Your Job is to Tell the Truth: A Conversation with Edgar Gomez about High-Risk Homosexual
I first learned about High-Risk Homosexual from Edgar Gomez’s tweets. One featured Edgar sashaying down the hall in a peacock-colored bodysuit, another chronicled Edgar’s journey from being kicked out of high school to debuting on The New York Times book list. I knew I needed to hear Edgar’s voice—their wit and smarts—at a time when Budweiser and Oreo cookies want to commodify and simplify queer experience. High-Risk Homosexual strikes back with a necessary counternarrative.
Edgar Gomez (he/she/they) is a Florida-born writer with roots in Nicaragua and Puerto Rico. A graduate of University of California, Riverside’s MFA program, his words have appeared in Poets & Writers, Narratively, Catapult, Lithub, The Rumpus, Electric Lit, and elsewhere online and in print. His memoir, High-Risk Homosexual, was called a “breath of fresh air” by The New York Times.
Gomez’s hilarious, tender, and wise voice shook me from the page. It was a joy to speak with them over email. We chatted about self-interrogation, leaning into embarrassment, queer fantasies, survival, and acknowledging fear alongside the funny.
The Rumpus: You launch us into High-Risk Homosexual with a hilarious and real critique of “What is a Boy?” the document handed to your parents by the hospital when you were born. In true camp fashion, it says, “He is your captor, your jailor, your boss,” and you snort-laugh and wonder on the page, bringing your character alive while braiding in memoir and cultural critique. Tell us about your process.
Edgar Gomez: Thank you! The simplest answer is, I knew that while telling the story of my life, my story would inevitably brush against other people’s. If I’m talking about what the Pulse Nightclub shooting meant to me, someone who grew up in Orlando, I wanted to respect what the attack meant to the friends and family of survivors who lived through that, too. If I’m talking about the fear of HIV ingrained in young queer folk, I wanted to respect the people I know and love who live with HIV. Speaking more broadly, if I’m writing a memoir about being queer and Latinx, I know there are going to be queer Latinx kids who might pick it up seeking hope.
So every time I approached a subject, I had to ask myself: How can you make what you’re writing about worthwhile, not just for you, but for those other people? Are you just rendering the fear of HIV you used to have, or are you able to seize this opportunity to educate a reader about PrEP and the fact that if you are HIV-positive and undetectable it’s impossible to transmit the virus through sex? Are you just re-creating different moments of trauma, or can you find a way to make some of this funny for kids who might seek this book out in need of a laugh? Basically I kept asking myself how I could make my story bigger than me and useful, and from that self-interrogation sprang a lot of the humor and cultural criticism you see.
Rumpus: I read High-Risk Homosexual as a counter narrative, transforming harmful master narratives. For example: “Sex can kill you . . . They couldn’t have known the side effects of hearing that message over and over, that screenwriters would take it and multiply it by a thousand so straight people would have something morbid and exotic to consume for their entertainment, that I would turn to those movies seeking reflection and find in them only loss.” Whew. For real. Can you speak more about talking back and rewriting these narratives?
Gomez: It was hard, because some of these narratives came from people who were trying to look out for me, and a lot of these messages of fear were valid and urgent at the time. When the HIV crisis began, some people weren’t listening to warnings; fear was a powerful tool to keep them alive. I have a lot of respect and appreciation for the queer people who spread those messages, and at the same time, I can also see how those messages were distorted and weaponized against us and led to a generation of queer kids who are scared of sex and perpetuate stigma. That’s really who the chapter you reference is for. I wanted to tell queer kids who live in that fear that I understand it, I’ve been through it, but that they don’t have to be as afraid anymore. If they are willing to unpack and fight that fear, there is so much to be gained.
Rumpus: From JLo’s romcoms and To Wong Foo to Mariah and Prince and Kesha and Selena, music and movies accompany the ride. Did you listen to music or re-watch films? Or draw on your background in acting and film and TV?
Gomez: I did, especially with music and dancing because it’s so difficult for me to render those things on the page. Those are artforms that are better off being experienced first-hand, I think. It’s like re-telling someone else’s joke from memory—the original is almost always going to sound better. I ended up reading a lot of reviews to see how other writers approached music, just to find the vocabulary and to figure out what instruments were being used in songs, because I seriously know so little.
As for my background, I wasn’t really an “actor,” but I’ve taken a few screenwriting classes and have worked in TV (like interning at Telemundo briefly). I definitely drew from those experiences, especially in the chapter “A Room of My Own.” I took a film noir class in grad school a year or so before I wrote that, and when I started working on the story and laid out all the puzzle pieces before me (I usually start a story by just vomiting all the scenes and people and places I can remember into a Word doc), I realized I had everything to write a noir: the shadows, the red lighting, the smoking, the pessimism, the coded language, characters living double-lives. It was really cool bringing what I learned about noir into the chapter, particularly because plot-wise not a lot of dramatic things happen, except for one scene toward the end where all the suspense and tension that’s been building erupts in one chaotic moment. I’m glad I took that class because otherwise I would have convinced myself that the story wasn’t interesting enough to tell. It is (I hope); I just needed to figure out the right lens to tell it with.
Rumpus: I love how you capture awkward baby queer moments: “I winked again . . . ‘I just really have to use the bathroom.’ I bit my bottom lip like the girls in [George Michael’s] music videos. ‘If you know what I mean.’ / He cringed.” What was this like to recreate?
Gomez: It was both mortifying and super fun, because I was doing the opposite of what you’re supposed to do when something embarrassing happens: I was telling everyone about it. Embarrassing moments are some of the most interesting to mine. They lead to questions like: Why was that moment embarrassing? What were you afraid people would think about you back then? What about now, as a different group of people reads about it? Sometimes you realize that you’re embarrassed because your way of thinking was ignorant (for example, when I wrote about HIV and wanted to show how I moved past my fear) and sometimes you realize that you were so caught up in how you were being perceived (like in that bar scene with the bathroom) that only now, in retrospect, can you see how ridiculous you were acting. If something feels too embarrassing to write about, I say lean into that feeling. Investigate it.
Rumpus: Your voice and perspective ranges from witty and humorous to deeply vulnerable: “I thought of someone devouring a cup of the vacuum-dried meat chunks floating in brown, lukewarm water, then scurrying over to the sauna for a casual round of anal sex, and felt my soul slip out of my body.” This made me laugh out loud! Then later, you continue with: “All my instincts, all anyone ever told me, was that if I wanted to survive, I had to deny myself what I ached for.” Can you say more about bridging these different tonalities?
Gomez: When I started writing High-Risk Homosexual, humor was my priority. I was like, “JOKES! JOKES! MORE JOKES!” I felt this pressure to write “joyfully,” because I didn’t want to contribute another narrative of suffering to the countless ones that are already out there. I was avoiding admitting that though I currently have a sense of humor about a lot of things that have happened to me, back then I lived in a constant state of fear and shame and was deeply sad all the time. I was so preoccupied with not writing a narrative of suffering that I ended up writing myself as a flat character who just like, laughed at everything? It wasn’t believable. And it was monotonous to read, because it was pretty one-note. I had to slap myself and be like, “You’re not writing a narrative of BLANK. Your job is to tell the truth. Just do that.”
Rumpus: You splice together scenes of a cockfight with being a young teen locked in a room with a female sex worker, illuminating that throughline of gender and toxic codes of masculinity. Did you always know this was the book’s through-line?
Gomez: It was always present, but it wasn’t until I had a significant portion of the book written and was able to take a step back from it that I saw how machismo really impacted everything: my difficulty expressing emotions, my relationships to romantic partners and to family, my definition of what it means to be a man. Why, even after I came out, I felt pressure to perform masculinity and be a “good” son. I thought I was just writing about being gay. It wasn’t till I had a draft down that it hit me that being gay and machismo are inextricably linked. Once I realized that, I knew I’d have to go back in and make it more obvious to other people.
Rumpus: Reading High-Risk Homosexual, I’m reminded how queer fantasies have helped many of us survive. In a scene with The Rock and Prince lyrics: “It didn’t matter that I wasn’t savage or feisty or macho or spicy or that I lived with my mother, who was only a thin wall away. Thousands of eyes were on me, a sex MD, waiting for my healing.” Could you speak more about this?
Gomez: I’m a Pisces. I spend more hours of the day fantasizing than actually living in reality. I suppose the sad answer is that when your life isn’t what you want it to be—which is the case for many queer people—we escape into fantasies where things are better. Similar to escaping into books, fantasizing is what got me through the darkest periods of my life. I had to constantly invent joy for myself. A lot of the darkest moments in the book are paired with some sort of fantasy or disassociation. Until I find a better coping mechanism, that’s what I got!
Rumpus: You thank all the queer ancestors (Sylvia & Marsha P., Chavela, Bowie, Freddie Mercury, James Baldwin) and I can’t help but think that it continues a story.
Gomez: These are my heroes. Knowing they existed and being exposed to their work is what made it feel possible that I could make art, too. If we’re in conversation, it’s just me saying, “Thank you,” over and over and over again.
Rumpus: Does teaching influence your writing or vice versa? What do you find exciting about queer/trans writing today? I notice that you’re teaching Brontez Purnell and T Kira Madden.
Gomez: Teaching queer students definitely does influence me. It’s a job and it’s difficult like every other job, but I get to read stories by queer people written for queer people. It’s very healing after being in workshops where I’ve felt out of place or like I needed to represent all queer people or had to do the work of cultural translating. My students remind me that there is an audience out there who wants me to take more risks and to center myself. In return, I ask the same of them.
Brontez Purnell and T Kira Madden are two of my favorite writers out there right now. Purnell has so much heart and compassion in his work. I especially love the chapter “Three Boyfriends” from 100 Boyfriends and the questions he demands readers to ask themselves, instead of simply giving them all the answers. Madden makes the smallest details electric, plus the amount of self-interrogation she does on the page is bananas. I read her story, “The Feels of Love,” several times a year (because I teach it) and it always reveals something new to me. Both of them are the type of writers who make me clap my hands and say damn when I’m just looking at words on a page.
I’m really excited about all the voices we’re getting to read. It’s not only straight, white, cis men with the generational wealth to make writing their job anymore.
Rumpus: Any advice for queer weirdos writing today? What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever received?
Gomez: My advice is to read as much as you can, especially other queer writers, to take your time with your stories and try not to rush into publication, and to make sure you’re prioritizing your friendships just as much as you’re writing. Writing is important but it’s not everything. Who is going to get a drink with you after writing that one really traumatic scene? Who is going to be at your book launch? Not your keyboard.
The worst advice I’ve gotten was to write more about what foods they serve at McDonald’s in Nicaragua so readers who haven’t been there can get a stronger sense of what it’s like there. The best advice was to make myself undeniable.
Rumpus: How did you meet your current writing group?
Gomez: My writing group is a combination of people who were in the same graduate program as me (though different years), people I met on Twitter, and their friends who became my friends: Minda Honey, Natassja Schiel, Asha French, Elizabeth Owuor, and Natalie Lima. We all found each other because we were unsatisfied with other writing groups we’ve been in for various reasons and wanted to be in a more supportive space. We also keep each other accountable. It’s helpful to have a deadline to write something by, even if it’s just with friends.
Rumpus: I’m impressed by the way you’ve researched and characterized and humanized Omar Mateen, the Pulse Orlando shooter. You’ve also spent time with friends at Pulse. I see this duality—and the considerable context you give to Omar—as digging deeper at the roots of homophobia/Islamophobia/toxic masculinity and violence. What was it like to create parallel stories of you and Omar in this context?
Gomez: I started writing that chapter to try to figure out how someone could do something like what he did. It freaked me out, because the more I dug into his life story, the more parallels I saw between us. We both grew up in Florida. We both were expelled. We both had a criminal justice background. We both experienced racism and xenophobia and (depending on whether you believe he was gay or bisexual or not) homophobia. When I saw all those parallels, the question shifted from “How could he?” to “Why didn’t you? What made him go this way and you go in the other direction?” That was a very scary thought to have, because this wasn’t a story I had a lot of distance from. I was in the middle of grieving. I’m still grieving right now. I am still angry, and when I think about him, all I want to do is scream. I suppose it came down to usefulness again. My hope was that if I pin-pointed where our lives drifted apart, I would be able to bring awareness to what would have made a difference.
Rumpus: You’ve created a narrative arc through the essays. What do you hope your character learned?
Gomez: I talk a lot about fear in the book. It’s present from the very beginning to the end, when I’m standing on a street corner in San Francisco in my “high-risk” outfit and nervous that someone might do something. Yet, despite all the fear, there are a lot of great moments too: making out with a boyfriend in high school at drama rehearsal, dancing with queer folk at gay bars in Florida, watching drag shows, having weird sex. Don’t get me wrong, the fear was present in those moments too, but I didn’t let it stop me, and I always think about how if I had, I wouldn’t have had those experiences. My lesson would be: You don’t have to stop being afraid, b. But you have to try to not let that fear rule you, because there’s so much you might miss.
Rumpus: Could you say more about acts of queer humor in life, in your book? I’m thinking about the Truck Nutz moment, where you all laugh at them, then “take turns guessing which one of their owners would like to murder us.”
Gomez: I think being able to laugh at something, especially something that scares us, takes power away from it, or at least makes it a little easier to deal with. A lot of times, queer people don’t have the option of leaving or fighting back, whether it’s an unsafe home or a job or country. We’re stuck in ugly situations. We can cry about it—and girl I’ve crieeeddd—but after a while we have to get up and keep it pushing. Or we can ignore whatever scares us and pretend it’s not happening, though if you bottle up all your frustration and resentment sooner or later you’ll end up having a meltdown. I’ve learned that I have to acknowledge my fear, rather than try to make it disappear, because it never truly disappears. And if I’m going to acknowledge my fear, finding something about it that’s funny helps it go down easier. That’s how I survive.
Author photo by Joseph Osborne