So it started with a long-time fandom friend quote-tweeting a request for those of us who are queer to tell him what age we were when we realized we weren’t straight. The simple question kicked off thousands of likes and hundreds of replies. Skimming through the many stories people tell while answering the question is both interesting and occasionally moving.
I gave a simple reply: “Spring at the end of fifth grade-puberty hit like a freight train. I was just four months shy of my 12th birthday.” That answer is both true, and incomplete. Like many people, I knew that I was different from an extremely early age. As long as I can remember people were calling me various slurs for homosexual. I could never figure out why I was unable to act like a “normal boy,” but most of the people I knew made it very clear that something was wrong with me.
When I was four years old I made the mistake of describing a neighbor friend as my “boyfriend”—not because I had a crush on him, but because I mistakenly thought that a boyfriend was a friend who happens to be a boy, while a girlfriend was a friend who happened to be a girl. My grandmother had a hissy fit, and went on a bit of a tirade about how little boys could have girlfriends, and when we got older we would find a special girlfriend and marry them and have children and spend the rest of our lives with them. And I knew down to the bone that she was wrong, but I didn’t have to conceptual framework to explain it even to myself.
Unlike a lot of people in the replies to the original question, I knew homosexuals existed. Growing up in Southern Baptist churches I had heard many a sermon about the sexual perversions of the homosexuals. So I knew that when all of those people were calling me those names what they meant. I didn’t connect that certainty I had had when grandma was talking about my future with the evil beings described in the sermons. While I knew, in theory, what romance and sex were, I didn’t recognize the feelings I was having. I know now, for instance, that I had crushes on certain fictional male characters and actors from a very early age, but I didn’t know that the reason I so admired Mark Goddard or Robert Conrad was that I had a crush.
And I also was certain I couldn’t be gay because for most of grade school my best friend (at each of the towns we moved to) was usually a girl. Heck, some of the adults in my life referred to those best friends as my girlfriend (of which I knew the correct meaning by then). So, clearly, I liked girls, right? So I couldn’t be any of those things people called me.
And since I had been taught at church and Sunday School that homosexuals were evil and going to hell—that homosexual people were so evil that god destroyed two whole cities of them in the old testament—I desperately wanted not to be a homosexual.
Fifth grade was when everything changed. I had a growth spurt that involved literal growing pains. I was crying at night from the aches, particularly in the knees, often enough that my parents took me to the doctor. The doctor noticed my “high water” pants right away, and noted that I’d grown 4 or 5 inches in height (according to the chart) since my previous visit. During the exam he also commented on hair that was growing on parts of my body, and made some comments about other changes that might happen soon, which mostly just embarrassed me at the time.
A few months after that I woke up in the middle of the night again, though this time no pain was involved. I had a dream about kissing a boy i knew from school, and simultaneously experienced my first orgasm. I spent the rest of the night silently praying, begging god not to let me be a homo.
The next day at school was when I realized that I had a bit of an obsession with how the same boy’s butt looked in the Levi jeans he always wore. And I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I couldn’t stop looking at him.
He wasn’t one of my friends. He wasn’t one of the guys at school that I actively disliked, either. But once I had recognized the effect he was having on me, I started actively trying to avoid him. Which seemed to make the obsession worse. That was a pattern for most of the next 14 years: I would get a crush on some guy, I’d pray that god would take the feelings away and I’d try to avoid contact with them, which would only make it worse and I’d wind up crying and praying even more fervently late into the night.
I want to emphasize that I was never sexually molested as a child. I had had no sexual experiences of any kind with anyone before the night of the dream when I was eleven years old. I later had some experiences with guys my age starting around the age of 14. They were always furtive and scary and left me more convinced I was going to burn in hell for eternity.
After my parents divorced, Mom, my full sister, and I moved 1200 miles away to a town that was large enough that there was more than one high school. And I got involved with an interdenominational teen choir—where I still more than occasionally got called those slurs, but I also made a lot more friends than I had ever had before. And I didn’t have sex with any guys for three years. I even dated some girls. Okay, so two of them came out as lesbian years later, but I was trying!
The feelings, including developing crushes on guys, never stopped during that time. Despite my prayers (and the weekly special prayer meetings Mom, my aunt, and some of the church ladies were having to try to pray my gay away that I didn’t know about at the time). I would also learn later that one of the reasons that I wasn’t given leadership or musical positions I tried for in the choir was because the director was also convinced I was gay. Which just got worse when a couple of guys in the group got caught having sex. I’ve written about the hypocritical response to that previously.
It wasn’t until I was 24 years old that I was able to say, “I think I might be gay” to a close friend. The truth was, I didn’t merely think I might be, I was quite certain. But even then, I internalized enough of the self-loathing and fear that I couldn’t quite admit it, and grasped at the slimmest of straws that it might not be so. It was more than 6 years after that before I would publicly come out.
I never decided to be gay. The only decision I made was to stop hiding who I was. I didn’t always know that I was gay, but for as long as I can remember I have been. I didn’t have the context or role models as a child to know what those feelings meant, and the strong and constant condemnation from family and church gave me plenty of incentive to ignore the implications until they became undeniable.
One of the reasons I talk up the importance of Pride is because we need to be seen. There are children out there who feel the way I did when I was four years old and grandma was emphatically explaining her vision of my future. They need to know they aren’t alone. They need to know that kids like them can grow up and find love. They need to know that kids like them can grow up to be old white-haired fogeys like me and have a job, a home, a spouse, and a host of friends who love and support them.
The need to know that if they aren’t straight, they are still worthy of love.