The signs were there all along, if only I had known where to look. Or better, if only I had been willing to look. And I’m not talking about Obviously Gay Traits. Who knows – there may have been OGTs telling everyone else I was gay, but I kind of doubt it. With four older brothers, I ended up with a pretty standard boyhood experience. playing in the creek with neighborhood kids, GI Joe, little league baseball, video arcades (OK, I’m dating myself a bit there…). But when I think back to what I felt, what I thought, and what I did throughout my childhood, I’d have to say that being gay is pretty consistent with everything I remember.
I’ve seen lots of other LGBTQ people address this question, and it seems to be pretty common to know early. Like very early. And then there are also the cases of “…and then I turned 40, and it suddenly hit me…” So like I said, I knew, or could have known, very early. Before puberty, before there was anything recognizably sexual about what I was feeling. More about the way I felt toward boys in general. And then later with the dawning of adolescence, my first experiences were pretty clear cut. I remember one time in sixth grade, I had to use the rest room in a convenience store. There I found several magazines, including both a Playboy and a men’s fitness / muscle magazine. The Playboy really held no attraction for me, but the muscle magazine… (!)
And in writing about the childhood indicators, let’s be clear that I’m really only looking for signs, not causes. The discredited ex-gay movement seemed to be obsessed with finding causes. “What made him gay?” Overbearing mother. Absent father. Sexual abuse. Early experimentation with peers. Exposure to pornography. Size envy. I admit that for a long time I looked desperately for the “cause of my affliction.” If I could find it, maybe I could fix it. Well, it turns out that there’s nothing to be found, and nothing to be fixed!
One time I was describing to my therapist an incident from my childhood. At a communal campground bath house I saw a muscular naked guy in the shower, and I was mesmerized. My reaction wasn’t exactly sexual – I think I was too young for that. But close, perhaps on the cusp of my sexual awakening. Over the years I revisited this event, wondering if maybe that is what caused me to be attracted to guys. (Never mind that seeing naked women in Playboy at around the same age didn’t cause me to be attracted to women!) So when I described the episode to my therapist, his only question was this: “Do you feel like your reaction at the time was consistent with who you are?” That one question brought me waves of relief. This one experience didn’t make me gay. Neither did a dozen others that I can recall from various points in childhood. But they sure as hell are consistent with me being gay!
I wonder whether this urge to figure out what we knew and when we knew it is particular to LGBTQ people. In a recent post in Psychology Today, W. Blue writes about an experience in her first university class on women’s studies:
“After a walkthrough of the semester’s course syllabus, our teacher stepped away from the blackboard, toward my desk. Standing in front of it, he surveyed the room… Then he addressed the class, instructing us each to take out a piece of paper and a pen and write down the moment when we all realized we were gay. Well, or straight. Or bisexual. Or queer. Or whatever sexuality we identified with.”
Love this! I’ve seen this question before “When did you know you were straight?” but only as a snarky come-back to some straight person’s unwelcome probing. But it’s great as an actual question. Blue suggests that gay people face that question often, either posed by others, or in their own minds, while straight people never give it a thought. Seems plausible to me. Straight readers, help us out here. Is this a question you’ve ever asked yourself? or been asked by others? Is it one you could answer in a sensible way?
Maybe we’re just uncomfortable thinking of children identifying as gay. I would say “uncomfortable thinking of children as gay or straight,” except that I think there’s an underlying assumption that kids – even young kids – are straight by default, and being gay is something they can only figure out later in life. When five year old Mikey says “I’m gonna marry a girl just like mommy,” we say “aw shucks, isn’t that cute.” But if Mikey said “I’m gonna marry a boy just like daddy,” many Christians would probably respond with uncomfortable silence, reassuring themselves that Mikey is too young to know what he’s saying. Amelia at Huffington Post describes a situation exactly like this. Her son has been identifying as gay since he was seven years old, and at age ten he found himself the only boy in the after school Zumba club. A common reaction when people found this out was what Amelia describes as “that nudge-nudge, wink-wink, he’s-got-his-pick-of-girls reaction.” It bothered her that everyone was assuming her son was straight.
“No,” I’d say, “he’s not interested in girls like that. He’s gay. He says girls are for friends.”
Then the response came, and almost always the same response: “Really? How can he know that? He’s so young.”
These people failed to see the contradiction in their words. They’d just implied that my son had picked his after-school club so that he could get some fourth-grade-style action from the girls, but then they said he’s too young to know he likes boys. They assumed that he would be after girls, which means they assumed that he already knew he was straight, yet the idea that he might already know he is gay came as such a shock.
So there you have it. When did I know? The signs were there as long as I can remember. Even as young as five years old, my memories of self are consistent with the gay man I’ve grown to be. Alas it took me quite a long time to actually read the signs, but they were there all along nonetheless.