by the same rumors... which brings me to this story. I rarely open up like this (and there's a lot I'll be unpacking here), but I'm sharing my experience in hopes that other people who have gone through something similar can know that they're not alone and that things do get better.
Let's start at the beginning, October 1, 2019. It was just like any other day: I woke up, rolled over to my bedside table to log into work (I work from home full-time), grinded out my edits for the day, made myself some food (which I didn't finish before the gym, as usual), met up with my workout partner, attempted to hit some PRs, then made my way home.
At that point in time, things my life had been great—I was enjoying my job, I had just bought a new car, I was on track with my fitness goals, I was on good terms with everyone important in my life, and there were good vibes all around with Christmas just around the corner. But, as is always the case with my life, because things were going well for quite some time, I knew the bad times were coming. Since I had been experiencing all of those ups for some time, I was due for some downs.
As I was pulling into the garage, I got a phone call from one of my friends. After the usual niceties, she said, "I have something to ask you," followed by "Don't be mad, okay?" She had a semi-serious tone, so I figured it was something important. "What is it," I replied, with genuine curiosity.
After a brief pause, she went ahead and asked: "Are you gay?"
Before I continue with the story, let me provide some background on the significance of that question. It's not the first time people have questioned my sexuality. Back when Formspring was a thing, I'd sometimes get anonymous messages in my inbox about it. When I was on Tumblr, it was the same thing, only people were little cruder. No one really ever asked me in person, but when they could hide behind a computer screen, they took full advantage of the opportunity.
Maybe people were curious because I have a lot of female-typical interests. I grew up with strong, powerful women in place of brothers I never had—my mom, my sisters, my aunts, my grandmothers—it only made sense that they would play a significant part in influencing my passions. I figured it just meant I was more in touch with my feminine side than most other guys. If anything, that made me stand out from the rest of them, right?
But growing up in social environments plagued with toxic masculinity meant that having those female-typical interests made me less of a man. I had a difficult time grasping that idealogy and it contributed to a lot of the insecurities I still struggle with today. It was especially rough for me when I entered puberty since that is the critical time for experimenting with different things and figuring things out.
It affected me so much that in elementary school, I would purposely not try during singing class in order to be cool with the guys, even though I really loved singing and was actually decent at it. As a result, my music teacher gave me the first C I'd ever gotten on a report card. It became such an ordeal that my mom even had to come to the school to talk to him. She couldn't understand why her son, a straight-A student, would ever intentionally do something to sabotage his grades.
I also had a difficult time getting into romantic relationships (and staying in them). By that age, I had already developed a collection of personal demons that would prevent me from being truly comfortable with who I was. How was I supposed to love someone else if I didn't even love myself?
It wasn't until high school that I slowly began to come into my own. At some point, I became less bothered by people's assumptions about me because I became secure enough with myself to own my truth. I stopped caring about labels and took pride in being undefined. People could say what they wanted, but I'd just remind myself that I knew myself better than they did, and I took comfort in that fact. Plus, there were worse rumors about me out there. This should have been the least of my worries.
But then some people started to weaponize that question against me. They began to use my name for their entertainment; to get some laughs out of a gossip session; to gain some brownie points with their friends. At times, they unintentionally used homophobia to tarnish my reputation.
To clarify, it didn't bother me that they thought I wasn't straight—if that were actually the case, there would still be nothing wrong with that—what did bother me was that they tried to make it seem like they knew all about me when, the reality was, they knew absolutely nothing.
Back to the story. I asked my friend on the phone why she was asking me about my sexuality. She then explained that a few of our mutual friends had a girls' night and I was brought up in conversation. A few weeks prior, I had attended a birthday party and I was talking to this girl throughout the night... I guess to my friends it seemed like we were hitting it off, so it came up during the girls' night that we could end up becoming a thing because we were both single.
That's when one of the girls there, who I went to high school with, blurted out: "Wait... No way, he's gay!" I wasn't told the exact details of what she said afterward, but I'm sure she proceeded to list out reasons to support her claim. She even went as far as to call another person I went to high school with, a guy this time, on speakerphone in front of all our mutual friends, for confirmation. That angered me the most. I felt humiliated.
Like I said, people question my sexuality all the time. It's just never happened as a speakerphone attack... in front of people whose opinions I genuinely care about, no less.
Here's the thing. I rarely talked to that girl in high school. I was in AP and she wasn't, so we didn't have any classes together. We also ran in different circles. Even though everyone in my grade knew each other, we still stuck to our own groups for the most part. I had my group of friends and she had hers. On the rare occasion that we ran into each other in the halls, we'd say hi to each other, or at most, make small talk for a few seconds, but that was it. That was literally the extent of our relationship with each other. As much as we were friendly with each other, we were still just barely acquaintances. We simply knew of each other.
The same goes for the guy she put on speakerphone. I think I had a science class with him in the ninth grade. We were also both on the junior basketball team, but we pretty much never talked to each other because I quit the team early on. I must have had like one conversation with this guy, ever.
So here were two people I barely knew, talking about me as if they knew exactly who I was, even though we never talked in high school, or in the five years after that when I went away for university, or in the four years after that when I started my career. I hadn't seen these people since 2010 and yet in late-2019, my name was still somehow in their mouths. Their little gossip session cost me a chance with someone I could have really liked. That girl I was talking to at the birthday party? She was there the call was made. We haven't talked since the incident. Call me overdramatic, but that stuff bothers me. I just don't get it. Shouldn't there be an expiration date for knowing someone?
I started to think that maybe it had something to do with my recent job. Once I graduated from university, I got hired to work as a writer for a lifestyle website called Narcity. For two years, I created viral content for them and amassed a decent following on Facebook. At the height of my popularity, I had over 15,000 followers, my articles were being shared everywhere, and people started to become familiar with my name.
But there was a dark side to all this attention. While some people liked my stuff, some people absolutely hated it. There were times when I'd get nasty messages (and even threats) in my inbox from strangers who didn't appreciate what I had to say. Commenters on Reddit would rip me apart. People just started talking badly about me. There were even instances of people stealing my public photos to create fake profiles on various social apps.
The point is, I'm no stranger to rumors. Maybe the girl and the guy from my high school were just reiterating what was already being spread about me. That wouldn't justify what they did, but at least I'd have some idea of where they were coming from.
Thankfully, my friends never held the situation against me. They took my side and assured me that they didn't care what anyone said about me. Still, I can't help but think that the seed of falsehood has already been planted in their minds. Because that's what a rumor does—it inflicts irreversible damage on the truth.
Dawson McAllister of The Hope Line said it best when he described gossip as "reputation theft." That's exactly what it is. It's hard to correct mistaken beliefs even when we have evidence to disprove them. It's called the continued influence effect—it refers to the tendency of people to stick with discredited information even when they have access to facts that go against it. For someone like me who cares a little too much about what people think, this is a horrible thing.
"This is the power of rumor and innuendo," writes Dr. Ira Hyman. "You can lead people to certain conclusions through suggestions and partial information."
"Once they have followed the implications to the obvious conclusion, that conclusion will stick. Discrediting the incorrect rumors and providing more complete information isn’t enough to get people to change their beliefs."
It gets even messier when labels get involved. Dr. Art Markman, a psychologist, says: "If you use terms to describe people—and you believe that they cannot change—then your life can be stressful ... [A label] may be a reasonable reflection of who they are right now, but it also carries a belief that the behavior reflects a person’s essence."
Unfortunately, it is simply human nature to indulge in rumors. We often use rumors to try to make sense of an ambiguous situation. The problem with that is people's reputations can be caught in the crossfire. Such can have long-lasting negative effects on their mental health.
At the end of the day, there will always be people who talk about you. The lesson I've learned is that the only opinion about yourself that truly matters is your own. Stand up for your truth and stick with the people who love you no matter what. That is your best defense in this slanderous world.
Photo by Michael Herrera
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