Reflections on “Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan

I’ve started blogs like this several times…and they’ve never lasted. Who’s to say this one will be any different? And who’s to say it won’t?…

I recently finished reading “Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan. While I can’t say I found it a perfect novel, a lot of the honesty regarding life in the times of contemporary gay youth, particularly surrounding hook up culture and sex apps, is extremely resonant and relatable.

He’s flipping through three different hook-up apps, finding a lot of the same guys on each one. Forty-seven-year-olds who want him to come over. Eighteen-year-olds who want to flirt aimlessly. Twenty-nine-year-olds who want to know what he’s into. He never starts the conversations. He never picks them out. It means more if they come to him, because that means he’s desirable. And if he’s desirable, he has the upper hand…All he feels is the bored emptiness of the flat, flat world. And there’s no one who bores him more than himself.

This obviously doesn’t mark the first time someone has assembled thoughts on this issue. Grindr, Scruff, even Tinder have their place in escapism and instant gratification, but they also allow space for a limitless black hole of false intimacy. Once the goal of sex is achieved, the “bored emptiness of the flat, flat world,” can feel all encompassing.

I appreciate the way Levithan dives head first into this taboo world. After all, it’s often the very large, very loud elephant in the glitter-filled room. It’s something most, if not all of us, will try out, grow at least moderately addicted to, and ultimately become disenchanted with — if we’re lucky.

More than this, however, I have found myself appreciating Levithan’s tender, realistic, yet non-pornographic depiction of gay make-out/sex scenes. In the real world, there is a fascinating energy that runs between two men during those intimate moments. Not that I would know, but I would imagine this particular dynamic is extremely unique to the male-male encounter. There is muscle and power and a struggle for control. Sweat and passion and heat and hair. But there is also shame and insecurity and a very deep, core need for acceptance and yes…even love.

Cooper goes for the button on his own jeans, only Julian takes his hand, forces his hands up so they’re over his head, and Cooper likes the strong movement of that, likes the force, feels Julian’s chest hair against his bare chest, gasps involuntarily when Julian kisses his neck, then the intersection of his neck and shoulder blade, a spot he didn’t even know he had.

Built inside the raw physicality of this scene are the complex emotional coils that so often hold the hearts and minds of gay men hostage, no matter their age. In trying to describe our unifying struggle, we could hardly come closer than with the word acceptance. And even though we hold this struggle in common and could easily commiserate with and even comfort each other, we’re often struck mute by the deep fear of admitting our needs. After all, we’re still men, and men in America are raised to be stoic, emotionally neutral and distant. How much easier is it to have sex inside the safety of a darkened bedroom than to walk out into the sunshine holding hands with the man you’re dating?

I was recently walking past my neighborhood grocery when I caught a glimpse of two young men walking side by side. On first glance, I thought they were just college buddies discussing their latest girlfriend or hookup at a dorm party. But when I looked a little closer, I began to pick up on something more. An energy was passing between them — attraction mixed with terror. Not in the same way a nervous, heterosexual couple might awkwardly make their way through a first “morning after.” This was different. Something was preventing these young men from reaching out; making it harder for them to acknowledge what had taken place the night before.

How can I describe that feeling of hesitation? Where does it come from and why does it persist in a world that is quickly becoming more and more accepting of gay sexuality? I don’t have the answers now, but Levithan finds ways of evoking these complex and subtle energies with uncluttered prose that really speaks to me.

There is a popular question floating around the gay community these days, in the wake of marriage equality, which asks whether we were ever meant to live out the normative lifestyles heterosexual society prescribes for us. Buying houses, raising children, serving on PTA committees and even getting divorced — do these desires reside naturally inside our hearts and minds, or were they forced there by a world which is endlessly seeking to define and homogenize?

Upon finishing “Two Boys Kissing,” I found myself reflecting on my own gay childhood. Each of us has had our own experience, some much worse than others, but if you are born gay you can pretty much count on living life with some sense of otherness. I wonder if we have, even subconsciously, become comfortable with and even addicted to this discomfort and dysfunction? As we enter into this new phase of gay rights, with marriage, acceptance and normalcy, is it our duty to uphold our history of being “weird” and “unconventional?” Or are we simply afraid of stability and full integration into every day life because it feels so foreign to us? Are we meant to stay in the mysterious shadows of our past or is it time to come fully out into the light? Which is fear and which is love?