At the beginning of the semester, I had signed up for a Queer Theory course (pass/fail) with a few friends.
The class gave me a vocabulary for something that had been becoming more and more intuitive to me: Gender was a bit of a performance. The strict sex categories presented to me as a kid had apparently been fluctuating throughout time and across cultures. Even if a collective agreement to honor ideas such as “women like art” and “men like sports” made them felt, real by experience, that didn’t make them essentially true, and certainly not fixed. Since these norms are defined socially, any group of weirdos can call bullshit, call it something made up — constructed — opt out, and perform it all quite differently.
I began to drift toward a gayer crowd. At each party, I observed different ways to inhabit a gender role or sexuality. Queers were like dots on a map, in territory I didn’t know existed, expanding and distorting the borders until it felt useless to try to locate anyone anymore. It made the fist-pumping, beer-crushing hetero-masculinity I’d been cavorting with for several years feel limiting, almost naive.
I began to wonder what made these queer folks so different than me. Was it just a choice I needed to make? Was it something they were born with? If it’s based on my behavior, I certainly have control over that, but would that be faking it or something?
Tom didn’t shy away from my questions. He was tall with curly brown hair and a bony frame, effeminate. He was the kind of person who when you meet him you think I bet he does improv and then you find out he does. We met freshman year during comedy auditions (I didn’t get in) and became closer as seniors through a leadership group as we each ran a service club on campus. It seemed like a good match. Except that I was straight.
He told me to come to a local drag show with the gang. At the lounge, a guy tried to grind with me. At first, I rolled my eyes at my friends. But then I placed my hand on my neck. I curved my lower back and flashed my most seductive smile at no one in particular. Before the hosting queen announced the final number, I whispered to Tom that I thought I wanted to have a “gay experience.”
I mean, how come women get to have lesbian “experiments” with little judgment and not men? And if I was going to do it, might as well chalk it up to those crazy college days, right?
* * *
The door clicked behind us. I knelt on my knees and stared up at him. I pulled down his pants and gripped his dick. I wanted to inspect it further — I mean, how many dicks have I gotten to see up close? But I closed my mouth around the tip. And I gave Tom the kind of head that I would want to receive.
As unsure of everything as I was, I had known this was the first thing I wanted to do. I felt somehow that if I got this act out of the way, the kissing and fondling wouldn’t be such a big deal.
It was, I felt, the nadir of masculinity.
Since I was 8 years old, other boys have crossed their forearms and slapped them against their crotches and said, “Suck it!” to insult someone as cowardly, weak, a pussy. Which I think was part of what made actually doing it so damn thrilling.
I watched his pubic hair zoom in and out as I rocked my head back and forth, and I pictured a friend, my dad, myself walking in — what would they think?
Heterosexual masculinity is held in check by threat, and men police each other to not break the rules (at penalty of exile). By submitting to emasculation, drowning in it, there was no point in defending myself further. What are you gonna say now? I’ve already sucked it.
Then the voices came.
They sputtered in haste to explain this plot twist in what had been a relatively stable narrative. “But you’ve always liked women.” “But you play sports and fix things.” “But you have a deep voice and wear workmen boots.” “But you eat lots of food and fart and —”
The croaking throats, rushing to the aid of my heterosexual side, were almost comical — it was all in my head! But my brain just pleaded with me, “Please, don’t go there.” A desperate chorus of old men and silly boys.
* * *
I had always had girlfriends, from pre-K to high school. Looking back, there was hardly a moment in my child and adolescent development that I wasn’t in some way pursuing heterosexual affection and sex — AIM flirtations (A/S/L?), sneaking kisses during snack time, passing paper-football notes in class, making out in coatrooms at sweet 16s.
And I’d been quite sexual for as long as I can remember. My first girlfriend at summer camp dumped me because I wanted to kiss her and she wasn’t ready. I think I called her a prude. A small word, with ignominious company like “tease” and “blue balls,” selectively used by straight men to get what they want from women. The straightest kind of word there is. At the time of Fest, I had just broken up with my girlfriend, the second of two serious relationships in college.
But I’d already fooled around with Tom. And now I was wandering around the quad, waiting to have sex with him.
* * *
My pocket buzzed. Where are you?
I thumbed back. Slowly. North Quad. Come find me :)
Coming now! I stared at that for a few seconds. He was on his way. So this was really going to happen.
The next thing I remember I was high above the muffled laughs and screams, in a dark room, kissing Tom.
* * *
I lay on my back in his dorm room-size bed and watched him. I watched him climb on top of me, a scrawny torso decorated with wisps of curly brown hair. I watched him reach his hand behind him and grab my dick. And staring at me, sit down.
It had never occurred to me that men might have sex staring at each other.
But then I stopped thinking about how it looked, and started thinking about how it felt. I tilted my head to the side and quietly moaned. I brought my arms over my head and arched my back.
When I could tell he was getting close I told him to cum on my chest. Me! I did that! A straight dude! Right?
Then, new voices. Not a gentleman’s croaking ho-hum, but a snarky, taunting voice, manipulative.
You? Straight? Sure, dude.
Remember when you were 6 and you and Evan rubbed dicks and butts together? Because we do. What about when you were 9 and you and Ross compared penis sizes? And you’ve always been super-affectionate with your guy friends. You laugh and call it “bromance,” tapping each other’s crotches as a “joke.” Whatever you need to tell yourself, bro. Oh, and don’t forget when you and Greg touched each other’s dicks at summer camp. Nearly jerked each other off. Kinda crazy since it was just under the covers and people in the bunk were still awake. Must have really wanted it, man.
Just come out already.
* * *
I got up and looked at myself in the mirror with disheveled hair and red eyes and semen splattered across my pecs. I think I laughed. I’m not sure. It’s a little hard to remember. But I thought I looked ridiculous in his dorm room mirror, and I turned and started looking for my pants.
Tom was an R.A. and when I closed the door behind me I took a moment to study the paraphernalia that adorned it: a white board with the Sharpie message Happy Spring Fest!!!,a scattered mosaic of rainbow stickers and a tacked-on envelope of condoms.
A pair of freshmen donning backward hats sprinted down the narrow hallway steadying red cups as they ran. Four cherry-colored lips, stained from the Jungle Juice that sloshed throughout the quad during Fest. “Yooo,” I cautioned and slid to the side with my hands raised. “Sorry, bro!” floated back toward me as the red lips streamed by. I took a condom and walked outside.
I dodged neon tank tops and Ray-Bans as I trudged across the yellow-green lawn of the quad. The blaring sunshine interrupted my mental grumblings about the normative assumptions of the cherry-lipped bros and forced me to look down at myself.
I too was wearing a tank. And my world was also tinted black, framed by cheap plastic. Of course it was. I was in a fraternity. And we were a fratty frat.
Black light parties, Ice Age parties, Edward 40-hands, Champagne & Shackles. A 2-1 gender ratio at the door. Drinking on the roof. Drinking on the porch. Drinking in the back lot. Lots of fighting. A brother broke a pledge’s finger, because he didn’t do what he was told. Lots of fucking. I saw a brother “eat a girl out” on our dance floor. Sometimes the two went hand in hand. Once, I saw a brother throw a mirror down the stairs because someone else had had sex in his bed.
And it wasn’t really a big surprise to anyone that I ended up in a frat. My bunk at summer camp was a clear adolescent antecedent of a frat. From our porch, we whistled at girls who trudged by on the dirt path. We would pull sheets over bunk beds like curtains to make private rooms for making out. We were constantly rating girls, and once even held a “draft” to determine which guys had first dibs on selected girls.
But why was I even thinking about this? I was grappling with my sexuality, not my masculinity, and those things are different, right? I can suck a dick and still be a camp bro, right?
I remembered that one summer my bunk got in trouble for saying “gay.” The camp director delivered a grave lecture. One in 10 people are gay, he cautioned. That means there’s likely one person in this very bunk who is gay, he said. Which meant that for the rest of the summer — and several more summers after that — in any moment of emasculation, we would be sure to police one another, “Are you the one?”
I took off my sunglasses and squinted. So. I guess I’m the one.
* * *
It was hot out. The dunk tank had a long line. Shorts gave way to bikini bottoms and dancing gave way to sunbathing. Men took off their shirts and threw footballs. Everyone seemed to act more gendered as they got more naked.
For me, when I saw that much body, the opposite happened. The individuals started to blur like a pinkish brownish sea with T-shirts and bikinis floating on top of it like nylon sailboats. Just an ocean of flesh, not enough definition around the edges of any body to call it one of these or one of those.
And if definitions aren’t that clear, then what I did with Tom wasn’t all that significant, right? I mean, if we’re just bodies and pleasures and that’s as far as we need to go, then what was the point of all of this confusion? If being in a box felt more confining than comforting, then why did I care so much about the label affixed to it?
* * *
I was staring at a petite pink butt while laughter erupted around me.
A band had just finished performing and several members opted to moon the crowd from the stage. One of the members, a theater guy, had drawn arrows on his ass cheeks pointing inwards with the words “insert here.” I didn’t know him, but when he turned around and grinned at the audience, I smiled back. About a week later, when I first worked up the courage to consider that I might enjoy jerking off to a guy, I didn’t picture Tom; I pictured this guy, with the arrows on his small pink butt.
Now that I was open to the idea that I was attracted to men, I wondered which ones. I found this theater guy attractive, which made me realize that I didn’t really find Tom attractive. Had I been so keen to break through my own heterosexual socialization that I had actually ignored my own “natural” impulses with Tom? But aren’t our impulses socialized and conditioned, too? Was there anything natural about my desire that I could cling to? How could it be so hard to know whom I wanted?
I started to feel like I had used Tom or he had used me or somehow it was all wrong. Soon, a babble of voices started to crowd out my attempts to reason this out.
Did you even want to sleep with Tom because you were genuinely interested in him — aroused by him — or just as a way to explore something? Tom probably knew this — he was taking advantage of you! Yes, you attracted the attention, put yourself in that situation, but you didn’t pursue him. He texted you. He brought you to his room.
I felt myself slipping into somebody else’s story of sexual violence, a victim, and I put my sunglasses back on and I marched to the gate that separates the North Quad from the real world.
But then I stopped and watched. Armies of men, clumsily draped over women’s shoulders, leading them somewhere.
I thought about the girl who blew me in the frat house when I was blackout drunk whose name I didn’t remember. I thought of the girl who, after I gave her head, told me, “Wow, thanks. Men usually do terrible things to my vagina.” And I thought about the girl who told me she hadn’t really wanted to have sex with my friend, but that I shouldn’t tell him because it wasn’t that big of a deal.
These were my most vivid flashbacks of a straight life. Was that really what being straight meant? Do I have to be gay or bisexual to behave in a fundamentally different way? Is being “not-straight” a sexuality?
* * *
Back in the coolness of my room, I lay on my bed alone and exhausted. Slowly, the confusion subsided, and an irony emerged.
More than anything, “getting girls” was what had always secured my tacit acceptance in hetero-masculine spaces. I could always be playfully bromantic, because I was always hooking up with someone.
And in a way, having sex with Tom was a continuation of that. At least that was part of the motivation, I think. I wanted to understand sex better. I wanted to be better with women. I wanted to know what it was like from the other side.
I’d always been the pursuer, the aggressor. And I didn’t really know whether being on the receiving end of that felt all that great. So for a few moments on a spring day, I got to be coy, and beautiful, and submissive.
And it was fun — expansive — to get to play a different role. And maybe playing a different role is partially about having sex with guys, or being physically attracted to guys, but maybe being bi or queer or even not-straight is just saying enough with heterosexual masculinity. Enough of the policing, and small maps, and prescribed pursuit because it’s just taxing, stifling, boring. I don’t know where I’m headed, but I’m not going back.