I came out at the age of 25, after three failed relationships with girls, after months of regularly weeping myself to sleep, after seeing my future self in the abysmal drunkard that wrote the journals of John Cheever, after typing up and posting in visible spots in my apartment signs that read, for example, You will never, ever amount to anything real. Not ever. And you will always be unhappy., and after a night when I didn’t so much sleep as stare at the ceiling, feeling my body fall and fall and fall into the mattress. It’s a boring story. I tell it only because today has been designated by the powers that be National Coming-Out Day, and this feels to me to be a more productive way of observing the occasion than donating my Facebook status.
I’m not going to tell you about those girls (though I apologize forever for what I wasn’t able to say to them, what I wasn’t able to give). The story of the closeted fag’s dalliances with straightlihood is an old one, always funny. Instead, I want to tell you about a boy, about James. James lived up the street from me. He was the only boy I ever got into a fight with. I recall trying to poke him in the eyes and going home with a bloody nose. James was bigger than me, able to hold me down. He had a round, white, biscuit face with freckles. Snaggleteeth. Blond curls. By age twelve he’d got a weight bench for Christmas and begun using it. I’d stay over some nights during the summer and he’d strut around shirtless in cutoff sweats, or sometimes just his briefs. His body had this heft and excess to it?in four years he’d wrestle for our high school?that I knew I wanted to look at. Maybe to touch.
The first time I recall realizing what I wanted and that what I wanted was wrong was, of course, at Bible Camp. Ten of us ages 10-12 in a bunkhouse with two counselors?Bible-college boys on summer break. After his shower, one boy stood naked at the sink, brushing his teeth maybe. Another boy pointed this out to the room and I up in my top bunk craned my neck to look. Everyone laughing. The boy unabashed. Did I look too long? “Ew, David’s staring,” he yelled and everyone turned distrustfully to me. The next day I awoke to the sound of one of our counselors leaving the shower. His bunk was next to mine. I opened my eyes, he flicked the towel’s knot at his waist, and there he was.
There are movies where this kind of lustful yearning becomes the stuff of puppy-love, of romance even, but those movies concern straight characters. Nothing in the above doesn’t reek of the pedophiliac. I am ashamed of the attraction I had to boys, though I was just a boy at the time. Had I been straight, I could look fondly back on all this. I could have a set of memories to share. Instead, I have this discomfort. This loss.
Listen: I loved James. He was obnoxious, crass. No one you could count on. But I was hopelessly in love with him. I’ll probably always be (his birthday is March 7, I still remember), but I’ve never told anyone about this because even now it feels like some perversion I have to keep secret. This is what it’s like to grow up gay: to trust that the feelings you have every day are sick and perverted. To know that the people you are attracted to would never return that attraction, or would return it with violence. To resign love for everyone else in the world. And so we turn to people of the opposite sex, and we try to feign the enthusiasm that others finally start to feel for us.
I dated Katie in middle school, and was surprised when she asked me when I was going to French her. The thought had never occurred to me. When I did, at her locker, I had a lemon-favored Jolly Rancher in my mouth. The whole thing was stupid, a mess. All first kisses are embarrassing, but no first kiss should have to be tragic, because self-deluded, because compulsory and performative.
Romance is a thing denied a gay kid. Maybe this is why I like to write romance off as bullshit, as marketing tool, as self-delusion. But if I have a wish this Coming-Out Day it’s?well, it’s that no gay kid feel impelled to suicide for any reason?but also it’s that every gay kid could grow up with a first love sanctioned by the world around him. A first love he can fall and fall and fall into.
If someone tells you he’s gay today, tell him thanks for confiding in you. Then ask if he’s in love. And then listen to his story.