In this post, I’m going to briefly describe a few characteristics of gay identity as I experienced it, in order to give some idea of what I’m talking about before I spend the rest of the series sharing why I became concerned about that identity. It’s not rigorous analysis or anything, but I hope it will help flesh out a little what my gayness meant to me.
(Note: I am not pretending to define the word “gay” here. When I talk about gay identity, I’m talking about patterns of thought, ways of seeing oneself, what kind of significance we ascribe to our homosexual attractions, what they mean to us.)
And yes, I’m very aware that the identity I’m about to describe is strikingly immature in some respects. Several of the things I talk about would probably only be issues for a younger or freshly out gay person, as most people tend to mellow a bit as they grow up and get on with their lives. And some of this is possibly also very ’90s. So…if you want to make fun of me for having been a gay teen in the ’90s, well, you’re a little late to that (well-attended) party, but go right on ahead.
I saw my gayness as a very important, perhaps the most important, fact about myself. I’ve said elsewhere that if you had asked me to describe myself in three words, “dyke” would have been one of them. But that was an understatement. In fact, if you’d asked me to describe myself in one word, “dyke” would have been it, even after becoming a Christian. Every morning when I looked in the mirror, the first thing I saw a dyke, and was quite pleased by that. When meeting other people, I felt that if they came away from our encounter not knowing I was gay (if that were possible!), they hadn’t really met me and they didn’t know who I was at all.
I felt this powerful bond with other queer people, that our shared sexuality was this hugely significant thing. I would sometimes feel I had more in common with a gay girl who was otherwise nothing like me than a straight one who was practically my clone in every other respect. It went way beyond the ordinary affinity that comes from shared experience or adversity. Gay people were my people. In my isolated small-town teens, I longed for the day when I could surround myself with them, as my high school had little more than a handful of troubled closet cases. Upon arriving at college, I threw myself into queer circles energetically, and later found myself in a bit of a social pickle when my conversion snuck up on me all of a sudden. After I became a Christian, I was tormented by feelings of guilt from being such a traitor, but nonetheless continued to feel a much stronger connection to gay people than to my new “family” of believers in Christ.
I saw my gayness as being about far more than sexual or romantic inclinations. It was about having all sorts of other qualities, about being a generally superior sort of human being. All kinds of virtues were attached to gayness in my mind–a clever wit, an independent streak, a creative bent, a knack for sports (on the girls’ side), a flair for design (on the boys’ side). Of course, I didn’t actually possess most of those, but I belonged to a group that did, which was just as good. I savored those studies and reports which claimed that gays were smarter, more successful, and contributed more to society than straights. There was also a sense of identification with the accomplishments of the Great Queers of History, a sense of pride in their awesomeness, as if the achievements of Sappho, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Alan Turing, and Bayard Rustin were something for me to brag about. I blush to remember this, but in high school I once indignantly declared to a hetero classmate that while everyone had their vices, few were worthy of the vice of great men.
Nobility of the Cause
Being gay was something that was always worth suffering and fighting for. This started in middle school. I’ve learned recently from talking to straight people who were picked on, beaten up, etc., as kids–for being geeks or losers or whatever–that the mistreatment they endured never held any great meaning for them. It was just a profoundly unpleasant experience, a miserable time of their lives, and they were just glad when it was over. In my mind, however, my suffering at the hands of my peers on account of my queerness was woven into the struggle for gay rights, this grand cosmic narrative of good versus evil. Somehow, just by being myself in spite of the consequences, I felt I was fighting a little battle in the great war for justice and freedom and equality, doing my part for the cause. (In retrospect, that was all incredibly silly, but it sure did help me survive early adolescence.)
Once I got out of high school and away from my parents, I tried to make myself as queer-looking as possible, but unfortunately most people just assumed I was a straight boy. (Or occasionally a gay boy, which made for some awkward situations!) So I stuck all these gay buttons on my backpack, hoping some ignorant hetero would notice and get in my face about it. The few times I did get serious negative attention, I was admittedly a bit frightened in the moment, but after it passed I would be very proud of myself for being such a fighter and messing with those bigots’ comfort zones. (Miraculously, despite my mother’s dire predictions, I never got gay-bashed during this time, although I did have to call upon my gifts as a sprinter on one occasion.) I saw Matthew Shepard not as a victim, but as a martyr. I was very out, and was convinced that anyone who didn’t instantly respond well to that wasn’t someone who was worth knowing. I gloried in discrimination and homophobia in the way that some American evangelicals yearn for persecution and harassment to the point of hallucinating it. I was a zealot.
I used to think that my gayness lay at the very heart of who I was. That it was somehow tied to my essence, in a way that was unlike almost any other desire or trait. More essential perhaps than even my gender/sex. (Gender was a collective social fantasy, but sexual orientation, now that was real. That was BIOLOGY.) Certainly on an entirely different plane than any other kind of sexual preference or taste. I can hear the voices in my head even now: “How dare you call it a taste? How dare you suggest that it is a preference? It’s at the core of your being! Your bones are gay! Your soul is gay!”
I saw myself as someone who was meant to be with a woman. My gayness meant that the proper shape of my life, if all went well, would involve Ms. Right(s). It was part of what I was made for, in some incoherent atheistic sense. Even after my conversion to Christianity, I still found myself feeling this weighty sense of normativity and telos. The Bible seemed clear on this subject, and the Christian witness over the millennia seemed even clearer, but how could they be right? How on earth could a good God possibly not want me to be with women? Wasn’t that cruel and destructive of Him, preventing me from being what I was supposed to be, from fully living out what my life should be like?
For me, seeing myself as gay meant seeing my same-sex attractedness in and of itself as something to celebrate and delight in. It made me different, it made me special, it made me extraordinary, it set me apart from all those run-of-the-mill breeders. I saw it as an asset. I saw it as a beautiful thing. I saw myself as transcending the petty, trivial distinctions of sex and gender. I saw myself as a true lover of women, one who could appreciate their worth, care for them, and love them in a way that no man ever could. I saw same-sex love as being a higher love than any other, precisely because of its biological purposelessness, and considered myself gifted that such a love came so easily to me.
I was very attached to the homosexual direction of my sexual attractions, and generally found the thought of their changing horrific. Perhaps in my preteen years I would have considered the hypothetical “straight pill,” but by the time I was an older teen I definitely would have spat it in the face of whoever was offering it to me. I had fought too hard to be queer to let it go, even if doing so would have made my life easier in many ways.
(go on to part 3…)