This is a bit of a difficult post to write. It’s not difficult to say publicly that I support rights for gay people or that trans folks should be able to serve in the military. I’m quite comfortable discussing the concept of gender as a social construct and pondering how traditional gender norms have slowed society’s march towards equality. But when I start to write about this concept of sexuality or sexual identity or what it means to be a “member” of the “predominant” sexual orientation in a society building new language to encapsulate the vast spectrum of timeless sexualities and identities, I realize something – this topic is fucking huge.
As I write this, I also have to admit that I worry a little bit about backlash from what the far right would call the “woke” American left. There has been much criticism and policing on what forms of expression are considered genuine allyship vs. performative. Some people say straight white people need to sit down and STFU. In contrast, others say it’s our time to stand up and support the people we have passively, actively, ancestrally, and historically discriminated against. I tend to think, like most things, it’s a process, and anyone who is telling others definitively what is right and wrong needs to sit back and reflect.
But, here I am, trying to use one of my gifts to make a small contribution to the unpacking of the harms caused by a forevers long repression of gender-blind love and the oppression of those who dared to ‘do them’ regardless.
I’ve had some form of LGBTQ+ post stewing in my mind for quite a while – at least since I binged the first season of Sense8 back in 2015 or 2016. I had one of my biggest personal breakthroughs in my own journey towards a more pure form of allyship while watching that show, which I’ll probably get into later.
But what’s been brewing in my mind isn’t about being some ideal straight ally to gay people. It’s not an emotional feel-good piece telling all the LGBTQ people in the world I love them, and I’m here. I’m no historian and can’t give an accurate timeline of gay rights in America. But I have a story. And I think it could be helpful for other straight people to learn something from my journey and realize gaining access or insight into the unique and various LGBTQ experiences isn’t so hard, scary, and doesn’t come at the cost of one’s own identity. I’d actually argue a person’s understanding of self only deepens from the bonds made with those different than themselves.
I should also clarify, that most of this post centers around masculinity and how stigmas of cisgendered gay men intersect with or influence the experiences of cisgendered straight men. In a draft version of this post, I was overgeneralizing a lot by using the LGBTQIA+ acronym and a friend pointed out that I should probably avoid that. It was good advice. If the above sentences are confusing don’t worry, I won’t write like this moving forward. Just needed to set the stage a bit more.
One last thing before I begin, to tell this story honestly, I must use some derogatory language. I have no interest in perpetuating the use of homophobic slurs or positioning myself as some unapologetic tough guy ‘writing the truth’ while others placate the outraged liberal elite. It’s just one of those “to know where I am you need to know where I’ve been” situations. So, while I’d love to have people other than cis-gendered straight folks read this, I totally understand if you, a potential LGBTQ reader, don’t want to take a trip down memory lane to a time when kids learned to tease each other with gay slurs before they had their first crush.
I’m going to break this down into sections since making this flow is challenging.
- I wasn’t Raised To Be Homophobic, But I Was Taught To Be
Let me explain.
Anyone who’s read a decent amount of my posts, some of my short stories, or has graciously read the novel that I’ve been writing for about nine years now knows I come from a predominantly white–blue-collar town. My neighborhood was a working-class/poor neighborhood called Hillsdale. And while it might benefit a new reader to know more about what life was like there, I’m going to try to avoid talking too much about it and get more to the point about how it shaped my early perceptions and fears of the concept of “gay.”
If memory serves me correctly, there were two gay men in the neighborhood throughout my tenure there. Knowing this did nothing for my understanding or tolerance of gay people. It just made me aware that there were people out there who were called gay. And as time went on, I got “educated” about them in one of the most unhealthy ways possible–by other neighborhood kids who got their bullshit from the neighborhood kids before them.
That means I was running around calling my friends faggots before I knew what sex was. At first, in all honesty, most of us learned this word without knowing it was a hateful label for queer people. It was something you said to one of your friends who wasn’t joining in on the game or wouldn’t run to the pop machine to get sodas for everyone.
“Come on, man, don’t be a fag. Just play.”
“Dude, that’s so gay.”
But even though I might not have known exactly what the word meant, I knew it was a bad thing. Not that it was a bad thing to say, but that it was a bad thing to be. And back then, just about any activity could get you the gay label.
Earring in the right ear – gay.
Don’t want to play football – gay.
Don’t want to smoke cigarettes – fag.
In my town, even certain sports earned you the “gay” label. High school soccer players in Clearfield were called soccer fags.
Let’s ignore the fact that in most countries, playing soccer is about the most masculine thing a person could do and think about how homophobia hurts more than homosexual men. Oh wait, did you see what I did there? I defended soccer by saying it’s not gay; rather, it’s masculine. Jumping to the false conclusion that being gay means being feminine. Admittedly, this is a hard stereotype for me to break free from. But this is key. One of the main accusations wrapped up in calling another man gay is that he’s acting like a female.
I could probably go on and on about how rigid gender norms and, particularly, how the narrow scoped definition of manliness impacted me–from my study behaviors in school to my career pursuits; my style choices and even hygiene practices. But that’s a little bit of a tangent, so I’ll hold back–just know that’s there.
Anyway, back to the point about control. Homophobia hurts and is leveraged to control straight people as well. Most people don’t want to do things that will get them shunned by their peers or the ones they look up to. If you’ve been taught that being gay is bad, and if trying out for the school play, learning to dance, or playing soccer is going to get you ridiculed, it’s likely you’re not going to do those things.
But it wasn’t just these seemingly unimportant behaviors that were attached to homosexuality. I mean, hey, if being a nonsmoker makes me gay, I’ll be that, right? But what if the pedophile in the neighborhood was also labeled, falsely, a queer? We had one of those–a pedophile–where I grew up. A “come sit on my lap, and I’ll give you candy” child molesting pedophile. It’s a little harder to bravely accept a label, even if it’s untrue if that label puts you in the same category as a sex offender.
Here’s a thought to ponder. How ridiculous is it that people presume to know something about another person’s love/sex life based on the unrelated activities they enjoy? How twisted is it for someone to use gender identity or sexual orientation to control another’s behavior to suit their own selfish ideologies? And why don’t we grow suspicious of the perverted control freak trying to manipulate us with bigoted perceptions of personal identity instead of turning resentful towards a group of people that have been victimized by that same bigotry? It doesn’t make sense, does it?
It’s probably getting clearer how life around me taught me that homosexuality was wrong and the way to survive was to be a man in every way a man was supposed to be. But just a couple more points to cap it off.
I can’t finish this section without talking about church. I was raised Catholic. I’m still Catholic. Pope Francis’s decision to disallow priests from blessing same-sex unions jeopardized that, but I’m trying to move forward. Of course, we all know most churches back then, and now, weren’t encouraging inclusivity and telling teenagers that same-sex relationships have God’s blessing. I mean, I thought masturbation was a sin, for God’s sake.
So all of the above-mentioned were working in unison to tell me a story about the otherness and wrongness of homosexuality and the rightness of acting your gender. And since there were no “out” active community members, I wasn’t getting the other side of the story. There were no gay coaches, teachers, or fellow classmates providing the opposing narrative.
So, how did I make it out of Clearfield without being a total homophobic gay-bashing piece of crap? First, I have to give my family partial credit for this. To be honest, I knew my mother would always love me and that her love wasn’t conditional on my sexual identity. So, at least one form of love transcends sexual identity, right? And if God is love, then despite what the humans say, God’s love does too. To that point, despite mixed messages from the church, the concept of Jesus that formed within me just didn’t align with the hatred that people had for LGBTQ+ people.
I remember this short conversation I had with my grandfather years back. He was about 80, I suppose, and I was 18 or 19. There must have been conversations flaring up in the local parish about whether or not gay people should be accepted into the church. And at one point, he looked to me and said, “Everyone is all up and arms about lesbians and the church. That doesn’t bother me. You know why I go to church? Because it makes me feel good.” This resonated with me. Now, I know that isn’t some profound statement about the open arms accepting of lesbians in the church, but considering his age, the timing of the conversation, and adjusting for inflation, that’s like the 2021 version of wearing a rainbow shirt and attending a Pride festival.
So, luckily, I never really internalized any hatred for the gay people, but I didn’t fully embrace or outwardly show support either. I started with that “I don’t mind if people are gay, I just don’t want to see dudes making out around me” perspective. So magnanimous, right? To be clear, I would not have done or said anything against two guys holding hands or showing each other affection around me. Still, it was my little protection in my community to only be so comfortable with the idea of homosexuality. Not perfect by any stretch, but it was a start.
2. Gay Activism is Important – Visibility Matters
I’m not saying this because I had a phase in my life where I was marching in the streets fighting for gay rights. Between high school and my time in the Peace Corps, nothing drew me closer to the LGBTQ community. Luckily, I didn’t pick up any more negative stereotypes about queer people, but I didn’t have a solitary life-changing experience that fundamentally changed my perspective. Despite that fact, I was becoming more open, and I think that was because of the personal and public work people were doing in their lives.
As I was moving from one life chapter to the next, I might have heard about a person from my old high school that came out and started living the life that was meant for them. It was always great to hear about someone breaking free from the shackles, so to speak, and become this little bright light in the world. I may have caught on the news about some victory for the advancement of LGBTQ rights. Maybe I was on a college bar crawl that included a stop at a gay bar where I ended up having a great time.
The aforementioned gradually cracked the armor society formed around me to keep the gay community at arm’s length. And those small moments that I mentioned above were beautiful and powerful–much more so than those moments I witnessed where people were trying to spread hatred. I remember a group of people walking through the Penn State campus holding up signs that said ‘God hates fags’ and ‘gay people go to hell,’ and they all looked absolutely pathetic. I think God would prefer me sitting at Chumley’s in State College having a conversation and a beer with a gay man rather than carrying signs spreading poison presuming to know what God “hates” and who they’d send to hell. But, what the fuck do I know?
I know that somehow the personal and communal work that people do ripples out across the world and helps create the space for more people to open their hearts and minds to the full spectrum of the human experience. And though I understand coming out is a deeply personal experience, activism probably feels exhausting and pointless at times, and it’s hard to witness the attempted corporate takeover of Pride; I hope everyone out there living authentically and being vocal knows that what they do matters–both to help shift perceptions from otherness to openness and make room for more people to live more fully as themselves.
3. Don’t Sleep on Impact of The Arts & Entertainment
I mentioned earlier I had what I called a personal breakthrough after watching the show Sense8. A proper review of that show would take an entire blog post, so I’ll just give it a quick summary.
Basically, it follows eight people who are part of a “cluster,” which is essentially a group of telepathically connected people able to share emotions, thoughts, talents, knowledge, and ‘you name it’ with each other from anywhere in the world. The characters in the show are a diverse group from all over the globe. They have to find a way to work together to prevent being captured by an evil group of fucks led by a man called Whispers–who, by making eye contact with just one member of the group, can use the sensate connection to locate and track the cluster.
The show has a ton of action, great fight scenes, and hot sex to keep people entertained. But it’s really a character-driven show. Each of their journeys is filled with so much heartbreak and hope. And as lonely as this society we’ve created can feel, witnessing the deep emotional connection of the cluster can be almost overwhelming as they literally give their whole selves over in service to each other. It’s hard not to imagine a more deeply connected world where we are motivated by shared goals for a more just society.
One of the cluster members is a famous Mexican action movie star with a macho reputation named Lito–picture any actor in “The Expendables” movies for reference. Secretly, Lito is gay and is in a relationship with a man named Hernando. All kinds of things happen to these men. Lito is exposed for being gay. He basically loses his career, and he loses Hernando from being too cowardly to stand up for a friend being abused. Over the course of the show, seeing their struggles and how Lito’s sexual orientation had more power over his career than his own talents and work ethic combined, I couldn’t help but start rooting for them to succeed as individuals and as a couple.
At one point, there is this moment in the show where things are about to change for the better for Lito and Hernando.
Let me remind you, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of public displays of male on male affection growing up (yep, you guessed it, male on male only). I avoided watching Broke Back Mountain, despite the amazing cast, because of that. Shit, I would still avert my eyes like a ten-year-old when a show or movie had gay make-out scenes up until the moment I was watching this show.
Anyway, so circumstances lead to Lito and Hernando being on a beach. Hernando eloquently gets Lito through a moment of panic brought on by being so close to realizing a lifelong dream. Feeling free, I guess, Lito jumps up and strips down to his underwear, running into the ocean. Hernando followed suit, and eventually, the two end up rolling around on the beach, passionately making out while the waves crash over them in a reenactment of a scene from “From Here to Eternity”–which I believe had deeper subtext as it was one of the characters’ favorite scenes from a movie.
The breakthrough for me here was that I watched it, haha. Intently. I wanted them to be happy so bad that none of those childish “icky” feelings brought on by two guys being intimate mattered anymore. It was the most natural thing in the world at that moment. Honestly, the first word that came to mind was ‘beautiful.’ And it was.
Their relationship, their love, and that moment made total sense to me. And I think it clicked in my mind in a new way that this type of love is as old as all types. I understood intellectually and from a human rights perspective that love is love and people should be treated fairly. But this new awakening felt more like common sense. Before, if someone came running to me saying they saw two good-looking, muscular men rolling around on a beach kissing, I’d have understood that as the whole story. The gay factor would be the point of the story, the punchline. But if someone came to me with that same story today, I’d be waiting for whatever the punchline was supposed to be. What’s the point beyond that? Otherwise, it’s basically like, no shit. Why wouldn’t they be? They might be in love, are definitely horny, and presumably attracted to each other. What’s the problem here?
And for the straight person reading this who is a little confused right now, no, it wasn’t erotic for me. I mean, I really am a straight guy, and that didn’t go away the moment I realized that gay love is beautiful too. I’m attracted to women because, for some unknown reason, I am. It wasn’t a logical decision to be straight, and there won’t be logical reasoning that can make me gay. So, I don’t personally see the harm in folks, especially men, exploring their own hangups about same-sex relations, especially male ones, to better understand who they are and what they can let go of.
4. Friendships are the Best
After all of that, I’m finally going to say it…some of my best friends are gay. But it’s true, and I say this with pride, even if that’s weird. No judgment if that’s not the case for your or if “you’re not there yet.” It took until my mid-thirties for me to have a truly deep and personal friendship with a gay man, and I’m just going to assume that’s because the universe knew I wasn’t ready for it until then.
Upon entering the Peace Corps, I knew I was embarking on the most intense cross-cultural experience of my lifetime, especially after learning I would be living in a remote village in Namibia. I hadn’t known that I was also about to learn so much more about the American experience, especially through the lens of those who identify as LGBTQ, mainly gay cis men. I surely didn’t have on my list of expectations that many of my fondest memories in Africa would be from time spent with gay Americans. And I most definitely couldn’t have imagined that that experience would somehow lead me to be an introductory guide to Philadelphia Pride for two gay men from Namibia and South Africa (pictured below), but such is life, I suppose.
The first guy I became close with was a volunteer in the same cohort as me. He was dedicated to giving back and finding the positive in difficult situations. He was already experienced in emergency response and did a lot to help people in New York recover after hurricane/superstorm Sandy. He had loads of experience in group facilitation, and I learned a lot by watching him in action.
Early in our service, we were recruited by other volunteers to assist in a youth camp designed to reduce teenage pregnancy rates in the Kavango region. We were barely experienced enough in our service to navigate around our own villages, but we accepted the challenge. It was a lot of hard work and, despite our extremely long days, he and I would spend time decompressing by sitting outside near the Okavango river and talking about anything and everything until late into the night. It was exactly what I needed to feel somewhat at ease in what was many times a draining and stressful experience about seven thousand miles from home.
These nights ended up leading to many more memories that have involved white water rafting, yoga, home cooking, and even attending a celebration of life ceremony for a lost loved one. We don’t talk most days since our paths went in other directions, but that doesn’t mean we won’t easily pick up where we left off once our paths cross again. And, for the sake of helping others break from their stereotypes about gay men, I’d pick him in a crisis over most of the straight guys I’ve ever known. The guy has some legit survival training, and sorry, brother, but as impressive as your 400+ lb squat is, his skills in the zombie apocalypse trump that all day. Although, to be clear, he’s actually a pretty big guy too.
My next close friendship started a year into my service with someone who, like me, graduated from Penn State University and lived in Philly for a time–and, like me, loved it. He arrived in the country a year after I did and was a community & economic development volunteer. He carried himself differently than most volunteers new in-country. He projected confidence and seemed more settled into himself. In the way that he spoke and dressed, it was obvious that he wasn’t treating the Peace Corps like a travel opportunity but a service one, with a slant towards professional development and personal growth.
If people really are built with some innate sense of another person’s sexual orientation, commonly referred to as a “gaydar,” he totally flew under mine. I could read his positivity and sense of purpose, mixed with a dash of seriousness. But there were no noticeable behaviors or mannerisms present that are typically associated with gay men. I confessed to him later that I admired appreciated his authenticity from our very first encounter. And once I was privy to learning what he had to overcome to live in his own story, it made absolute sense to me that, even in his moments of self-doubt, he would carry with him a stronger sense of identity than most men out there, especially straight men.
Let me elaborate a bit on that.
The one thing I am genuinely jealous of about the gay experience is the ‘coming out’ moment. Where most of us lack an initiation ceremony that fundamentally shifts our role or the way we’re perceived in our communities, by coming out, LGBTQ people get to emerge from an old story into a new place in society. Although, like the rest of us, they might lack a definitive moment that carried them over the line into adulthood, at least they get to say with clarity and purpose that they are something other than straight, and that is how they will live regardless of the consequences of stereotypes.
I think this gives those who come out a grounded sense of identity in a society that keeps most of us constantly, sometimes aimlessly, searching for who in the actual fuck we are. For all of our birthdays, graduations, and various anniversaries, I can’t think of any ceremonies that with certainty reassure us that we are on the path to adulthood and or acknowledge that we, in this case, men, have crossed over the threshold into manhood. Far too many people only learn they are considered men when they are brutally kicked to the societal curb. And let’s be real, in America, for people of color, that can be far sooner than for white folks.
But I digress. The point is that an inadvertent positive of being marginalized for gay men is that they are almost forced into a societal custom that most of us lack and desperately need. And I think this benefited the friend I’m now discussing.
My friendship with him looks like my other good friendships. We talk about goals, politics, philosophy, and relationships. We’ve had hilarious nights full of debauchery that were worth every penny of hangover the following days. When I needed support creating a financial literacy workshop in Mpungu, Namibia, he hitchhiked to my village and helped me get it done. In other words, we’re there for each other.
And, I guess, as I reread that last paragraph, that point of this all is might be that my life is better because of the gay people, art, and entertainment that are in it. So thanks to everyone for all the good, challenging, pleasant, and awkward moments that have led to my personal growth and ultimately this blog post.
Wow. This is way longer than I thought it was going to be. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking around. Before signing off, I think I just want to encourage other cis-gendered straight folks to be kind above all else. You might not ever understand another person’s identity, but kindness doesn’t require understanding. Trust me, an individual’s talents or capacity for goodness aren’t determined by their sexual orientation or gender identity, and neither is yours. So, don’t be mean to my friends. That shit ain’t cool.
Below is a shortlist of some recommendations for LGBTQ+ related movies, shows, and songs that I found eye-opening, inspiring, and/or entertaining.
Check them out…or don’t.
As always, thanks for reading. Comments encouraged.
Heaven Sent by Parker Millsap https://youtu.be/6LWMHV6iqvk
Love, Simon https://youtu.be/E0cbWdlQg_8
The House of Fowers https://youtu.be/IL_2X4uyQsE