Cultivating Identity

From the time I was a wee child, I had no inkling of what identity meant or who I was in this large world.  Like most children at my age, I was too caught up in twilight hide-and-seek games, climbing neighbor’s trees (and getting yelled at for it), learning to ride my bike it all its awkward wobbliness, playing tag and dodge ball in the green grass of the playgrounds at elementary school, seeing little kittens take their first breaths of air and the sheer wonder of birth, and all the wonderful shenanigans of young childhood.  I made no time for self reflection on why I was here or what my purpose was in life.  Philosophical meanderings were beyond the ability of my short attention span.  

As I grew older and progressed through grade school, I began to notice that was when we began to fumble with the idea of classification.  We began to formulate thoughts of others and opinions of them:  He is silly, she is quite, and they are loud.  These tiny attributes evolved into much larger analysis of our peers in general.  Then a curious thing began to happen: we begin to hang out with those we shared a common interest with, be it where we played, the games we participated in, the food we ate, and where we sat in class.  We began to form groups, a social comingling of who we liked and related with on a common basis; friendships.

We knew the differences between the sexes on a very juvinal level.  And at this young age we began to learn what little boys and little girls were “expected” to look like and behave.  Boys played sports, were outgoing and boisterous, dressed in sneakers, jeans and solid primary colored t-shirts and backpacks that had NFL teams and masculine super hero role models.  Girls wore skirts or jeans with pastels and flowery designs, glitter, and tended to have longer hair affixed in ponytails or pigtails, with Barbie, My Little Pony, or Rainbow Bright backpacks and pencil boxes and lunch pails.  They played jump rope and hopscotch, foursquare and monkey bars, doing flips and twirls on the parallel bars.  The pressures and expectations of our society were already heavy on us and we were completely oblivious to it.  But this is not to say that even then there weren’t peers in our age group that challenged the social norms placed on our gender.

During elementary school, I had a complacent, subdued demeanor (shy and awkward) and often had a very small, select group of friends that I hung out with on the playground.  I was not outspoken and I didn’t volunteer to lead much in classroom activities.  When I had taken up gymnastics, I had recalled be named a “fairy” by a friend’s cousin but the meaning of this term had gone completely in and out the other ear; I didn’t understand.  My two closest friends didn’t fit neatly into the gender specifications of what was expected of us, be it in the ways we dressed (tomboy) or how we acted (effeminate).  At the time these labels meant very little to us, we were busy with homework and recess, sports and afterschool activities.

I recall an instance in our adolescence where I became acquainted for the first time with the term “gay.”  I was with three of my close friends, on my street that I grew up on.  We were playing on a brick wall, on the edge of a neighbor’s yard that divided one yard from the next.     The grass was a deep green and in the middle of the yard stood a tall tree, its branches spanning the entire length and edges like a large umbrella.  A small flowerbed, bordered with brickwork, was home to a variety of shrubbery; its foliage always so plentiful and full of life.  The wall we occupied descended like a staircase to the sidewalk from a much taller brick wall that partitioned the front yard from the house and the backyard, an iron door barring entrance to the inner sanctuary of yard and front door.  Because of all the tall foliage and wall, this house held a certain mystery about it that appealed to our adventurous nature.  We were always climbing on the tall wall, balancing on the bricks like tight-rope walkers and the nimble neighborhood cats.  

The gentleman that owned this home was of middle age, probably around mid thirties to early forties, around 5’10” tall, slim body structure, brown hair, pale skin, bi-speckled, and single (from what we could observe).  We all have met and talked with him on a handful of occasions, his name escapes my memory, but it was all very general.  He once shared a rock collection he had with us (as we had collected rocks ourselves) and he gave each of us some petrified wood from the Petrified Forrest National Park in Arizona.  As time passed though, our wall climbing antics began to feel like an intrusion of privacy to him and we were no longer permitted to climb on it or be on his property.  

On a day that my friends and I rebelled against his demands to keep off his wall, we had a discussion about him and why he lived alone.  One of my friends (not sure which one mentioned it) offered that maybe he was gay.  This was the first time I had been introduced to the term and I asked what that meant.  He told me it is when a man likes another man in the way a man would like a woman.  Being young and naïve, I had no inkling of what that meant, unaware and inexperienced with love and relationships at that time in my life.  Can’t say I put much thought into the discussion as the question was the extent to which I participated, out of lack of interest.

High school, for me, was the turning point; sophomore year was a rough time.  Because of my mannerisms and the pitch in my voice, some boys in my English homeroom thought it would be a fun time to harass me and call me a faggot.  Much to my displeasure, this was a shock and I was not use to this sort of attention.  After a couple weeks it seemed my reputation for being gay had preceded me and I was being confronted and bullied by people I didn’t even know.  It was a year full of isolation, stigma, and tears.  How could I be gay?  It took me a while that year to see and understand myself better and then the pieces to the puzzle began to fall in place.

By junior and senior year, I was in a new school and a new start.  I had also come to the realization that I was a gay young man, though not completely confident and sure of myself to tell anyone of it yet.  I went to formal with a friend and I danced and enjoyed the last couple years of high school blending in where I could.  Blending it was much harder that you would expect for a young, gay teen adolescent.  My first crush (on a guy) started on my first day of junior year, in my U.S. History class.  Being a new student to the school, my history teacher introduced me to the class.  As I took a seat, another young man not far from where I sat got up and introduced himself to me, holding out his hand.  At that moment, my face started to burn, blood rushing to my face; I was blushing.  As he was talking, he noticed my face turning into a tomato and fumbled in his words for a moment before shaking my hand and taking his seat again.  

The remainder of the two years passed without few waves.  I went to formal my senior year and the girl I went with (who asked me) questioned me point blank if I was gay.  Put on the spot, I am sure I blushed and stammered that I was not.  But regardless of that moment, formal was a fun time as I saw my other friends I had made throughout the semesters there also.  We all danced and I would say that was the first time I had enjoyed my high school experience.  Art class was also an outlet for me, my teacher welcoming as I often went in there on lunch break to work on my projects and socialize with any of my classmates that were there too.

College and beyond were the transformative years where you no longer needed to hide and worry about the high school clicks and fitting in.  I had come out to my parents, friends, everyone else (including on social media) and became more accepting of my sexuality.  Relationships and friends have come and gone, jobs have started and ended and yet much of whom I am, my identity, has changed with my growing age.  There was a time that I denied to label myself as something, instead just “being” and finding contentment in that.  But society likes to classify and place labels on people so I have come to accept myself as a gay man, certain with how I present my gender and firm in my sexuality: any way I choose, it is my body, my identity, my choice and it can change any time I am ready.

So what does it mean to me to be a gay man?  What is it to be gay?  What is it to be a man?  To acknowledge being gay is to accept the idea that you are attracted to another man and that this attraction goes beyond the connections we make in friendship and companionship.  This kind of attraction moves into the realm where you can be romantically and intimately involved with this person, that your attraction to them can reach up to and beyond a lust for them to loving them, wanting to be with them because they fulfill a part of you that you, yourself, cannot complete.  I choose to identify and a male because that is the sex that I was biologically born as and am comfortable with that.  I believe that gender and sexuality, just as much as identity as a whole, is fluid; ever-changing.  I don’t expect myself to always be how I chose it in this moment but to be comfortable with myself in any way I express myself is the key.  Humanity is always adapting.