I’m 52 for fuck’s sake, dealing with what feels like things that should have been dealt with when I was a teenager. Shame creeps in here in so many ways. Why am I late to the party, again? This is a story about coming out of the closet as a bisexual man. Coming out isn’t what I expected. Partly because I never expected to come out. I’m not gay. But I’m not straight. From these earliest homophobic stirrings of worry that I might be gay there was always that shadow, that other voice reminding me, I like girls; and then, women. How could I be gay when I daydream about sex with women so much of each day? Why would a man who likes women need to come out?
I knew there was a word bisexual. I knew it was a thing. But I had never seen one, or met one that I knew of. When you only know of something as an abstract idea, it’s hard to get a handle on it. To understand what it looks and feels like. It’s hard to know how to be a bisexual person if you’ve never seen or met a bisexual person. It’s hard to even believe they are real. So there’s nothing there but questions. Questions I was not in the least interested in exploring or understanding for fear of being found out. The last thing in the world I wanted to be thought of then was gay. Gay people got beat up. Or worse. And here is where I get to unpack the fact that back then I was living as a straight guy. I passed as a straight guy, I thought I was a straight guy. What I’m getting at is I’ve been there in the groups of straight guys listening to them talk. About lots of things, among them women and gay people. Listening to the way straight boys without much guidance talk about girls, sex, homosexuality—it was mystifying, sometimes hilarious, and often shameful or scary. I hang my alcoholism largely on this imposter life, the life someone in the closet lives, constantly under duress, surrounded by discomfort or worse.
I certainly would never confide any of the things I was feeling with any of the boys I knew. Nor my dad, because he was one of them. Here’s one of the ways I’ve come to think of this, I can imagine how a straight guy feels when they are somewhere and a couple guys kiss. It’s an awkward feeling. I know, I’ve been there in rooms where that happens. The look on a guy’s face in that situation who isn’t gay might resemble recoiling disgust, or maybe laughter as if from a joke, or somewhere between on the big old scale of straight male discomfort. Anxiety even. That’s how I feel around straight guys talking about sex and women much of the time. Many people think it odd that I don’t like going to strip clubs. I’m a sex-positive, voyeruristic, booty-loving dude who enjoys watching someone who has confidence and swagger get naked. Men, women, and all across the gender spectrum, but especially gals in all their forms it seems. But to me, I simply can’t be in a strip club around all those charged up straight guys. It feels like being in a locker room, it’s not a sexy place, it’s a scary place, a place that feels like fear if anything.
I’ve felt welcome and been inspired at gay clubs, but depending on the scene, I do sometimes feel like a tourist when immersed in gay culture, like I’m on vacation from straightland. I don’t feel straight, but I would hesitate to bring up the topic of my live-in girlfriend in such a gay club because of the fear of being seen as straight. It comes from both sides, this very real experience of imposter syndrome. That question many gay men have for me, aren’t I really gay but just afraid to admit it? No. I’m not. I’ve had to ask it of myself a bajillion times, and no. And yet I ask it again. And there’s a similar question, am I gay, but normalized myself into dating women? Also no. After similarly drilling myself as much as the previous question, I simply know that’s not true. And yet I ask it again. Ugh. I know I really am this thing, bisexual, but where does that leave me now? Why does this even matter to me?
As a kid, the guys I hung out with were all straight, and into all the sports, especially college basketball. In our part of the world that largely meant the Syracuse Orangemen. There was the whole season and then the big tournament, March Madness, and the finals which garnered so much attention. And I tried really hard to keep track of all of it. Players names and their positions and who was best at what, and which team won the game against who, and what the records were. It was like going to school. No, school was easy, this was harder. I couldn’t understand how these guys, my friends, possibly remembered all of this stuff, and could just casually toss off bits of stats and trivia during long conversations about the game the night before. By the time I was a senior I was just about ready to realize I didn’t have to like watching and talking about sports. But in most of high school, I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t know all the sports stuff, as that was obviously the currency among the boys, and even the men. I just couldn’t quite see that I didn’t actually like watching sports, and that I didn’t have to.
Now, playing sports was another matter entirely. I was an athletic kid. I took to most sports fairly quickly. Before high school or jr high I pitched in TShirt league baseball; and I was a tight end (LOL) in what was called Pop Warner football, which was my absolute favorite thing as a kid. I really liked playing baseball, especially pitching. But not batting, I was really scared of batting. But playing football, that was it. Everything about it, and not leastly because I got to wear a fairly extravagant uniform as a football player. Shoulder pads! Hip pads! Pads everywhere! A helmet and an actual mouthguard I had to soak in hot water and mold myself! An absolutely custom one for me! It was amazing. Playing was fun too, though I didn’t really understand what we were doing. I mostly just tried to knock down the guy in front of me. And, maybe I mostly enjoyed the uniform. That was 6th grade. The last year before heading up to the jr high / high school complex, where 7th and 8th grades awaited. Where high school sports awaited. And high school sports locker rooms.
I quickly developed a dislike of the highschool boys locker room. I really didn’t understand it at the time, and this has been some of the most confusing and puzzling part of my coming out story to me. About playing sports.
I don’t recall wanting to be a fireman or to have whatever job when I was a little kid like some do right off the bat, but I did want to be a pro football player. A cornerback. Like Lester Hayes and Mike Haines, the two best of the best at the time. I dreamed of it. Covering throws while diving, while running, knocking them out of the air, or intercepting them without looking, one-handed, while tackling or being tackled. All of these things were the most fun, and I was fairly good at them. At least I thought so as a little kid playing in the side yard or the park. My dad and I bonded over tossing the football like few other things. And the young friends I had were mostly friends to throw the ball with. Whether it was a football or baseball, or maybe a whiffle ball or frisbee didn’t so much matter. But it was typically a football. Throwing, running, diving, catching, I just loved football.
And then when the time came to sign up for football, or any sport in high school, to my dad’s bewilderment I’m sure, I declined. Also my friend Danny, who was always the quarterback, from when we were little kids, through high school too. Throwing footballs back and forth was the basis of our friendship. He urged me to play on the high school team as soon as we both could, but I wouldn’t do it, again to his rather bewilderment. To me, the confusing part is how easily I made the decision not to, and how effortlessly and completely I hid the reason for not wanting to join, even from me. Everyone knew I loved football and playing football. And yet it just never seemed to bother anyone that I didn’t want to join the team where I could follow through on doing that very thing I liked. Including me. I sit here in my 50s, shocked that it didn’t bother me more. Shocked at all the things I was able to completely ignore.
It’s taken me decades to understand that, primarily, I didn’t want to be around all those boys, especially in a locker room. I saw too many frightening things in there. Kids beat up, heads stuck in the toilet, clothes taken and naked kids locked outside. Boys were their absolute worst in a locker room. I saw a boy spit a nasty awful chunk of plegm on a wall and leave it there, and then a few days later I saw another boy eat it off the wall on a dare. Boys hit each other at every seeming opportunity. And I saw the constant, unceasing needling of boys calling each other fags, searching for weaknesses, and pouncing as a group when they find them. To top it off, there’s the nudity we aren’t supposed to notice. I understood the rules, boys don’t look at other boys while naked, but as they are unwritten rules, they are far from clear. If someone’s naked, why wouldn’t I want to look at them? If a naked girl walked through, everyone would look. So why not at all the naked boys? But then even though we aren’t supposed to look, they start fucking around with each other making jokes and playing grab ass and snapping towels of course. So it’s like it’s ok to look sometimes, but not other times. So I just kept my head down and didn’t look anywhere as best as I could. I really didn’t understand why this had to be so complex. But really I wasn’t much tempted, or afraid of being caught looking at anyone there. Nothing in that place turned me on. It was a gross and scary place where bad things happened and I just tried to get in and out as fast as possible.
Now, there were parts of gym class itself that I did like and even looked forward to. In elementary school we’d sometimes square dance in gym class, with the girls and boys combined, and I loved that. And then there was dodgeball. Oh, man, I loved dodgeball. I know there are a lot of queer people out there with very much the opposite feelings about dodgeball, but that’s not me. I was good at dodgeball. I was good at most of the you-can’t-get-me sports. I was picked fairly early for teams. Frequently, playing my favorite gym sport, every-one-for-themself dodgeball, it would end up with me versus the meaner of the Todds as the last two standing, circling each other like cats waiting for a weakness to show, and the right moment to align. It was a safe spot, with rules that were simple to understand. Two of us left, one of us was about to be out. I was fully embodied and within myself and I trusted my intuitions. The sound that red rubber ball made when it hit a bully square and hard was brilliant. A sharply echoing slapback, almost like a laser pistol. Beautiful. I didn’t win every time, but I hit that bully in the head more than once and I enjoyed knowing I hurt him. I’m not saying I should feel proud of that, of violence. But I did. I enjoyed watching bullies suffer. Still do. For some reason in gym class I felt strong enough to do that myself. Until we stepped back into the locker room.
Another you-can’t-get-me sport at which I excelled was actually called Smear the Queer. Now, Smear the Queer was, as far as I remember, prohibited. This was elementary school in the late 70s. We weren’t to use that name when talking about Smear the Queer, as it was considered mean by at least one of the adults; and we weren’t supposed to play Smear the Queer at all because at least one of the adults thought it was too dangerous for unsupervised play. This was something we did out on the playground at recess with no adults around. All you needed was an open area and some kids. You found an object, a ball if you were lucky, and tossed it into the middle of the kids. Someone picked it up, becoming the Queer, and then everyone else attempted to Smear them, or tackle them. No goal line, no points, just Smear the Queer with the ball. I absolutely L-O-V-E-D Smear the Queer, and particularly being the Queer. In those many moments when the ball (or can, stick, whatever) would end up on the ground, surrounded by would-be Smearers all ready to jump, all waiting like coiled springs, all anticipating playground violence, none willing to do it themself, to pick it up; I would. I would try my best to be the one to pick it up before some other kid would kick it away, sick of the wait, and no taste for the anticipation-laden rush I found so completely energizing. To run and be chased, to outfox and outmaneuver, to get away with something, and to be set apart and different. All of these things ring true now thinking back on Smear the Queer.
But despite my love of adrenaline and athleticism, I never played team sports in high school because of the boys locker room, and I didn’t realize why until I was about 50 years old. That I could pick up that ball there in the center of a crowd of kids anxious to tackle the first person they could…that I looked forward to. But letting them, or anyone know that I might be queer though. That was too scary. It feels so utterly weird remembering these things. I wanted to be hidden, and be the center of attention. I wanted to face down bullies in gym class, and shrink from the world everywhere else. I worried I was gay, but I was preoccupied with girls.