“When did you first know you were gay?” is one of the single hardest questions for me to answer. When someone asks me that now, I say that I have always known, and that answer is generally countered by shocked, wide eyes and a “Wait, so why didn’t you just come out earlier then?”
It’s difficult to explain how I could have been so aware of my sexuality yet so unaware at the same time. It is easy now to look back on everything and say I always knew; it is easy to recall how I could barely even feign an interest in boys and how anxious I’d be around certain girls and to insert a stark awareness of what my feelings meant into those memories. At this point I’m not really sure when the awareness started to creep in. I can no longer distinguish between what I know now and what I knew then.
I know I didn’t start to consciously consider I might be gay until at least high school. Throughout middle school I couldn’t identify my feelings for girls as crushes because I didn’t realize I could have crushes on girls. This is not because I grew up in a close-minded or unaccepting household. Quite the opposite actually. It is just the way our world works. Being gay is not presented as a possibility until all attempts at being straight have been exhausted.
We live in a world that raises children under the assumption that they are straight unless they actively prove otherwise. Most kids do not grow up being asked by grown-ups if they find themselves interested in boys or girls. From the moment a baby girl is born, parents wonder what man will someday sweep her off her feet, and by middle school grown ups will begin to tease her about which boy she is thinking of asking to the dance.
At that age, it may never occur to her to bring a girl if the option is never placed on the table. How is she supposed to know that what she feels for girls is what most of the girls around her feel for boys?
Everyone assumed I would grow up to be straight, so I guess I just assumed it, too, assumed that the emotions, or lack thereof, I felt toward boys were just what everybody felt until they found the right one.
When I got to high school that began to change. Again, it is easy to look back now and say I was aware. I’m not sure how much I really allowed my mind to entertain the possibility, but I do remember pretending every day that it didn’t mean anything that there was a certain girl I couldn’t stop thinking about. I convinced myself that the fact that she was the first thought to pop into my head every morning, before my eyes even opened, was not all that significant. I tried with all my might to not spend every night praying she’d call or text or Facebook message me, and I fought hard to not feel so lonely when she didn’t.
Meanwhile, I manufactured crushes on boys where they did not exist. I would explicitly instruct my mind to shove its relentless yearning for this girl to the side, and then I’d actively implant thoughts of a boy where I thought that they belonged. Without really even knowing I was pretending, I pretended I cared when a cute boy talked to me and never really thought about the fact that my stomach didn’t lurch like it did when I spoke to that girl.
Turns out, denial is pretty damn powerful. It’s crazy how easily we can seal ourselves inside it without even being all that aware that it is happening. In so many ways I did know that I felt something for this girl, but in so many ways I didn’t. I wouldn’t let myself.
On and off throughout high school and college, I’d go through two or three day periods where I’d very consciously consider the possibility that I was gay. I’d mentally try it on, allow myself to effortlessly look at girls the way I’d trained myself to look at guys, but I’d somehow always find myself rationalizing it all away again. I’d study a boy I’d convinced myself I had a crush on and say to myself, “oh duh I’d rather be with him what am I even talking about?” Then I’d return to working on draft fourteen of a text to a female friend and daydream about laying in her arms.
I was never really able to date any guys, as so many people do to try to convince themselves they are straight. In college I tried to want a boyfriend. I was very vocal about wishing I had one, but when a guy actually showed any interest, I’d make it my mission to avoid him at all costs.
Evasions included but were not limited to: pretending not to notice said boy while we were both hanging out in the same bar for five hours, leaving smack dab in the middle of a hook up because I suddenly remembered I had an early brunch the next morning, and jumping at the chance to abandon a guy to take care of a sad, drunk hallmate, happily martyring myself in the name of friendship.
It is situations like those that I look back upon and say, of course I always knew. But I didn’t want to know, so I clung for dear life to the tiny shreds of alcohol-induced attraction I could force myself to feel for men. Why I felt the need to do that is another story, one I am not even sure I understand enough to tell yet.
I do understand, though, that I have to find a way to forgive myself for all of it. I have to forgive myself for all the wasted time, for my disregard toward the guys who liked me and my inexplicable anger toward the girls who didn’t. It is easy to look back now and say I should not have acted that way because I knew, but I didn’t know enough to know I knew. And if that thought perplexes you, then you have a small glimpse into how I felt for the past 23 years, a small glimpse into just how confusing life can be when you are trapped inside a closeted mind.