There was no definitive moment of when I first knew. There was no sudden revelation like reading a quote from a great thinker: baffled by the truth of it. There always was just something there. An awareness of things. The natural curiosity that makes you look over when standing at urinals in elementary school, or the way you empathize with the longing of teenage girls, strung-out on neurosis and chocolate.
People ask when I first knew I was gay. Personally, the question seems queer, so I just ask when they first knew they were straight. Growing up, I did not know what it was. Things like this are not discussed around dinner tables in the Valley. Gay is a word far removed from the lexicon of Texan border towns, and only seems to rear its ugly head when shouted as insults on schoolyards and as the butt of jokes.
I can remember a moment when I was around nine or ten, the stage where the pink elephant enters the room. I was walking from the car carrying my books, cradling them against my waist the way I was apparently not supposed to hold them. Two of my aunts were murmuring. They looked like a gaggle of gossipy geese, their children huddled around them, from an animated film. They had a judgmental look painted on their face. Whether I didn’t hear or whether I chose to forget I cannot tell, but I knew they were talking about me.
“Boys don’t do that. You wanna be a girl?” one of them said to me.
My ears flushed from the wound, and I still sometimes feel awkward walking with things in my arms. Standup straight seems like a pun now.
There was another incident in Junior High. My mother and I were driving back from the store; it was the middle of the night.
“You do like girls don’t you?” she asked.
As if maybe this time when she asked it would be different; with an urgency and self defeated hope in her voice. As if there were a choice. As if there were some sort of decision to be made.
We were talking about religion. She said I was a preteen and when I turned thirteen God would start to judge me for my sins. As if its suddenly your eighteenth birthday and now you’re enough of an adult to smoke and get married and know what Life is all about; like someone turned on an imaginary switch in your head. I don’t know where she gets these facts from. Maybe that’s why I don’t believe in God; I’ve never cared for ultimatums.
What does a child say to such a question? I didn’t know what to say, so I just said yes. The image of a scrawny twelve year old pitted against pulpits. Against tradition. Against himself. Against the weight of the world. All this while buckled up in the front seat of some blue station wagon driving from Wal-Mart.
There are countless of these incidents. A life pocked with blemishes, each one sensitive to the touch. Ones based on personal reflection and why I deny the existence of Lisa Frank school supplies. Others based on the side ways glances when I know I’m the topic of discussion.
Being gay isn’t something that happens overnight. It isn’t checking a sexual orientation checkbox on my Myspace and switching it back the next day. It’s a long drawn out process of trial and error. Of testing limits and mannerisms and characters. Playing dress up in boys’ clothes when everyone is calling you a girl. Growing with realizations and brutal truths. Falling on playgrounds at the hands of other boys and gossiping with the girls. It’s facing yourself.
A moral quandary reminded me of this when I worked for the Boys and Girls Club. I was a recent hire, maybe about three weeks into the job. Already outted as the artsy person trying to teach forty-something delinquent, underprivileged students photography with one camera.
I was in the kitchen speaking to my one of my supervisors, he (the coach) cooking and washing dishes with the some of the kids when one of the only two gays boys, obviously, of the hundred something walked in. He stood there as we continued our conversation.
He was awkward looking: glasses, crooked teeth, chubby. He was already a walking insult.
When we finished and I started to walk out, the coach asked him how his girlfriends were. His dark-skinned, pudgy thirteen-year-old body flushed and became rosy. It reminded me of strawberry glaze on chocolate cake. I froze, numbed by the shock and surge of empathy and rage writhing my body. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t address it; he was standing right there. If anyone said anything, I knew he would crumble.
He stood there and somehow got quieter, even though he wasn’t speaking. As if something deep inside suddenly went out. Like watching a house grow dark, nothing stirring. He looked down and pushed back the glasses that were sliding down his nose from the sweat.
The coach realized what he said and blushed at me. I walked away. He asked the coach for the keys to get the mop and broom. It was clean-up time.
My mind raced that night with everything that was my life and probably his. Of coaches. Of silence. Of feeling absolutely isolated by a comment or sideways glance. Of dancing at clubs. Of playing with boys. Of having to actively seek out a community because no one is really raised in it, or educated in it. Of facing walls. Of broken souls. Of fighting. Of dying. Of finding brothers and sisters. Of finding yourself.
I felt ashamed of not being stronger then and now and probably tomorrow. The coach avoided me as much as he could after that. We fell into the absurdist mannerisms of ducking and hiding like those in a farce. When I quit a few weeks later I told them the job was taxing me and my grades were suffering; I never mentioned or told anyone about the incident. I assuage my guilt with the image of him washing dishes and cooking. Who’s the emasculated one now?
Knowing that you’re gay grows and swells. It comes in waves; ebbing and flowing with progress and everyday failures. I’ve always known I was gay. One day it was a curiosity. Another it was a word. And then a label. And then one day it’s part of an identity, or maybe an identity or something in between or maybe it doesn’t matter at all?
The road to your identity, to you, to your life, is not easy. For anyone. Not for coaches, or aunts, or mothers or strawberry-glazed-chocolate-cake-boys. Everyone will hit a pothole. Everyone will have to take a detour. No one is really going to end up what they thought they would be. Or what their parents thought they’d be.
Although I’ve always known in one way or another, facing it is something totally different. There is no day that you know that you’re gay. There is only the day when you realize you can’t lie about it anymore. When the pink elephant starts to make such scandal propriety has flown the coop. The question should not be: when did you realize you were gay? It should be: when did you realize you needed to come out and do something about it?
But coming out is a totally different story.