In celebration of Pride Month, photographer Aaron Williams redacts his personal story on being gay and coming out. Williams feels like an invader every time he goes back to his middle-American hometown, where his true feelings were mocked and discarded as a child. In his eerie self-portrait series, he documents his feelings of loneliness in his own childhood home – where everything started. “A man behind the curtain, represented here by a mask, unwanted in my home. Breaking into a life I never asked for or wanted. But I made the best of the worst and make ugly things look pretty.”
Read his story below.
“The WIZARD of OZ ruined my life, yet still remains my secret favorite movie. I was three when my mother discovered I was gay. I was five when my father caught on. I was never given the chance to “come out of the closet.” I never got to have “that” conversation with my friends or family. They knew before I did that I was gay. ‘Faggot’ was the word used most often, but I am getting ahead of myself. Rewind. It was my fifth birthday and I was in love with Dorothy and her ruby red slippers, which, if you read the book, you would know were actually silver. I asked my parents for a WIZARD of OZ themed birthday party. You know, the kind where you have to dress up as someone from the movie and make a big to do about everything. They had posters made of each character, we painted part of our yard yellow so that we could follow the yellow brick road to Oz… and all I wanted were those goddamned ruby red slippers so that I could fly over the rainbow and live my life in technicolor. Like Dorothy, I too grew up on a small farm, in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in the South. The actual location is unimportant because, after a while, each little town starts to look and feel the same: Small, Drab, Unexciting, and definitely in black and white. But back to my birthday party….
I asked to dress up as Dorothy, after all, she had those silver/ruby slippers. Shiny and bright. Magical and mystical. My father beat me until I was black and blue. The “idea” was, no son of his would be gay. I had to be the wizard, the scam artist, the fake, the fraud, the old man behind a curtain and unseen. In order to cover the bruising, I had to wear my bathrobe. We “passed”, and no one noticed how unhappy I was, or how my favorite movie in the world had just become the thing that ruined my life.
I am admittedly not very good at math, but soon after my birthday, my mother became pregnant with her second child. A boy. A better boy than I. A boy that would grow into a man and not a ‘faggot.’ For my sixth birthday, I got a little brother. He was everything my parents wanted and still to this day remains their favorite, despite being such a fuck up. I never did get my ruby red slippers. I never got to be Dorothy. I was stuck on the farm, in the middle of nowhere, with a family that regarded me as an outsider, a black sheep, a dark mark on the family name.
We moved from one small hick town to a slightly larger hick town. Better education system “they claimed”, but I knew it was because I asked to marry my best friend, Tyler Starnes. Tyler if you’re out there, I’m sorry. I promise you it wasn’t my fault.
Fast forward a few years to high school. Again, I was the outsider, the outcast, the unwanted. So much so that I was cast as Ponyboy in the S.E. Hinton’s THE OUTSIDERS play. It was a scandal. A freshman took the lead role from a senior. The hierarchy had been disrupted and I was the offender. This did not help my popularity. The first year of high school I ate my lunch by the door to the theater. Alone.
In class, we would often debate the rights and wrongs of being gay, like it was a choice. I would try to make myself invisible, but it only made the attacks worse. I never fit in. I still feel like I never fit in, regardless of the crowd I am in, be it a gay bar where I am “family” or my own home where I am literally family. I thank god, the universe, the energy, whatever higher power there is for my teachers. Thank you Bruce Anderson for being a light in the dark. Thank you Judy Schinbeckler for coming to my defense when I was bullied in English class. Thank you Dr. Nash for paying my way to New York City my senior year. That exact moment I stepped off the bus onto the sidewalk of New York’s City, I knew instantly this was where I belonged. This was my home. This was my Oz.
Growing up poor and gay in the south is not an easy thing to do, but I know my story is not unique and I know that I am not special because of this experience. However, it is this experience that has so uniquely shaped my life and my perspective (on life).
But back to being bullied in school. I would have pennies thrown at my head while riding the bus home. AJ you’re an asshole. Boys would drive by my house and shoot paintballs at the windows. Something my mother would later make me clean off like it was my fault that I was gay and the reason this was happening. Boys would scare me. Threaten me. Intimidate me. I felt small and I hated myself for not being liked. I later realized it was not my fault, or my choice to be gay.
I found friends in the most unlikely of places. Church. Thank you Kristen, Amanda, Justin and Billy. You know who you are. You all were my Tinman with a heart. I threw myself into religion, an organized delusion that a god head exists and will cast you to hell if you disobey his laws. It wasn’t until later, my pastor realized I had a crush on his son and asked me to stop coming to worship. Again, I was the outsider. High school was hard, as it is for most. I never went to a football game. I never went to a school dance. I never got to tell my crush just how much I loved him. I never got to fit in and be accepted.
It was not until years later, 19 to be exact, that I was able to move to New York City. I moved to the city into a shitty Washington Heights apartment with 2 roommates living in a converted living room/bedroom. My rent was paid for one month. I had no job and less than $250 in my checking account. It was the most alive I had ever felt. I had flown over the rainbow and I was able to do it without those damn slippers. I still live in the City and I grow more and more in love with my decision to leave Hicktown, Tennessee every day.
I go home once or twice a year, maybe, and I still feel like an outsider when I am there. An invader that doesn’t belong. That is the origin story of the editorial INVASION. I was home at Christmas for the first time in ten years. The family was meant to be together. The favorite son, my brother… and me, the outsider. Like I said, growing up in a small town there is not much to do. One day, while my family went to Wal-Mart to shop for last minute stocking stuffers, I decided to put down on film how I felt. What it feels like to be an outsider in your own home.
Imagine coming home and seeing a grown man in your room knowing he does not belong. His presence is unwanted and it makes you grow uncomfortable. A knot in ones’ stomach wells up and you immediately want him gone. That is my life at home. Back on the farm in Kansas, er, well, Tennessee actually. There’s no place like home…. There’s no place like home… There’s no place like home….
I still feel like the outsider at times. Not knowing how to fit in. But when I do, I pick up my camera and shoot. It’s the only time I feel invisible. Hiding behind the lens I am most myself. I am at home and comfortable and no one can ever take that away. I present my story of INVASION. A group of photographs that document my experience of being home. A man behind the curtain, represented here by a mask, unwanted in my home. Breaking into a life I never asked for or wanted. But I made the best of the worst and make ugly things look pretty. The WIZARD of OZ still remains my favorite movie, with all its magic and advances of Technicolor film. It’s influenced me greatly and I am thankful for this experience however traumatizing and hurtful it may have been.
Last year, Gucci released a pair of men’s silver glitter sneakers. They sparkle and shine in the light and in the dark they radiate just like Dorothy’s. They cost me a month’s worth of rent, but I bought those damn shoes and finally fulfilled a lifelong dream of wearing my silver – ruby slippers while strolling down the yellow brick road of Oz – life.
Aaron Williams was born in Nashville, Tennessee. He fell in love with photography at an early age using his family as models. His passion grew as he matured; he spent his twenties traveling the world learning about other cultures and himself. The film AMERICAN BEAUTY introduced Aaron to the world of cinema. He moved to New York City to fuel his intense creative ambition. Aaron creates moments in time that appear to marry the feel of cinema with the power of the print.