I want to find a moment in my past I can look at to say, that’s when I realized I was queer, that was the moment I knew it, and that’s when I decided to accept it. Or to fight for it. Maybe a moment someone told me not to be gay. Or a moment were I confided to someone that I thought I was gay or bi or queer. Maybe it was seeing that guy with the pierced nipples I mentioned in the last entry. I don’t know why, but it seems important to me somehow, to pinpoint this. There have been few moments of clarity like that in my life. I suppose that’s not an unusual distribution of such moments.
Among my earliest memories are playing doctor. There were a few kids, boys and girls both that I remember being around as a small child. Before my brother died. And I remember always wanting to get all of them naked with me. At some point it did become clear that I wasn’t supposed to feel the same way about the boys as the girls, but I don’t remember any specific incident. I search my memories for the boys I was attracted to as a child, but I don’t really find them. What I do find is the memories of boys not wanting to get naked any more at some point when we were all still quite young. Nothing spoken, it was just not done any longer. There were other toys more fun to play with now. For them, I mean. I still wanted to play doctor.
In Kindergarten, there was a very distinct boys side of the room and girls side of the room. On one side, a kitchen. On the other, racks of cars and trucks. The kitchen was fully outfitted with small-person-sized wooden toy appliances. There was a stove, refrigerator, table and chairs, pots and pans, etc. On the other side of the room, wooden cars and trucks, all of a set, but each different; a dump truck, a sports car, an ambulance, etc, all neatly lined up and waiting for us on shelves. I can still remember the feel of the smooth wooden shapes, they were different than the toys at home. There was one truck in particular every kid wanted, and always a rush to get to it. I remember plainly when playtime was announced, the girls would gravitate to the kitchen, and the boys would gravitate to the trucks. I wanted both.
I can recall there were adults who thought it funny enough to comment on how I liked to spend as much time in the kitchen as I did with the trucks. I was aware that this was for some reason unusual. I can also recall my very first crush, Rhonda. She taught me to tie my shoes in that kitchen in kindergarten. I stole a real diamond ring from my mother’s jewelry case to give to Rhonda one day back then. Her mother discovered it soon after and gave it back. I may have exhibited a flair for the dramatic. My crush on Rhonda would last through senior year of high school. I think it’s safe to say she took advantage of my feelings as we grew up; it’s also fair to say I objectified and fetishized her, and didn’t really understand my feelings or attraction for her any better than for anyone else.
What I do remember is becoming aware of the 1972 Burt Reynolds centerfold from an issue of Cosmopolitan. I was only 3 in 1972, so it wasn’t as the photos hit the newsstand so to speak, but at some point in my childhood, around the same time I was sneaking looks at Playboy and Penthouse at the corner store, I became aware of the Burt Reynolds Cosmo issue, and I was intrigued. I also became aware that there was a magazine called Playgirl, which, like Playboy, had pictures, but of men! And by this age I was definitely aware that I wasn’t supposed to be intrigued about that. I had a few friends who would pass Playboy issues around in secret, and together we’d set up elaborate scams at the corner store to look at all the centerfolds hidden within larger magazines, and involving lookouts and signals to keep adults from discovering us. Right there on the same shelves, partly hidden behind other magazines was Playgirl. It was right there, and I tried so hard not to notice that it was there, but it was. And I never, ever, touched it or looked at it, or even looked toward it for fear of my friends, or anyone noticing.
The only things I can recall as a kid about being directly told to not behave a certain way, was when I would play at my grandmother’s dressing table in her room. This is when I was quite young. My grandma was a classic bawbly jewelry, loud lipstick and nail polish type of gal, a former hairstylist who had also run a fabric store out of her house which I can just barely remember enjoying; and she had tons of what I thought was glamourous stuff all over her dressing table in her bedroom. Both my grandmothers did. I loved being in their bedrooms, but what I particularly loved about my Grandma Julia’s room was that her earrings were clip-ons, so I could wear them! But if she ever caught me, she would be sure to tell me not to do that. Not because it was hers, but because they were things for women and girls, and I was not a woman or a girl, and it was wrong for me to wear them, she said at least once
My other grandmother one time made a comment to me that I remember in a similar way. She was also a stylish lady in her own way; in the family she was known for never having less than four layers on. Always properly dressed, and buttoned-up, high up the neck. I would spend the night at their house quite often. They lived out in Watertown only about 20 miles south. On those nights we always ended the day watching the news, after which grandma would take her bath, grandpa would continue with more news, and I’d poke through the old issues of Airplane magazine he kept stacked behind the couch, eventually discovering the Playboy issues he had a subscription for, in my grandmother’s name, hidden there as well.
One night there with my grandparents, the world news ended with a human interest story about a group of nudists who were all jumping out of an airplane with parachutes together. I believe there was a world record of some kind involved. Now, I thought this was about the coolest thing I’d ever seen! I leaned way in toward the TV because they were showing naked people, but it was shot in a way where you could almost not tell if they were naked or not. TV was such a let down. Still though, it was pretty awesome! Before I could comment, my grandmother huffed her displeasure at the nudists, at the news for covering the story, and she admonished me for having seen it, making me promise to never do that. I mean it, she made me promise to never jump out of an airplane with no clothes on. Which, as it turns out, I still haven’t done.
I’m going to quickly boil a long story down to an oversimplification: when I was four my two year-old brother died. For most of my childhood and into my 20s, he didn’t really cross my mind. He was not spoken of after he died. Later, when the memories started coming back, and I started thinking about what had happened, I always framed it in terms of how it wrecked my parents. If I shared with anyone, I would talk about their pain and their grief from my perspective as a little kid. Only quite recently did I realize that it wrecked me, and I never acknowledged it. And that it’s OK to mention. I don’t blame my parents or my family for handling such a stunning trauma however they did, which, as I can remember, mostly involved shielding me from it all as much as possible. However my parents were able to face such a nightmare, at such young ages, is not for me or anyone to judge. I have judged, but I’ve come to quite a bit of peace around that part as I’ve gotten older. What I do know is that my earliest sexual stirrings, and those feelings of being different, came at the same time as my brother’s death, and all of those confusing and scary feelings of grief and loss that weren’t discussed. Simultaneously, there was a not uncommon sense of shame I felt in my family surrounding nudity and sex and gender roles in general, as well as around boys and men crying. I remember being called a sissy if I cried. All of this is all wrapped up together in me, this mix of homophobia and shame and fear and death.
There were lots of times I wanted to cry or wanted to scream out of fear but didn’t because of that word, sissy. Usually with my dad while helping him with the firewood, in the basement, some kind of carpentry thing, or maybe fishing. Anything involving bugs and dirt and worms and discomfort. But especially crying.
As an adult, after I first got sober, I realized one day as I cried uncontrollably in a basement storage room at work, that I hadn’t cried, possibly since I was a small child. Crying had so thoroughly been equated with sissy, my body just wouldn’t let me do it. It’s conditioning, like a dog trained to not jump on the couch with sharp reprimands, both from that word sissy in concert with my own internalized homophobic editor. I learned how to read the feelings inside my body and to stuff down the ones that may give me and my secret away, and to do it so effortlessly, like tying my shoe.
A very difficult part of coming out for me is wanting to blame my dad and the world for his behavior, wanting to really hate him for it, while desperately trying not to at the same time. I think about that deepness of privilege I’d mentioned earlier, and that idea of suffering filling whatever space it’s allowed to occupy. The forces behind bullying are similar. When I struggle with those conflicting emotions, I think of these things and remember how I am guilty of those same behaviors as my dad, and even the bullies at school. The shaming, I did that to myself, and to other people for that matter too. I told fag jokes. I made fun of sissies. I did all those things with the boys I was hanging around with, trying to blend in. I used humour to mask and camouflage my own fear and pain, to mask any tell I might have, any hint of my true inner world. Much of it, a bullying humour. A mean, and shaming humour like the Eddie Murphy bits I memorized.
By the time I was old enough to know about the Burt Reynolds centerfold, I was old enough to know what it meant that I was intrigued by it. I wanted to see it. I wanted to be it. I wanted to be viewed in that same way. I wanted to see his body on that bearskin rug, and I wanted to be that body on the bear skin rug, to be viewed as an object, and adored. To be looked at like centerfolds in Playboy get looked at. To have that attention placed upon me. But I was old enough to know that the entire universe was conspiring to make sure people who felt that way, who had these stirrings were wrong and knew they were wrong.
There was also the very confusing fact that I liked girls. Like, I was incredibly preoccupied with girls, and how all around me the girls I’ve known all my life were changing in such pleasing ways. Curves, boobs, butts, the way girls walked. There was an older gal that lived just a few houses up the street from me. She would get off the bus and walk home the same as me. Many, many days I managed to sit behind her, so I could get off the bus after her, so I could watch her walk home in front of me. And Rhonda. I was hypnotized by her, memorizing the way she moved so I could replay it at night in my head. What I didn’t do was tell anyone how I felt about any of this. Girls or boys. None of it. It was all far too confusing and scary.