I watched The Misfits (1961) again the other day. As always, I was transfixed by Marilyn Monroe’s fragile portrayal of the aimlessly searching Roslyn Taber and Montgomery Clift’s Pierce Howland, a worn-out rodeo cowboy scrambling for his tiny share of happiness. The Misfits is United Artist’s flawless tribute to loners and outcasts.
The first time I saw the film, I remember feeling unutterably sad because the characters were so lost and lonely even in each other’s company. But this time around, I was struck by something else. Instead of feeling their “otherness,” I identified with them, asking myself, Aren’t we all misfits when we get down to the nitty-gritty of being human?
This idea flies in the face of a lot of notions I grew up devoutly believing—that it was incredibly important for me to be like everybody else, and I had to fit in no matter what it cost.
Being gay and disabled, I probably had more reason to believe these lies than most. Sensing my differences as soon as I could see my reflection in the mirror of other people’s faces, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel immense internal pressure to be like other boys.
By the time I was twelve, I’d figured out that having a body and attractions that didn’t come off the same assembly line as everybody else separated me from other people. At twelve, I found out that being different is bad.
My freshman year of high school was hell on wheels. I was incredibly shy and didn’t have the guts to reach past it. The other kids left me strictly alone. I don’t blame them. They didn’t know what to do with me because I didn’t fit into the usual boxes.
But everything changed when I figured out that I could make people laugh. My friend Rosa’s big sister Blanca gave me a ride home from some high school event or other. By some miracle, Rosa and her brothers and sisters laughed at just about everything that came out of my mouth, inviting me to a party at their house because “You’re gonna be the life of it.”
It wasn’t rocket science. Rosa and her family just appreciated me for being me. A tiny but seismic encounter that changed my life, it gave me the confidence to skirt my fears and make new friends—many of whom are still a part of my life today.
Over the years, my struggle for sameness taught me that a lot of other folks pay the price for being different. I learned that if your skin happens to be the wrong shade, your beliefs veer from the norm, or you have the audacity to march to your own drummer, you’re considered divergent, and that scares the hell out of anybody who worships conformity.
I’m reminded of my favorite scene in 1997’s As Good as It Gets. It’s the sequence in which the obsessively compulsive Jack Nicholson, pounds on his would-be girlfriend’s door, begging her to give him one more chance, to which the beleaguered Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) screams, “Why can’t I just have a “normal” boyfriend?” Coming up behind her, Carol’s mother whispers in her ear, “They don’t exist, dear.”
Scratch the surface of most of us, and you’ll probably find a snarled rat’s nest of insecurity, assorted hang-ups, and a well-worn bouquet of lies we tell ourselves about who we really are. This lesson was brought home to me when I joined an online dating site a couple of years after Michael died and met a series of decent guys, every one with his own set of garden variety quirks and neuroses. I soon figured out that in order to have a working relationship, I needed to find someone whose differences complimented my own.
The question is? If most of us are misfits of one kind or another, why are we so afraid of those who look or act, or believe differently than we do? Maybe it’s because we’re only comfortable with our particular brand of crazy. I get caught in this trap all the time, and I fancy myself a fellow who not only embraces difference but celebrates it. I don’t know. Maybe I can do a little bit more getting past my fears and embracing the beautiful different. After all, somebody did it for me once.