During the six month gap between high school and college, I’d first taken to sneaking men into my bedroom. It took longer than usual to enroll and start classes because I was recovering from the most intensive hospitalization of my life. Even in my delicate state, I sought to learn more about myself. The sexual partners I found, usually online, were often remarkably similar to me. Several were bisexual like myself, even already in relationships with women, but desiring something more.
Queer life is often criticized as being orgiastic and overly sexual. I wouldn’t know how to describe it without also bringing up sexuality. At an earlier time, gay men enjoyed a kind of sexual freedom divorced from conventional heterosexual morality. It was this same attitude, tragically, that fueled the AIDS epidemic. My generation was much more cautious, though some remained reckless, disinclined to use protection.
My first experiences were not especially rewarding. One random encounter changed his mind in the middle of what we were doing. Disappointed, I escorted him silently out of the house back to his car. Another had never had penetrative sex and, although curious, was afraid to try. A third smelled faintly like a combination of bodily funk and ranch salad dressing. I managed to undress down to my boxer shorts, but could not go any further with him.
Truly gratifying sex didn’t happen much until I was around 21. I met a man who was the optimum balance of patient and instructive. Typically, I went months between same-sex encounters. Much of this was because I didn’t always have my own space. I’d live on my own in a dorm or an apartment, but never for very long. Before I knew it, I was back at my parents’ house. I didn’t have much choice, because my illness demanded the kind of intensive care and stable environment that only they could provide.
Unsuccessful attempt after attempt to live by myself produced profound and constant feelings of shame. Only losers still lived with their parents. Before I knew it, another episode would once again take hold of me. Upon the conclusion of another hospitalization, the social worker assigned to my case would take care to make sure I had somewhere to go following discharge.
So you’ll be staying with your parents for a little while? This was always conveyed with the greatest sympathy. One could see it in their hopeful, forcefully cheerful looking faces. Social workers always looked the same and talked the same. They were forever smiling, hopelessly upbeat, young, and driven to succeed. I imagine it’s the required attitude for anyone who has to work at such a high stress, draining job.
I love my parents, but I don’t always love the things for which they stand. I knew that they were not even remotely approving of who I was. Nor did they approve of the process of self-discovery now well underway. While coming out to myself, I was a live wire, hypersensitive, and always somewhat paranoid. I used strict discretion when necessary but was generally open with my sexual orientation.
As I suppose everyone who identifies as queer eventually does, I realized I needed to do some investigative research. I’d discovered Alabama Adult Books in the phone book, which was located on the north side of downtown Birmingham. The business name was something of a euphemism. The printed word, even in the form of erotica, was nowhere to be found. The bookstore was, instead, a sex shop that dated back decades.
I circled around and around a particular sort of shiny magazine before getting up the courage to buy it. It showed a shirtless man with impossibly defined pectoral muscles and a fully tumescent penis, straining underneath the material of his revealing underwear. A part of me looked away in self-reproach, but I couldn’t help staring in spite of myself.
I was mostly fearful of receiving hurtful homophobic comments. How would the person behind the counter respond? My hand shook as I grabbed two magazines from the stack. They were encased in plastic wrap. As it turns out, I had nothing to be afraid of, not even in the slightest. I placed my intended purchase on the worn counter. Impassively, perfunctorily, the worker scanned the barcode at the base of each publication, took my money, and addressed the next customer in line.
He’d seen just about everything over time. Workers in a store that peddles sex probably shouldn’t have sexual hangups or hold anti-gay views. I would return periodically, when I grew bored with my latest purchase. I can’t say I was ever comfortable there. No one talked to anyone else in the store, so I imagine everyone is equally inhibited. Patrons avoid eye contact whenever possible. I suppose it’s a little like being Southern Baptist and going to the liquor store.
With time, a collection grew, all stashed underneath my bed. In hindsight, this might not have been the best place for safe storage, but I was growing less and less desirous to hide who I was.
In those days, the slow pace of data transmission made internet pornography more trouble than it was worth. As had been the case for generations before me, I slowly accumulated magazine and video tape smut. In the late Nineties, the store still rented VHS tapes. Professional gay pornography on DVDs was an expensive proposition. I rarely had $40 or more to spend on the releases from the major companies who benefitted from high production values.
Bel Ami and Falcon were thought to be the best of the best, but now I see them as incredibly fake. I imagine many of their actors are gay for pay. The scenarios presented were ridiculous and overwrought. This was a good place to start, but I found I was more turned on by real people and real situations, not colossally over-the-top acting and steroids. I was aroused by the sort of person I might conceivably meet and take to bed, and no one in any of these films fit that profile.
They were, however, my introduction to homosexuality and homosexual expression. Exaggerated and unrealistic they may have been, but I was able to look beyond my disbelief and pick up a few things here and there. Still too timid to step outside the closet completely and to learn entirely from personal experience, it was here that I was schooled about basic terminology and technique.
I am more particular today in my choices. Any commercial release, regardless of intended audience, displays a kind of grotesque, excessive unreality. These films focused on testosterone drenched exaggeration, a world packed full of as many impossibly beautiful men as possible. Most men I knew did not have sexual experiences with hulking, muscular men who, during the performance, frequently let out out satisfied, super-masculine grunts of pleasure.
These sorts of snuff cinema operated on the premise that all queer men were attracted primarily to straight men, or at least very masculine men who could easily pass for heterosexual. The fantasy was entirely unreal and overdone. And, I have to say, I resented the underlying implication. The men I found appealing were very feminine, usually somewhat theatrical, and quite evidently queer. I’ve never found anything especially appealing about excessive masculinity in men.
The authentic, entirely gay men I knew at college could not be more different. Seeking commonality and friends, I’d been directed to the GSSA. A Gay/Straight Student Alliance group met on campus once a week. It tended, much to my frustration, to attract the sort of cookie-cutter queer men who actively conformed to the stereotype. They dressed, acted, and talked the precise way gay men were somehow “supposed” to do.
When I arrived for the first time and took my seat, I felt like a piece of meat. Although flattering to be thought of as sexually attractive, I knew this attitude well. I got the same looks from men at the gay bar, but I expected them there. I thought the group was designed for support and to build tolerance within the university. Instead, I recognized instantly that I’d be eventually passed around from man to man, if that was what I wanted. The more consistent regulars, as I later learned, had all been with each other.
A much older man began showing up at our meetings, week in and week out. His purpose in our company was not fellowship, but cruising. I don’t even think he was a student, which should have disqualified him from being there. He made no effort to disguise his motives and intentions, and one of them was to get me into bed. The group should have policed itself better. I will say that much. Its function was social more than educational, but it lacked the leadership to be much more.
As I noted above, the seven regular attenders who more or less kept the group going had slept with each other at least once. Slightly before my arrival, a bad breakup between two attenders, both male, created needless drama. The group fairly begged for structure, any structure. In a different time in my life, I’d have offered my services as a leader, but I was too self-doubting and not confident enough yet.
At the time, I was not in a good head space on multiple levels. I’d had numerous opportunities to tell the older man to not go an inch further, but my childhood experiences with men and sexuality got in the way of good sense. In place of logic, other forces spoke loudest. I thought perhaps I needed an experience like this, one of total domination, to feel authentic, to receive confirmation as who I was. As I said, I brought ample baggage with me into these sexual experiences.
Men have disregarded boundaries more than once. A few months before, I’d met a man in a club, then agreed to go home with him. He told me to undress and lie upon on my back. I knew what was to follow, but I told myself I’d put up with anything. I assumed anal sex was supposed to be somewhat uncomfortable at first, but that I’d quickly adjust. He proceeded to enter me forcefully and a little violently.
I felt pain, not pleasure. Part of me wanted to tell him to stop immediately, but I let him continue. I kept silent, but one could have told through my facial expression alone that I was not enjoying the experience. Fortunately for me, my agony was a turn on for him, and he didn’t last very long. Paradoxically, even then, there was something pleasing to me about feeling completely out of control and petrified.
These two contradictory experiences and impulses stayed with me for months. Almost immediately after we finished, I was told to leave his apartment. He added, as many men would in the future, that he’d gladly have me again. All I had to do was call. I put my clothes back on and walked to the car, then drove home immediately.
I found I had returned once again to the same situation. The older man trolling the group for sex got what he wanted. He asked me for a ride home, not exactly subtle with his intentions. He’d sat next to me at the table the whole meeting, forcefully bumping his leg against mine. Though his comments were bizarre, his intentions were transparent.
I know others in the group had picked up on them, but only brushed him off if he came near them. I’ll always feel upset that no one spoke out, nor looked out for my safety and well-being. I could be an object of desire to them, even of interest, but not someone worth protecting. To them, socializing and flirtation was of paramount importance.
I’ll give the guy that much, he was a smooth character. He suggested we pull over alongside a park. We sat on top of a rock wall that circled the perimeter. He moved slowly, deliberately, from one part of my body to another. First he had rested a hand on my lower back, pushing the tip of a finger inside my underwear. He could always claim ignorance later, but I’m not stupid. I knew what he was doing.
His hands and fingers slowly but surely reached their intended goal. Abruptly, he suggested we return to the car. He told me to put the seat back as far as it would go. The description ends here. I’m not going to dignify what happened by giving a play-by-play. He never threatened me physical harm, but he was insistent about what he wanted. Once again, I let a man have his way with me, in spite of my judgment to the contrary.
He left his baseball cap inside the car. I arrived at home around 9 in the evening and went immediately to bed. The next day, I opened the car door and found the cap resting on the back seat. Seeking to purge the memory of what had happened, I poured lighter fluid on the cap and burned it in the driveway. Observing the flames from the driveway, my mother asked what I was doing. For some reason I told her the truth.
Serves you right, she said. Why would you do a damn stupid thing like that in the first place?
This wasn’t exactly sympathy. My father felt similarly to my mother.
The next day, when I was away at class, Mom scoured my room and threw everything away. She told this to me with a kind of triumphant satisfaction, the sort one feels immediately after thoroughly cleaning a filthy room. All of my glossy magazines were gone. My two well-watched DVDs were destroyed. She also threw away the women’s clothing I’d begun to wear in secret.
Even I thought I’d somehow done something to deserve it.