The door was locked. But had his parents walked in, he wouldn’t have noticed.10-year-old Zakkery Rome sat cross-legged on the floor with his face inches from the flickering screen.
Outside his bedroom window was Dingmans Ferry, the bridge between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It wore the greens of Pike County and the blues of the Delaware River. But his eyes were glued to the TV.
Through the television, New York City returned to the 1980s — the setting of “Paris is Burning,” a documentary on the then-Harlem drag scene.
Rome watched as the drag queens sashayed down the ballroom, one by one. The music throbbed along with their footsteps. Power. Glamour. Vogue. He was enchanted.
“I couldn’t believe people like that existed,” he said. “I thought everybody was just how they were in my hometown, which was considered normal or average.”
At 27, Rome is as fascinated with queer films as he was two decades ago.
To Rome, those queer films explore LGBT relationships that transcend the Hollywood tropes.
The characters are honest people. Some of them happen to prefer a ballgown to a pinstripe suit. They go to work, enjoy a drink and want to be loved. A vice for them is sparking a protest that would launch a new era of resistance.
He found hope in their stories. His 10-year-old self counted on them to escape from the world.
“They’re out there and they’re unapologetically queer,” he said. “They helped me be proud of who I am.”
Rome hopes the queer youth of today can also see themselves in those films. He hopes they can learn about queer love, dynamics and issues that aren’t taught in school or shown in mainstream media.
He hopes they can represent all colors of the rainbow.
“That’s why I work with queer films,” Rome said. “I appreciate what they did for me, so I want to do the same for others.”
Up until December 2019, he was the film arts coordinator for the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center.
Located in Allentown, the nonprofit uplifts the Lehigh Valley’s LGBT community through arts and culture programs, as well as supportive services and an annual pride festival.
Rome researched queer films and acquired screening rights from distributors. He also coordinated special events where speakers share their expertise and experience, bringing the films to life.
“The arts and culture program and the supportive services really are the backbone of what we currently have to offer,” said Kathleen Kapila, the librarian at Bradbury-Sullivan. “Zakkery (Rome) was the one who keeps all of that organized and going. What he did makes the experience possible.”
His audience consists of some who have lost their loved ones to the AIDS epidemic. Others bore witness to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010.”
For Rome, queer films maintain their story. As long as they persist, history isn’t forgotten. It lives on for generations to come.
As of February 2020, Rome is off to find his next adventure in life. He got to turn his childhood passion into a career. For the time being, the film of his life could end where it has come full circle. But this would be how it starts.
Act No. 1: To Be, or Not To Be
As the car engine sung to the country roads, an eight-year-old Rome grabbed onto his stack of books. He was returning from the Pike County Public Library — a half-hour drive from his childhood home. Hidden between those books were queer films that his parents wouldn’t endorse. But that wasn’t his only secret.
“People don’t realize this, but you actually lie a lot when you’re in the closet,” Rome said. “It was suffocating.”
He lied about whom he found attractive, about the films he wanted to watch and about the songs he wanted to listen to. There were certainly moments in his early years — weak moments, when he wondered if he had made the right choice being who he was.
In class, he felt like if he spoke, he wouldn’t be accepted. So he didn’t speak. Best to try to blend in, he told himself. So everything considered “gay” was repressed. If he hadn’t seen queer love in films, he would have assumed it didn’t exist.
“When you only have a few people around you, it makes it scarier to come out,” he said. “What if I lose them? What if I’m left with nobody?”
So his want came after his need to act “normal.”
Act No. 2: The Great Awakening
It wasn’t until college when the secret crumbled. It became the root of all problems as the stress of school amassed. He couldn’t lie anymore.
Before he had time to think about it, he stopped. Rome decided that he couldn’t spend the rest of his life feeling sorry for himself. So years spent in the closet halted in a moment of complete spontaneity.
He did it right before bedtime. By the morning, he would have slept off the fear. With a Facebook post, Rome came out to the world.
Monica Rome wishes her son had felt comfortable enough to come out to her in person.
“I guess he was too afraid to do it in person,” she said. “I couldn’t blame him. I didn’t know what was going through his mind.”
The experience is personal to everyone, Monica Rome said. What’s more, she’s glad he came out when he was ready.
Act No. 3: Love and Acceptance
Having come out, Zakkery Rome felt in control. That glimmer of hope he had felt finding those queer films in the library returned to him, but this time stronger and more certain. It’s now up to him to write his own story as a proud gay man.
Being gay is at the forefront of his identity. Zakkery Rome uses that as a shield because it makes him feel stronger. He sees the world through a queer lens, but his world has never changed.
“Looking at queer films, I realized I could just be myself,” he said. “Being gay is less of what I do and more of who I am.”