Two years ago while attending a publishing conference for recruiters, a young woman asked me what it means to be gay.
I knew what she wanted. She wanted me to be a fool and give some half-hearted sassy sarcastic answer, surely involving the word “fierce” accompanied by some form of finger snapping. She wanted me to say, “Oh honey, it’s fabulous.”
Whenever someone asks me this question, immediately, I am made aware of the obvious ways in which gay men are expected to behave for straight people: we are expected to be clowns. I was also made aware that this woman probably shouldn’t be recruiting at all if this was exemplary of the questions she asks her prospective hires. But this is telling of the concept that gay people are not even afforded the luxury of walking around asking what it means to be straight.
We seem to be living in a society where everything involving gender and sexuality needs to be strictly defined. We do this in part because our society is patriarchal, and straight white men, historically, have needed everything and everyone to fit into a box. The fact that we even define people as gay or straight is an outdated concept. Much has been said about the labeling of sexuality, and it often comes from loud annoying ultra liberal people who cant seem to figure out what they want. Their presentation gets in the way of their message, but the message is still very real.
I do believe most people don’t fully understand their own sexuality. Sexuality runs deep, and most people are not willing to dig that deep, no pun intended. Looking back on my own life, in many ways I feel I was forced into becoming gay. As a child, I never fit into a box of sexuality.
In a small town in Pennsylvania, in the middle of nowhere, boys are expected to play sports. Boys are expected to run around with toy guns and action figures. Boys are expected to befriend other boys. I did all of this. I participated in sports because my parents were led to believe, through years and years of straight white men dictating what my childhood should be, years before I was ever even born.
I played baseball and basketball all throughout my childhood, but I didn’t enjoy the competitive nature. As a little boy, I played with action figures and toy guns and baseballs, but I also wanted to play with Barbies and an Easy-Bake Oven. I even wanted to try on some women’s accessories. Not because it was feminine, but because why not? In many ways, this same attitude would define my sexuality later in life.
Up until high school, I was never bullied at all, because in my experience, my friends were mostly boys who didn’t even understand the concept of sexuality. But that doesn’t mean the people around me weren’t confused.
I fit all the stereotypes of both a straight and gay little boy. So not only did that leave everyone around me not knowing what to do, but it left me having a childhood with no box. This is something that later bled into my teenage years, and still runs through my belief system as an adult. I don’t feel the need for boxes. I hate labels and I hate always having to identify everything.
I remember a specific instance that fully gives a visual. It was seventh grade and during recess, we would divide by gender. All the boys were on one side of the playground, and all the girls were on the other, and I, in the middle, being called by both sides, not knowing where to go. At this time in my life, I remember being more comfortable around girls, so I chose be with the girls.
Later, my mother received a phone call from my teacher, defining my behavior as problematic, claiming I should be socializing with boys. This very instance foreshadowed my entire life: me, doing what I want, while the people in charge had a problem with my refusal to put myself into a box. Thankfully, my mother didn’t see it as an issue, so it wasn’t pressed at home.
A similar scenario occurred that same year when I was able to choose my own seat in class, and decided to sit near a bunch of girls. My mother got another phone call, as if choosing to be different and not play by the norms of gender or sexuality was a negative thing that warranted a call home. Again, thankfully, my mother didn’t really see much of a problem.
The reason I say I was forced into being gay is because I distinctly remember being attracted to girls my entire childhood, but when you are even a little different at a small Catholic school, you are forced into becoming that difference. For me, that difference was being gay, even though at the time, I didn’t think of myself as gay or straight, I just thought of myself as me.
Through a severe patch of bullying in high school, coupled with societal pressures that don’t allow anything different to be part of the metaphorical in crowd, in many ways I was forced into choosing gay as my identity. Please consider how backwards that is. But my point is that now, at thirty years old, I have realized so much of my sexuality was based upon the influences around me, and this patriarchal straight society forcing me into becoming something different.
There has always been a divide in my life between straight men, and me. I don’t think I ever fully understood the impact, and how great this divide was until my late twenties. This divide has an influence on nearly everything I do, every decision I make, who I become friends with – everything. It has greatly influenced the fact that I hate full-time nine-to-five jobs. I hate the hierarchy because it was created by men, and thus has never allowed for me to fully excel in any institution where a straight white man is in charge. (And that happens to be a shitload of institutions.) I hate the disconnect they have created. I have seen nothing but disconnected straight men my entire life, and this is why it is so hard for someone like myself, who desires that connection. It’s just something that cannot be felt.
Imagine living your life with a constant ache and desire that cannot be quenched. It’s painful. And it’s not just painful in some grandiose sense of the word. It is painful every single day. It is a constant back and forth that has plagued me. I cannot speak for every gay man, but this pain is birthed into many of us.
Recently, a coworker of mine claimed it natural for a man to be attracted to a woman, using his own family history as “proof.” This coworker has no idea the negative impact that statement and similar statements have had on thousands of people. On a singular specific level, a statement like that is made one time to a little boy who didn’t even necessarily have a sexual identity yet, and because that seed has been planted, it is now automatically the norm. The default is for him to be attracted to women. He desires this because of that seed.
But that’s not the only seed. Because one seed grows one tree and that tree is easy to see around. But there are hundreds of other seeds of heternormativity planted throughout every little boys life that end up defining his sexuality, rather than that boy defining his own.
To answer that woman’s question, “What does it mean to be gay?” Being gay means being lonely. Being a gay man means watching straight men your entire life, and both envying them and hating them. It means a lifetime of confusion. Not necessarily confusion within yourself, but confusion with why there is any difference between straight and gay men. It means longing so desperately for a connection to straight men that cannot ever possibly be felt, because those men have already placed themselves into the straight box. Because for as long as our modern society has existed, it has also come with a deeply embedded sense of heteronormativity that perpetuates a need for a straight man to approve or want you. And that is not something that can ever possibly be felt or experienced by a gay man.
What I mean is that being gay literally means to spend and entire life wondering why, in a world where one needs to be seen by straight men, but those same straight men do not need to be seen by me.