I’ve never been able to get a super-clear read on my own sexual orientation, and that’s just how it is sometimes.
Same-sex attraction certainly exists. And it’s probably biological. But, in some ways, the existential life of the individual queer person would be easier if it wasn’t a question of biology, because then it would just be a question of taste and could be interrogated as such. We have plenty of tools for analyzing questions of taste: straight men know exactly how to say that they prefer one kind of woman to another kind of woman, and, while we don’t think of those preferences as being biological (though they might be, to some extent), we accept them as real expressions of that man’s unique psyche. Perhaps what we’re looking for is a world where some men are just able to say, “Oh, I find other men–or this kind of man–to be aesthetically satisfying in such and such a way” without any question of biology entering into it.
That, though, is not the world that we live in. And with good reason. If you’re a man who likes men, it entails considerably more complication in your life than if you like fat-bottomed girls. If you’re a straight man, the mechanisms of society can, with only mild adjustment, bring you some fat-bottomed girls. But if you’re a queer man, finding someone you can be with is a lot more complicated.
To my mind, the essential queer problem is just to find someone who you’re romantically and sexually compatible with. And, in some ways, the framework of biological determination helps in that struggle, because it makes preferences much more concrete. If a straight guy has a race- or body-shape-based preference for the women he’ll be with, that’s seen as being a little more malleable: it’s possible he’ll go for someone who doesn’t quite fit it. For whatever reason, sex-based preferences are seen as less malleable. The percentage of men who’ll occasionally have sexual contact with another man (or would do so, if an attractive opportunity presented itself) is much higher than one would think…but most of those men would never countenance any kind of continuing romantic or sexual relationship with another man.*
Thus, it makes things a lot easier for both gay and straight people when the world is chopped up into: 1) gay people; and 2) people who don’t go in for all that queer stuff. For straight people, the idea of ‘normalcy’ is preserved: certain people have preferences that are different from the normal and that’s okay, but we are over here are still normal. And for gay people, the advantage comes from being able to segregate a significant percentage of the people who you could actually be with.
The problem, though, is the aforementioned existential angst.
Because, all jokes about gaydar aside, there is no test for being gay. On some level, identifying as gay is a choice. It’s not the same choice for everyone–for most gay people, identifying as straight would’ve been more difficult and/or entailed more psychic harm–but there was still a choice involved.
For me, the clarifying metaphor is alcoholism. I do think of myself as an alcoholic–someone who has some inborn biological difference that makes him incapable of drinking alcohol in a healthy and controlled fashion–but that’s a medical conclusion which I came to without the aid of a doctor. If I hadn’t assumed that identity, I’d be dead. But assuming it involved making a lot of conclusions that I am not really equipped, in terms of my scientific education, to make.
In our culture, we gloss over the huge liminal zones that are involved in these choices, by limiting our examples to cases where the conclusion is pretty clear. We take some kid who’s known he was gay since before he was really capable of experiencing sexual attraction or we take some guy who takes one sip of beer and then immediately drinks himself into homelessness and say, “Clearly there is something here that goes beyond the merely psychological.”
Which is true…for those people. But those examples don’t do much to help the majority of alcoholics and the majority of queer people.
For myself, I think I’d be very justified in saying that I wasn’t an alcoholic. I graduated college on time. I got a decent job. I was capable of having months when I abstained from drinking. I did not quit drinking at the peak of my drinking (which was in my senior year of college), but waited until a year and a half later, when it had tapered down considerably. I’ve known plenty of people who I’d have thought of as alcoholics who later tapered down their drinking to the point where it didn’t seem so imminently harmful and was more sustainable. It’s totally possible that I could’ve been one of them. The world offered me plenty of evidence that I wasn’t really an alcoholic.
Similarly, the world also offered plenty of evidence that I wasn’t really queer. When I look back into my history now, I can see evidence of same-sex attraction, but until I was 22, I never really thought of myself as anything other than a straight person. I hadn’t had any sexual experiences with women (or of any kind), but I attributed that to shyness. I thought that there was something wrong with me, but I didn’t think I was queer, I just figured that I was hideous and shy and doomed to be forever alone. From ages 22 to 24, I started to think I might be queer, but it was certainly never a lightbulb moment. For one thing, I always felt some level of attraction to women. Being with men was intriguing to me, but it never felt natural. I never felt like I’d die if I could never be with a man. I am sure that if I lived in a less accepting time, I’d still identify as straight.
I came out as gay maybe a month before I quit drinking. Notice I say ‘before.’ It was a very drunken and confused coming-out. And for years I regretted it as precipitous. Sometimes I wonder about the tangle of cause-and-effect there. Maybe if I hadn’t been drunk when I conducted my comings-out, then I never would’ve done it. Or maybe if I hadn’t come out, I never would’ve quit drinking.
Anyway, over the first two years of my life as an out queer (which were also my first two years as a sober alcoholic), I didn’t really do much, and what I did do was extremely sporadic and tentative, and it felt like a strange dissimulation to be portraying myself to my friends and family as a gay man who’d figured his shit out when all I’d really done was put myself into the kind of situation where it might eventually be possible for me to figure things out.
I think this is a common problem for queer people. The straight people around you want you to be sure, but there’s no way to experience real queer life until you’re doing it. There’s no way to imagine what a same-sex relationship with a man might feel like until you’re having one, but there’s no way to do it until you begin to present yourself to the world as a queer man.** It’s a catch-22 that can only be resolved by (to a certain extent) faking a degree of sureness that you don’t feel.
Anyway, this post ends with kind of a happy ending. In the last two years, I’ve become more confident and gone on dates and started seeing someone and all that silly stuff, and I’ve gotten to the point where I can admit all of the above without feeling like an imposter. But, at the same time…well, let me say that this post was inspired by this comic from kate or die.
And I will say that I really empathize with the woman in this comic. The temptation is to say that my story is that of a gay man who had an unusually long ‘questioning’ period. But I don’t feel that way at all. I don’t feel like I ever really became sure. I still feel like my queer life was something that I chose and something that I made happen, and, although it’s never occurred, I don’t feel like romantic or sexual contact with a woman is something that is out of the realms of possibility for me.*** I don’t know. I think that’s an unsatisfying story in many ways. It’s certainly unsatisfying for me. But sometimes that’s how life works.
*For instance, I think a not-uncommon narrative for queer youth is: queer boy likes straight boy; queer boy pines after straight boy; queer boy and straight boy get drunk; sexually-frustrated straight boy consents to some sexual experimentation; queer boy’s heart breaks when it is never repeated and/or never moves further than that.
**What I’m trying to get at here is that there’s a failure of the imagination. Some things might be sexually arousing to us or psychologically pleasing to us in the abstract, but the reality might not be what we want. Human beings are generally not very good at assessing what a future situation will actually make us feel like, we’re only good at assessing how thinking about that situation makes us feel now. For instance, I feel good when I think about going on a run, but when I actually go on a run, I feel miserable.
***On a sidenote, I believe something similar about my alcoholism. Nobody is going to want to hear this from me, but I do think there is a chance that I could go back to drinking and could keep it under control and drink moderately. However, I am definitely never going to do that. For me, the fun of drinking was always in being out of control. The appeal, to me, of a beer or a glass of wine at dinner is extremely minimal.