I knew three things about myself at the age of four:
1. I was going to be a writer when I grew up.
2. I loved my stuffed animals far more than I loved my younger brother.
3. I was gay.
Nothing about that list changed much in the intervening decades. I grew up and became a writer. I still don’t get along with my younger brother. And I’m just as gay now as I was then. But at four years old, I did not know the word gay. I watched mismatched pairings of men and women in bafflement. Disney movies were odd, always ending with a prince and princess in romantic bliss. What in the world did they see in each other? How queer! I’d mentally rewrite the stories to fix them. The prince belonged with a prince and the princess with a princess. Then I would turn to more pressing four-year-old concerns, which included kicking my brother, crafting polar bears out of mashed potatoes at dinner, and giving myself a snazzy new haircut in my kindergarten instead of cutting out butterflies.
I confided my concerns of this male/female ridiculousness to an alarmed friend, who informed me in no uncertain terms that I was the odd one out here. After that, I knew better than to speak of it. The sense of bafflement persisted through grade school. Eventually the girls in my class discovered the boys, and then the boys discovered the girls back. I considered them insane. There was something incestuous about falling in love with a classmate you’d known since nursery school. What’s suddenly cute about a boy who you remember barfing into the trashcan during a spelling test? What became attractive about a girl who used to pick her nose and wipe the boogers under her desk? And why were they interested in each other at all? I had no idea.
I puzzled on it five days a week during chapel in my religious school. Boys liked girls and girls liked boys, and there had to be some rational explanation for this! But it was beyond me, and then my attention would turn to opening a rift in space-time by a series of complicated hand signals, which I was determined to master, and would save me from having to go to school any longer. I performed my space-rift hand signals slyly to not draw attention from the teacher, and concentrated hard on a spot on the wall to focus the energy. It would open; I was sure of it. And then I’d dodge around the aisle and throw myself in, lightning flaring out in every direction (and hopefully zapping my jerk of a brother two grades down) and the rift would seal after enveloping me. Goodbye, math class.
When I was in fifth grade, my mother enrolled me in cotillion. Throwing one tantrum after another, I stalled on showering and getting dressed, I whined and cried and begged to not go, and my mother was frustrated that the most biddable of her children turned into demon spawn once a month. But I was revolted to stand there in that ballroom, divided into boy-girl pairs and moving awkwardly in box steps, my skin crawling at my partner’s touch. How I hated to wear these unnatural shoes! My mother snapped at me during a cotillion party to find an opposite sex partner with whom to dance, but instead I hid behind a pillar in the room. I didn’t care if boys and girls wanted to dance together, that was their own personal weirdness, but it had nothing to do with me.
“At this rate, Caulay,” my mother said in frustration after giving up on cotillion, “your little brother is going to be married with six kids by the time you get a first date.”
Though I had heard the word gay by sixth grade, my knowledge of its meaning was scant and I did not apply it to myself. I was just a late bloomer, my mother said, and one morning I’d wake up crazed for the opposite sex like everyone else. But by high school, I was still exactly the same as in kindergarten. The opposite sex were friends only; my heart beat faster after same-sex crushes in my favorite television shows. I never breathed a word of it to anyone, and the slim facts I’d learned about homosexuals certainly didn’t flatter them or apply to me. This is where my knowledge of gay people stood by the time I was a senior:
1. Gay men have AIDS and dance in purple feather boas to Madonna.
2. Gay women have short hair and wear flannel.
3. Nobody likes gay people because they are perverts.
4. Gay people are going to hell.
5. Gay women live in seedy motels and do drugs or teach girls’ P.E.
6. Gay men arrange flowers or hair, depending on their proclivities.
I was a good student who went to church; I saved drowning kids at Spiffy Slides and tutored struggling students in math; I tried to shield my siblings from our volatile parents and squirreled away money for college. Writing was my passion but it was not practical for a career, and I thought about going into medicine in order to help people while looking snazzy in a lab coat. I tried to be conscientious of others, even that one particular brother who I still did not like. So how could I be gay? Ridiculous.
It was not until I was seventeen and in my first year of college that I connected that word to myself. A chill fell over me. I did not know what to do with myself, and so I slipped from my dorm in the night and walked to a local church. I stood in front of those closed doors and cried, begging God to remove this sickness from my mind so that I could go back to being a good person. I could not bear to touch my own skin.
I did this night after night for a long time, pleading with God for forgiveness, for correction, for death. Anything would be better than living as a homosexual, outcast by God and family, shunned by friends and community. I hoped that some wise older person who had stayed late at the church would happen to open the doors and see me crying there, and beckon me in. That person would give guidance on how to handle this problem, and I would pray or flagellate or do whatever it took to make this go away. But the doors never opened.
Gay. It sickened me. My grandmother said that gay people burned in hell; gay people were jokes and punch lines and how many times had I heard it was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve? I had even said it myself. Gay. I stopped eating, and I could not sleep. My grades fell, and I worried that people would look at me and know somehow that I was gay. Already some suspected, because I had no interest in the opposite sex while they were consumed. I faked it, but that was as unnatural as cotillion and I did not do it well. Gay. I stood in the shower and turned the water to scalding, hoping that it would burn the homosexuality out of me. Gayness eradicated everything that I thought I knew about myself; it eradicated every good deed I’d ever done. From now on when people saw me, they would see GAY first. I was gone, subsumed by it. I was a pervert and a punch line and even God had turned away. I wanted to turn away from myself.
It felt like my life had gone up in flames, and I struggled for solutions. I had not yet acted on my feelings, and so my sins were only in mind. My mother had told me that people who committed suicide went to hell. But if I lived as a homosexual, I would be going to hell anyway. Which was the greater sin? I knew that I could not deny these feelings all my life. Was it better to sin sexually every day for decades or just once in suicide? Would God be more forgiving of one sin or tens of thousands? This was an impossible situation. Either way, my soul was doomed.
I did not want to live as a gay person, reviled by everyone, including myself. Furious at how the rug had been jerked out under my feet, I tore up my dorm room. Who would want to be treated by a gay doctor? Who would want to read a gay writer? Who would want anything at all to do with me? I threw my science textbooks and clothes and beat on my pillows and myself, and stormed out of my room and back to the church to scream WHY at it in my mind. Then the anger faded and I returned to begging, a monotonous please please please under my breath. Please take it away, and let me be normal like everyone else. Please please please please please-
No answer came. Deciding that God would be more understanding of a single sin, I walked in a daze to the store and bought several bottles of pills. I passed a school having their Halloween celebrations and looked at the hundreds of Power Rangers, goblins, and princesses on the field in their parade. How had everything gotten so messed up in so short of a time? In my dorm room, I filled up a large cup of water, opened the first bottle of pills, and began to swallow by the handful.
After that, I remember only in spurts. There was my heart beating so fast that I thought it would burst from my chest. There was the wail of an ambulance and the charcoal. There was a doctor saying mild brain damage. There was a man in the ICU next to me, coming off drugs and shouting at the nurses all night. There was the therapist. I told her that I was gay. She cringed openly.
“It’s just a phase,” she said. Late bloomer.
I could not even kill myself right. But instead of wanting to attempt again, I began to feel defiant. I hadn’t chosen to be gay and I didn’t want to be gay, but I was. Why were good and gay an oxymoron? And I wasn’t Gay Caulay, I was the same Caulay as before. I was obsessed with Star Trek: The Next Generation and liked mashed potatoes and loathed my younger brother and sucked in geometry, and I was also gay. It was just one card shuffled into my personal deck, but the world treated this card as if it was the most defining part of me, and it wasn’t. I was still me. I was just gay instead of straight.
Most of me walked out of that hospital a week later. Since then I struggle a little more to find words; my memory does not seem to be as keen as it was before I drank down those bottles. In my high school foreign language classes, I picked up long streams of vocabulary very swiftly the night before tests; in my college foreign language classes, I could no longer do this. The words slipped through like a sieve, the bigger ones caught on the struts and the rest washing through. I still passed my courses, but often by a hair. My brain snags and stutters where once it glided. I am not the same.
Once a friend asked if I was happy that I lived, and was aggrieved that I could not answer. It is not a question that has an answer. At that time, I knew no gay people to challenge my concepts of them. There were no gay characters in books or on television. Ellen hadn’t announced anything and shows like Queer As Folk did not exist. It Gets Better was far in the future. I drew the only conclusion I could as a teenager to what appeared to be an insurmountable problem. To die and be loved seemed better than to live and be despised. It was a terrible position to be in, and I saw no other way out. But I am glad to see how the world has changed, so that an issue largely silent in my youth is now one that no one can avoid in my adulthood. There it is. You can like it, you can hate it, but what you can’t do is ignore it.
Years later, heterosexuality still baffles me. I don’t get the attraction, but I don’t need to get it, any more than someone needs to get why I’m attracted to the same sex. In the end, it isn’t really the most interesting facet of our beings. I don’t know why anyone would like broccoli either, or want to spend time with my obnoxious younger brother, or thinks that eating half of an olive out of the olive bar at Whole Foods and returning the other half to the serving dish is a hygienic idea*. I don’t know why your favorite color is green when mine is blue and someone else loves yellow, but there’s enough room in the world for all of us and our differences, and that is what I wish someone had opened up those church doors to tell me.
* I can’t believe I have to share a planet with someone who would do that.