“I didn’t know you were gay.”
The young man’s comment caught me off guard. I was talking about coming out to a gathering of friends when one of them – an athletic millennial ― made his remark.
Why, I wondered, should I be so startled that someone, anyone, would think I might be straight? And why, for a passing moment, did I secretly feel pleased that he did?
The truth is: I envy gay and bi men who can pass as straight. It’s not that I want to be straight. I’m comfortable in my skin as a proud gay man. I came out at sixteen in a conservative city at a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness. Over the years I’ve marched on Washington when Reagan refused to say the word AIDS, walked in more pride parades than I can count, and helped train volunteers to call voters on behalf of marriage equality.
The unavoidable fact is that I’m not able to hide whatever traits may be considered unmacho if I tried. It’s simply who I am, and I wouldn’t even know how to be some other me. That’s perhaps why I envy men who would never be thought of as anything but straight. Their identity isn’t defined for them almost before they speak. Assumptions aren’t instantly made about what they are like that may have nothing to do with the truth of their lives. They are a tabula rasa, a blank slate; their very being doesn’t immediately conjure a spate of word associations, whether positive (“sensitive,” “artistic”) or pejorative (everything from “flamboyant” to “fag”).
But then I begin to think about the assumptions that are made about straight-appearing men, and how we impose and project an identity on them as well. I have spoken with straight and bi men who tell me they don’t feel comfortable showing emotion as easily as I do. The unspoken reason is because they know that it would make them seem less manly, if not to others, at least in their own eyes.
Aren’t these straight men straitjacketed by their own sexuality? Would I really want to trade my freedom to express how I feel with their more circumscribed set of rules about what they can and can’t do or say?
Even with the knowledge that straight men may have their own share of issues, I still feel they are not instantly judged and defined the way gay-perceived men are. Granted, some of those judgments work in our favor (women feel safer with us and there’s often an instant kinship) and we’re given credit for having a better fashion sense than we may actually have. But the flip side is that some straight men view us the way they view women: as flighty or somehow inferior, and therefore easy to dismiss or dis.
I’d rather not have to deal with preconceived notions of who I am – even before I have a conversation with someone. I want to be seen as myself without first being pigeon-holed. Though I came out early, I understand why others choose to stay in the closet, to keep their sexual orientation hidden so they are not branded by it.
In David M. Halperin’s enlightening essay, “Sex Before Sexuality,” published in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, he writes that it never occurred to premodern cultures to define people on the basis of their “intrinsic” sexuality, any more than we would make dietary preference a fundamental aspect of personality. “Despite an awareness of the range of possible variations in human sexual behavior,” these cultures “refuse[d] to individuate human beings at the level of sexual preference and assume[d], instead, that we all share the same fundamental set of sexual appetites, the same ‘sexuality.’ For most of the world’s inhabitants, in other words, ‘sexuality’ [was] no more a fact of life than ‘dieticity.’” He concludes that “’sexuality’ seems to be a uniquely modern, Western, even bourgeois production.” Once the notion took root, it not only differentiated us; it began to divide us.
What I don’t want is to be seen only through the narrow lens of sexuality. I think the young man’s surprise that I was gay may have stemmed more from his own refreshing lack of preconceived notions than anything having to do with my own ability to pass. Maybe what pleased me so much was that he just saw me as human, without a label.
Perhaps I don’t really envy straight men at all. Maybe I don’t want to pass for straight – just human.