I have a positive message of affirmation for the millions of young men in the United States who are sexually attracted to other men: Congratulations, I think maybe you've finally made it. You are more accepted, more connected, more liberated, and more protected as a legal class today than at any time in American history. So much has changed in such a very short period of time, it's kind of amazing.
You're all living in a country where it's no longer a crime to have sex with another consenting male of legal age. Sodomy, as it's called, was against the law in most states for a really long time, and those laws were upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States in Bowers v. Hardwick the year I graduated from high school (1986). It wasn't until SCOTUS did the extraordinary thing of reversing itself in Lawrence v. Texas seventeen years later (2003) that these hateful, discriminatory statutes were lifted off our collective backs. Hard to believe it's been thirteen years since that happened - it seems like only yesterday. A lot of you were just kids then.
You may not actually realize just how lucky you are these days. Though HIV is still around and a bit of a stigma, it's no longer the death sentence it once was for so many thousands of us not that many years ago. All the US pharmaceutical companies worked tirelessly to find ways of turning that fatal illness into a chronic condition requiring a lifetime of outrageously expensive medicine, and they've made a mountain of money off of gay men and their families. But patents do still expire, and with generic drugs and the Affordable Care Act, many of you now have insurance that covers most of the care that can keep you undetectable forever. They even have a pill now that acts like a vaccine! Worrying about HIV isn't what it used to be, though getting treated for plain old HPV, Gonorrhea and Syphilis still seems a doddle by comparison.
And speaking of amazing, there are now so many gay, bisexual and lesbian characters on television and in films who aren't depicted as freaks, junkies, pedophiles, or lepers. At some point fairly recently, Hollywood decided to start treating us just like regular human beings, and there are more queer actors, sports figures, and celebrities who are out in the open today than at any point in history. And Caitlyn Jenner! Are you kidding me? They treat that privileged bitch like a queen!
You even have the Constitutional right to get full-ass married to another guy (if you both feel so inclined) in your choice of fifty states. Now that's something I never believed I would see happen in my lifetime. Men and women getting legally betrothed to their same-sex partners, nationwide? Damn, but America has certainly made some impressive changes.
Now I know, I know, it's not all rainbows and unicorns. American culture is still fiercely heterocentric. No Supreme Court ruling will ever change the hearts and minds of a hundred million bigots. Many of you are still growing up in households where you have to stay in the closet to your parents and family. Bullies at school still present a very real danger of physical abuse. Suicide is still the leading cause of death among gay and lesbian youth nationally. Black transgender women are murdered in hate crimes practically every single day. Growing up gay in the USA is still a living hell.
But at least you've got the Internet. It's a real lifeline to an entire world of encouragement and support. You can find, meet, and talk to other queer guys like yourself, even if you're stuck living in Alaska - and it only takes seconds. There's billions of pictures of guys being gay with other guys out there in the ether, every one a little bit of affirmation that it's OK to be who you are. There's YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and on and on, all connecting you with everyone in a way that I could have never quite dreamed of when I was a teen. Dan Savage and others are out there telling kids that "it gets better", and you can even send naked pictures of yourselves to each other on your smart phones! Oh my god, how is that not the best thing ever?
So I hope you'll forgive me for seeming pensive. It's just that I feel kind of like I got caught in the middle of two very distinctly gay-positive eras of American history. The raging orgy of the Seventies, with its bath houses, queer ghettos, disco halls, protests and pride parades, came to a screeching halt when AIDS showed up. Puberty was kicking in for me right about the time that all the newspapers carried stories about gay men in New York and San Francisco dying of a mysterious disease. A year later, the magazines pronounced it an epidemic. Nothing kills a boner faster than the fear of death, let me tell you.
It didn't help either that I grew up in the deep South, surrounded by righteous church-going folk who were quite certain God Himself hated faggots. It was surreal to sit with my parents in that little Baptist church and listen to the minister deliver hellfire and brimstone sermons about how AIDS was God's retribution for the sin of sodomy, and that the more dead gay men there were, the holier America would be in the eyes of the Lord Jesus. I started to think that my own family might stone me to death if they found out what I had become.
When I was growing up, gay characters in media were rare and typically negative stereotypes. Home computers were primitive devices, and though the Internet existed then, the Worldwide Web hadn't been invented yet. There were one or two openly gay kids at school (or at least everyone thought they were gay), but for most everyone else it was just too risky to come out to anyone. Even one of my best friends in high school was gay, and I was so traumatized that I didn't realize it until years after we'd parted ways. Now think about that for a minute: I lived in a world where I couldn't even trust my closeted friend, and he couldn't trust me - our collective fear of being outed and all that it would entail was just too great.
By the time I finally got up the courage, and somehow met with the opportunity to have sex with a guy for the first time, it was a nerve-wracking experience. Awkward, anxious, disappointing. Whatever the opposite of magical is, it was that. I had waited so long for something that I felt I needed so badly, and it turned out to be so awful that I never wanted to do it again. I did of course, but not until years later, and though it wasn't as bad as the first time, it still wasn't anything I felt like I actually enjoyed doing. It was about as fun as going to the dentist: You did it because you needed to, not because you wanted to. Eventually I decided that since I got laid so infrequently, I probably didn't actually need a sex life.
Besides, trying to meet other gay men was an enormous burden for an introvert like myself. It involved doing things like going to the one gay bar in town and hanging around in a dimly lit, loud, smoke-filled room hoping that I might find somebody attractive that would take notice of me. Or going to "men's groups" to talk about my dysfunction as a gay man, and hoping maybe there would be someone there that would be worth hitting on. It was a time-consuming chore that presented few prospects. Dating services in my area didn't cater to homosexuals. Personal ads were pointless and very risky. Other than moving to a giant city far away that would swallow me whole (and simply kill my mother), I really didn't have many options.
So I gave up, for a while. Then in my thirties, I got a new lease on life. I moved to California and went to work for an LGBT non-profit in Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, the joke was on me: When I moved 2,300 miles away from home, I brought myself along with me. That was my first big mistake. Even though I was now "free" and in the casual company of other homos on a daily basis, I just couldn't figure out how to let go of all the fucking baggage I had collected in my head about my identity as a gay man.
Santa Barbara is a small town, and though it is full of queers, they keep to themselves in the same way that the rich and the famous do. The one remaining gay bar in town closed down the year after I moved there. The organization for which I was working entered into both a financial and leadership crisis at the same time, and I soon found myself in the middle of a whole other kind of mess. This was not the gay liberation I'd come looking for. I found another job and things worked themselves out, but in the mean time, I made mistake number two: I fell in love.
This was probably the stupidest thing I have ever done and lived to laugh about, and believe me, my list of those things is so long it's a multi-miracle I'm still alive. Anyway, one summer while traveling abroad, I crossed paths with a very attractive young man with whom I was remotely acquainted. Much to my astonishment, he wanted to have naked fun with me. Though jet-lagged and disoriented by the offer (this is really happening?), I agreed, and while it was brief and didn't involve any exchange of fluids, it turned out to be the most relaxed, enjoyable sexual experience I'd ever had. Relative to all other preceding events in my so-called sex life, it was stunningly fantastic.
I can't really explain what happened in my brain after that. Something from adolescence must have been switched back on. A few days later I departed for my remaining itinerary, and upon returning home a week later I realized to my chagrin that I was smitten. Of course, I did some really stupid things afterward that I shall not recount. My feelings were not reciprocated as it turned out, and this broke my stupid, stupid heart. I got to a therapist and six months later had myself screwed back together enough to go on living my life. In a way, I'm lucky it happened, but I feel badly about it to this day. My relationship with the boy did not survive, but so few relationships in life do, it's probably not worth thinking about anymore.
I pretty much gave up again after that. I'd had my one taste of sexual bliss, pitiful though it was, and I overreacted so egregiously that I figured it would be in everyone's best interest if I just stayed out of the game. I'm obviously wired together in such a way that the right sexual stimulation results in an emotional response. Heaven forbid if I accidentally found another young man like that who showed enough interest in me to take his clothes off. Having my life flipped upside down and inside out just once was more than enough.
How did my sex life get so fucked up? It took me thirty years, but I finally figured out the rather obvious answer. It's because I never got the chance to learn how to develop a normal sexual response when I was an adolescent. I was so traumatized by my aberrant sexuality and the necessity of hiding it for my own safety, I taught myself to be hypervigilant about suppressing sexual arousal. Once I'd mastered it, it happened without my consciously trying. Then years later, when I finally needed it to stop working, I couldn't turn it off.
It turns out that there's a name for the condition I'm in as a result of this: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Since it's triggered by being in situations where I'm subjected to sexual stimuli, I subconsciously avoid seeking out opportunities to meet prospective sex partners. Most attempts I consciously make end up subject to subconscious self-sabotage. When I'm caught unawares and suddenly realize that some guy is flirting with me, I kind of freeze in panic. My first response is to get away from him and forget that it happened. If I'm unable to do that, I kind of shut down and awkwardly ignore the advances, terrified that somebody will notice me being gay and decide that I need to be beaten to within an inch of my life. The thing is, I don't make a conscious decision to react this way. It just happens and I have little to no control over it. Later on, when I begin to feel safe enough to start thinking about it, I realize that once again I've completely blown an opportunity to connect with a man who thinks I'm cute.
So then a few more years went by, and the next thing I knew, I turned forty. Well, fuck it. I guess my so-called sex life is definitely over now. No cute young guy is going to want to rub dicks with another dude who's old enough to be his dad. Clearly, I was not thinking this through far enough at the time, but as I'm quite used to beating up on myself in this regard, it seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that all bets were off, and that I was just going to have to live my life as a confirmed bachelor. It was basically all I'd ever known, and though it was painful to be lonely sometimes, I had proven to myself over the years that it wouldn't kill me. So that was it. It was all over, and I didn't have to worry about it, or think about it, or have nightmares about it anymore. Finally - finally! - I experienced catharsis.
Believe it or not, sometimes life can play out like a video game. You fight and fight, taking hit after hit, and once you hit rock bottom, you die. But then, like magic, you suddenly get another life. The reset button gets pushed, and you can start over - maybe not from the beginning, but from a point in the game that you're already familiar with. Things are pretty much the same as they were before, but you're different somehow. You realize that you have another chance, and since you already died once, you know now that you can't make the same moves that got you killed before. You have to come up with another plan. And that is how I met the woman who became my wife.
Wait, what!? A woman? My wife? A female person with real lady parts? Excuse me, but I am a homosexual - it says so right here on my birth certificate. I have a rainbow flag, and a bunch of Rufus Wainwright albums, and I am 100% certain that I really, really like penises. For crying out loud, I have scars on the inside from the trauma of being a fag - how the hell can I be interested in women?
Well, not all women. Just... certain kinds of women, as it happens. To be perfectly honest with myself, I've known since before puberty that every once in a while I run across a girl that kind of catches my attention in a way that others don't. It never really involves boners for me, or thinking about what is under their clothes, but a few women seem to have a special way about them that I find curiously attractive, unthreatening, and if I spend some time getting to know them, even comforting. Even so, I've always been quite uncompromising in my devotion to cocks, and so I've rebuffed every single pair of breasts that have ever been rubbed against me. I'm not kidding when I tell you that I could have easily had
tons of pussy female companionship in my life if I'd been even the least bit interested. Thinking back carefully through time, I don't have enough digits to count the number of attractive women who were trying their best to get in my pants but failed. That sounds boastful when I read it to myself, but more's the pity, it's pretty accurate.
When I hit reset on my life, I stopped trying to make things happen on my own terms and did something that I'd never had any success at doing before: I let my guard down. And I did so long enough that somebody else managed to get through to me. Unsurprisingly, it didn't take that long. And that person happened to be just the right person I needed at just the time in my life that I needed them the most. True, they did not own a penis or the associated genitalia that usually comes with it, but somehow it just didn't matter that much anymore. She had everything else I needed, and in spades to boot. She had some issues to work through just like most everybody else, myself included, but since I'd grown to truly appreciate the fact that nobody's perfect, there were no longer any unreasonable barriers to entry for me like there had been before. I accepted her affections and returned them in an unselfconscious way. I didn't really believe what was happening, but I was determined not to fight it and to let nature take its course.
And yes, before long, we had sex. My First Vagina. I wasn't exactly the 40-year-old virgin, but it felt like I was. And to my astonishment, it wasn't all that awkward, or strange, or unappealing to have straight sex. Arousal was somewhat challenging for me under the circumstances, but certainly not impossible. It was actually kind of fun! Much to my bewilderment, I now had a normal, healthy sex life. How the actual fuck? It happened by my simply letting go of the wheel and letting my life go in whatever direction it wanted. It's a metaphor like in that scene in Fight Club where Tyler wrecks the airport limousine at night in the pouring rain! Well OK, maybe that's not the best analogy.
When I was a kid, that old saying about how life begins at forty always seemed like a joke to me. The fact that there's a punchline - "Begins to fall apart!" - kind of emphasized that impression. But now that I'm on the other side, I realize that the joke was on me. My twenties and thirties were kind of a waste. I was depressed, drank too much, and wandered through life setting myself up to fail romantically at every turn. I was my own worst enemy, which is true for most people. It took me until I thought I was past my prime before I snapped out of the trance I'd put myself in, but that's OK. I consider myself lucky that I woke the fuck up when I did. I could have ended up as just another closeted gay alcoholic, alone and dead at 57 with no next of kin. But now I won't! My wife is awesome, and we love each other, and since we have an open marriage I can still date guys! Haha, like that's ever going to happen. But it could! If there's one thing I've learned about my life, it's that almost anything can happen if I just let it.
And now at last, I say to all the queer American boys out there: Take full advantage of the changes that have happened to your country, and make the kind of life for yourselves that I wasn't able to make. Look at me and what a mess I was, and learn from my example to get out of your own way and let life happen to you. You're going to get your heart broken, but believe me when I tell you that it's better than being the owner of a lonely heart. That old Yes song is wrong, even if it is damned catchy. Maybe one day you'll find the person that's right for you, and if you're right for each other, maybe you can make each other happy without the climate of fear that has hung over the generations of queers who have struggled to find happiness before you. There is so much more to living a happy life than being sexually fulfilled, but it's much harder to get over that hump than it looks. My so-called sex life is finally real, and even if it's not exactly what I wanted, it's still pretty great. I'm happier now than I've been at any point in my life. And for the first time in what seems like a really long time, I actually feel like it might get even better.