We often use definitions to categorize each other—for better or for worse. The “strong friend” in the group is admired for their resilience, but may be afraid to show vulnerability in tough times. The person labeled as “chill” goes with the flow, but might not admit it when they are stressed. And through the lens of rigid, traditional gender roles, you are a man if you are masculine, defined by toughness and sexual appetites.
In some ways, Edgar Gomez’s memoir, High-Risk Homosexual (2022), is about looking closely at restrictive definitions like these—both the ones others assign us and the ones that we create for ourselves. To start, Gomez shares the contents of a brochure his parents received after his birth, simply titled “What is a Boy.” “Between the innocence of babyhood and the dignity of manhood we find a delightful creature called a boy,” the document reads. As a pamphlet given to new parents, it includes sweeping generalizations of what it means to be assigned a certain gender at birth. And it’s the beginning of the litany of expectations that society puts on boyhood.
“A boy is not something you’re born as, but rather an identity you inherit—this piece of paper, if nothing else, is proof of that,” Gomez writes. “Spanish speakers call that inheritance machismo, defined as a strong or aggressive masculine pride, though male chauvinism is hardly a Latin American invention.”
At 13, Gomez is dropped off with his tíos in Nicaragua, as they attempt to show him the acceptable version of masculinity that they swear by. They take Gomez to a cockfight and encourage him to sleep with a woman. The men see there’s a problem to be fixed: Queerness doesn’t fit into their vision of who Gomez can become.
At times heartbreaking, funny, and vulnerable, High-Risk Homosexual traces the writer’s journey breaking free from these norms and finding his own way of living fully. He’s honest about his own self-discovery, pulling apart the neat narratives we often see about what it means to come out—and to pursue your creative dreams.
In high school, Gomez wears baggy shirts and rosaries around his neck to look more “straight,” even as he develops a crush on a boy, a fellow actor in the school’s musical. As he grows from this young love, branching out to crowded dance floors and drag shows, Gomez continues to wonder what sort of life he can lead. In seeking versions of new homes, like an abandoned apartment that hosts a burlesque troupe encouraging all definitions of sexy, he grapples with his newfound feeling of freedom while being painfully aware of the hatred against the gay community. His queerness complicates his relationship with his mother, and while he hopes for the opportunity to strike out on his own, the rules for when you leave your family home—for marriage or school—loom in his mind. The yearning to live authentically and pursue his goals is bittersweet.
“With the savings I’d kept hidden, I could have paid for a plumber, or a real outhouse, given Mom a week off work,” Gomez writes. “A cousin in Nicaragua needed braces. An aunt recently lost her job. It was selfish of me to want a room of my own.”
There’s a tinge of responsibility—to his mom’s weariness, to what others will think—that colors the pages of High-Risk Homosexual. In figuring out both his identity and his career path, Gomez lets us in on a relatable revelation: It’s difficult to fight against the definitions that others have placed on you and your life.
As a first-generation writer with immigrant parents, I’ve rarely seen this internal struggle communicated so viscerally on the page. I wanted to point at lines and scream, “This!” Gomez’s writing captures how I’ve felt so many times; that the desire for a creative life, to embrace my identity as a writer and a queer woman, will always feel like a small betrayal. There have been times when I’ve chosen to take career risks, all the while thinking, is there someone who might need my resources? Should I have chosen a different career? Am I taking my privilege for granted? The feeling was heaviest for me as a teenager, but, even as an adult, the guilt lingers.
“I’m not like other gay guys: If you get too close, you’ll see that I’m made entirely out of matchsticks meticulously glued together…”
On the other side of the coin, as someone in a straight-passing relationship, I’ve often felt that I don’t measure up to what people see as authentically queer. I don’t tick enough boxes on some imaginary list of requirements, or I don’t have enough brownie points to “belong” to the community. Of course, I don’t know the specific struggles of being a gay Latinx man, and Gomez writes of these difficulties with immediacy and depth.
Yet Gomez also reassures readers there is no neat coming-out story—not with family and, often, not even with yourself. The writer unpacks the many layers of accepting his sexuality. There’s the respectability politics, for starters, and the stereotypes about gay men that Gomez tries to shrug off.
“Every time I said to a classmate in high school that I was gay but that I was different. Different how? I’m not like other gay guys: If you get too close, you’ll see that I’m made entirely out of matchsticks meticulously glued together…. I’m not emotional. You don’t have to worry about me tricking or getting AIDS or going to a nasty bathhouse. I am not chicken.”
Lingering behind these defenses is the tension between Gomez and his mother, and the fact that his family so desperately hoped he would mold into their vision of what a man should be.
It’s not just the people close to Gomez that impose their expectations about his life, though. The book’s title comes from a doctor’s prescription for PrEP, shared later in the book. Gomez reflects on the idea of being “high-risk,” and how he felt obligated to agree with this descriptor in order to get the sign-off from his doctor. “I doubted that if I were a straight woman requesting PrEP she would have deemed me a high-risk heterosexual,” Gomez writes.
The memoir artfully explores Gomez’s fears in pursuing a life on his own terms. The book closes with Gomez’s adult reflections on what it means to be part of a new community. As a Floridian, he has an especially poignant perspective on the 2016 shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. He writes about his grief with a nuanced vulnerability. In the wake of the shooting, he doesn’t visit the club because he says it doesn’t sit quite right. There’s so much unspoken between him and his brother, and he aches for a reality in which the two of them can visit the site and acknowledge the danger of being queer. But by the end of the book, Gomez expertly captures what it means to be on the cusp of embracing your full, queer self when the world doesn’t want you to do so. The memoir shows us everything from first love to fierce friendship to subversive drag—elements that Gomez holds dearly.
“You can lose so much by coming out,” Gomez writes. “But if you are lucky there is so much to be gained.”