Our need to belong and connect is one of our deepest and most powerful. At times it can even supersede our basest needs for food and shelter. We need a sense of identity, of self and individuality, but we also need to feel we belong to the tribe around us. We need to feel seen, heard, understood, and cared about. Balancing the two can be a struggle, the absence of either can be disastrous. Feelings of isolation and invisibility are at the core of anxiety, depression, and battles with addiction.
The moment you form a group of five or more people you start to get societal norms. Beliefs, preferences, backgrounds, experiences, height, weight, skin colour, eye colour, hair colour, musical tastes, philosophies about pizza toppings, there are a near infinite number of metrics each of which will instantly display their bell-curve shaped membership. We can find ourselves smack in the middle of one bell curve then practically falling off the outer edges of the next. The more prominent and pervasive the norm the greater the consequences of being an outlier can become, both internally and externally.
Realizing my sexuality at an early age, and that it would not be welcome in the society around me at the time, gave me a heavy but fairly simple choice. Be open about who I was and face the persistent backlash of ignorance and attitudes which were outdated by about half a century or keep it to myself until I could find a space where all of me would be welcome. It was limited but it was a choice and I, at the venerable age of eleven, made the one I felt was right for me.
I only ever really thought about that part of me when I was by myself, otherwise relegating it to background noise as I focused on what was in front of me. I got used to just not joining in on all the emerging excitement and frenetic conversations about who had a crush on who, diligently reminding myself all that was for them not me. There was no one like me anywhere I could see and while Mr. Condren had spoken about it all in such a safe and matter-of-fact sounding way no one else ever seemed to talk about gay people in any way that wasn’t a hurled insult or a punchline.
I saw myself as different. It didn’t make me ‘wrong’ or ‘broken’ or ‘sick’ but it did mean I was alone. How did I avoid the all too common pitfall of self-hatred? Being offered the information in such a safe and neutral way gave me the opportunity to take a step back and look at myself, the world around me, and the people around me in the same matter-of-fact way which was a helpful place to start.
But what enabled me to avoid the shackles of self-loathing was a combination of nascent independent mindedness and the immeasurable blessing of having been adopted at three weeks old by the most loving, supportive, empowering, wonderful people one could ever imagine. My parents’ openness to any and all ideas, their brilliant and perceptive minds, their massive and generous hearts, their absolutely blatant and unwavering love and belief in me gave me the space and strength to see myself as valid and worthy no matter how different.
Staying closeted from them for as long as I did had absolutely nothing to do with them. It was what I felt I had to do for me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to live one version of my life at home and another out in the world but every day I didn’t tell them carried a sting of feeling I wasn’t doing right by the love and support they gave me and I knew they would continue to give no matter what.
Spending my grade and high school years closeted did take a mental and emotional toll but I never felt that my life would actually be in danger, something I wish far more people were able to say. Firstly because I’ve had the immense privileges of being born a cis gender white male in a country where I’m not in danger of being arrested, ‘black bagged’, or thrown into a modern day concentration camp simply because of who I am or what I think.
Secondly, and more specifically, because violence of any kind was extremely rare in the schools I went to. Any bullying was almost entirely verbal so being gifted with a quick mind and quicker mouth I was able to stay ahead of, or talk my way around, what little trouble ever came my way. Not to mention the stolid confidence which came with such a firm certainty of myself and my decisions made me a daunting target and the ability to shrug off the attitudes of others made me even more so.
Once before a high school band rehearsal a friend called over from the trumpet section to tell me one of the other trumpet players said he thought I was gay. Without missing a beat I shrugged and casually replied “And I should care what Brent thinks because…?” before returning to my conversation with the other flutes. Brent and I weren’t friends, we’d never spoken. The only thing I knew about him was that he moistened the mouthpiece of his trumpet far too much before playing, he tended to look like a puppy working on a dollop of peanut butter and I remember feeling sorry for any potential girlfriends. He could think whatever he wanted to, I truly didn’t care. My certainty of self gave me that advantage.
My years of martial arts training undeniably reinforced that surety. The ability, or potential need, to defend myself might have played a small part in what drew me to the martial arts and knowing I’m able to handle myself is an invaluable feeling. But I had always been fascinated with the seemingly magical physicality of it. I started trying out dojos my first year of high school and once I found the right Sensei, an eternal teenager in the body of a three hundred pound German man named Hans, I was hooked.
Being able to train, challenge, and utilize my body in every conceivable way was exhilarating and I was soon spending four nights a week bouncing between the two different dojos my Sensei operated. I became his first student to go from white belt all the way to black and because of his open minded approach to training I was also exposed to Tai Chi, QiGong, Reiki, and other healing arts all of which I still practice today. My katas and drills…not nearly as often as I should. Sorry Sensei.
Looking back at it I realize the dojo also offered me a space to physically interact with other people in a way that was safely sexless, a space to learn that touch comes in many different types and meanings. Dojo space, healing space, theatre space, dance space, the ability to focus on one space and one space only is a skill I am eternally grateful for. It has enabled me to help people use dance and theatre in powerfully therapeutic ways and to create work which I am extremely proud of. Work which in some cases would have struck far too close to the nerve if I hadn’t been able to leave the parts of me which weren’t relevant out of the room. It’s also part of why I’m known for giving particularly good hug.
The ability to compartmentalize mentally, emotionally, and physically might have been born of necessity but is has become a core component of who I am and am proud to be. It helped me survive the pain and chaos when the tame but disastrous experimentation destroyed that friendship and to avoid turning the resulting self-directed anger into self-hatred.
It helped me accept my difference as the conversations around me went from being about crushes to tales of drunken weekends, hooking up, and later more serious and lasting relationships.
It enabled me to stay focused on the friendship when my heart took that first solo plunge off lover’s leap over someone completely worthy of the feelings but who could never have returned them even if he’d wanted to.
And it helped me preserve a treasured friendship when the second solo plunge resulted in an actually expressed question but essentially the same answer. It has also enabled me to stay clear and calm in moments of extreme crisis, given me the ability to always step back and look at the bigger picture, to think before I act or speak, given me the habit of always looking beyond the surface of what I see or hear, and the capacity to understand that two people can experience the exact same moment in profoundly different ways.
So what’s it like being a virgin in a world of swiping right and nude selfies?
It can be isolating and painful, some days are far easier than others. Sex and couplehood are everywhere in our culture and the assumption of participation in the romantic world is automatic so reminders of my outsider status are pretty much ever-present and can get corrosive on the soul at times. I can’t just snap my fingers and change who I am or the experiences I’ve had nor can I expect the entire world to change to fit me.
Sometimes I’m able to let it all just roll off me, other times it can be a true struggle to keep from falling into a cycle of self-pity. I don’t think the world around me has it wrong, nor do I think I do. Despite the types of thoughts I can be prone to when the brooding side of the force has gotten hold of me it isn’t about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, it’s just different.
To offer my two cents I don’t necessarily see removing intimacy from sex, as current trends seem to be pushing for, as a victory. Casual sex can be lovely and has its place but if you strip something of meaning it may end up being impossible to put any of it back. I’ve been known to say sex doesn’t have to mean everything but should mean something, however that’s not really an accurate expression of my meaning.
I take all forms of physical interaction seriously because I take people seriously. Even if I meet you half way and agree that ‘it’s just a body’ it’s your body, you, and you only get the one. However casual others are able to be about it all, which at times I admit I am envious of, I’m not able to separate the body from the person. For me any interaction with a person’s body is an extension and expression of your connection to the person which means at the very least, even in the most casual setting, it is deserving of respect and safety.
There’s an invaluable surety in knowing who I am and what feels right for me. I haven’t always loved all the outcomes but I can honestly say there are very few choices I have made in my life which I regret. That’s not to say I don’t ever have doubts, I have them all the time. Feeling you have choices can be empowering but also misleading. Maybe I could just choose to be more casual about dating or sexual intimacy, after all my body is fully capable of ‘wanting what the body wants’. For brief flashes I sometimes feel silly because it seems like it could be that simple.
I went so far as to set up a preliminary dating profile on a matchmaking site once but even just trying to scroll through the potential matches felt fundamentally wrong to me. For me that’s trying to start at the finish line. That aspect of me is heavy and daunting, it just is, so it can’t lead the way. “Hi, this first date seems to have gone really well. Here’s a link to a couple articles I’ve written about myself to bring you up to speed on my situation. Read ’em over and if you’re still interested we can look at scheduling our second date for some time after we’ve spent the next eight to ten months growing truly close and connected.” Yeah, that’s got ’em linin’ up around the block.
So where does that leave me?
I am a happy, healthy, successful, creative, storyteller with a career in the arts. I have treasured, intimate, loving connections with my family and friends. I am able to stand firm in knowing and loving who I am because of a somewhat excessive degree of self-possession, which is probably wired into me at the genetic level, and because I was raised by loving and supportive amazing parents.
The people I care about understand there are parts of my situation they can’t solve or relate to but know that I don’t need them to, I just need them to respect that those parts matter. I know and love and am proud to be who I am. I know what feels right for me and I do my best to stay true to that even though at times the consequences can be heavy or painful. Others have hard far more severe and traumatic experiences than mine, others don’t have the privilege of their difference being essentially invisible and thus concealable.
That doesn’t mean the pain I have suffered is any less legitimate, suffering is not a contest and others who are suffering are not the enemy, but it does make me grateful for the privileges and advantages I’ve had and continue to have.
I am not the type who ‘dates’, I’m the type who falls in love with a close friend. I’ve accepted the very real possibility that I will be single my entire life, and the sadness that makes me feel. Not because I’m unworthy or toxic, but because my path to that kind of relationship is a very specific one and I have very particular and expensive taste. I would love to have that kind of connection and intimacy in my life, I just don’t feel any hope or optimism for the same reasons. I have people who love me who have hope on my behalf.
The sexual part of me is alive and well, I’m as capable of rubber-necking as the next person when the right kind of individual passes by. I’m just not able to act on it. In part because it’s my base nature to take that sort of thing seriously, in part because all my experiences with that aspect of my life have been painful ones leaving wounds I need to be mindful of, and in part because of all those ‘firsts’ which don’t get any less meaningful as time goes by. I don’t simply ignore that part of me or seal it away. It’s part of who I am, even if it is a complicated inner roommate.
I have an on-again-off-again relationship with the elicit parts of the internet, akin to the craving you get for certain fast food chains which starts to dissipate fairly quickly after the initial enjoyment passes. Sexual gratification feels great but it’s the genuine human connection which matters most to me so I’m only drawn to authentic feeling experiences. Thus there is precious little material out there which appeals to me, especially since if it feels too authentic I start to feel like I’m intruding on something which should be private.
I’m human. I didn’t fall through a membrane from another dimension. Despite how it may sound or how I may appear on the outside, I don’t stroll through my life with a Vulcan level of detachment. I feel. Hurt, frustration, loneliness, doubt, envy. I envy people who are able to have those sorts of intimacies in their lives. I envy those without long lists of ‘firsts’. I envy the ability to simply look at someone you like rather than ‘safely’ using your peripheral vision to briefly glance. I envy being able to look at someone with how you feel in your eyes. I envy having the option to curl up on a couch with someone, just because you want to, without it being a big deal.
I say envy not jealousy because jealousy implies ownership. Just because I want a thing does not make it mine. I’m not being thwarted or denied that which rightfully belongs to me. I am merely envious of those who are able to have things I want and am unable to have but I have reached a measure of peace because I know I can’t have it both ways. I can’t imbue things with the importance and respect that I do, which enables me to create and offer the safe and creative and healing spaces which are so important to me, and also have those same things be ‘casual’. Things of true value come with a cost. So I glance away when characters in movies and TV shows are about to kiss because that last inch where agreement is reached, permission is granted, and the idea is able to become reality is the I moment I envy most.
At times the feeling of being too different to ever truly be wantable can be crushing but I remind myself of the people I have in my life, the things I’ve achieved and been able to experience, the things I’m able to do and create, all the things I have in my life which other people have told me they envy. Not to cancel or negate the pain I sometimes feel, I’m allowed to feel that, but to balance out the boat. To embrace and do right by all the amazing opportunities I have in my life rather than let myself get fixated on the things I don’t have. One particular motto has served me well in my life. If you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.
There will always be ways in which I can be more, but I am enough. I have worked hard for it, made sacrifices for it, I have earned it and no one can take it away from me.
And you are enough too, even if it may not always feel that way and no one has reassured you of it lately.