So, unlike many LGBT individuals, I didn’t grow up in my younger years feeling I was “different,” or at least not to an incredible degree. When I was younger I had a strong core of male friends, most of whom were pretty involved with sports–because what else were boys supposed to do? I played sports, too: soccer for a while, and baseball (but I never got past coach’s pitch). I kissed a girl in fourth grade (on the lips, too, WHAT), and dated every female friend in my friend group in junior high (ah, what fickle chickpeas we were). I didn’t feel ostracized; I didn’t feel outside the normal realm of being a 13-year-old boy. At least, so I thought.
I played house growing up, and I also played with dolls. But, I didn’t feel like these activities were outside the “norm” because my mother always encouraged my brothers and I to play with whatever we wanted. My mom had her degree in early childhood education, so I think this helped her see past rigid “boys vs. girls” ways to play (which is awesome and I encourage all parents to do the same). In my male friend groups, I was typically the one who was more emotional; i.e. I would get upset when my flashlight-tag group was dubbed the “Bunnies” (or something else that I thought was weak/infantile) while my friend’s group was the “Wolves.” Also, there were some instances during our sleepovers that I would be very “loud” and at one point I put on a red dress and kissed my friend Matthew on the cheek. But, EVEN THEN, I felt like I was relatively normal, still… ?
Objectively, maybe everybody knew before I did, but in my own brain I was just like every one else. Until puberty hit. And then some different feelings came into focus. Junior high happened, and it happened quickly. All of us were developing our identities, our bodies were growing, and we were becoming increasingly aware of sex and gender differences. My peers and I were no longer blobs of asexual sameness, but increasingly better-defined blobs of emotional and sexual hormones. Everybody was ugly. Everybody was mean. French kissing/making out was deemed third base/home run or whatever (at least for me, that’s as far as I went with the girls I “dated”).
Mostly what I can remember from that period of my life (age 12-15) is feeling ashamed. I felt like I had these sensations that were… outside of myself? They felt separate to how I understood my self-hood and identity, so I kept pushing them away. There was a “Josh” that I knew and felt was supposed to be doing the things I was doing (dating girls), but then there was a different side of me I didn’t understand, that confused me, and would often send me into spirals of self-doubt, self-pity, and self-hatred. My religion obviously had a heavy-handed effect in all of that, but so did my sense of manhood and self-expression. I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile my feeling of myself as a boy versus my sexual inclinations.
High school happened just as quickly, and then BAM. By the end of the year, I was out of the closet at school. I continued to figure out my feelings and my identity and settled on the fact that I was gay, and I felt comfortable with that label. I definitely was not ready to come out as quickly as I did, but what can ya do? However, I still wasn’t able to fully reconcile my sense of masculinity vs. my sense of sexuality. I became okay with the “gay” label, but distanced myself from it in the sense that I “wasn’t like other gays.” I didn’t consider myself overly feminine, and I wasn’t interested in Beyoncé or RuPaul or any other gay icon (or I didn’t think that I was). I dressed like a “boy,” whatever that really means. I wore baggy jeans and hoodies and t-shirts. “I’m just like everybody else, but I just like to date guys.” I didn’t “talk gay.” I didn’t “act gay.” I was afraid to fully embrace the feminine aspects of my identity.
I took baby steps. I dated people who unabashedly had “feminine” interests, who weren’t afraid to dance like Beyoncé or watch RuPaul obsessively. It was a world that I didn’t know and felt uncomfortable with. I had this concept of gay sexuality and male identity as a black-white contrast. I felt that you couldn’t be both, so since I knew I was gay, I began to think of myself as inherently more feminine, and had more fun being open to that side of myself. Which was definitely a good thing! I felt more comfortable using my “sassy voice,” and I was not embarrassed to take a ballet class in tights (the horror). But the black-white thinking persisted, and now, looking back, I can see that I was ignoring the inherently masculine parts of my identity, the sense of how one takes up space and the aspects of myself that were inclined to dominance and confidence. Every person has a mixture of masculine and feminine energies, and just because you have a sexuality that is outside of heterosexuality, that does not change. Being gay does not inherently make you more feminine, just like being feminine (as a boy) does not inherently make you gay. Linking gender to sexuality is a mistake, and one that is largely because of social roles and perceptions (i.e. gay men are “effeminate,” gay women are “manly”).
Okay, sorry for the soapbox. But what I’m trying to get at is that identity is complex. It’s a soupy mixture of sex, sexuality, gender, and individual experience. One’s gender does not define you, just like one’s sexuality does not, either. However, ignoring or underestimating different facets of your identity is bad news bears, too. Defining yourself by what you are not–separating yourself from members of your community, tribe, what have you–is not the best way to go, I think. Look for similarities over differences. This is why I look back on phrases such as “I’m not that kind of gay” and shake my head. What does that even mean, really? Oh, so I have a different background and different interests than some of gay comrades? Great. It doesn’t mean that they/me are defined by a sole “type.” This perception holds us back rather than move us forward. I think the word I’m looking for is “embrace.” “Embrace” not only your differences, but what makes you similar to others whether it be along the lines of gender, sex, sexuality, religion, diet, major, career, whatever.
This blog post ended up in a very different place than I thought it would go, but that’s okay. I’m really interested in talking about this wonderful collection of newspaper columns by Nicholas Benton called Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization, that talks about gay identity in a way that really jives with me. Look forward to it in future posts, friends!