I’m a 30-year-old man, and for the first time in my life I’m going on a date with another man. His name’s Jason, and we’ve been chatting on OKCupid for almost a month. From his online profile I’ve learned the following things about him: he looks a little like Peter Brady from The Brady Bunch. He’s into fantasy, and his favorite movie of all time is The NeverEnding Story. Aside from the Peter Brady similarity, it’s that last part that got me interested in reaching out to him, since The NeverEnding Story is one of my favorites as well. I figure anyone willing to list that in their profile is probably someone that won’t terrify me.
From my online profile, Jason learns the following things about me: I love writing. I love science fiction and can fire off a Star Trek quote as easily as I can pull air into my lungs. And according to Jason, from the pictures that I’ve posted, he learns that I look like Egon from The Ghost Busters. I decide to take this as a compliment.
What Jason doesn’t learn from my profile is that just two months before our online introduction I was a devout Jehovah’s Witness. He doesn’t learn that the discovery of my gay-oriented browsing history via a borrowed laptop lead to my subsequent disfellowshipping and expulsion from my congregation. He doesn’t learn that while in writing I say that I’ve been “out” since I was 21 that, as far as my public image is concerned, I’m still very much “in.” Jason doesn’t learn I’m desperate to find a way to replace the faith I’ve betrayed with what will hopefully become faith in myself.
I’ve asked Jason to meet me for lunch, and he’s agreed.
We meet on a frigid Wednesday afternoon and in person he looks less like Peter Brady than I thought. He’s wearing the sort of cap that I associate with train conductors, with a long black Pea coat and skinny fit jeans pegged at the cuff. When he says hello to me I’m caught off guard by the pitch of his voice, which is high and effeminate. We’ve only ever communicated through instant messages and texts, and until now his voice was my own invention. There’s no getting around it-Jason is full tilt gay. He’s gay and I’m shocked that rather than being self-conscious about it, than being like me, he’s self-assured and relaxed. As a Witness I’d trained myself to avoid people like him, well aware of my tendency to pay a little too much attention, to watch a little too closely. I can be as interested as I want to be now, but as Jason talks I can’t help but take sneaking glances, looking to see if anyone is staring at us. I notice Jason’s posture, which seems deliberately proper, and do the opposite. I slouch in my seat and widen my legs to appear visibly sloppy. The Witness within me, the straight man, demands that I set myself apart and my ingrained insecurity forces me to comply.
On those rare instances I actually went on a date with a witness girl, I would be the one to lead the conversation. With Jason I’m content to let him do the driving, and as we eat, we talk about movies, about tv shows, about songs we like. I can admit to liking Madonna outright, not just a few of her songs. I can mention how “Will and Grace” is only as good as the scenes that Karen appears in. I can admit that I watch “Will and Grace.” I can begin to be myself, if only in small doses. Listening to him, I can’t help but wonder if Jason would be he who he is now if he’d been raised a witness, if something within the fiber of his integrity would have rejected the church outright rather than allowing it to reject him. I wonder what that would feel like.
“It was nice meeting you,” Jason says at the end of our lunch, and leans in for a hug.
“You, too,” I reply. Even the brothers in my congregation hugged from time to time I reason, so a hug doesn’t have to imply anything I don’t want it to. Jason tells me to enjoy the rest of my day and walks away, stopping for a moment to pry a frozen leaf off of the ground. I’m not ten minutes away from him when I get a text. Would I like to hang out again?
I let Jason make our plans for our second date. “CC’s. This Saturday. What do you think?” CC’s is a club. A gay one. Everybody, even Jehovah’s people, know this.
“I don’t know, maybe.”
“No maybes. It’s CC’s for us on Saturday.”
I meet up with Jason that Saturday night to discover that he’s brought a few of his friends along. Checking our ID’s at the door my anxiety is palpable, a scent lingering in the air, and one of Jason’s friends picks up on it. “Are you sure you aren’t a breeder?” he asks.
I can’t see the look on my face, but judging by the tension in my jaw, I’m sure it’s not a good one. Less than a novice to gay terminology and slang, I assume nonetheless that my sexuality is being questioned. Lying about my sexuality is a language I speak fluidly, and I find myself grasping for words and phrases to use as I attempt, for the first time, to speak the truth.
“You sure seem like it,” Jason’s friend continues. “I think you’re a straight guy.”
“Straight guy. We have a straight guy here.”
Jason rolls his eyes, coming to my defense. “God, just shut up and leave him alone. Fucking queens.” I drag my feet walking in, making a point to be the last one in the door. Being suspected of homosexuality was deadly within a congregation of Witnesses, and I wonder: within a congregation of gay men, were heterosexual suspicions just as deadly?
The music inside of the club is overwhelming to the point that, placing my hand on my chest, I can’t feel my heartbeat. The lighting is strobe like and it’s impossible to move without bumping into or being bumped by someone. Men are kissing and holding hands and I don’t last long enough to finish the drink Jason buys for me. As much as I want to, I can’t handle all of the freewheeling homosexuality, and I bolt outside. Jason follows, and is kind. “Too many fags trying to act fabulous can get to me, too,” he says, lighting a cigarette. I laugh, but it’s nervous. Was it an insult when gay men referred to each other as fag, or a term of endearment? And what does it mean that Jason feels comfortable saying that to me?
Over the next month we have several more lunches together, after which we either go to the movies or simply hang out, and it feels like friendship. Once I tap his leg to signal his attention, but aside from the hugs goodbye, it’s all the physical contact I permit. My inner Witness, though subdued, still insists that I keep things proper. Jason is texting me after one of our lunches and it’s innocent enough. What am I up to? How’s my day going? I reply quickly until Jason sends me a text that stops me cold. Am I his boyfriend? “I’ve been calling you that to friends,” he texts. “Is that okay?”
I want to text no, that it’s not okay. We aren’t boyfriends. We haven’t even kissed. How are we boyfriends now? I stare at my phone, at the smiling emoticon he’s attached to that last message, my breath a prisoner in my lungs.
I tell him it’s okay.
Now, Jason holds my hand in public. If we’re alone I’m alright, but if people approach I find that I have to sneeze or scratch my head and wouldn’t you know? That always requires the hand that he’s holding. When he kisses me, I try to kiss back. Sometimes it makes me happy to kiss him. Mostly though, with my eyes closed and his lips on mine, I can’t help but wonder what the Elders in my congregation are thinking about me. I tear myself apart using the words I imagine they’d be using. Faggot. Sodomite. Monster.
“Your heart always races when we kiss,” Jason says. I’m flooded with guilt whenever we’re together now, certain that God has turned his back on me. I beg forgiveness from my creator and mercy from myself. A month after asking if we’re boyfriends, I call Jason and tell him I need to see him. “Please don’t hate me.” I say it again and again as we walk together, mustering all my strength to do something so weak.
“Please don’t hate me, please don’t hate me…”
“Don’t give me a reason to hate you and I won’t,” he answers.
And so I begin the “it’s not you, it’s me,” speech, and even though it is me, I’m too embarrassed to tell him why. Because I’m not used to being honest with myself I have no idea how to be honest with him. I offer little response when he asks for clarification, and rather than listening to me evade his questions, after 15 minutes of my rambling Jason leaves. I attempt to comfort myself by thinking that at least I’ve done what God would have wanted me to do, but the teeth of my conscience bite down on this thought as though it were made of metal. As he walks away from me I have a suspicion that Jason is crying, which only makes me cry harder, though neither one of us is feeling much pity for me at the moment.
I’m a 30-year-old man who’s trying to repair the damage of a lifetime of self-loathing. I’m a 30-year-old man who’s finally had the passport to cross into his true life granted to him but is too afraid to consider himself a citizen. I know that eventually I’ll cross over, slowly learning the customs as I go until, maybe, I’m indistinguishable from the natives, and where perhaps the God worshiped will be kinder than my own.