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Housesitting made me want a life I thought I didn’t need

I believed a radical queer life meant solitude. But staying in friends’ homes changed my mind.

When I first moved to Ann Arbor to pursue a doctorate at the University of Michigan, I was obsessed with self-sufficiency. I loved living in a tiny apartment by myself without a car, walking to the grocery store even on the coldest days of winter, relying on no one. I thought of myself as a kind of gay-boy spinster. I was 22, technically in my twink prime, but I remained nearly celibate and preferred the company of the women in my grad program to other gay men. I’d long enjoyed the role of the gay best friend —the confidant to women —and had never cultivated a life with other queer people.

I embraced my queerness as a form of withdrawal, an exemption from what I saw as the milestones of straight development: romantic relationships, procreation, and homeownership.

This vision of gay seclusion and perpetual boyhood was rooted in living alone. I was writing a dissertation about 19th-century spinsters and widows who opted out of normative life, becoming hermits, and I wanted to bring what I saw as their ascetic queerness to my own life. I wanted to be simple, with as few desires as possible, to reject the amenities I associated with heterosexual domestic life. My apartment was spare—a faux-suede green recliner, a mattress, a TV, a little table built into the kitchen, nothing on the walls—and I loved it. My cozy, minimalist hideout gave me the thrill of self-possession, control over expressing my identity.

Six years later, I gave up on a life of the mind. I finished and defended the least rigorous version of my dissertation my committee would approve and swore I’d never step foot on a university campus again. I sold my bed and TV on Craigslist (no one would buy my green recliner) and got rid of all the winter clothes I thought I’d never need in West Hollywood, where I planned to move next. In one of the country’s biggest gay enclaves, far away from the grayness (and straightness) of Michigan, I imagined going wild with my own kind, making up for lost time.

I took Skype tours of LA roomshares I found on Craigslist, but couldn’t ever say yes to any of them. I realized I didn’t want to settle anywhere, that the very idea of establishing a home base, and the stability that comes with that, felt antithetical to my ideal of radical queer solitude. I thought I might instead be peripatetic, moving between sublets in LA and New York, refusing to stay anywhere for more than a few months.

In the meantime, my lease had ended in Ann Arbor and I wasn’t ready to go anywhere else. My girlfriends, away on summer vacations, offered me the homes they shared with their significant others, so I mooched away. With only the six T-shirts I thought I’d look cute in at clubs, my short shorts, my sunglasses, and my white sneakers, I set out on my goodbye tour of Ann Arbor.

My friends’ two-bedroom apartments were only a little bigger than my one-bedroom, also in old, poorly kept houses ruined by generations of undergraduate students, and we were all living on the same grad-school stipend. But decorated with wedding gifts, ornate paperweights, and glass candy holders, their places felt like HGTV palaces.

While they did research at archives and summered in lake houses and visited their families, I ate all the cookies and focaccia and mild cheddar cheese they left behind in their kitchens. My only responsibility was feeding their cats. I burrowed into their papasans and chaise lounges with gin and gingers and whiskey sours and studied framed wedding photos. I rolled around in their high-thread-count sheets.

My friends had an ambivalence about conformity and an awareness of heteronormativity’s reach likely as deep as my own. They had things you’d never see on HGTV: tattered yet tasteful second-hand couches; bookshelves filled with discerning monographs about gender theory, Marxist aesthetics, and black radicalism. Still, I associated their homes with peak suburbia, imagining them as a House Hunters fantasy come to life.

For years, I’d held on to an idea of homosexuality as a way out of a certain stereotype of domestic life. Now, unexpectedly, I saw the greatness of buying in. I started to wonder how much I really valued queer solitude, how much I wanted to resist domestic comfort.

I fantasized about becoming a permanent fixture in the homes of my girls, freeloading forever, following them to their starter homes in the remote college towns in Alabama, Ohio, wherever they managed to get teaching jobs, and then to their bigger homes when they had their second and third kids.

When they had no more room for me, I’d take my act on the road to girls I hadn’t talked to since high school and college. I’d show up at their doorsteps, destitute, my eyes wide and my bottom lip curled in. They’d have no choice but to turn the rooms they had in mind for nurseries into makeshift mother-in-law suites for the gay boy who’d pledged to never have children or in-laws.

Even at the apartment of my lesbian friend who lived with her girlfriend and at the home of my bisexual friend who lived alone, I felt like I was on an all-inclusive cruise through the local islands of heteronormativity—an archipelago more lush and enticing than Fiji—and I didn’t want to ever disembark.

When I did have to disembark, when I ran out of places to crash in Ann Arbor, I saw that my minimalism was holding me back.

My aversion to nice homes wasn’t actually a coherent protest of heteronormativity. The homes my queer friends made for themselves had, after all, showed me that domestic comfort didn’t have to be a manifestation of bland straightness. My own austerity was really an extension of my self-hate, the shame I still had over my identity as a gay man. Minimalism was a way of denying myself the basic pleasures of everyday life because I didn’t feel I was worthy of them. I saw the internalized homophobia I still had to work through. I saw that, at 29, I hadn’t even begun to articulate what I wanted for myself erotically, emotionally, domestically. The truth was I didn’t yet know.

In refusing to allow myself to create a comfortable home, I’d neglected the best part of queer identity: the opportunity for total new self-making. I breathed in the balsam fir candles and touched the Egyptian sheets one last time, almost ready to find a more permanent room of my own.

Logan Scherer’s writing has appeared in Tin House, Longreads, Catapult, Eater, The Atlantic, The Baffler, and elsewhere. He is currently writing a book about romantic friendship, queer masculinity, and the tragic love gay boys have for straight guys.