Dancing On My Own
(How do you call your loverboy?)
Come 'ere loverboy!
(And if he doesn't answer?) Oh, loverboy!
(And if he STILL doesn't answer?) I simply say…
I was six years old the first time I draped my father’s after-shower wrap around my waist and lip-synched for my life. In the living room of my family’s single story, ranch style home in Walnut Creek, California, I performed to “Love is Strange.” The audience, comprised of my father, stepmother, and brother, laughed hysterically at my hijinks – oh how silly to see a boy wearing a skirt and singing the woman’s part of a song! At literally the same time RuPaul was gaining notoriety working the Atlanta Circuit Parties, I, at only six years old, was slaying the Bay Area suburb living room scene and living for it, Mama!
A year later, I performed live in an oversized sweatshirt dress and leg warmers on a leather ottoman stage. Another number from this genderfuck child prodigy that resonated with my home audience was my original drag parody based on a hit Crystal Gayle song “Donuts Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” Again, I was rewarded with laughter and applause. My family truly loved me, and I was beginning to know that I was born to be a performer.
Cut to a few years later: it was a dress-up day at school for Halloween and I had no idea what to be. My stepmother came in for the heroic rescue with a waist length straight brown wig, a bandanna, a peasant skirt, and a liberal application of lipstick and eyeshadow. I looked in the mirror and instantly fell in love with myself in what would now be considered a very problematic “fortune teller” Halloween look. I can’t even imagine the accent I spoke with. Suffice it to say, if repeated today that ensemble would most definitely result in a cancel culture call out.
Year by year, I learned that I was definitely different. As a “creative” child, I was prone to talking out of turn and disrupting the class. I did not know what “being gay” was, and I had certainly never seen an “out” gay person that I knew of. The closest thing to a drag queen I knew was my Grandmother, Beatrice. She was a Portuguese powerhouse that lived larger than life in an assortment of caftans, wigs, fur coats, costume jewels, fire red fingernails, and her ever-present cocktail of choice in her hand. I lovingly called her world’s cheapest screwdriver the “Popov and Donald” after its two main ingredients: Popov Vodka and Donald Duck orange juice. The constant, comforting refrain of clinking and tinkling ice surrounded her as she stirred it steadily with her nicotine stained index finger. With parents who blasted Elton John, Neil Diamond, Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, and let’s not forget the beginning of this story, the soundtrack to “Dirty Dancing” when I was but six years old, it would seem as if the Universe was surrounding me with the perfect, magical, organic tools I would need to live my best faggotty life. Yet, In the summer of fourth grade, it all coalesced into understanding that I was truly different. Not just a creative type but there was something else, something more that separated me from the rest of the kids around me. The person who taught me this was Mr. M.
Mr. M. was my summer school theater teacher. When I saw him, I could just tell that he had the same thing that I had. That thing – the one that made me different – it was in him too. I immediately recognized it, and it was beautiful, and it made me feel so good that I wasn’t alone. It was the first time that I truly could see that there were actually adults like me too. Mr. M. had created a 4th through 6th grade summer-stock follies masterpiece that combined the story of Rapunzel with the music from Hair. It was everything my queer little heart desired rolled into a masterpiece for the stage, dusted in fairytale glitter, and laid out like a prize before me. I was cast in the dream role I could have never imagined I needed. My character was “Jacques,” Rapunzel’s best friend, confidant, and (though unspoken) very, very flamboyantly gay hairdresser. I was obviously the comedic relief – and I knew that at the time – but I didn’t care. I loved the role and despite having no idea what camp meant at the time (and certainly wouldn’t have cared if I did). I knew that this part had been created just for me, to let me shine, and I was not going to let Mr. M. down.
My stepmom stepped up like a hero again and made me look like everything that a 10-year-old, fabulous hairdresser should look like. Remember that waist length wig from my fortune teller look? Well she lovingly cut off a little 6 inch snip and braided it into the back of my big ass, blown out hair. I didn’t know or care that this was being “gay,” but I knew that I had never in my life felt more right.
In what will be a surprise to no one, I can humbly confirm that I stole the show. The audience loved me, seeing this fabulous child, living his truth, loving himself and not being afraid to shine in all his homo-glory in only the fourth grade? I was years ahead of the world and it felt amazing. In fact, before the show, we had joked in my house about the mannerisms of being gay, the flouncy walk, the limp wrists, the sassy lisp. I genuinely loved them all so much that after the performance, I began to adopt these affectations officially into my daily life, from lisping from the breakfast table: “Plleathe path the theareal” to my bedtime prayers, “in Jethus name we pray, amen”.
And that’s the moment. The moment where things changed.
“Sit down here next to me,” my father asked as he patted the bed politely. He called in my stepmother. “We should probably talk.”
After everyone assembled, my father asked thoughtfully “Do you know what homosexuality is?”
“No,” I responded quietly. I could tell immediately from his tone that 1) I was whatever that thing was and 2) that it was absolutely not okay.
“Well, it’s when two men do the things together that only a man and a woman are supposed to do together,” he lectured me. “And it is very wrong. You know how you played that part in the play, and how you have been walking and talking that way since? That’s not okay anymore. That’s how these homosexuals really act. It’s okay to act like them and laugh at them as a joke, like in the play. But it’s completely unacceptable to do those things in real life. In fact, men who do those things, well, the Bible says that they are going to hell. Do you want to go to hell?”
I did not want to go to hell. I slowly shook my head turning red, the furnace of shame stoked hot inside me.
“Good,” he said finally. “Then it’s time to stop acting like that. Back to being normal from now on.” He said goodnight, kissed me on the forehead, clicked off my bedroom light and shut the door behind him.
10…9…8… I counted down in my head. When I got to one, I thought Okay, he can’t be by the door anymore. That’s when the tears started flowing.
I still didn’t truly understand what being a homosexual was, but now I knew that I could never be one. Not only would it upset my father, but Jesus too? Well, that was just too much pressure. I was going into the fifth grade and the one thing I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt was that I did not, under any circumstances, want to go to hell.
My life was never the same from that moment on. As a child, I certainly never saw a dress or wig again. I spent the next twenty-five years pretending that I was not who I knew I was inside, trying my best to hide the traits as I got older but still knowing I had a funny voice and walk. Within a few years, I knew deep, deep inside that I was definitively the very thing I had been mandated not to be. I hid it further by marrying a woman and pretending even harder for many years that I was just a regular ol’ straight guy, just bein’ straight and actin’ straight and livin’ my best straight life. You know, lying.
I dated only women in my adolescence and finally, at age 18, I started dating my best friend. I guess we “fell in love,” though it was honestly more a relationship born of co-dependence, self-preservation, and convenience - and married at 21. For fourteen years I “played house.” To be honest, it wasn’t terrible. I had married my best friend and technically she knew I was gay as she had actually been the first and only person I had come out to up to that point. We pretended like that conversation had never happened. I thought I did an amazing job playing this role of dedicated straight husband contrary to many of the reviews on my role when I finally came out.
Everyday was a mental battle of epic proportions. Imagine a voice in your mind that has one job to do all day every day, and that job is to remind you that you are living a complete lie. I struggled with mental health issues, doing everything I could to manifest destructive patterns and catastrophes so that I could distract myself from my terrifying inner demons. As each year passed, the voice got louder and more distracting. But now I was in too deep. What would even be the value in listening to the voice and taking action? Destroying my marriage, my life and for what? I didn’t even know if what was on the other side would be better.At least I was safe in my cocoon as long as I played the part.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I wasn’t prepared to come out, but I also knew I couldn’t keep ignoring the voice the way I had been. I just needed something to quiet the voice. At the same time, I was also looking for a new fitness regime to help get my weight under control. When I drove by Padme Yoga in Sacramento, CA on a drizzly October afternoon, it seemed like kismet. Yoga could help me with my fitness, but I had also heard lots of friends talk about how much it helped them quiet their minds. Perfect! I signed up for my first yoga class, and though I was scared shitless, I actually showed up. At the end of the class, the instructor came up to me and asked me if I enjoyed the class, which I told her I did. Then she said “Come back tomorrow, this practice will change your life.” So I did. And the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that.
The weight came off of my waist and my thighs, but there was a different kind of weight coming off of my shoulders as well. I felt happier and more joyful. People seemed to want to be around me more and I felt more authentic. I just kept showing up and my teacher from that first class was right - my life was changing. Strangely enough, the voice about my hidden sexuality was a bit quieter but I had new voices as well - ones telling me that I was perfect the way I was in that moment and that in or out of the closet, I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I began to feel this love for myself I had not felt in a very long time; not because I was skinny or more energetic, but because I was doing exactly what I needed for myself.
One Friday evening in May 2014, as I laid in pigeon pose I began to sob. People say they “ugly cry,” well I beautifully cried as years of self hate, sadness, anger, frustration, lies, manipulation, and abuse just flowed from my eyes and onto my mat. 75 minutes later, I knew I was ready. I went home, and for the first time, I let my inner knowing speak for me. I came out, for good.
The journey since has not been easy, but it has been a necessary one and I have learned so much. The best part is, I have never once been alone since. Remember that little boy, the one who went to bed that night crying, scared, and afraid that he would never be the person he was meant to be? Well amazingly enough, he woke up the moment I stepped off my yoga mat that evening. He has been by my side ever since. In fact, he is sitting right here next to me as I write this, wearing his favorite gown, loving himself, feeling beautiful and accepted. He calmly, lovingly reminds me that neither of us needs ever feel alone again.
Xavier Bettencourt is a writer and comedian currently residing in Sacramento, CA. Known for his authentic and humorous storytelling voice and unique point of view, Xavier digs deep to speak his truth and tirelessly encourages others to do the same. Follow him on Instagram for more: @thecomedybear.