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 experience, what I felt about boys in my class — but the word still felt ill-fitting. And 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 stupid. 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 gotten punished for saying words like “shit” and “damn,” but I do remember a horrified elementary teacher reprimanding someone: “Don’t 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 and said explicitly that homosexuality was a grave sin.
I knew about sin. I had spent a lot of time overseas — my parents were missionaries and often traveled to other congregations to talk about the Christian orphanage they founded in Zambia, Africa. So I got a fair sampling of the various micro-sects of conservative Christianity during my childhood. The general consensus among them was that gay people were against God.
That’s how they said it: against. Gays were not merely unaware of the Bible’s mandates, like people in Africa were — people who, with white missionary help, could be saved once they heard the truth. No, gay people were enemy combatants: they were actively against the Bible. Their lifestyle choice was antagonistic against everything the church stood for. They had heard the holy word and abandoned it. They were not lost sheep. They were not utilized as caricatures of non-Christians that we studied in Sunday school to 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 — believed by Christians to be the purest representation of God on earth.
I was fascinated by all this. I enjoyed theology, even at a very young age. But then I was up 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. The majority of my sex dreams are about men I know. All my sex, to date, has been with men. I know the word “bisexual,” but “bisexual” feels wrong. It feels like an even split down the middle, and that’s not me. I know the word “pansexual” — I learned it my first year of college — but I don’t think that’s me, either.
A teacher here at college has a saying: labels are tools, not cages. I understand 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 one that does the job well enough? Labels are ill-fitting tools, but they are useful ones, and I’d love to find one that fits most circumstances in which a label would be useful — in dating, sex, and more.
I think I’ll keep saying “gay.” 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 in the world: 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, and that its hunger and cravings live in a place that knows no bounds.
Labels are easy tags and over-simplifications. They make dating simple. My label tells guys in my class what I want to do. As a social practice, labeling oneself seems very systematic, very neat and clean, just something everyone does at some point. But my identity, whatever it is, is not clean. It’s messier, instinctive, impulsive. It wants and 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. New words come to us as rapidly as commercial celebrities and social media trends. We are given new ways to express ourselves daily. Doesn’t it all seem like a bit much? Label overload? How do you cut through the confusion and nonsense and land on something definite?
In a person’s journey to self-understanding, I would encourage them to try on 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 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 very pure. It should ring true to everyone. I have never understood the animosity some feel against queer people because all humans want the same basic things: connection, intimacy, and good old-fashioned fun.
The only thing I really understand now is religion. I know the feeling of lifting my hands in a stadium while a band plays a song about the grace of god, 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 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 at most — it must be similarly easy to make them feel hate. I have witnessed that firsthand. I sat for years in places and listened to sermons that made me hate myself — that made me pray 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 too — words like “anarchist,” “erotic,” and “autonomy.” Language is powerful. 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 butterfly, resting there, open. Would I be able to approach such a thing in real life? Is one ever able to approach such a pleasure object without fear? Would I tell her I was a beginner and needed some guidance? How does a person explore something different in sex? How did I?
I explored my desire for men clumsily. I remember walking through the woods with my father while 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 going to kiss me the last time I saw him. Johnson vanished from my life a few months later — 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, heroin, but I knew it was bad. I never heard from him again.
But he was going to kiss me, and my great longing — the absence of his kiss — fueled me until college, carried me through the many fights with Dad, through my coming-out. In college, many men have kissed me. College has been where I got drunk and stumbled home with men. Every man I have undressed has been a discovery, not of them, but of me. I’ve learned what I want.
The word “rapture” comes to mind. In Christianity, the rapture is the taking of the saved before the last days, something Christians love to fantasize about. There are Christian films depicting this event. What a word to use, “rapture” — the thing someone feels during orgasm. The word is synonymous with “ecstasy,” “joy,” and “pleasure.” Once, the word filled me with fear, and now it’s the best descriptor for the experience of gay sex.
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, like the one I climbed the first time I first spoke the truth.