I wish I could say “I’m gay” and let it roll off my tongue. Hear the words make noise as they float into people’s ears. Feel some sense of comfort with how they mix with my personality, my masculinity and my femininity.
But they never have.
I’ve never fit into conventional masculinity. I hated sports and fighting. I loved Avril Lavigne and “Pretty Little Liars,” but I quickly realized this wasn’t “normal” boy behavior. Instead, I learned that I needed to be tough, hyper-sexual and rugged. Never show emotion, and most importantly, be very straight. I learned that men who didn’t follow these traits were pussies, exiled from the pack.
I was pushed into the heteromold — the institutional and self-policed mold we use to cast every boy into this identity. My peers, and even adults, pressed with varying degrees of pressure against my bones to fit me into the cast. I learned to fill it above all else, or I would risk being labeled gay. Gay was weak, embarrassing and shameful, and I wanted no one to think I was gay, especially since I was.
Sometimes I was physically pushed into the mold.
I signed up for freshman football because a family member suggested it. It wasn’t a good decision. I was atrocious, and it only aided in wiring my brain to reject my identity.
It was 90-degree weather. We all wore bulky equipment and we all drank from rugged-looking Gatorade bottles and we all formed lines in synchronization and we all looked the same. One day, our coaches instructed us to guard against a partner and stop them from pushing past us. To no one’s surprise, someone pushed past me. Typically, coaches would make a suggestion to improve, but this time everyone was brought together as my coach told me, “You’re a disgrace to this team.”
My body raced with a mix of adrenaline and fear, and I felt the intense pressures of being pushed into the heteromold. I realized how my teammates would react. They laughed with an abrasively teasing tone, and I found myself immediately labeled as the weakest one. The wimpy one. The gay one. My mockery served as a feast for the self-loathing of my femininity and gay identity.
I wish I could grab 14-year-old me, drag him to the sidelines, strip his overheating equipment and place my hands on his exposed shoulder as an affirmation of love. I want to wrap him in warmth and tell him what he needs to hear. That being gay is great, being effeminate is great and neither is a symptom of the other. That his eyes are lit with ambition and his soul blazes with personality and being gay takes nothing away from that.
But I was too young, and people had spent too long coding my hatred of everything surrounding their perception of gay.
It began in sixth grade. I sat surrounded by my friends in a library. Huddled on beanbags amongst books of knowledge we were taught a clear lesson: homosexuality equaled sin. Someone being gay was fine, but only if they didn’t act on their attractions, meaning they rejected their sexuality.
That struck a chord in seventh grade, when I had a crush on a guy. Puberty hit me in the close confines of the boys’ locker room. Amongst the chatter about girls, I found myself developing an internal monologue about my crush. As he gushed about the girl he liked, I became distracted, smelling his Axe body spray against his natural scent, hearing the tone of his voice, seeing the subtle gestures he made to air out his shirt. Part of me craved him.
But the other part wanted nothing more than to erase these senses and talk about girls. I became infected with homophobic undertones, and my brain was at war on whether to squeeze into the heteromold. I was 13 years old. I should have been concerned with pre-algebra, but instead I fought unrequited emotions, prejudice and a split sense of identity. My heart rested in the locket of my chest — shackled, prickly and pure.
I graduated in the closet and entered college closeted. On Michigan’s liberal campus, this didn’t last long. I heard overwhelming acceptance toward homosexuality, and it served as an antibiotic to my homophobic infection. I unlocked my sexuality to the confidence of accepting peers. They were receptive and provided me inviting hugs and kind words. I felt like I was reaching the end of my journey.
Instead of receiving shame for my feminine traits, I was subconsciously shamed for my masculine ones. Many treated me as a pre-packaged toy with clear instructions: heel guru, overdramatic, boy-crazy, a plaything. Whether explicit or not, I was the gay friend for many, and I was taught to be one of the girls, never one of the boys.
When I began weightlifting, I was told it was “cute.” Guys I befriended got teased, told that my attempts to bond in the dining hall were blatantly transparent attempts of going on a date.
It’s bizarre. The moment I declared a piece of my identity outside of the heteromold, I was automatically cast as its antithesis. Why?
Why is it so difficult for people to understand that my skin, bones and cells are not liquid sludge that forms into a solid cast? I like physical strength and wear my heart on my sleeve. My identity doesn’t follow a precedent. I’m unpredictable, three-dimensional, dense. None of it has anything to do with my sexuality, and all of it is fine.
I’ve been foolish in thinking otherwise, and I’m starting to realize this.
Cramped between dozens of people at a house party this year I ran into a guy for whom I cared deeply. He was never a romantic interest, but his cordial attitude gave off a friendly warmth that led me to try hard in becoming close friends. Hidden in my mind was the thought that someone would let me into the male inner circle without the prerequisite of a masculine façade.
As we said hi by the refrigerator, much like my prior attempts to bond, I was smacked with the cold reality that this would never happen with him. There always existed a barrier between us that I saw go down when he interacted with other guys.
Our conversation ended and he headed the 10 feet back to his pack of male friends. They all wore backwards caps and huddled in a tight-knit circle and decided to play beer pong. I saw the animated expressions and gestures that he gave his friends contrast the stiffness he always gave me. Whether conscious or not, I could tell his inability to open up to me was because I lay outside the heteromold. It’s not something you need definitive confirmation to confirm. Once it happens to you, you know it’s happening.
It was in that moment that I realized he would never invite me into the circle. My micro differences between these people created an impenetrable wall, and though I stood 10 feet from them, the distance between us was infinite.
And I was okay with it.
I walked up to a friend behind the group, put my arm around her, and let the pressures roll off my back. It was a move — or lack thereof — spurred by nothing more than my desire to push against the forces around me. I wanted to conquer the echoes that resurface in my head. That night, I won.
I’m still insecure. My identity isn’t protected by an impenetrable glaze of security, but I can feel myself developing a Jell-O-like covering of confidence. When I feel pressure from the outside world, I feel its impact, and my defense mechanism starts moving me back to my original shape. It’s through this that I return to the form I choose for myself: masculine, feminine, gay. Infinite.
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