Gay Man Reconnects with Family After Overcoming Shame and Learning to Live Authentically

by Chauncey Dandridge

Hey, I’m Chauncey Dandridge. I’m from Harrison, New Jersey. 

My family was very macho. There was always sports on the television. I’m one of three boys, grew up with my grandparents in the house, so there’s a lot of family around. My whole block was at least like 50 to 60% relatives, so very Italian neighborhood.

I always say I had really no choice but to be gay, because I had an Uncle Butch and he had a dog named Bear, and across the street from our house was an Italian gentleman’s club called The Pleasure Club, and my father was president for about 10 years. 

But one night, I think I was about six-years-old, I don’t know what made me do it, but I went into… everybody, my whole family, was across the street, and I went into my mom’s room and I got a big T-shirt and put a belt around it. I think I put on some makeup, and I made my way across the street to The Pleasure Club, while my family and all the relatives and people from town were hanging out. And I walked in, and I remember… it wasn’t like an anger, nobody yelled at me, but I remember a circle of people surrounded me and kind of ushered me back across the street home. It was a bit of shame like I knew I’d done something wrong. I knew I’d done something that they didn’t approve of. So I think that kind of informed me as I got older and started to come into my own.

In high school, I was lucky enough to find a large group of gay people and lesbians really fast, so I found my tribe very early. My family kind of knew that I was different and my family kind of knew that I had different interests in life. And they definitely accepted me, so I never really had a hard time. But I definitely tried to hide certain things and definitely tried to not embarrass them. My family was pretty well known in town. 

So then I went to college and all that, and I only went to college for about a year and a half. The ’90s happened, I moved to New York. I started working for Housing Works thrift shop, so that was a big introduction to queer life. I was surrounded by a bunch of creative gay men. It was also an organization that was a child of ACT UP, so that kind of informed my activism. I was a club kid in a way, you know, ’90s, early 2000s. Limelight was a big space, big place. Found my community there and you’d see people every week on the dance floor.

So then 9/11 happened and it was like a big… I was working at a restaurant. I bartended that entire day, watched the Towers fall over and over again on the news. And it really affected me, not because I didn’t really know anybody who was in the building at the time, but what it affected me… it affected me in a way that I became a little more reckless in knowing that I could die at any moment. It was a scary time, and anything that ever happened after that, if there was an explosion or if there was an elevator stuck, you immediately assumed it was terrorism.

I became a little more reckless in knowing that I could die at any moment.

So I had already been a club kid, partying, doing ecstasy, doing this and that, but I think right after 9/11 is when I picked up doing crystal, crystal meth. I would use it to have fun at the clubs. We would do it, we were able to dance for hours and hours. Some of my friends would disappear after a certain point of time and go to the sex clubs and we wouldn’t hear from them for a day or so. I never went into that direction, really. Of course, I had my fun sexually when I was high on it, but I used it to be more creative, and that’s always what drugs were for me.

I was definitely addicted. Of course, you’re not eating, you’re not drinking enough water, all that kind of stuff. It’s definitely not a healthy thing to do. Because I was such a goody two-shoes as a kid, I started to drift away from my family, because I didn’t want them to see me in that condition, because the paranoia sets in. Or just not even that, just not being completely there when you’re on these kind of drugs.

In that interim, I started DJing in the East Village at a place called Urge, so I started to get into that mode. I was in my mid-20s at that point. So then one day around… I think it was about 2005 maybe. I think I had disappeared for maybe three or four years. I checked my messages as I’d go… I think I was on my way to work. I checked my messages, and my sister-in-law, Joette, had left the saying, “Hey, just want to let you know that you have a new nephew and he would love to meet you.” And that just crushed me and broke my heart. I was like, You need to flip this stuff around and you need to stop, grow up, and go see them.

And that was the turning point where luckily I was able to eventually stem off from doing crystal meth. That three years of self-destructiveness, just wiped all that away. And that’s when I thought to myself, I’m like, Well, I’m not going to hide. I’m going to wear the shirt I want to wear. I’m going to wear – because that’s me, and if they’re really looking forward to seeing me and they really want me to be there, then they’re going to accept whatever I give them.

So a month or so later, I met up with them. I think it was summertime, probably a couple months after my sister-in-law left a message. And I remember being in the pool in their backyard, and I’m not that kid anymore, I’m the weird uncle from New York. But I’m also, like, had my nipple pierced, full beard, and just my whole presence and the way I presented myself was more authentic than it ever had been in my entire life, and I wasn’t afraid to face my family as that.

And there was no weirdness. It was more probably like there was more weirdness in my own mind. But they all just were really happy to see me and glad that I was okay. 

Being myself, I’ve been more apt to become this kind of one-man show where I’m volunteering for this and doing things for that and doing things for that and just. 

Throughout my years of experience and all that, I’ve made peace with that little boy who put on the fake dress and the makeup. We’re okay with each other and we’re… I guess I’ve grown up to kind of be him. As cliche as it sounds, you really only have that one life, and your legacy is what you do in that life, and you want people to remember you for something that is an example of how to live your life free and with love and with compassion.


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