This is the second installment of a exclusive three-part series excerpted from Jonathan Rauch's new ebook, Denial: My 25 Years Without a Soul. You can read the author's introductory blog here and Part One here.
Even in my earliest years, I was deeply fascinated with outward symbols of masculinity. I was five or six. This was still in the little house on Fourteenth Street, before we moved to a more posh part of Phoenix, when I became aware that a cartoon character called Sinbad Jr. obsessed me in a way which I could not begin to define.
He was a young man or a boy with a magic belt. When he was in trouble, he yanked on the belt and his chest swelled and his arms bulged and he became a hero of superhuman strength, equal to any challenge. I conceived an intense desire to own a Sinbad belt. I schemed and plotted to get one, imagining feverishly where I might buy one. Yes, of course, it was only an animated cartoon, and even a preschooler knows the difference between a cartoon and reality. Still, I was not quite sure where the border lay between reality and magic, and I knew that a local children's show offered Sinbad Jr. belts as prizes. With such a prize, I could play at being Sinbad, or (who could tell?) I could actually be Sinbad.
I wonder if I asked my parents for a Sinbad belt. I think I probably did. If so, that would have been unusual. Perhaps the single most harrowing feature of my inversion was the dark secrecy in which it shrouded me: along with the Sinbad fascination, and all the other fascinations which followed it, came an understanding that the obsession was not normal and must be hidden at all costs. Without being told, I knew it was weird. It seemed weird.
"Sinbad the Sailor Man" circa mid-1960s
In fact, of course, there is nothing particularly strange in a little boy's adulation for a cartoon character, or in his desire for a magic belt to make him big and strong. No playtime fantasy could have been more boyishly banal. But my version of this fantasy was freighted with a strange power. This was more than playing Batman and punching invisible enemies in the stomach. I wanted in a deeper, more slavishly yearning way to be Sinbad the sailor, to feel myself wrapped in him, to fasten his belt around my boyish waist and feel hard muscle, his or mine or what, really, was the difference?
But what was wrong even with that? No one had told me, at that sheltered age, of homosexuality or sodomy or fairies or poofs. The very idea of sexuality, my own or anybody else's, was not to present itself for years. Perhaps, then, I absorbed the knowledge of my abnormality by means of that magical osmosis through which children absorb the world? No doubt.
But homophobic cultural tropes and media stereotypes and all the rest do not, it seems to me, fully explain why a kindergartner would classify his Sinbad Jr. fascination as top secret, as instinctively as a cat buries its turds. No: from the age when they are old enough to comprehend a cartoon, children have some sense of what is normal, and they understand that not to be normal is a very serious crime.
Little boys and teenagers want many things, but most of all they want to be normal. The desire not to be strange is not, I think, the callous invention of a capitalist or racist or sexist or whateverist culture which seeks to repress human beings' explosively variegated diversity. It is, for people, an indivisible part of the socializing instinct. That is why children are so easily embarrassed by their parents. The instinct which teaches children how not to be little sociopaths also instructs them, unremittingly, to conform.
I have heard, secondhand, of a few gay people who even as little children made no effort to hide their differentness: who, say, joyfully cross‑dressed without a thought for secrecy. I think such people, if they in fact exist, will always be as rare as black pearls. In any case, I was not one of them. Even in the Sinbad Jr. days, I had begun to suspect the truth: something inside me was tugging very hard and was abnormal, and I was the only person in the world, the only person maybe ever, who was like this, and there was some fierce danger in letting on or giving in.
Some homosexual boys are lucky enough to know, from an early age, that they wish to touch another boy sexually. Those boys, even if they are troubled by their desires, at least have something to go on. Their feelings, however unconventional or wrong, point to some plan of action. Mine left me mystified. For at no time did I feel -- or, maybe, did I allow myself to feel -- the desire to do anything with a boy. If some preternaturally perceptive adult had pierced my intense secrecy and guessed all of my outlandish obsessions, and had sat down to explain that my feelings were sexual or presexual, I would simply not have believed it. Sex, I knew even then, had something to do with other people's genitals and with certain obscure and acrobatic types of activity. It did not mean feeling a jolt as I noticed the veins in a man's forearm.
How, then, to explain why in the bookstore near my father's office downtown I never failed, after having ransacked the science fiction shelf, to do investigative work in the sports department? Once in a while my luck would look up and I would find a book with some muscles in it. When that happened, it was like water for the parched, and I would simply stand in the bookstore drinking it up. As time went on, I accumulated a stack of muscle magazines, which I kept in a cabinet next to my bed. By night, by day, whenever, I would open one and find a picture of an overwhelmingly muscular man and look very hard at him.
If I looked hard enough, which was easy to do, he would stir into motion. He would ever so slowly draw his fingers into a fist and then draw the fist inward toward the elbow and squeeze until the forearm was a veiny explosion of sinew, and then he bent his elbow until the biceps balled up and jammed against the iron forearm, and then, not finished yet, he let his arms fall to his sides and then stretched them out and up and behind his head and drew breath into his chest until it nearly burst, and he looked at me like a lion flashing his mane, daring me to imagine that any man so strong and indomitable might exist. Then looking harder still I could see myself approach him there in my room, just near the bed, and he would let me try to encircle his arm with my hands, but it was no use, his arm was too big to encompass, the best I could do was to cup my hand over the biceps and feel how it pushed right through my palm, the hardness an eruption of marble. And then he would seize me and lift me and for him this was as easy as lifting a feather pillow, those piston arms as inexorable as a forklift. Up, up I went, helpless in his hands, spinning, spinning in their grasp, gasping at his strength, until I gained release. And then at last I would put him away.
The terrible problem was what to tell myself about all this. I was a bright, rational boy. I needed to understand my obsession as at least possibly sensible. It could not be -- did not feel remotely like -- mere random weirdness. I needed an explanation. And so I invented one. Or, rather, many. And those, rather than the feelings they were constructed around, were what made me inverted, far beyond just being homosexual or even pre‑homosexual. I developed a theory, as it were, of love and sexuality which turned love into envy and sexual feeling into self‑loathing. I turned the world upside down.
TOMORROW: Sure, I could "choose" not to be gay, right?
This excerpt from Denial: My 25 Years Without a Soul is published with permission by The Atlantic Books.