People often complain that kids who identify as LGBTQ do so because they’ve been indoctrinated or influenced. People claim that kids raised in traditional environments free from “corrupting” ideas will grow up healthy and straight. That’s how I was raised. I never heard the word gay or homosexual. I attended a Baptist church with my devout family and studied at the attached school. I even had a girlfriend. This is my story.
We were gliding across the ice, Anna and I, her hand hot in mine.
She was a pretty little thing, enamel-black hair flowing behind her like a boat’s wake on a moonless night. Her breath was tropical bubblegum.
I was almost 12, and holding hands was against the rules in our evangelical Christian world, but what the heck, I thought. She wanted to and she was my girlfriend. She’d asked me to be.
She wrote me little poems, and I’d do my best to reply. At school, she’d smile at me from across the classroom, then giggle with girls nearby.
I was thrilled when she asked. When she passed me notes. When she took my hand. She was so pretty. So popular.
My friends teased me. Jamie’s got a girlfriend! Jamie and Anna sittin’ in a tree!
So this was it, I thought. I’ve arrived. I’m almost a teenager and it’s all coming together.
Only it wasn’t.
I never dreamed of kissing Anna. When she slipped her hand into mine, it did nothing but slick my palm with sweat that I had to wipe off on my pant leg.
At night, falling asleep, another pair of lips stole into my dreams. I longed to grasp another hand, yearned to hold another body close. He didn’t smell of bubblegum, but of grass stains, and sweat, and baseball mitts.
I knew even then that I was not straight. I didn’t know the words. We didn’t then. But this friend I dreamed of, I knew I felt for him what I should have felt for Anna.
My first realization of difference had dawned two years earlier
When I was about 10 years old, I started craving the company of boys — in ways I never had before. I’d always had other boys as friends in school. But something changed dramatically. Something about being with my friends became intensely important and fulfilling — necessary to my happiness.
My 10-year-old self would not have understood those words, of course.
That child did understand, though, that he felt a warm glow when he was with his friends. He understood that he liked to look at them. He even understood that he especially liked looking at them when their shirts were off.
He didn’t know why. He didn’t think about it, he just liked it.He figured it was a thing people liked, like chocolate cake was a thing people liked. You don’t have to know why you like cake.
No shame stalked me, because the liking was innocent. It existed on something like a purely esthetic plane. It had no purpose, no progression, no defining meaning. The liking had nothing to do except to exist.
Fast forward a year
Entering the earliest stages of puberty at about 11, my previous general attraction gelled into solid desire. I still didn’t connect the desire with sex, but I was actively checking out hot guys, knowing I was doing it because it gave me pleasure. Still no sense of progression. The pleasure of looking existed for me as innocent, primary pleasure, as a goodness that stood on its own.
The chocolate cake feeling hadn’t yet entirely fled, though I started realizing that other boys didn’t share my taste. I learned I had to keep my appreciation to myself. Shame hadn’t yet fully bloomed, but self questioning had. Was I weird? Was something wrong with me? Why didn’t other people seem to feel the way I felt?
Enter my baseball player
He was an athlete, a tough guy, and a really good friend. We played all sorts of games together outdoors. When he came by the house, I’d vibrate with electric joy.
When he had to leave, I felt a wave of black sadness pass over me, sucking the pleasure out of the universe.
I had it bad, but I didn’t know it. Sometimes he spent the night. Those were times I looked forward to, because it meant he didn’t have to leave.
One night, wrestling around in bed together, one thing led to another, and we experimented.
A blindfold lifted and I saw — in a blue flash of realization and understanding. This is what all these feelings were about. This! I didn’t comprehend any of the complexities, but by the age of 11, I had acquired all on my own the concept of male-on-male sexuality.
Shortly thereafter, on another sleepover, I realized out of the blue that I wanted to kiss him. I wanted to taste his lips.
I never did, but that wanting was the last step in my internal process of understanding my sexual orientation. Shame imposed itself after that night as innocence fled. My realization shocked me to the core.
Innocent kisses like those shared between boys and girls my age were not to be. Not for me.
Anna pulled me toward the concession stand
We’d removed our skates and she boldly took my hand again as we slipped past her parents and mine, as if to dare them to notice that we were a couple, that we were breaking the rules.
My father smiled that smile of his that said he couldn’t tell his children “no.” I hissed at Anna to hurry, because Mom was throwing me an entirely different look.
I rooted around my pockets and scrounged enough carefully hoarded nickles and dimes to buy one hot chocolate. We sat on a deserted bench behind the stand, hidden in shadows that the rink’s glittery disco ball couldn’t penetrate.
We sipped the steamy chocolate in turn, me careful to find a spot on the paper cup that her lips had not touched.
She slipped closer to me on the bench and laced her fingers through mine, tickling my palm with her thumb. When she set the cup of chocolate on the ground, I knew she was going to kiss me.
Her lips tasted of tropical glaze topping chocolate cake. The skin of her cheek brushed soft against mine as wisps of silky hair tickled my lashes. I held my breath and squeezed my eye tightly shut.
I tried to see HIM, wishing her lips were his, but her delicate scent evaporated his image as it formed.
I remember my first kiss because it was awkward and unwanted. I remember it also for the hurt I saw in her eyes after I opened mine. When she broke up with me a week or so later, she told me she liked me, but that “girls are more mature than boys,” and that I clearly wasn’t mature enough for a girlfriend yet.
“It’s not your fault,” she told me, as kind as she was pretty.
I tried to believe her, but deep inside, I knew better.
My sexual identity gelled just weeks later
I was wedged in a church pew between my mom and dad, brother and sister on either side of them. Dad sang joyfully and dreadfully during the hymns while Mom kept order. No wiggling, no talking, no other sort of misbehaving.
When the pastor began to preach, his words filled me with anxiety. He was returning to a familiar theme. Homosexuality. I didn’t understand exactly what he meant, but I was pretty sure it had some vague connection with how I felt about my baseball player.
I don’t know what made it all click that morning, but it slammed into me in an instant as he spoke. That’s what I was! I was a homosexual! I was one of those sick, horrible people everybody in the church hated.
I jumped up, stomach cramping. Mom tugged on my arm and hissed at me to sit down and “be good.” I jerked out of her grasp and kneed my way past Dad to the aisle.
I trotted as fast as I could toward the men’s room at the back of the sanctuary. The pastor didn’t stop preaching. Tales of Sodom and brimstone filled my ears. Anna, sitting in the back with her family, threw me a look of quiet concern. I felt my cheeks burn as my stomach churned. I clenched a hand over my mouth, knowing what was about to happen.
I threw the door open and rushed into a stall just in time. My breakfast jetted over white porcelain as I gagged and spit.
Dad came looking for me five minutes later and helped me clean up. He told me everything would be OK as he patted my back and wiped my face clean. OK? No, never again. I knew better.
I couldn’t look him in the face, and I didn’t want to talk to him. I didn’t deserve to. When he asked me what was wrong, I lied to him. And I kept lying for years — to keep the shame at bay.
Keeping kids ignorant about sexual orientation doesn’t stop them from discovering their own. It just traumatizes them. Human sexuality is too powerful a drive to suppress.