And those who were seen dancing
were thought to be insane
by those who could not hear the music.
» Friedrich Nietzsche
I did not choose to be gay. In my experience, it felt like homosexuality chose me.
It found me on the playground of Rosslyn Heights Elementary School during afternoon recess on a spring afternoon. I was in 5th grade, and during a game during recess a 6th grader took his shirt off. With an odd awareness I found myself staring at his athletic torso and—woosh—something happened inside me. With unnerving clarity I realized I was attracted to this kid, and more specifically, to his body. This must be the same disruptive moment straight boys feel when a woman’s breasts shift from the warmly maternal to the unnervingly erotic. Puberty’s first thunderings arrived as attraction to a boy I don’t even remember, outside of that one searing image.
I always knew I was different. I felt out of synch with the other kids, and by the third grade they were mirroring my differentness by calling me a “fem” and mocking how I talked, sat, and walked. I knew I found men to be “the other” in a way I never experienced women, but it wasn’t until that moment on the playground that I began to realize why. From that day, I began to look at men differently. I started to scrutinize them for the interest I had in their bodies, and tried to sort out these new feelings that kept shifting as adolescence progressed.
I did not choose to be gay. I was not giving in to an indulgent experience of decadent pleasure, as religious conservatives would have it. I was only 11. I did not understand the concept of sexuality for anyone, especially myself. I was the oldest of five, so I had no older siblings to learn from. I was so ignorant that a mean girl in class that same year teased me for not knowing what “gay” meant. I was sure it meant happy, which confirmed her low opinion of me. (Her other word was “whore,” which I asserted was like a scary movie, to more snearing.) I was still a bit mystified how the sex act worked a year later when we saw the highly abstracted diagrams in the filmstrips of parent-child sex education night. For me, at least, the concept of “attraction,” as a full-bodied emotional reaction to a particular gender, arrived well before my conceptualization of “sex.”
Although the details vary widely, most gay men have a similar story. We have a sense that we are different from a young age, crystallizing somewhere around the age of eight. Some of us know that our difference centers around our attraction to men, while others are drawn to the feminine and the world of women. Women often have the same kind of clarity about their sexual attraction, or may experience a fluidity over time, and they face the same kind of questions of how closely they identify with their masculinity.
Clarity around sexual stuff does not fully arrive for most of us, straight or gay, until after adolescence and we grow into adults. For me, the arrival of sexual attraction was like “Aha, that explains a lot of things,” along with a sinking sense that the surety of my childhood view of a simple world was slipping away. My culture offered no support, no role models, and no positive messages about being gay. It took another decade for me to figure out how to live my life as me, rather than as the person society said I should be.
On my way to 50 I have made ten thousand choices of how to live my life, but I never got to choose who I was attracted to. How some of us came to believe homosexuality is a choice remains a mystery to me.