‘Gay’ Is a Tool, Not a Cage

All my life, I’ve loved climbing trees. When I was thirteen, I said the word “gay” out loud in the branches of a Southern live oak in the backyard.

I could climb to the top and look out over the horse pasture and my mother’s garden. I said it there so no one would hear me. I knew what it meant and I knew it was forbidden, like curse words, but I also understood it was a secret, something that couldn’t even be shared among friends. As self-protective animals, we instinctively hide our weakest parts without knowing fully what they are.

It wasn’t momentous. It wasn’t a realization and nothing close to self-identification. The concept of selfhood was still in embryo for me. I was just what I was told to be.

The word came to me the way all words come to kids. Other kids said it and I copied them. It was said on the playground, the equivalent of calling someone “weird” or “gross.” “You’re gay!” someone would yell. Some classmates spelled it out, G-A-Y, instead of saying it fully because it was, actually, a curse word. I don’t remember any kids getting in trouble for saying it — it wasn’t punishable like “shit” and “damn” — but I do remember one of the teachers saying, “Don’t you ever say that again!”

Its true meaning came in church. This was the South. Accents are strong and lilted. Philip, a blond boy who later got arrested for something, was my age — twelve, maybe — and asked about gay people in Sunday School. I don’t remember exactly how our teacher answered (I know her name was Theresa), but I know she explained that gay people are men who have turned away from God and have sex with each other. She was visibly uncomfortable talking about it but said explicitly that homosexuality is a sin.

My parents were medical missionaries and often traveled to other congregations to talk about the Christian orphanage they founded in Zambia, so I got a fair sampling of the various micro-sects of conservative Christianity. The general consensus was that gay people were against God. It’s not that they were unaware of the Bible’s mandate, like people in Africa — people who, with white missionary instruction, could be saved once they heard the Word. No, gay people were actively against the Bible. They had heard the Word and rejected it. They were not “lost,” nor were they used as one of the caricatures of non-Christian people we studied in order to more effectively share our faith with them. There was this underlying sense that you should not try to save a gay person or even appraoch one because they were dangerous. They were enemies of Christ, disfigurations of something holy. That holy thing, I later learned, was heterosexual marriage — the purest representation of God on earth.

I was fascinated by all this. I liked theology, even when I was very young. As you grow up, ideas and concepts take root at a pace so glacial that you can’t tell when they form. They appear one day in a tree. Looking out over the field, I knew “gay” was me and I was it, and when I said it aloud in the air, it held weight and terror. It was fire and excitement and that should have been enough for me to know, but it wasn’t. I would spend the next few years debating and wondering and praying over it.

Today, as a self-described gay man, I’m struggling with words chosen and committed to. I guess you could say I’m frustrated that I ever had to choose a word, because now I have a sexual fantasy about a girl — the dark-eyed girl who works in the coffee shop where I read my college textbooks — and I don’t know what that makes me.

Most of my fantasies involve men. All my sex, to date, has been with men. I know the word “bisexual,” but “bisexual” seems wrong. It seems like an even split down the middle, and that’s not me. I know the word “pansexual” — I learned it in my first year of college — but I don’t think that’s me, either. I’ve never felt unsure of what I am, and now I’m a little offended that a word so rooted in my identity could be challenged.

A teacher here has a saying: labels are tools, not cages. I believe her, and I see the utility in labels as tools, but what do you do when you don’t know the label? How do you find one?

I don’t think I’ll announce myself as something different going forward. I could say “bi-curious” or “questioning,” but I feel that hardly merits an announcement. Sexuality is fluid — most of us are bisexual on some level. I’m just thinking about a girl. It sounds like the oldest story in the book: a boy is thinking about a girl. But not this boy. Not until now. And this boy, who prides himself on having made it, on having pulled a rich identity — gay — from the ashes of shame and faith has anchored his life on it. Its weakness, the concept of it, now seems paper-thin, and that feels like a betrayal.

Labels are digestible tags, over-simplifications. They make dating simple. My label tells guys in class what I am. Naming yourself seems very systematic, very clean. But my identity — whatever it is — doesn’t feel clean. It’s ruddier, messier, instinctive and hungry.

What do you think? You, whoever is reading this. Do you have a chosen word? We are the lost children of the digital age. Words come to us as rapidly as pop celebrities and social media trends. We are given new ways to express ourselves every day. Doesn’t it all seem a bit much? How do you cut through the confusion and land on something definite?

In the journey to self-understanding, we try many labels. That is clear enough to me from seeing friends evolve from “lesbian” to “queer” to “nonbinary” over the last two years.  Even our collective label, “queer,” is an attempted reclamation of an old slur. It, like others, has utility as an umbrella term for everyone who isn’t straight.

But what is “straight”? Everything is an identity in response to other identities. If you’re queer, you may have landed on something more specific, like “lesbian” or “asexual,” and the most you may be able to say about it is, “This is good enough for now.” I think that’s where I am with “gay.” It’s good enough. It does the job. It mostly fits.

Take away the words and I’m just another person wanting sex. Is that so complicated? This hunger, this need for the company of others, feels universal and very pure. It should ring true to everyone. I have never understood the animosity some feel against us. We all want the same thing.

The only thing I do understand is religion. I know the feeling of lifting your hands in a stadium while a band plays a rock song about God’s grace as a pastor murmurs prayers into a microphone. It fills you, makes you want to cry, and you come out of the church willing to commit your life to this. How nice it feels to want to believe in something. If beautiful songs and a man on a stage can make people feel loved in such a short time — an hour or two — imagine how easy one can make them feel hate. Imagine how years of sitting in these places and hearing these sermons sets your mind against others. Christians are very simple. They’re just regular people moved by words. I have been moved by words too, words like “anarchist,” “erotic,” and “autonomy.” We play with dangerous tools. Creation is not just God’s territory — we do it every day. Today I am a gay man. Tomorrow I might be something else. What could I be in seven days?

In my freshman year, a lesbian couple explained what a clitoris was at IHOP one night. One of them drew an illustration on a white paper napkin in black ink. I remember the illustration, a black thing like a bug or a butterfly, resting there, open, wet. Would I be able to approach it? Is one ever able to approach the body without fear? Would I tell her I’m a beginner and need help? How does one explore anything different? How did I?

I explored my desire for men clumsily. I remember walking through the woods with my father. He was trying to teach me about identifying trees and I was not paying attention. I was thinking about a guy named Johnson who I thought was about to kiss me the last time I saw him. Johnson vanished from my life a few months later — he ran away to California and was picked up by police near the state line. I never learned what happened next.

But the memory of his almost-kiss burned in me and nothing else mattered. Someone said he got mixed up in heroin and I didn’t know what that was, heroin, but I knew it was bad. I never heard from him again.

He was going to kiss me, and my great longing, the absence of his kiss, fueled me until college, through the fights with my father, through my coming out. In college, many men have kissed me. This is where I get drunk and stumble home with guys in my arms and smell their skin and hair and love them. Every man I undress is a discovery, not of them, but of me. I am learning what I’m capable of. I am monstrous and cruel, terrified and humble. It is wondrous how one can be all these things at one moment.

The word “rapture” comes to mind. In Christian myth, the rapture is the taking of the saved before the final days, something Christians like to agonize over. There have been several Christian films depicting this horrifying event. What a word, “rapture.” It still fills me with fear, but it’s also a place of warmth and light that I reach with each kiss. This is divinity. In each moment, the moments unlocking, cascading down his body, God dies, drop by drop. He withers into nothing, less than a concept, less than a word. I become God. I groan in the dark. My horns feel heavy on my head.

I remember my first boyfriend — it lasted two weeks, he broke my heart — and the night I fell in love with him. He held me against a tree at night and kissed me. Later, I realized the tree was a Southern live oak, an old one with branches reaching down, begging to be climbed, like the one I climbed the first time I said the word.

Love, Beastly

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  1. Brilliantly and beautifully written, as per usual. I appreciate the insight into men, as I feel totally the same but opposite – I understand my fellow women but completely don’t get men, yet as a straight woman I’m totally fascinated with them. The problem with heterosexual sex is that we simply don’t know what we’re doing to each other, and that frustration is part of the excitement. You should try it. 😉


  2. Hate to break it you young gayling but you are not so much “bi-curious” as pining for the heterosexual life you will never have and managing to dehumanize women along the way. Through in some bad, warmed over gender essentialist BS – women aren’t some alien species that men are doomed to never understand and their sexuality ins’t some prize to be conquered by hyper-masculine men, straight or gay, and magic dicks. Maybe you should spend less time dreaming that you will find this fictional woman who meets all these superficial aesthetic masculine requirements and by some miracle trick your dick into staying hard just long enough for penetration. Then you can finally be free from the gay world you are still so uncomfortable with and maybe bring home some butch girl to make your parents and their god happy that you aren’t like the rest of those poor fags who don’t have the same fortitude that you do to cultivate that tiny sliver of supposed heterosexuality that you are so pleased about. Here is an alternate theory – like a large chunk of gay men, you are hoping that by coming out again as “bi-curious” you are holding out hopes for you and your parents that with enough work, you can live that prized heterosexual life that you still want deep down inside…It will probably take you another few years to finally slay that remaining dragon and embrace your gay identity not out of some fatalistic “I can’t help it” view of gayness but out of an affirmative embrace for all the great things that come from loving another man.

    PS – Do you really think these women fantasy about the great sex they could be having with limp dicked, gay men who hope that they can “break themselves in” by experimenting with her anatomy – nothing more than a human sex toy to hopefully retrain your homoness for that sweet heterosexual coitus?


    1. ^ Ladies and gentleman, I present bi-phobia at its ugliest. This commenter is laboring under the delusion that bisexuality isn’t real, that sexuality isn’t fluid, and that a self-identified gay man cannot physically desire and fantasize about women. I believe that desires are a composite of fantasy and sincerity, stereotyping and idealizing, confusion and clarity. Desires are messy, and do not fit into these hard labels we have created to quantify them. I am, actually, sincerely, bi-curious, and I am not trying to “shy away” or apologize for my homo attractions by admitting this truth. This bi-curiosity is sexual and physical and certainly objectifying — but no more objectifying than the way I envision the men I would love to fuck. A cursory glimpse of my blog should be enough to convince anyone that I am not “pining” for a heterosexual life, but in case there’s any confusion: I’m queer, which means I resist hard labels and clear definition, although I will say that the majority of my attractions are for gay men. Does this make me gay? For the sake of convenience and a more succinct Scruff profile, yes.


      1. As I only recently ran across your blog after reading one of your advocate columns about your bisexual boyfriend, what actually surprised me about this post was the striking difference, both factually and theoretically, between the two. The sudden zeal to find your inner bisexual and the seemingly desperate, obsessive logical parsing of yourself to find some glimmer of potential heterosexual desire, was completely absent from the Advocate article, which came across as more sincere and authentic defense of bisexuality. In the Advocate article, the contrasting sexualities of gay and bisexual men came across as sincere, heartfelt, and thus helpful in making the case for gay men to recognize that most bisexual men are not self-loathing gay men still stuck in a partial closet still suffering from the envy of the powerful privileges that society uses to enforce heterosexuality on us. Why no mention of this newfound “bicuriosity” that you are keen to promote on your blog in the Advocate article? Did you strategically exclude this tidbit fearing that that the very gay men you were hoping to persuade may find you less credible? Or is this a reaction to what you yourself noted as your own inability to refrain from cheating? Have you know idealized your former boyfriend’s bisexuality and now want to claim apart of it for yourself? Much of the resistance gay men have had to bisexuality is grounded in the justifiable fear that so long as homophobia and heterosexism are so ingrained in our society, bisexuality can reinforce in gay men many of the evils that still haunt us – the fetishing of hyper-masculinity, the toxic combination of homophobia and misogyny that imposes a hierarchy of beauty and desire with the “masculine” at the top and the “feminine” at the bottom, and finally both overt and subtle association of heterosexuality with masculinity and homosexuality with femininity, both by the heterosexual majority and tragically even among many of the homosexual minority. No discussion of bisxuality, especially among men, can ignore these larger, structural forces when evaluating both the action of individuals and collective norms that can arise in minority communities.
        I have to admit that I left the original blog comment out of anger as I was very impressed and moved by the Advocate article and so I googled you to find your blog hoping to find similar commentary. When I found this blog post praising your own cultivation of something vaguely approaching “bi-curiosity” and the implication that gay men, whom by definition aren’t attracted to women, are somehow less evolved or even biphobic if suspect that there is nothing new here. Most gay men have spouted the same line when they struggle with accepting their own homosexuality and many claim a transitory bisexual identity as they transition to being openly gay.
        Ultimately, no one should really take seriously what anyone says on sex blog as such blogs are really just another form of soft core porn – can be entertaining, even get you off but not dependale in the long run…


        1. Oh boy. There’s a lot of unpack there, but I’ll attempt to address your points in order. 1. I didn’t mention my own bisexual curiosity in the Advocate article because I had a word limit. 2. You seem to be looking for underlying reasons as to why I may be bi-curious, when I don’t think there need to be any. I just am, and I’m not sure why that needs defending or explaining. 3. You’re inserting a discussion about cultural norms regarding masculinity and femininity that on its own is a sincere and good discussion to be had that certainly has far-reaching implications in gay male culture, but is not mentioned in my blog post, in my article, or anywhere I’ve written about bisexuality. 4. I don’t see bisexuality as a transitional “phase” between heterosexuality and homosexuality, and I don’t think it’s illegitimate or even unrealistic to be bi-curious. Granted, many gay men and women have used the label of bisexuality to this end, which does nothing but hurt bi visibility. I’m not doing that. I’m simply discussing my own bi-curiosity. Is that so absurd? 5. Your final comment makes me completely disregard everything else you’ve said. You’re eloquent and passionate, but that final, prudish, sex-negative dig shows that you’re really not here for a real debate. You’re here to pick a fight. Kid, I enjoy a good text battle, but only with someone worthy of the time. A sex blog, in my humble opinion, can and should be taken seriously, and can be very dependable. What’s wrong with soft core porn? I’d hardly consider my blog that outlandish, but I appreciate the descriptor. Au revoir.


      2. How butch of you to let us know that you are such a viral man, dare I say “straight acting”? What is more “straight acting” than having sex with a woman? Maybe that is what is really motivating you…


        1. Where, in the article or in these comments, have I mentioned “straight-acting”? That’s truly an offensive and silly turn of phrase. What is so implausible about the idea that I may actually want to have sex with people of both genders?


  3. Oh my goodness. Reading this post has my heart beating faster and my imagination afire. Coming up to me and stating you are a beginner is an extraordinary turn on. I love your blog and thoughtful articles and that sentence would bowl me over.


  4. Oh my goodness. Reading this post has my heart beating faster and my imagination afire. Coming up to me and stating you are a beginner is an extraordinary turn on. I love your blog and thoughtful articles and that sentence would bowl me over.


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