How I Identify, Not My Identity
It's hard for me to think of a phrase that carries more undeserved weight of emotions. After all, the first thing so many people think of is a man. That, in and of itself is rather unfair. For me, I will always think of when I was fourteen and I stumbled upon an Ellen DeGeneres quote in Time Magazine, "I'm gay."
At the time I already knew who I was, the label "gay" didn't matter to me -- it mattered to others around me. It mattered to their perception of who I am. Being gay is not any more of an identity than being straight, and as such it's had little impact on most aspects of how I live my life. Nor should it. It's a description of one aspect of what I am -- not who I am. Coming out to my parents or friends shouldn't have mattered. It changed nothing about who I already was. However, getting to that point of self-acceptance, knowing I'm no different than them, isn't so simple in a predominantly hetero-world.
The first time I can recall knowing I was gay was at the age of seven. If I think back further in my childhood, I may have realized I was gay even before then. Some will call bullshit, but those are the people who think all gay men love gay bars and pride parades -- they're not me. What's ironic, however, is that I didn't know what the word meant. For me, it wasn't about the label. Even to this day it's not about the label. Yet, many people think they have me figured out because of those two words.
I used to be the shy one, the quiet one. Even when I was outspoken, I was still hiding who I was. I was born and spent my early childhood in my father's hometown with a population of 10,000. When I was seven years old I played a mouse in our school's rendition of The Mouse That Soared. As one of the mice I had to wear black pantyhose. One day after a performance I was in our living room surrounded by faux grass made from paper and cardboard that I had taken from the set earlier in the night. Still in my pantyhose, my father looked at me and demanded, "Take that shit off! And if you ever end up a faggot -- I'll disown you."
I didn't even know what a faggot was. I grew up watching reruns of Three's Company, however I never realized John Ritter's character was pretending to be gay within the show. That's how clueless I was. Yet, I knew my father's words were supposed to hurt, and they did.
A month before I turned eleven my family had moved to my mother's hometown, population 1,500. By this time my only sibling, my brother (who was two and a half years older than myself), had already been molesting me for a while. It was one other secret I had to keep. The molestation lasted from middle school through my high school years, and culminated in depression, as well as a feeling that I had to stay closeted. As it was, in sixth grade I was wanting to ask questions about my sexuality, but was unable to without ridicule from even my teachers. Granted, this was the Midwest in the 90s. Even the sexually charged Melrose Place never once showed their only gay character in a lip lock, and when they attempted to, it was censored by FOX.
I had accidentally learned of cruising (typically walking or driving around town in search of an anonymous sex partner) by the time I was fifteen after overhearing a classmate talking about her uncle being arrested at a wayside for sex with men. Thinking back, this should have warned me not to engage in such risky behavior, but instead, I felt forced into finding sexual experiences that were not being forced onto me. And they had to be in secret. It was really that simple when I was growing up.
The depression led to suicidal thoughts. Eventually I went from someone who was supposed to have skipped a grade to someone who was constantly struggling in school and often playing hooky. The latter led to a truancy note, which was warning of an expulsion. I hid it from my parents. I came to conclusion during my sophomore year that the most logical step was to run away. The internet had just recently begun to become mainstream, and I had been hearing of chat rooms. I decided to try to make some new friends and find a new life online. I didn't take too long before I met a man who offered me a place to stay. I took him up on it.
He picked me up one night after work, and we drove for almost two hours before arriving at his house. First thing he did when we got inside was point me to his collection of Disney tapes and then leave me there alone while he took a shower. When he came out of the shower he was wearing only his bath robe. I made it known that I didn't want what he wanted, but he pulled out a gun and led me upstairs. I was forced to do things with this fifty year old man that I wasn't ready for. I ended up having a panic attack and was able to use it as an excuse to sneak outside for a cigarette and figure out a way to escape.
He got cold and needed to grab a coat. Once he stepped back inside, I took off and ran for what seemed like forever. Eventually I came by a snowy bank and covered myself in snow, praying that I would die. After a while, though, I found the strength to get up.
I walked twenty miles that night. Near dawn I came across a payphone and called my parents. Instead of my parents showing up, however, a police car rolled up. The following months were filled with cops, investigations and an impending trial. I was scared and didn't want to face the man again, so I dropped all charges (even after learning his home was next to a daycare).
I felt extremely guilty of this, and still do. But as my mother told me, this was why I should never talk to gay people, I once again had to cover up who I was. After months of ridicule at school, classmates calling me faggot (the news of the sexual assault made the local radio stations and the local newspapers the school carried -- which were in fact hung on every single locker in the school), I was more depressed than ever.
Somehow, as I managed to graduate from high school, I graduated from a controlling family environment to a controlling adulterous relationship with a married woman. She was my roommate's sister-in-law. She was soon moving to Humboldt County with her husband, however, in the months leading up to the move, her husband broke his foot and I was the one who was capable to help her with garage sales, cleaning and packing. She was the first person to tell me that she loved me.
Having someone say they loved me filled a void in my head. If I could force myself to have sex with her - which eventually happened over the course of the next five years - I could be cured and show everyone that I was the â€œnormalâ€ person. I would be the person they wanted me to be. This new found outlook, coupled with my parents making jokes about my sexual assault (just months after it happened), at my brother's graduation party nonetheless, I felt compelled to accept their view on homosexuality. After all, I was so disturbed about the possibility of going to hell, that when I had my first sexual experience with a girl and she claimed to be pregnant, I thought for sure I was going to have to marry her and be forever trapped in a loveless relationship. Fortunately, it was a false alarm.
After a while I ended up moving to Humboldt County. I lived with the woman and her husband, and tried to convince everyone that I was straight by telling more people than I should've about the affair. As the years went on, the inner turmoil continued and I found myself cruising once again, just to have some moment of truth in my life.
More than five years have passed since the affair ended. I've finally been able to be honest to myself. I felt like I was born again. The only way I have been able to survive in recent years is by putting what happened in my life in two separate categories. Everything that happened to me prior to eighteen is not my life. The way I view it, it's like having memories of someone else's life. However, when I see my parents or talk to old friends I'm reminded of the pain.
I view the horrible mistakes of post-eighteen as just that.
With my new found sense of self I was able to come out to my parents, and come clean of the sexual abuse. With Prop 8 and discussions regarding marriage equality happening in many households, I felt compelled to discuss my sexuality with my parents for the first time since coming out to them. Instead of offering their support, they compared me to a pedophile. Since then I have made many attempts to educate them on gay rights, Sometimes through conversations, other times through some of my favorite films The Celluloid Closet and Milk. I had them meet friends of mine who were gay. I've shown them with how I'm building my life that I'm healthier, happier and stronger than ever before. We are finally close, and talk more than we ever have.
Having moved to a place of acceptance, ironically the state where same-sex marriages were voted away, I have become stronger, more open-minded, and most importantly -- more loving of myself.
I've come to realize that most of the so-called gay community has it backwards. I don't support gay pride parades, as I'm not proud to be gay any more than I'm proud to be a U.S. citizen. I just am. I don't like gay bars, because self-segregation is never good and I believe it does more harm than good. After all, I feel perfectly accepted going to a "straight" bar. I don't like Will & Grace because it was only popular for a mainstream audience by way of essentially making fun of homosexuals. Queer as Folk just perpetuated on stereotypes, and even Brokeback Mountain wasn't nearly the film Big Eden is.
Sometimes it seems that the gay community has shunned me because of my past (and oddly, because of my current state of thinking, as well) making me feel ostracized. It's almost like they expect one to act a certain way too, and that's just as wrong. I don't feel like part of the gay community, I just long for unity.
I feel in terms of finding your own "gay community" should be the same as how heterosexuals find other heterosexuals. Go out and be yourself. Do what you enjoy. Go where you want. Pay attention to others. Really it's as simple as interacting with others. They may not be homosexual, but that's the thing. It shouldn't matter. If you enjoy their company, it shouldn't matter. Don't be heterophobic, and don't let homophobia win. Go out and find similarities with others beyond your sexuality.
Gay may be how I identify, but it's certainly not my identity.