MY SECRET [HETERO] HISTORY

 

"So, Danny, do you think you're really gay?" The question was perplexing and disconcerting. After all, it came not from opponents trying to cure me, but from friends, gay friends, who wanted to understand me and my coming-out process, which I had sketched vaguely only minutes before. Some possible yet unhelpful answers popped to mind: "Follow me around and find out." "Hide a video camera in my bedroom on all-too-rare occasions and see for yourself..."

The real answer of course is Yes, but the reality is more complicated, because the story of my evolving sexual identity does not follow a prefabricated narrative arc, with clear signals, unambiguous signposts, and a definite ending. Instead, it is a tale of hope, longing, confusion, and desire, with everything mixed together like holiday leftovers on a plate.

ONE

The whole time I was growing up, my romantic sense was oscillating like the onscreen dot in a game of Pong, totally bipolar. I dreamed that I would end up with a beautiful wife, and despaired that I would, in fact, never find anyone, and live my life as a scholarly respected eccentric surrounded by books. I had crushes on girls, wanted to impress them, wanted to have them take me seriously, as a male entity, not as a genderless friend. Some of these efforts I have mentioned in BENT before, here and here.

My feelings were real and intense, as I often went goo-goo-eyed around my sister's friends, fantasized about making out with them, and tried not to make too much of an ass of myself. In elementary school and junior high, I had close male best friends, because on some level I always regretted not having a brother, and because back then, close adolescent friendships did not cross gender lines. Boys hung out with boys, and girls with girls. Of course, at that time, the natural male habitats were the arcade and the playground, so my friends were of the geekier variety, guys who didn't mind just hanging out, talking, watching TV, and playing board games. I wanted to spend time with them, because school didn't keep me busy enough, and I was jealous of my sister's world of parties and sleepovers. She got to spend extra time with her friends, while most of my life was defined by time alone in my bedroom.

I hoped high school would be better. It wasn't. My crushes didn't go anywhere, and dating was not part of the activity repertoire for the kids I hung out with. We were a highly asexual and sublimated crowd, all of us furiously busy. Although I made closer female friends, much of my time was consumed with and by my male best friend, who was bitter, depressive, and misanthropic. The optimist in me thought I saw the warmth and caring and humor beneath his masks, but as I look back, I'm not sure his darkness was just a cover. I hoped to show him that other people were OK, and to show other people that he wasn't so bad. I should have realized the situation was hopeless when he kept identifying with Darth Vader, but I didn't give up. Instead, I spent hours of time and energy, and ended up running out of both. It was time to get out of high school and make a new start. Who knows what marvelous people I might meet?

TWO

In college it wasn't just that my mind got stimulated in class—my mind got stimulated all the time, in late-night arguments, review sessions, and episodes of academic panic. College did even more to fight my isolation than it did to enrich my intellect. I got to share a bedroom with someone! If I wanted to talk to people and hang out, I could just go and find them, since I knew where they lived. In this way, my campus became more of a living, interacting neighborhood for me than my hometown of Hollywood had ever been. Such proximity facilitated quick, intense emotional bonding, and also revved up my hormones, dormant for years.

Two young women in my dorm caught my attention immediately. One of them, a sophisticated girl from the big city, was a slightly more bohemian version of Carrie Bradshaw; the other was a free-spirited openminded mildly wacky girl from the Midwest. When I found out that Ms. Manhattan and I were born on the same day three hours apart, I took it as a sign. After all, I had always dreamed of New York, so I focused my efforts in her direction.

It did not go well, as we really didn't have much in common. I thought I was playing things cool, until one of my neighbors took me aside and told me I was making a fool of myself. Give up, and retain your self respect, was his message. Since he was a big jock from a fraternity, I figured he knew what he was talking about, so I did give up, but I was really pissed off. He had no conception of how much easier it was for him to attract female attention than it was for me.

Later that year and the next, I began realizing how intoxicating my Midwest friend was, and I was able to spend more time with her. We were friendly and affectionate, but never romantic, although she was a good sport about tolerating my gifts of flowers. I have mentioned before that one of my freshman dorm neighbors came out that first year; during sophomore year, he and I became closer. I was totally OK with his being gay, and I ended up playing Dear Abby for him and his boyfriend, the same thing I did for my women friends.

To steal from "Seinfeld," these women were real, and they were spectacular. Too often though, they either didn't know it, or were cursed with boyfriends who didn't appreciate them. Often they expressed the desire to meet a guy like me. Well, since none of them seemed ready to encourage my interest or make a pass at me, that wasn't quite true, but even as a backhanded compliment, it made me feel good. I would have been overjoyed to date them, but I had a failure of nerve.

By the time my senior year rolled around, I was happy but confused. I didn't know what I was going to do with my life, and my affections were scattered all over the place. I was still emotionally attached to several female friends, yet the more time I spent with my gay friend and his friends, the more I heard them talking in physical and sexual terms about other men, the more I began to ask myself questions.

During senior year, I was lucky enough to live in a freshman dorm, which gave me dozens of living antidotes to end-of-college cynicism. These kids were happy and excited sometimes, lonely and isolated sometimes, emotions they hadn't yet learned to wall off. They often needed affection and reassurance, and were happy to return it. When I started spending time with them, I noticed my emotional responses were gaining a physical layer. While the adorable girl down the hall received my very first e-mail message, it was the guys on other floors whowell, let's just say they provoked calls from me to my gay friends. I wanted them to help me figure out what I was feeling.

Their contributions, while amusing, were distinctly unhelpful. When I would describe my desire to be around certain guys, and the warmth I got from their attention, my gay friends would invariably exhibit a Pavlovian response, complete with real drooling: "Wow, they're hot! You probably just want to sleep with them." I was thinking of affection, not sex, I would stammer. They professed to believe me, but with smirks that suggested they were wise to me and I was clueless. By the end of college, I knew I was capable of getting crushes on both women and men, but I resisted slapping a label on my still theoretical love life.

THREE

I came to Berkeley for graduate school, and as I have written elsewhere, everything changed. Independence came to be a concrete part of my existence. Once again, I moved into the dorms. The first real friend I made was a gay RA, a resident assistant. I must have made him uncomfortable, because right away I began treating him as my Delphic Oracle on matters of sex. As I poured out to him my story and my perplexity, he advised me to seek counseling and to go to some gay social events on campus. He even went with me, so I'd be less nervous. In some ways, thanks to my previous socialization, I felt comfortable in a room full of gay students. But then the politely nosy interrogations started:

-"So, have you ever kissed a girl?"
-"Yes."
-"Dated one?"
-
"Nope."
-"Had sex with one?"
-
"Nope."
-
"And you have these feelings for men, but you're not sure what they are or what they mean?"
-
"Right."

To my questioners, these answers could lead to only one conclusion. I was gay. When I would disagree and cite my feelings for women, they would cluck sympathetically and confess that they too had tried to fool themselves for years, and that self-deception hadn't worked any better for them than it apparently had for me, because after all, look where I was.

Feelings and crushes that had dominated my consciousness for years were dismissed with the wave of a hand. I was furious. They neither knew me nor lived in my head. Who the hell were they to tell me what was real or not?

Was this blindered attitude the kind of nefarious recruitment that fundamentalists are still screaming about to this day? I don't think so. So many of my new gay friends, with their sweeping gestures and even more sweeping generalizations, could afford to be certain, because they saw themselves as breaking free and rebelling. Whether their enemy was Christianity, small-town values, machismo, violence, parental disapproval, or impossibly constrained social horizons, their escape to Berkeley was a proclamation: they were here to declare a new era for themselves and those around them. Their messianic confidence was very 1987, very comforting to activist types, but not very nuanced. Thus the clueless new homo on wheels needed to be told what was what and who was who. He was gay, and that was that.

Such righteous fervor might be admirable, but it ignored who I was. I wasn't running from some small-town Southern Baptist nightmare existence. I was from a big-city liberal nurturing Jewish family, an environment devoid of machismo, saturated with musicals and Streisand. Gay people were not central to my life as a kid, but they weren't exactly off my radar. I was having far more trouble figuring out how I was going to function in this new gay world in my wheelchair than I was worrying about whether God wanted me to be gay, and always feeling like the only homo on wheels didn't exactly help.

Misunderstood and angry, I identified myself vociferously as bisexual. I resented gay people's devaluing my previous attachment to women, and reading my sexual identity narrative as an absurdly foregone conclusion. In truth, my bisexuality continued to be more rhetorical than real. Once things started happening with guys, I didn't feel good about continuing to pursue hetero romantic possibilities. I couldn't see myself keeping my gay interests from any woman I would date, and I didn't think any woman would go out with me if she knew I had other inclinations. (In today's age of relative fluidity and experimentation, such prudishness seems quaint, but this was the late Eighties. Things were oh, so different then.)

As the years passed, I let my hetero side atrophy, relegating it to a kind of nostalgia composed not of illusion, but of intense recall and occasional curiosity about roads not taken. Everyone finds coming out to family difficult, but one group of people scared me more than my relatives: the young women I had been stuck on. By this time, many of them knew about my previous hopes and infatuations, and I was afraid finding out I was gay would either make them feel guilty for not reciprocating my feelings, or more likely make them angry that they had been deceived. Thankfully, they have all been supportive.

I saw several of them at my college reunion a few years back, many married, with children. Initially I felt remote from them and from their experience, but it took only minutes before I realized why they had been worth falling for in the first place. One of them was still single, and I joked that if we both remained single for much longer, we should just thumb our noses at the world, get married, and agree to cheat, although probably not with the same men (far too messy emotionally). We laughed, but I wonder.

I'm not simplistic enough to believe that I ended up dating men merely because things with women never worked out. Were that the sole impetus, every frustrated or repressed hetero on earth would turn queer. On the other hand, I don't think I'm deluded to wonder how my life would have been different had my intense attraction to certain women been reciprocated. Would I still have retained the curiosity about men I have since explored?

For many, coming out is the lifting of a weight, the parting of clouds. A sexual identity grounds such people in a new sense of authenticity. Being gay has had no such cathartic or catalytic effect on me, however. I'm still me, with the same psyche, the same body, the same issues and difficulties. Being sexually and romantically involved with men has indeed felt real, and not the least like a consolation prize, but I think those involvements fulfill me by helping to quench a need for intimacy, companionship, and partnership in the struggle against isolation. This need, transcending mere gender, has dwelt within me my whole life. It's a need that could have been filled by women and might yet, God willing, be filled by a man.

Am I gay? Am I straight? Am I bi? I wish I had the chutzpah to swipe Margaret Cho's answer: "Maybe I'm just a slut! Where's my parade?" I guess the answer is that I am sexually, romantically, and culturally queer at this point, but that a key part of being truly subversive is to stay open to other realities and possibilities. Am I going to propose to some wondrous Stanford or Berkeley alumna in 2006? Will you catch me doing karaoke to Willie and Julio's "To All the Girls I've Loved Before"? Probably not. But I needed to get my straight side out on paper, before I forget the intensity of my feelings, and before that aspect of my history recedes even further into the shadows.

©2006 Danny Kodmur

 

Don't wait.
Let us know what you think of this BENT feature.

.

 

Danny Kodmur lives, writes, and tries to figure his life out in the Bay Area, where he will cheerfully ignore threats to revoke his homo card. His work is featured in "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories" (Haworth Press), a 2004 Lambda Literary Award winner. Write to him with comments and questions at profxavier@comcast.net.

 

More by Danny Kodmur

A Soul Clothed in Shining Armor~5/00
How Much Does it Matter? Wrestling with the Metaphysics of Disability ~11/00
On Being (Un)Representative ~1/02
Testing My Faith in Romance ~3/02
No Need to Kick My Tires ~5/02
Balcony Scenes with a Twist ~7/02
Productive Confusion ~7/02
The Music and the Mirror ~9/02
The Music and the Mirror:II ~11/02
Life Under the Spotlight: Disability and Depression ~1/03
On Getting Stuck ~3/03
Of Cities and Closets ~5/03
So How Old Are You, Anyway? ~7/03
Socializing and Sobriety ~9/03
Walking in L.A. ~11/03
Wedding Bell Blues ~3/04
Fortress of Solitude ~7/04
Sound Bodies ~9/04
Fear, Fat, and Fabulousness ~5/05
Picture That: On Seeing and Not Seeing Myself
~9/05

 

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/January 2006