When I was ten or eleven, I somehow1 came across a letter to my mother, written by a psychologist, I think Joseph Nicolosi — anyway if not him, somebody else in the field. She was worried about me and had found his name, and he’d been gracious enough to reply with advice: try to get him to socialize with other boys; guide him gently into activity with them. Then there was something about gender-identity disorder.

I was angry and scared, partly because I felt like she’d gone behind my back somehow, writing about me to a stranger;2 but mostly because of this terrifying phrase, gender-identity disorder. To me the phrase sounded and felt like some grey, filthy snake twisted up inside my guts, poisoning me and making me different. If anyone’s ever read or seen Return to Oz,3 remember the scene where they take Dorothy to that horrible quack doctor, to get rid of the Oz delusion? I felt like I would be taken somewhere like that, wired into an insidious machine with flashing lights that would fix whatever horrible thing was wrong with me.

This was around the time things got bad. I remember freaking out in school, name-dropping the horrible4 phrase because I didn’t know what else to do with it, and a classmate’s question: Does that mean you think you’re a girl? The teacher didn’t know what to do, and neither did I. That’s my only memory from that day, but you can see why it stands out.

Well, did I think I was a girl, or what? I didn’t, but I spent a lot of time around girls, and had a particular giggly, chatterbox way of talking. I started noticing this about myself for the first time, and — although this seems strange, to think of an eleven-year-old doing this — started working to change it. I quieted down, watched my speech patterns and the way I moved. I didn’t like the way my teacher had gone silent, and her face had gone still, when I dropped that phrase, gender-identity disorder; I didn’t like getting called a fairy or a sissy; so I cut it out.

I don’t set off almost anybody’s gaydar now.

I know how it sounds. I know that one of the Deadly Sins of 21st-century America is trying to change Who You Are. Am I glad I did it? Did I “do it” at all, or is my impression of conscious effort just a retrofitted memory? If I did do it, what would I be like if I hadn’t? Would I be less taciturn now, less introverted?

Maybe, but who cares? What if is a meaningless question. The right question is: am I proud of who I am, or ashamed?

I haven’t yet reached the magical point of Not Caring What Anybody Thinks — which is the first cardinal virtue of 21st-century America — and probably won’t hit it until I’m eighty, when I can say whatever I damn well please and have it put down to senility.

What you see when you meet me is me, near as I can figure, for whatever that’s worth. Whether I chose to stop acting effeminately or just grew out of it, it’s gone now, no longer a part of me, if it ever was. Part of life is becoming who you are, that’s true. But part of life is building who you are, a feat that’s mainly accomplished by thoroughly f★cking it all up six times in a row and then trying for a seventh.

Like I keep saying: a work in progress. My stars, it’s bedtime. Where are my fuzzy socks?

1 Pretty sure I was snooping.
2 To my wonderful mother, who is reading, just to be clear: this is 100% untrue, and couldn’t be further from the way I feel about it now. I’m grateful that you wrote to him, and for everything that’s happened since.
3 Is it just me, or was this the most terrifying movie in the history of the universe? I mean, remember the wheelers? Remember the TWO HUNDRED SHRIEKING DISEMBODIED HEADS?? Who thinks this is good stuff for kids to see?
4 That makes three horribles in two paragraphs, but stet, because I can’t make anything else fit.

16 thoughts on “Wrong

  1. David Wagner

    Love it, as always! Random obs: preferring female company in adolescence is not a sure sign of – whatever we’re agreeing to call it today. “Liking girls” used to be the standard euphemism for “not being gay.” I “liked girls” (still do), ergo, I liked being around them. Where’s the logical flaw? Oh, right, the whole neo-Spartiate, male-bonding thing. Well, truth is, I had a smidgen of that in middle school – but then we moved to the opposite coast, and throughout high school I never found another non-girl worth my time. Keep writing!

    Reply
  2. Zach

    I always felt like coming out let me be Who I Am, as ridiculous as that concept is to me (or should be to anyone who reads Lord of the Flies. Not like I read that too often or anything). After going through the cauldron of hate, apathy, love, laughing, bullying and harassment, how I spoke and acted, what I was involved in and whether I sang like the fabulous man I am at theatre practice really didn’t matter anymore.

    And really, I am anything but fabulous.

    Isn’t there some quote. “Be where you are”. I like that.

    Reply
  3. Peter J

    Once again, you’ve hit a common strand of experience. When I was younger I made my whole family worry about me, what with my penchant for singing in falsetto, Freudian slips (I occasionally referred to me and my sisters as “us girls”), wild gestures, and the like. As time progressed, though, I learned how to adjust my behavioral performance to fit in with gender norms, and – like you say – “I don’t set off almost anybody’s gaydar now.”

    The masculine performance is such a part of me now that it’s causing me new consternation about who I am and if my SSA could really change. Relationally, I do feel straight, and when I hang out with my girl friends I wonder if I could actually get married and lead a normal life. Then a hot guy walks by and I’m back to square one. My sexual attractions don’t seem to be helped at all by exercises in gender performance.

    “Peter M,” I chose the letter J on account of its being my middle initial. What a strange coincidence; I wonder what else we might have in common?

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  4. Ron

    Wow – I can relate to so much of what everyone has written!! I remember knowing at an early age (I’m guessing around age 6) thinking that one of my male classmates was a “cutie pie”, but didn’t dare say it out loud, because I was pretty sure that was “wrong”. Fast forward about 7 or 8 years and puberty hit and I knew for sure that I “liked”, ie, “lusted after” guys. Now years later, I have come to accept my ssa. Sure, I wonder if I would have made a good husband and father, but then a hot guy walks past me and my knees go weak.

    As I recently told someone who said that God loves him in spite of his ssa, no, God does not love us in spite our ssa, or because of it…God loves us as men and women with ssa.

    The best thing about this blog is that we find that we’re all more alike than different, whether we’re straight, gay, or bi. Thank you, Steve, for giving voice to your story, and ultimately to ours.

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  5. Lori

    You really do have an amazing gift for finding a common strand of experience.

    If it helps, I remember being about that same age and becoming aware of how others perceived me. I also became very conscious of controlling what I wanted to project.

    I love what Ron wrote, because I think this nearly every time I read your blog: “The best thing about this blog is that we find that we’re all more alike than different, whether we’re straight, gay, or bi. Thank you, Steve, for giving voice to your story, and ultimately to ours.”

    P.S. I’ve never met your mother but I love her; she rawks

    Reply
  6. momofthree

    You write very well! I do think things change over time, rather organically. I used to be a shy child, but now I am very extroverted as an adult.

    Reply
  7. Peter M

    Peter J, apparently plenty! I, too, cracked down on any effeminate characteristics I saw in myself, to the point where “straight” is more or less my character; a lot of people have been surprised when I “come out” to them. Truth be told, I’m not sorry. It made it so much easier for me to relate to other guys and develop actual male friendships and bonding, which I had a gnawing hunger for.

    And I have the exact same thing with consternation about whether I could change. Over the last few years I’ve had more and more “what if” moments, where I get to know a beautiful, holy, single young woman, and start to entertain thoughts of marriage and children. And then, as you say, they all come crashing down when the next hot guy comes into view.

    Most people seem to feel out of place in childhood and adolescence, only to come into their own as they mature. My mom signed me up for the school counselor and later a psychiatrist to try and figure out why I was so solitary and friendless as a youngster. It had more to do with just being massively introverted than with SSA, and I eventually grew out of it. In a way, I kind of wish my mom had written to someone like Nicolosi; to this day she’s embarrassingly affirming and worries about the restricting life of celibacy her son is trying to live, God love her.

    Reply
  8. jp

    Another great post, Steve.

    I’ve wondered about the personality and affect of someone like King David. I don’t get the sense from reading it that he was some chiseled stag of a warrior prince–at least that wasn’t why he was chosen to be king. He strummed a harp and serenaded the fields of daisies and grazing sheep, for heaven’s sake! (I wonder if mom and dad might have been a bit worried about their little poet, David?)! Who knows? Nevertheless, to the astonishment of dad and brothers, this small, apple-faced, harp-plucking, sheep herder-poet would be the anointed king of Israel, not his barrel-chested, manly brothers. I get a kick out of that story every time I think about it.
    Now, I’m not sure what my reply has to do with your post…I think Shame is the link, or maybe, Shamelessness. How to be un-self-conscious, like David shamelessly dancing with all his might before the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6) or David, unashamed to weep bitterly at the death of his dearly beloved friend Jonathan, whose soul was closer to his than that of any woman (though I doubt it was homoerotic).

    Or, like St. John, who lay his head on Jesus’ breast. Was he so confident in his own identity that St. John could express his love in this way? Then again, maybe he wasn’t, which is why Jesus held him so close to his heart?

    Reply
    1. current lector

      Regarding King David’s story, a lot of people who write about him forget the part about Bathsheba, an incident which (to put it mildly) does not line up with SSA, and which inspired the beautiful Confiteor psalm (51).

      King David was a complicated character, a real human figure. I think his friendship with Jonathan was simultaneously deeply affectionate and loyal, while non-sexual. This kind of relationship should be a part of men’s lives in a healthy culture. (Ours, of course, is not).

      BTW, perhaps David’s love for Jonathan ‘surpassed the love of women’ in part because his ‘love of women’ was prone to addiction and disorder.

      Reply
  9. Beauly

    I have a similar memory, but I found information about my being “manic-depressive” while snooping. Is this even possible for a child of 10? Either way, I realized something was WRONG with me, and I too felt betrayed that everyone seemed to be talking about me to strangers and each other. Truth is, I was depressed, and fought that through high school too. At 10, I remember hoarding my last anti-depressant pill when the bottle got empty because I was terrified I would begin feeling like shit again. That is an extremely impressionable time in a kid’s life. Love you Steve.

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  10. Rick

    I guess the most similar experience I’ve ever had to that was when I was 13 I had a huge crush on this girl who absolutely hated me (Weird?). I wrote this three page long poem in my diary which I ripped out and put in my drawer. I had intended to give it to her on my last day of middle school. My mother went through my things and found it. I never thought I’d get over the embarrassment. It’s funny, but I think my mom was relieved that I was straight. Ironically, I think that was the moment that kind of pushed me into same-sex attractions.

    Reply
  11. Christina

    Steve,
    Thank you so much for this blog! While I can’t personally relate to the specifics of your struggles, I have to say that on many levels, your voice (and many of the others here!) fills me with hope. I had a dear friend in high school who was a beautiful witness of a young man with rich, Catholic faith. Then he fell away from the Church after being told that his SSA would prevent him from becoming a priest in the specific order he wanted to enter. Since then, his personality and his habits have changed drastically. He abhors organized religion, has had multiple relationships (including one-time meet-ups with guys he met online) and has even become deeply entrenched in working for Planned Parenthood. I hardly recognize my friend anymore.

    I wanted to bring this up because of your point about one of our 21st century American Deadly Sins being trying to change Who You Are. Some may say that this new person is simply my friend “coming out” and finally embracing who he was all along… but he’s always been someone who has SSA. That hasn’t changed, it’s just that how he chooses to deal with it has changed. A lot.

    One of our big failures as a culture is to embrace the idea that we can (and sometimes should) change. Isn’t that what Christ’s message of repentance and forgiveness is about? Isn’t that the whole idea behind practicing virtue and building good habits? Perhaps there are things that we cannot change about ourselves and those we offer up to God, but it seems to me that in our It’s My Body I’ll Do What I Want culture, we forget that what our bodies do is determined by how we choose to see the world, what sorts of things we choose to partake in and what values we choose to enact. Since when does “Who I Am” exculpate me from trying to make good choices?

    So, thank you for putting your voice out there for others to hear. I wish my friend would have had someone like you to talk to while he was sorting things out.

    Reply
  12. Sonja

    Wow, Christina – I think you seriously hit the nail on the head…”One of our big failures as a culture is to embrace the idea that we can (and sometimes should) change. Isn’t that what Christ’s message of repentance and forgiveness is about?”

    Reply
  13. la la la

    I absolutely love all of you. Steve, you rock. All you comment-ers who say you related with him, you rock. I seriously love you guys. I just discovered this blog tonight (oh, from a blog “young and catholic” that put one of your blogs up in talking about being catholic and gay), and I do believe I am going to subscribe.

    I have quite a few friends who, in the past few years, have been opening p to me about their experiencing ssa. And, interestingly enough, I am actually one of those “beautiful, holy, single young women” who got one of them thinking “what if?”, and about marriage and children. I entered into a relationship with a long time best friend, who opened up to me about his SSA about a month after we got together. We were together for a year. It was a beautiful year, an incredibly gut and heart wrenching year. I loved him to death, but it didn’t work. He started closing off to me more and more towards the end, and to this day, I don’t know exactly what his thoughts and experience were and why he knew he couldn’t do it anymore.

    Anyway – I am rambling. But, I am just so grateful when I discover this way of viewing ssa – though Im too tired right now to write out what I mean by that.

    Steve…also, i love the way you write. I can relate with your periods of darkness, your funks. That’s what I call them too – precisely because, yeah, I know Im not clinically depressed when they hit. It’s honestly existential, that no drug can help. Anyway, I love, love, love you all.

    Reply
  14. George

    Can totally relate to everything said about “Return to Oz”. That movie totally ruined Oz for me, and I somehow managed to convince myself that it was an entirely different story arc from the original. The mood of the film was very grotesque; it had the stuff of nightmares and disturbed dreams.

    Reply

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