“I know what I’m talk’n ’bout. I’m a gay man,” I told M. boozily, lowering my eyebrows for effect and possibly belching. Being drunk isn’t the best way to let people in on your secrets, but it is an easy way. And it does make a handy trump card for winning an argument.
I was 21 or so and was at a party I didn’t want to be at, with nowhere to escape because I was in St. Louis and at the mercy of my hosts; so I fled to the front stoop to chain-smoke, and M. followed me.
I forget how we got arguing about homosexuality, although I was usually ready enough to pick a fight on the topic, especially with somebody like M., who had grown up among Pius-the-Tenthers, real pants-are-from-the-devil types, and who had understandably swung to the other ideological extreme as soon as she was out of her parents’ reach.
I was telling her how homosexuality was fundamentally narcissistic, how our sex drives were supposed to direct us towards the other and therefore towards the opposite gender, and how homosexuality was therefore tantamount to a flat-out inability to love.
“How can you say that?” she howled. “Gay men taught me how to love.” M. was more than a little boozy too, but she told me about the selfless giving she had seen among gay men, the tenderness, the sacrifice.
I was stolid in my disbelief, because I was 21 and Bearer Of the Truth and already knew that I was right, and more importantly, that M. was wrong. If she thought she had seen real selflessness among avowed homosexuals, she must have been mistaken. Gay meant weak, gay meant damaged, gay meant defective.
That was back when, like the terminally confused Father Gary Meier, I thought that the famous “intrinsically disordered” bit in the Catechism referred to me as a person, through and through, and therefore to all homosexual men and women.1 I thought that for two reasons: because I already believed I was singled out among human beings for my extraordinary brokenness, and because I had misread the passage in question.
Years later, when my friend R. asked why I thought I couldn’t have a romantic relationship with a man, I gave a variation of the same argument: that for me, romantic feelings for a man were always born out of narcissism — seeing something in him that I wanted for myself, whether it was his shoulders, his confidence, or his relatively sane upbringing. It was a sense of incompleteness in me that made me want to cling to him.
And R. asked: “Do you think that heterosexual relationships start out any less narcissistic?” When she met her husband, she said, she was attracted to him for reasons that were plenty selfish: she was afraid and needed someone to comfort her, rootless and needed someone to steady her. Nobody’s motives are selfless when they begin. But you have to go with what you’ve got, and grow from there into something selfless.
She was right. All this time, I had been thinking of myself as some kind of moral monster. I didn’t fit in with men because I was weak and unmanly. I didn’t feel comfortable in social situations because I was too self-absorbed to speak unguardedly. I wasn’t attracted to women because being attracted to men was easier.
But none of that was true. I wasn’t weak; in fact, my struggle had made me stronger than some men had ever needed to be. I wasn’t unmanly; I’ve met plenty of straight guys less courageous, less passionate, and less tender than I am.2 I wasn’t self-absorbed; I was just terrified, because I had never had a safe place to learn that I was accepted. And I wasn’t lazy; for some men, lusting after women was the easy way out.
And, my goodness, if I thought that all straight men dug women for noble, healthy reasons, that may have been because I hadn’t talked to many straight men about it yet.
So if I wasn’t gay because of some entrenched weakness in my moral fiber, why was I gay, and why am I still?
I don’t know. Maybe, as my friend B. somewhat insultingly proposed, there were chemicals in the water that had turned me into a girly-man in utero.3 Or maybe there really is a “gay gene”. Or maybe — what I consider most likely — the traits that are deeply a part of me, my sensitivity, my introversion, my empathy, made me sensitive to wounds that others would have sustained with less damage.
Does it matter? If I’ve been chemically altered, then I could rage at the mysterious polluters of the water supply, but it wouldn’t change anything. If homosexuality is genetic, well, so is heart disease and cancer and any number of unpleasant things, but that doesn’t make them good. If, as I suspect, it’s partly genetics and partly environment, I’m still in the same spot I was before.
So the fact that I’m attracted to men instead of to women doesn’t mean I’m rotten to the core, doesn’t mean I’m a monster. It just means I got a little dinged up on my way into adulthood. And as for that ordeal — the whole mess of growing up, I mean, with all the hurts and frustrations and confusions that are par for the course — I don’t know of anybody who’s come out of it unscathed.