Here’s a story: when I was thirteen, I climbed to the top of a Southern live oak tree in the backyard and said the word “gay” out loud. Almost immediately, I knew I had committed a vague sin. Saying it felt like saying a curse word. I said it there so no one would hear me.
The fact that I needed some privacy tells me that I understood what the word meant, but saying it was not a momentous occasion, not a flash of self-identification that comes for some faggots when they watch porn or touch a dick. I knew what I wanted, what I wanted to me, but the word still felt ill-fitting. And if I’m being honest, it still does.
The word came to me as all words come to kids. Other kids said it on the playground. It was the equivalent of calling someone “stupid.” “You’re gay!” someone shouted when a friend fumbled the ball or did something annoying. Some classmates spelled it out, G-A-Y, instead of saying it fully because it was indeed a curse word or close to one. I don’t remember anyone getting in trouble for saying it as they would have for saying words like “shit” and “damn,” but I do remember a horrified elementary teacher reprimanding someone: “Don’t you ever say that again!”
Its true meaning came to me in church. This was Georgia. Accents were strong, lilted, absurd-sounding. Philip, a blond boy who later got arrested for something, was about my age — ten, maybe — and asked about gay people during Sunday School. I don’t remember exactly how our teacher answered, 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 about the subject and said explicitly that homosexuality was a sin.
I knew all about sin. My parents had been 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 during my childhood. 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 help, could be saved once they heard the Word. Gay people were actively against the Bible. Their lifestyle choice was, by default, antagonistic against grace and goodness. They had heard the Word and abandoned it. They were not lost sheep, nor were they utilized as caricatures of non-Christian people we studied in Sunday school to more effectively share our faith with them. There was an unspoken understanding that one should not try to save a gay person or even approach 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 enjoyed theology, even when I was very young. But one day I was in the tree, looking out at the field, some years older from the Sunday school lesson, and understood that “gay” was a step in the right direction for me. It held weight and terror. It was fire and excitement, the taste of disobedience. I would spend the next few years praying over it.
Today, as a self-described gay man, I still struggle with the word. I’m frustrated that I ever had to choose a label, because I have sexual fantasies about girls, like the dark-eyed girl who works in the coffee shop where I read textbooks and do homework, and I don’t know what that means for me.
Most of my fantasies involve men. In fact, the majority of my sex dreams are about men I know. All of my sex, to date, has been with men. I know the word “bisexual,” but “bisexual” seems wrong. It feels 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 until now, and now I’m a bit offended that a word so rooted in my identity could be challenged.
A teacher here at college has a saying: labels are tools, not cages. I get her logic, 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 the right one?
I don’t think I’ll announce myself differently going forward. I could say “bi-curious” or “questioning,” but I feel like that hardly merits an announcement. Sexuality is fluid —everyone is bisexual on some level. I’m gay and just thinking about a girl. It could be that easy, and it sounds like the oldest story: a boy is thinking about a girl. But not this boy. This boy, who prides himself on having made it, on having pulled a powerful identity — gay — from the ashes of shame and faith and anchored his life on it, has not thought about girls until very recently. If anything, I am evidence that the body resists being named, that its hungers live in a place of the mind that knows no boundaries.
Labels are easy tags, over-simplifications. They make dating simple. My label tells guys in my class what I want to do. Naming oneself seems very systematic, very clean. But my identity — whatever it is — is not clean. It’s ruddier, messier, instinctive, impulsive. It wants and wants.
What do you think? You, whoever you are, reading this. Do you have a chosen word?
We are the lost children of the digital age. Words come to us as rapidly as commercially packaged celebrities and social media trends. We are given new ways to express ourselves daily. Doesn’t it all seem a bit much? How do you cut through the confusion and nonsense and land on something definite about yourself? Do people have definite things, definite understandings?
In a person’s journey to self-understanding, I’d encourage them to try many labels. That is clear enough to me from seeing friends evolve from “lesbian” to “Queer” to “nonbinary” over the last few years. Even our collective label, “Queer,” is a reclamation of an old slur. It, like other words we use, has utility as an umbrella term for everyone who isn’t straight. But what is “straight”? Everything is an identity in response to another identity. Everything is a language invention. If you’re Queer, you may have settled on some specific word that works for you, like “lesbian” or “asexual,” and the most you may be able to say about it is, “This is good enough for me now.” I suppose that’s where I am with “gay.” It’s good enough. It does the job. Mostly.
Take away the words and I’m just another person wanting sex. This need for the company of others feels universal and pure. It should ring true to everyone. I have never understood the animosity some feel against us. We all want the same thing, the same rush.
The only thing I understand is religion. I know the feeling of lifting my hands in a stadium while a band plays a song about grace, while a pastor murmurs prayers into a microphone. In those places, that feeling filled me, made me want to cry, and I walked out of the church willing to give my life to this. How nice it feels to want to believe in something.
If lovely songs and a person on a stage can make people feel loved in such a short time — an hour or two — it must be similarly easy to make them feel hate. I have witnessed that firsthand. I sat for years in places and heard sermons that turned me against my own, and later, I spent years praying to be spared the sin of homosexuality. Christians are not hard to understand. They’re just people moved by words. I have been moved by words also — words like “anarchist,” “erotic,” and “autonomy.” Language is a powerful tool to play with. Creation is not just God’s territory — I do it every day. Today I am a gay man. Tomorrow I might be something else. Who knows what I could be in seven days?
In my freshman year, a lesbian couple explained what a clitoris was at IHOP late one night. One of them drew an illustration on a white paper napkin. I still remember the drawing, a black thing like a bug or a butterfly, resting there, open. Would I be able to approach it in real life? Is one ever able to approach the thing one wants without fear? Would I tell her I was a beginner and needed some guidance? How does a person explore something different? How did I?
I explored my desire for men clumsily. I remember walking through the woods with my father while was trying to teach me about identifying trees and I was not paying much attention. I was thinking about a guy named Johnson who I thought was going 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 the police near the state line. 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, but I knew it was bad. I never heard from him again.
He was going to kiss me, and my longing, the absence of his kiss, fueled me until college, through the fights with Dad, through my coming out. In college, many men have kissed me. College has been where I get drunk and stumble home with men in my arms and smell their skin and love them. Every man I have undressed has been a discovery, not of them, but of me. I’ve learned what I am capable of.
The word “rapture” comes to mind. In Christianity, the rapture is the taking of the saved before the last days, something Christians like to agonize over. There have been Christian films depicting this nightmarish event. What a word to use, “rapture” — the thing one feels at the point of orgasm. Once, the word filled me with fear, and now it’s the closest thing I can describe to the experience of being gay.
In each moment of sex, God died drop by drop. He withered into nothing.
I remember my first boyfriend in college — it lasted two weeks, he broke my heart — and the night I fell in love with him. He held me against a tree and kissed me. Later, I realized the tree was a Southern live oak, just like the one I climbed the first time I first spoke the truth.
What word are you?
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