As a kid growing up in central Pennsylvania, it’s not hard to tell when you’re different. The tingle in your pants in the boys’ locker room is just a slight bit unusual, considering the rest of the boys are out deflowering young lasses in the woods and all you’re doing is trying to hide an erection.
Still, it does nothing for the spirits when you’ve been called gay so many times by age sixteen that you’re begging God for a way out of this disease that you’re not even sure you have. You shout celestial demands into the unresponsive sky and consult psychology textbooks to figure out if it’s O.K. to masturbate—it is, so you do it a lot. You wonder if your ganders at the other boys are just your own desire to have that hot, buff, oily Adonis wrapping that all of them are walking around in. You spend afternoons dreaming of how many rooms your house will have, and how many kids you’ll crank out with your blonde bombshell of a wife—you know, right after you figure out how that whole lock-and-key thing is supposed to happen, and does the key have to be made of brass, or will an uninterested, floppy one work just as well? But when your mind slips from its daydreams back to the slimes of sin, you’re still stuck with those locker room fantasies and ten-page tours of bear porn that you quickly erase from the computer’s history.
It’s those moments that everyone is outing you to yourself that really put the pink icing on the triple-layer queer cake: a game of Scattergories with your mom and some friends, when one of the friends responds to your query about an author with the curt, “He was gay, just like you!”; your mom announcing in the fifth grade, right after you’d told her that you joined band and needed a trumpet, that it’s just fine if you like boys; that kid you only know as a head that pops out of the school bus every afternoon while you’re walking home to remind you that, “Silly faggot, dicks are for chicks!”
You can tolerate the bullies who remind you that you’re fat; their tips in the lunch line that you smell funky; their commands for you to give them the answer to number four when, just last period, they refused to add you to their dodgeball team; that asshole who always refers to you as “statue” when you’re playing European handball. These are harmless, since you are fat, and you probably deserve to be treated like it. But screw them, they’ll pump your gas someday.
But these taunts about your sexuality—as if! Where the heck are they getting the impression that you, ahem, “pack the fudge,” as you’ll often hear well before you even begin to contemplate the horrors of anal sex? You chalk it up to sheer delusion and remind them, politely and passively, that you’re not like that, thank you very much.
It’s eighth grade gym class, and it sucks. You’re sitting on the side of the gymnasium, probably testing your recollection of the “Oops! … I Did It Again!” lyrics against the CD slip. The other gay-but-not-really kid is sitting next to you; you’ve both been out of commission for fake injuries for the last three marking periods.
Look at these Neanderthals shoving each other around on that wrestling mat like a bunch of bulls in a pen. Better that they start the brain damage early, you say, and who do they think—ooh, crotch grab. Pay attention.
You end up getting an F for this marking period. It ruins your longstanding place on the Honor Roll and you hide the report card from your mother for three weeks before she asks if you’re depressed and demand that you tell her what’s wrong. But who cares, because gym class was invented by Satan, and you will have no part in that blasphemy.
You take up Wicca in the hopes that you might accrue enough points with Gaia to allow you to levitate into the air and blow bursts of wind at the fuckwad who pokes you with a stick on the way home from school every day. In communication arts class the tallest, tannest girl has taken to demanding that you perform a spell on her to prove your worth. Meanwhile, your teacher is combative and doesn’t recognize your genius when, as part of an assignment, you tell her you’re going to memorize a 160-page-poem rather than be caught dead reciting anything by Robert Frost.
You cave and recite something about a bunch of roads and choosing the right one and resolve to ride this wave of lunacy until it washes to the shores of high school, which will definitely be so much better.
High school is not better. The Neanderthals all have deep voices, all the better to woo the ladies, and your queer little chortle hasn’t nudged a bit. You worry because you’ve got hair in all the right places and you’re taller than everyone else and, is this it? This is what you were waiting for? Great, you’re an oversized troll with the voice of a Barbie. That’ll scare ’em.
You’re now reading Julius Caesar and giving eight minute speeches about suicide—more noble endeavors than the farces of earlier years, to be sure. But no one has changed, and a girl makes fun of you for knowing that fábrica is a false cognate that means factory, not fabric. You miss the soft pretzels with mustard you could get in the middle school cafeteria but decide to enter a long-term relationship with the green slushies you now have access to.
Before Christmas you and your friends decide to have a small party at your lunch table. You bring a portion of the fudge your mom made, which she makes every year and is a staple in your household. A girl makes a fudge-packer joke, because, how couldn’t she?
So many people ask if you’re gay that you develop a negative response that is triggered automatically whenever the question is raised. You regret it when you tell a girl no and she writes a plea in your cousin’s yearbook begging the cousin to hook you two up. You balance the situation delicately when another girl writes you a letter asking if you want to be her boyfriend; you tell her thanks but no thanks, and, by the way, I’m still not gay, I just don’t want a girlfriend right now.
Your mom continues to ask, too, but you dismiss her. You even start to tell yourself that maybe you’re really not gay after all: do you really want to deal with all that weird sex anyway? You masturbate but feel ill while you do it, sure that you’re breaking one of the commandments or something. You become attached to Will & Grace and wake up to the theme song looping on your DVD menu each morning.
You finally confess to your sister and cousin that you’re not gay, you just don’t limit yourself to whom you can love. “If I meet a girl and fall in love with her, great; but if I meet a guy and fall in love with him, that’s great too,” you say proudly. You are so postmodern it hurts.
You go to your senior prom with a girl who asked you. You look awesome in a tux but feel like the girl all night, since she’s the one asking you to dance and you’ve never really been this close to a girl before.
You beg for an escape from this place and get it when you graduate and immediately move to New York. But now you feel like a plankter in a sea of sharks. Big. Gay. Sharks. They’re everywhere; they’re hotter than you; they’re judging you. You live two blocks from the Stonewall Inn. There’s a fire alarm in your dorm and in the line outside the building you watch a guy mime a blowjob as he says to a girl, “The alarm went off just as he was…” You are horrified at the hypersexuality of these manscaped gays and terrified you might not make it out alive.
Eventually you realize that they’re having just as much sex as everyone else; you just notice it more because there’s no gay sex where you come from. You’ll do just fine here. Eventually you meet a nice straight girl and move in with her, realizing your dreams of living your twenties based on Will & Grace while simultaneously wishing you had dreamed to have Jack’s luck with men, and maybe Bobby Cannavale.
When you make trips home you’re appalled by the number of people who say “fag” and use “gay” to mean “stupid.” You come out to your mom on Christmas Day and she says I love you, but I really wanted grandchildren and you were my only hope. You send a confessional text to your best friend and then spend half an hour convincing her that yes, you really do have an affinity for the peen. You come out to your dad one year later on another Christmas day and he says why did you choose that route, bud, and O.K., you’re still my son, but I really wanted grandchildren. You mention that they let the gays adopt now and he scoffs. You two don’t talk about it ever again.
You weep for the state of the laws there and how the newspaper never prints any gay wedding announcements; you wonder if it’s policy or paucity. You hear about an aunt who despises your lifestyle, but she still comes to talk to you at family functions and pretends she doesn’t care, and besides she’s a Sarah Palin follower anyway, so you figure if you’re going to Hell, then so is she.
You go back to the comforts of New York and attend a vigil for a young gay man who leapt off a bridge. You make a mental note to look a little more feminine the next time you’re home, in hopes of making a dent in someone’s prejudices. You go home to a family reunion wearing pink sunglasses and everyone mentions them; your father says he likes them. Your six-year-old cousin says you look like a girl and you say, “So?” And he says, “You want to look like a girl?” You say, “Why not?”
And he says, “I’m a boy.”