“If you could be straight, would you?”
I was asked that question many years ago. I was in my 20s, I think. I don’t remember who asked me, but I think it was a co-worker. How was I to answer that? At the time, I had been out of the closet for several years. Anyone who knew me to any degree knew I was gay. To the outside world, I was an out, proud gay man. And yet. And yet. My answer was ‘yes’. If could have chosen right then and there to be a heterosexual man, I would have switched my sexuality. Or if I could have reached back into my mother’s womb while I was developing, I’d have altered something to ensure I came out heterosexual. This was almost two decades before I knew anything about heterosexual privilege. Even with that, I was aware that straight people had it easier in life than gay people. I knew that if I were straight, I wouldn’t have grown up feeling so isolated and so alone. And I wouldn’t have had to experience one of the most upsetting events of my life.
I can’t recall many of the details.
Many of my memories are locked away in the recesses of my mind or lost in some mental limbo.
What memories I do have are hazy. But I remember enough to know I was in the sixth grade. The first half of my sixth grade year. I was at school. P.E. class. I remember being outside. There were stairs and a court. A tennis court, I think. I remember a man. But I can’t recall any details of the man: not his shirt, nor his eye color, not his shoes, nor his hair color, nothing. But I remember feeling something. At the time, I had no words to describe what I felt. But it was something I hadn’t felt before. It was interest. It was arousal, though not physically. Was it emotional? I don’t think it was. But it was something. Something akin to emotional or physical arousal. And yet it wasn’t quite that. I hadn’t hit puberty yet, so it wasn’t the kind of sensation a pubescent male experiences when aroused. Whatever I was feeling, it washed over me. I looked at my P.E. coach and thought things. Things that I lacked the vocabulary to describe at the time. Despite that, I knew the feelings I was experiencing were wrong. At least, they were wrong according to all the messages I had been absorbing. Messages from my parents, from extended family, from teachers, from friends, from acquaintances, from random people at the store. These messages were rarely overt, but I absorbed them nonetheless. And I had learned, even at that young age, that what I was
feeling was wrong. That *I* was wrong. So I stamped those feelings down. I refused to acknowledge them. I refused to give them an outlet. I refused to explore them. I refused to learn about them. I had to, because I knew to be accepted and loved, I couldn’t feel that way. I had no understanding of the term ‘conformity’, but the behavior the word describes? I knew that behavior. I had to fit in and be what the world said I was supposed to be. But the price of trying to conform to the expectations of others was loneliness. Loneliness and angst over hiding an important aspect of who I was (even though I didn’t have the words to describe who I was). Being a teenager can be a rough time for many people. Adding isolation, loneliness, and the pressure to be something you’re not makes things that much more difficult.
A few years passed.
I can’t recall many details.
Many of my memories are locked away in the recesses of my mind or lost in some mental limbo.
What memories I do have are hazy. We were living on an Army base in Alabama. I had gone to the Post Exchange with my mother. She was shopping and I decided to check out the corner store. The Shoppette I think it was called. I told her I was just going to have a look around. Probably told her I was going to look for comics. But that’s not why I was going. I was nervous, but excited. Intensely. Excited. The psychological feelings. The physiological feelings. They were
almost overwhelming. Try as I might they proved too strong for me to overcome. I scanned the top of the magazine rack, looking for my target. Aha! There it was. My hands were sweaty. I kept glancing up at the mirror. I was hoping I could do it without the store clerk seeing. I was confident I could get away with it. Success! It was mine. Quickly, it was stuffed down my shirt. My excitement quickly disappeared, to be replaced by anxiety and fear. I’d been caught. The clerk saw me. The walk from the Shoppette to the Post Exchange managers office seemed an eternity. Because I knew. I knew my mother was going to be told what I’d done. And I couldn’t let her know. I began trying to figure out how to tell her. What would I say? How would I explain myself? What would I tell her about what I’d tried to steal? I was in trouble though. I had tried to steal it. I knew it was wrong. But I wanted it. Part of me needed it. The manager paged my mother and I knew I was in trouble. The ride home was terrifying. Not because I’d stolen something. No. The ride home was terrifying because I didn’t know how to explain to my mother why I’d stolen a Playgirl magazine. I knew why I did it. I knew Playgirl featured nude images of men. But I also knew that I wasn’t supposed to like looking at nude images of men. I knew that my parents, my friends, my teachers, my extended family, random people at the store-everyone had been pushing overtly and subtly, that there was only one path for me. And that path didn’t include looking at nude pictures of men. I still didn’t have the words to describe how I felt. Even if I had wanted to tell my mother what was going through my head, I had not the language to do so. So I lied. I told her that I thought Playgirl meant images of girls. I don’t know if I fooled her. At the time, I hoped and very nearly prayed (I wasn’t an atheist at that point) that she would fall for it. And my father. Oh boy. I hoped he would too. Looking back, I was more worried about them finding out my secret than I was worried about the punishment I’d face for my attempt at thievery. But I knew that I’d be punished for trying to steal the magazine. And then my punishment would be over. I didn’t know what the consequences would be if my parents learned of my secret. And they couldn’t learn of my secret. I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone, including them. I wanted to be accepted and loved. I couldn’t do that if I allowed myself to feel what I was feeling. To think what I was thinking. So, once again, society’s unspoken messages rang loud and clear in my head: Conform. Conform. Conform. And with that conformity also came the isolation and loneliness.
Several more years passed.
I do recall many of the details of that day. Many of my memories of this situation were indelibly branded into my brain. It happened after I graduated high school. I was around 19 years old. I recall where we lived (I always thought it looked like to mobile homes stacked on top of each other). I can remember our address. I remember the layout of my bedroom, my parents’ room, the guest room, and my sister’s room. I remember the living room. I remember the door to the screened in porch. I remember facing my parents, with their backs to the porch door. I remember struggling to find the words, then struggling to speak the words. I recall the fear and anxiety I felt as I uttered the words: “Mom, dad…I’m gay”.
I’d finally found the words. It took several years, but at last, I learned what homosexuality was, as well as bisexuality and lesbianism. I knew what Pride celebrations were and what coming out meant. This discovery was made in the early 90s when personal computers were becoming staples of middle class homes. I was still in high school and it was roughly my sophomore year when my parents bought a home computer. With it came good old America Online. I can still remember that annoying as fuck dial up sound. I remember getting knocked offline during bad weather. I remember we needed to get a second phone line so we could remain connected while someone used the landline. Despite those annoyances, access to the Internet changed my life. No longer did I lack the language to describe myself. I’d found the online gay community and realized that I was gay. More than that, for the first time since I looked at my P.E. coach all those years ago, I felt like I wasn’t isolated. In fact, I came to see that not only was I *not* alone, but there were so many more people out there like me. It might sound like a cliche, but it was like a great weight was lifted off my shoulders. It didn’t make the isolation and loneliness evaporate. I’d felt them for so long that they were deep inside me. But it made things a bit more tolerable. To not feel as if you’re the only person in the world who is “like this”. Through my junior and senior years in high school, I gradually came to terms with being gay. It wasn’t easy though, bc for all that world wide web access meant I found others like me, I also found the haters. I found the homophobes. I discovered that there were people who despised homosexuals. To the point that they wanted to cause us harm. Even to kill us. Just for being gay. Even with that, I found enough of a community to slowly come to terms with my sexuality. And once I finally accepted that I was gay, it was time for me to let the world know.
The first person I told was my best friend, SK. It was shortly after high school graduation, and he and I had been pretty close friends for several years. I wanted to tell him first because I hoped that our friendship was strong enough that this revelation wouldn’t matter to him. But boyohboy, was I nervous. If he didn’t respond well, I have no idea how long I’d have remained in the closet. Thankfully, however, he responded in exactly the way I needed. He treated it like it wasn’t a big deal. Moreover, he didn’t just say that, he backed it up. Our friendship didn’t change after I came out to him. To him, my being gay wasn’t a problem at all. That positive reaction gave me the courage to come out to more people. I told most of my friends (I didn’t have many) and all of my co-workers. No one had a problem (although the General Manager of the restaurant I was working at *did* have a problem with me dating interracially. She could handle me being gay, but me dating a white guy? Oh no. What can I say-this was Alabama). Despite the lack of negative reactions, I was still scared. I was scared because the two most important people I wanted to come out to were the two I was most fearful of telling: my parents. Nonetheless, I did muster the strength to tell them. When I did, it was one of the most upsetting and traumatic events in my life.
“What about grandkids?”
“Anal sex hurts.”
“What did we do wrong as parents?”
Those were the words I heard from them that day. They were standing with their backs to the screen door. I’m sure they said other things, but given that my greatest fear had come to pass, I most likely tuned out what they said. Hurt, sad, and in a state of great emotional turmoil, I left the house. I hopped in my truck-my Mazda B2000, and drove off. I didn’t know what to do. The two people I most needed on my side responded the worst out of everyone I told. I remember driving and crying my ass off. At one point I gave-what was for me at the time, serious consideration-to suicide. I looked off and in the distance was a light pole. I thought about plowing my truck right into it. I was hurting that much. I felt so rejected. So distraught. How to take the pain away? I had no idea, other than ending it all. I didn’t go through with it, because I also thought about the pain that would bring my friends and family, especially my younger sister (to this day-and I’ve told her this-I credit her for saving me that day; because I didn’t want to put my little sister through the emotional turmoil of losing her older brother). This incident served as the impetus for me to move away from home and resulted in nearly a decade of tension between my parents and I*.
Who would want to go through all that? If you could choose to change things so you wouldn’t have to deal with the loneliness. The frightening isolation that accompanies the feeling of being the only person in the world who is different? Yeah, it turned out to not be true, but at the time, I didn’t know that. All I knew is that I had these feelings, and everywhere I turned, I was told I was wrong to have those feelings. So yeah-early 20s me definitely would have chosen to be heterosexual.
20-year-old me may have had the language to explain his sexuality, but he lacked the understanding of how and why people are homophobic (not that I’m some great and all-knowing fount of wisdom today, but I know quite a bit more than I did back then). Even though I’d accepted that I was gay, I still felt shame. I still felt that not only was I different, but there was something wrong with that difference. How could I not feel that way, when everything in our culture pointed to there being something wrong with gay people? The stigma attached to homosexuals was intense, even in the late 90s. What I didn’t understand then, and I do understand now, is that the problem is not with me. It’s not with any queer person. We’ve done nothing wrong. All we’re doing is existing in a way that differs from the societal norm. Social norms dictate that heterosexuality is the “correct” way for men and women to be (and doesn’t acknowledge the people who exist outside the gender binary). These social norms are powerful and insidious. They permeate all levels of society and influence people from a very young age. But just because they are the norms doesn’t mean they are correct. For fuck’s sake, societal norms in this country once included “black people are property to be bought, sold, and traded”, “women who are married cannot be raped”, and “Indigenous people need to be forced to assimilate”. Heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality…these exist along a continuum of sexuality (a continuum that encompasses more than just those three, btw). There are a host of possibilities, none of which is better or worse than any other, nor is one sexuality more or less moral than any other. That is due to the personal nature of sexuality. It has no effect upon others, and so morality does not come into play. As such, no one’s sexuality is wrong. And since no one’s sexuality is wrong, no one should be made to feel ashamed or disgusted. Nor should anyone be made to feel like they need to alter their sexuality. It took me many years to recognize this. Many years of working to overcome internalized homophobia and come to realize that there is not only nothing wrong with me, but I didn’t need to change. With that understanding came a change of heart and the recognition that while my life might have been easier as a straight guy, there was no reason for me to carry around any shame about being gay.
This not-so-enjoyable trip down memory lane is courtesy of a recent statement from the World Psychiatrist Association calling for an end to the criminalization of homosexuality and an end to harmful and/or discriminatory practices:
In a statement, it said: “Despite an unfortunate history of perpetuating stigma and discrimination, it has been decades since modern medicine abandoned pathologising same-sex orientation and behaviour.
“The World Health Organization (WHO) accepts same-sex orientation as a normal variant of human sexuality. The United Nations Human Rights Council values Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights. In two major diagnostic and classification systems (International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) and DSM-5), same sex sexual orientation, attraction, and behaviour and gender identity are not seen as pathologies.”
It continued that “it has been shown conclusively that LGBT individuals show higher than expected rates of psychiatric disorders and once their rights and equality are recognised these rates start to drop.”
As well as calling on nations to decriminalise homosexuality, the WPA said states should take a number of other actions.
•They should ensure LGBT people are granted equal access to healthcare and all the rights and responsibilities that go along with living in a civilised society
•To acknowledge that LGBT people should not be seen as having psychological dysfunction or impairment in judgement
•To ban ‘gay conversion’ therapies which are harmful and lack scientific efficacy
•To provide adequate mental health services to support LGBT people who may be subject to social stigma
•And to recognise LGBT rights as human, civil and political rights and implement hate crime and anti discrimination laws.
As a youth, I was never diagnosed with any sort of psychiatric disorder. I was never forced to endure so-called ‘conversion therapy’, procedures which are physically, emotionally, and psychologically harmful. But I do know what it’s like to grapple with sexuality. I do know what it’s like to experience the emotional turmoil and angst that comes with living in a society that stigmatizes you and views you as something detestable for no other reason than having a sexuality that lies outside the norm. And my experiences, though common, are just the tip of the iceberg. LGBT youth are often bullied and tormented by their classmates, ostracized from their friends and church community, and rejected by their families. In addition, LGBT youth are at greater risk for homelessness and suicide than their heterosexual and cisgender peers. Discrimination of LGBT people doesn’t end at adulthood either. Pending “religious liberty” legislation in Georgia and a new law in North Carolina that blocks local governments from passing anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people attest to that. And all that is only here in the United States. LGBT people around the globe face varying amounts of social and government sanctioned oppression, hostility, and violence. Here’s hoping the statement from the WPA will provide the necessary kick in the ass for nations around the globe to enter the modern era. Far too many countries-including supposed modern, enlightened ones-need to recognize what the medical community acknowledged decades ago: there is nothing psychologically wrong with LGBT people and we deserve to be treated as valued members of society possessed of the same fundamental human rights as all others.
*In time, my relationship with my parents greatly improved, to the point that today they both love and accept me. All of me.