While I was in Toronto just recently, one of the things I did was have dinner with an aunt of mine. She’s a really cool lady, and I very much enjoy her company. She’s never batted an eye at any of the things she’s learned about me over the years, starting with the queer thing and on through non-monogamy and SM. But I realized during our conversation that we’d never actually talked in any depth about most of it. The reason I realized this is because she asked me, for the first time, one of those simplest, most basic questions – the ones we’ve all heard a million times before.
“When did you know you were queer?”
There are definitely a set of standard answers to this one. Some of us like to say we’ve always known. Some of us say we figured it out around puberty. Some of us, when we met our first same-sex love. And some like to answer with a question of our own: “When did you know you were straight?” Just to get ‘em thinking a little bit. Y’know, because being queer is not an aberration that must be discovered, like a tilted uterus or a mole behind your knee. Hey, Bob! Lookee here on my elbow! Looks like I’m a queer! Wonder if I can have that removed.
The thing is, I came out years ago, and as a result I haven’t heard this particular question in quite some time… so I can’t honestly remember what my standard answer used to be. Of course coming out is an ongoing process; the world still assumes people are straight by default, so no matter how out of the closet we are, all it takes is a new pair of eyes to put us right back in. But it’s been a really long stretch since I last had a “now that you know” discussion with anyone. And the intervening time has given me a new perspective on the answer to the age-old question.
So I told my aunt that I never really figured out I was queer. I just figured out, over a period of many years starting in early childhood, that everyone else wasn’t.
It’s the kind of thing we’re taught from a really young age. In kindergarten, when I had a crush on Roger Needham, who was the cutest boy in my class, all of a sudden my schoolmates were calling him my “boooyyyyfriend!” whereas nobody did that no matter how much time I spent with my best friend Jocelyn. The people who kissed on TV (when I stayed up past my bedtime) were always man/woman couples, never same-sex. The kids all had one mommy and one daddy, or sometimes only one of the two, but never two moms or two dads.
I always just figured, in my childish little way, that everybody must have feelings for both boys and girls, but for some reason the girl-girl things happened in private instead of in public. Of course, when my girlfriends and I played doctor, or whatever other excuse we came up with to figure out our own and each other’s bodies, there was a tacit understanding that we did it when our parents were not around to see us. Nobody quite needed to say it out loud, we just snuck under the neighbour’s deck before pulling down our pants instead of doing it in the backyard proper. So it just seemed… logical, in that odd elementary-school way, that all sorts of other things probably happened that way, too.
Every once in a while I’d forget, and I’d hug a girl for too long or touch her hair too softly, and someone nearby might tease us a bit, which is usually when the girl would recoil or make a joke. So I learned to curb that behaviour before I ever even had a name for what it was. It was a constant process of where the lines were that governed behaviour, children’s and grown-ups’ alike, and figuring out how to toe it so I wouldn’t get in trouble.
Once, in the car on the way to church when I was six or so, I asked my mother, “What does the word bisexual mean?” (Don’t ask me where I’d heard it.) She answered, “It means a person who loves both women and men,” which was remarkably straightforward – maybe it was the shock? – but then she looked mighty uncomfortable. Ooops. I didn’t realize. That must be one of those things I’m not supposed to say. Maybe I just let the cat out of the bag.
Was I a big raging six-year-old bisexual? No, that’s way too simple. I was just me, a curious child who liked people and enjoyed being close to the ones I liked the most. But by the time I was in late elementary school and early high school, it was crystal clear where the lines were drawn. Lezzie. Faggot. That’s so gay. No matter how sure I was that it was perfectly normal and fine to be attracted to girls as well as boys (how could it be wrong? It wasn’t hurting anyone!), it was stubbornly repeated to me in ways too numerous to count that only one option was acceptable.
It never sat very well with me. I made subtle references to my own interest in women starting at age 12 or so, and the reactions from my friends and classmates ranged from completely neutral to excited to disgusted. Some friends of mine were really genuinely OK with it, but I got enough of the negative reactions – including a boyfriend who started calling me “fucking dyke” when he was mad at me for anything – that I realized this was simply not a safe course of action. If I was going to risk alienating all the support systems I had, well, I needed to have new support systems built first. And where on earth would I find those, living in a suburban wasteland populated only with the heartbreakingly mainstream? Where would I find the girl of my dreams, when the girls around me had eyes only for guys? Not a clue.
So I stayed in the closet until I was 21. Not because I didn’t know who I was; not because I didn’t know what I wanted. Simply because I couldn’t find anyone anywhere who was able to see all of me when they looked. I couldn’t find a space where it was safe to be myself, all of it at once. So the acceptable pieces of me stayed visible, and the unacceptable ones went into hiding – much the way they did when I was four years old and playing doctor. The entire world saw the backyard, but nobody peered under the deck.
When did I know I was queer? Way before I ever heard the word. I knew it when I pulled my hand away from my best friend’s cheek, realizing that my caress was too much like a boy’s and she might suspect something. I knew it when the kids’ movies I watched felt like they were telling only one side of the story. I knew it when my fairy tales always had the same happily ever after. I knew it when my father switched off the TV in disgust when they showed images of cross-dressing dancers. I knew it when I read my step-aunt’s copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and found myself just as intrigued by the drawings of women’s bodies as I did the men’s.
I knew it every time I realized that how I was feeling, what I was noticing, who I was attracted to was something I shouldn’t be telling anyone. I knew I was queer every time I realized that the rest of the world was straight. I never discovered that I was queer; instead I discovered, in a thousand small ways every day for almost twenty years, that everyone else wasn’t like me.
Until I started discovering that some people were. And that, my friends, was worth waiting 20 years for.