Greg Mania is New York City-based writer and comedian. He has been published in Vanity Fair, The Oprah Magazine, PAPER, Out, BOMB, The Millions, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, HuffPost, among other international online and print platforms. His debut memoir, Born to Be Public, is out this week from CLASH Books. We talked to him about queer culture, sex, pop culture, mental health, and all the other topics addressed in his book.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Congratulations on the book! How are you feeling about being published?
I’m feeling great. I just got my finished copies in the mail this week. It’s very surreal. I’m trying to enjoy the joy. Be shameless with the joy, find joy where you can and hold onto it.
Yes, I think that’s more important now than ever. Let’s hop into it. The first quote I wrote down, “I basically came out of my mother’s womb on a pride float” – I like that, because as a queer person, everyone has such a different experience. I am somebody who really didn’t know, so I love hearing about someone else who did know. What did that mean for you as a small child?
I knew that I was gay from my [earliest] recollection and my first cognitive abilities. I knew I liked boys. At 6, 7, 8 [years old] I was feminine by default. I thought my attraction to boys was normal. It seemed normal. In preschool it wasn’t weird to hold hands with another boy. You aren’t yet exposed society on a whole. As I grew older, I started to realize people aren’t as chill about this as I am, so I had to start suppressing my femininity, my feelings. [In the book] I wrote about how I gave a boy in third grade class a candy cane because I thought that was a normal way to say, hey, I like you like you. As I went into intermediate school, I began getting bullied for my high-pitched voice, feminine body language, and the things I liked; princesses, Spice Girls, the chokers, and I started to get the message, okay, I am an anomaly. In order to survive, I had to bury what I thought made me unique and special and normal. And I did. I’ve had to suppress a lot of things about myself.
Something that is actually so beautiful about that, though, and I don’t think everybody gets to have this experience, is you got to have this little timeframe as a young child of being like, this is okay, and this is who I am. We all hope that kids in the future can hold onto that longer and longer, and hopefully it will get to the point that they will never have hide their true self, but the fact that you even had that time is so amazing and powerful.
I think it’s becoming a bit more prevalent now, where parents are raising gender-variant children and they are letting them experience that fluidity and experiment with physical presentation and they have that window where they feel safe to do so. I feel very fortunate I had that window in my early childhood. I hope we can expand that window more in the future, so it’s no longer a window but our reality.
I was reading about your OCD and your chronic body pain, which is something we’ve discussed prior. What is the least useful information people have given you when you talk about the physical ailments of your body that are connected to your mental health? I think people really don’t understand [the connection].
(Enormous sigh) I hope you can get that sigh in. [People prescribe] exercise, posture, it’s not all physical. Your emotional and physical health can become so interdependent. When people talk about chronic pain it’s either too mental, like change your mind, change your life, or it’s too physical, like go on a run or get a new office chair. You have to meet in the middle. You have to realize there is a relationship between body and mind. And it’s not talked about enough.
I find doctors are the worst. The way I have been treated by doctors [in reference to body pain related to trauma] is either you’re an insane person or nothing is wrong with you. Have you found anything that has been of use?
Misdiagnoses [are] abound. It’s different for everyone, if you’re a woman, if you’re a woman of color, the tiers of care shift dramatically, class, race – all these things affect the care we receive. I was resistant to therapy as a child, but as an adult I welcomed it and found a therapist who helped me explore my body pain and where I am holding it. I am lucky to have found someone to help me learn where and how trauma lives in the body and how to physically locate it. We will do exercises together and she will help me pinpoint where I’m feeling it and how we can notice it. I will say naming it and leaning into it, is helpful for me. Naming these sensations and physical symptoms has been something that I have found very helpful.
I grew up loving memoir and nonfiction because of exactly what you’re saying in this idea of putting a name to something previously unnamed. I really connected with your book and I know other people will because you have taken details and experiences that would easier to glaze over and [decided to] name them and make them important just by [writing] it. What do you want to communicate with your book?
When I first started writing this book, I didn’t even know it was memoir, I just wanted to have a collection of funny vignettes and stories about the dumb shit, the bad sex I’ve had, New York night life, big hair, fabulous people, but then I realized I can’t put this book out called Born to Be Public without being vulnerable and showing the other side of the coin. There are things about mental health, self-harm, emotionally abusive relationships, it all comes as a part of the package. I want people to laugh, but I hope people can see a part of themselves in me and embrace the things they are scared of. I hope they can find a way to identify with part of it, or if someone can’t identify with any part of it, they can empathize with someone in their life who is trans, nonbinary, femme, masc., or transcends the spectrum. Coming-of-age is a very universal genre [and] I hope [people] can cherry-pick elements that make them feel less alone.
Let’s talk about sex. My favorite line that you wrote, and I think the most useful line [regarding sex] is “I didn’t know if I was a top or a bottom,” which had me laughing out loud, but also is so useful because everyone thinks they’re supposed to know. I don’t think people allow themselves to take a beat to explore that.
Right, I’m like, do we flip a coin? Especially when you’re having your first sexual experience, and it doesn’t have to include penetrative sex, so when it comes to the whole top and bottom dichotomy, it’s anxiety-inducing. Like, am I supposed to initiate this conversation, do you have a cheat sheet on your phone that you’re not showing me, someone is not telling me something and I’m being left in the dark.
Right, and I think in a larger sense in terms of sex for everybody, straight people, poly people, queer people, asexual people, I think we don’t allow ourselves enough time to figure out what we really want. You hear about straight men being uncomfortable with a woman on top because it doesn’t feel masculine enough. That is a cultural construct and we’re all just trapped in these boxes.
It’s what we consume and what we see. Even when we look at porn, even though it is more inclusive, within a certain consenting adult frame work, we think that especially when you’re queer, that you are engrained with some sort of SIM card that you are automatically programmed with and you should know how to operate sexually. We have to be more open to experiences and be more vocal. Sex is not what you see on TV and one of my dreams is to write realistic sex. It’s a lot of trial and error. It’s messy and it’s complicated and confusing… You have to bring that dialogue from the internal to the external. It’s not clean, and it’s confusing.
I totally agree and I think like you were saying, we’re so used to seeing gorgeous people having gorgeous, literally clean sex, and you wrote, “oh God, don’t shit on his dick,” and I was like oh my god, how useful. Again, that might be specific to gay men, but [the idea] is specific to everybody. Women are always thinking, please don’t queef, please don’t sweat, or please don’t make a noise that you haven’t heard in a porn before, so I think just saying that out loud is useful to everybody.
It is funny, but I’m not trying to be over the top, I’m trying to show reality. This is what sex looks like. There is going to be blood, shit, odors, it’s not unavoidable. Hollywood will easily erase it. You can’t rehearse sex. Hopefully with these conversations, we can start to realize we are part of a full package. We are humans and have bodies and they will react depending on how we treat them and in the quest for pleasure it’s not going to be neat, and it’s not supposed to be.
I think you deliver that in a very fun package where we can have a moment to laugh at it, but then take a pause and think about how we can communicate better with our partners or let our body do what they’re going to do. The flip of that is you frankly discussing not having sex for an extended period of time which, in a culture obsessed with sex, is considered taboo. Young people are supposed to be always having sex or searching for sex. It had me thinking about Sam Irby’s essay “Lesbian Bed Death.”
Ugh, my bible.
“Sure sex is fun, but have you ever wept openly while listening to Tori Amos.” So, what are some of your favorite things to do instead of having sex? Sure, sex is fun, but….
I bought an air fryer the other day and was like, this is my porn. I don’t have to warm up soggy fries, I can put them in an air fryer, and they come out even better than they came to me. Sure, sex is great, but have you ever bought an air fryer?
Everybody, buy an air fryer. This is a COVID purchase.
There is a lot I talk about in terms of unintended chastity. It wasn’t just physical; it was the result of being in emotional abusive relationship. I did the work of identifying what impaired me physically and emotionally without sex.
It’s cool to show people something different. We have a lot of representation of when [young people] go through a hard time [they] should go have a slutty phase, like, that’s how young people are supposed to rally. I think people seeing that you can chill with yourself and figure your shit out is cool.
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