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. As self-protective animals, we instinctively hide our weakest parts without knowing fully what they are. Without grasping its implications, I knew it was not something I could run tell my parents or sister about. It was something I had to keep to myself.
It wasn’t momentous. It wasn’t a realization, 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 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 of the boys 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 to me 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.