Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Middle Ground

If someone had asked me even a few months ago why I think I'm gay, my answer would have been the same as it's been for many years:  I was born that way.  My genetic makeup predisposed me to feeling a stronger connection in every respect to men rather than to women, in the exact same way that men and women in heterosexual relationships feel strong connections to each other in every respect.  And I would have argued the point.  After all, the difference is between being born gay, where you have no choice but to be who you are, and turning out gay because of your environment, which suggests that, if factors in your environment changed, you could just as easily be straight.  There's a lot at stake with the argument.  Most gay people, male or female, can't accept being seen as having a choice about their sexual orientation, because, take it from me, they don't have one.  I know for a fact I didn't choose to be the way I am.  Based on my experience as a gay man over the past fifty years, I can't imagine anyone actively choosing to be gay and living with the daily consequences of that.

But the more I think about it--which I've done over the past months, since I've been writing about what it means to be gay in this blog--the more likely it seems to me that homosexuality may be caused by a combination of both biological and environmental factors.  Here's why I've decided to take a more moderate view on this matter.  You decide for yourself if I'm on to something.

I've never understood effeminate men who say they are not gay, or who are not the least unequivocal about their sexual orientation.  In our lifetimes, all of us know at least a few effeminate men, who seem to be as turned on by women as strictly heterosexual men are.  But they make us shake our heads, don't they?  We think they're closet cases, and that they just haven't faced the facts about who they are.  We consider the unsuspecting women they get involved with as much in denial about them as they are about themselves, and we envision them getting married and fathering children before discovering they're really gay.  At which point, their sham marriages fall apart, and the women and children are devastated when their husbands and fathers run off to live unthinkable lives with other men.  We wonder, how can we see what they are, but they can't?  If we care enough, we want to shake the hell out of them and tell them to get a grip.  Otherwise, we laugh to ourselves and imagine with amusement what will happen when everything falls apart, because they didn't have the balls to be what they really are.    

Many years ago, a young man transferred to the place where I worked.  From the moment he walked in the door and we were introduced to him, we knew he was gay.  There was no doubt in our minds.  You could tell by the bigger-than-life way he responded to things, by the way he talked, by his habits and mannerisms--everything said gay.  My gaydar went off so loudly, I couldn't believe the young man wasn't able to hear it himself.

Behind his back, all of us talked about his obvious sexual orientation.  When we learned he was seeing a girl, some of us had to stop our mouths from dropping open.  We couldn't believe he and his girlfriend were dating seriously, that they hoped to get married, have children, do the whole heterosexual thing.  When he was nowhere around, we talked about him and rolled our eyes.  We couldn't believe he didn't see what we saw.  That his girlfriend didn't see it.  As cruel as it sounds, many a laugh was shared at his expense.  Perhaps we were just nervous about him being so clueless.  How could he do this to his apparently unsuspecting girlfriend?  Didn't he owe it to her to man-up to what he was before it was too late, before he ruined his life and hers?

Some time ago, I learned this same fellow married a woman--not the one he was seeing when I worked with him, and not the many others he'd dated subsequently--and that they'd just returned from their honeymoon at a tropical destination.  From what I understand, the newlywed couple was blissfully happy and anxious to start a family.  By now, he was in his forties and presumably had enough time to sort out himself, so he knew exactly what he was.  In other words, if he'd ever had any doubt that he might not be straight, he'd had time to figure it out, so that he knew marrying a woman was right for both him and her.  But it got me thinking--were all of us wrong about him, after all?  Could he be one of those effeminate men who was really straight?  As incredible as that seems to me, even now, I have to concede it could be true.  Stranger things have happened.

I'm effeminate too.  For many years, I've tried to downplay my feminine characteristics and mannerisms, knowing they betray what I am and make me what I least want to be, especially since being gay is not exactly enviable in our culture.  But when you get me going--that is, when I get caught up in the moment and let my guard down--my effeminacy comes out all over again.  I get the inflections in my voice, I put on the affectations, and I swing the arms around with the best flamers, and what I am becomes unmistakable.

I shouldn't concern myself with anyone finding out that I'm gay, because that's what I am, and I've been out for the past twenty-five years.  There have to be some benefits to being out, including believing that you can be yourself in the company of other people without worrying that the way you look and act will twig them to the realization that you're gay.  But, if I'm honest with myself, even though I'm out, I'd rather be mistaken for being straight first and, as I see fit, reveal myself as being gay to those people I trust won't reject me when they find out, than be outed because of how I look, or act, or speak.  Unfortunately, we still live at a time in our culture when being straight is the accepted norm, so what gay man doesn't want to be considered straight first, with the option of revealing who he is, rather than have the decision made for him on the basis of how he comes across?

All of this said, the fact is that I am gay.  I can't escape that.  Whether I'm effeminate or not doesn't matter, because I am what I am.  But the fact that I am effeminate, and gay, suggests there is a correlation between the two, at least in the case of some men.  In other words, I live up to the stereotype, so no one should be disappointed when they learn beyond a doubt that I'm gay.  At the very least, it can be said that I've admitted what I am, that I haven't tried to pretend I'm straight, and that I haven't ruined anyone else's life as a result.  On that point I'm honorable, even if it means the path I've chosen to take hasn't always been the easiest for me.  

But the question I have to ask is this:  If some effeminate men are straight, and other effeminate men are gay, what are the differences between them that would account for this distinction?  I'm making the (unreasonable?) assumption here that all effeminate men have roughly the same biological makeup, at least in that one regard, and that all of them have the potential to be gay, or to be straight, for that matter.  If effeminacy is considered to be a common trait among gay men--it's important to state here once again that not all effeminate men are gay, and not all butch men are straight--then that may well satisfy the possible biological predisposition for being gay, but something else is clearly at play here when some effeminate men turn out to be straight.  This is where I think the environment plays a role in determining sexual orientation.

This is also where another stereotype comes into play.  Many people assume that gay men were raised in households where their fathers were absent or passive, and where their mothers were dominant and overbearing.  I realize the danger in using a stereotype to strengthen an argument, and yet, I can't ignore the fact that the stereotype is exactly right in my case and in the case of many other gay men I've known over the years. Many times, I've spoken to other gay men who were in the same situation:  For some reason, their fathers played little or no roles in their lives, while their mothers were strong, controlling influences.

Yes, stereotypes are generalizations and oversimplifications that don't take into account all the inherent differences that exist between people--and I would be the first to say that I hate most stereotypes as they relate to gay men, because few of them are positive or accurate--but there are good reasons why stereotypes exist in the first place.  If there wasn't some truth to them--that is, if stereotypes failed to accurately describe to some degree enough people in the same situation over an extended period of time--they wouldn't become stereotypes in the first place.  So, I propose there has to be some kernel of truth in them, or they wouldn't exist.

That said, I think it's important to connect the example of the effeminate man I described above with the stereotype of the ineffective father/overbearing mother.  What I believe the difference is between the effeminate man who is straight and the effeminate man who is gay is whether or not the gay stereotype was true for one but not the other.  In other words, could it not be true that for those effeminate men who ended up being straight, their fathers played a more active and effective role in their lives and their mothers were not abnormally dominant or overbearing, while for those effeminate men who ended up being gay, the exact opposite was true, thereby falling into the commonly-accepted stereotype?

Again, I have to use me as an example.  I am effeminate; I am gay; my father was physically or emotionally absent when I was growing up; and my mother was dominant and overbearing.  Here's what I think happened as a result:  I've written in other posts that being gay, at least for me, has been about needing connection to men in a way I never had when I was growing up--needing to be accepted and loved by a man, and therefore validated.  Of course, I'll never know if I would have turned out to be straight, despite being effeminate, if my father had played a more dominant role in my life; if he, or another strong, influential male, had accepted and loved me for who I was.  But I'd be willing to bet that my effeminate colleague of many years ago had a close and loving relationship with his father, or with another significant male in his life, who provided him with what he needed most at a critical developmental time, and, in the end, may have made all the difference in terms of determining his ultimate sexual orientation.  Because I didn't have that, I will continue to need from the man I share my life with now that which I lacked during the most formative years of my life.

I realize all of this is nothing more than conjecture on my part.  But what I know for sure is that I've lived with the bits and pieces all my life--effeminacy, being gay, ineffective father, dominant mother, needing validation--and, sooner or later, if you reflect and explore and ruminate long enough, you begin to see that the bits and pieces fit together to form a more or less coherent whole, helping to explain what wasn't apparent before.  In large part, that's what my blog posts about "Being Gay" have been all about.

But there's more.  When you begin to see that the bits and pieces that fit together in your life in a certain way fit together in pretty much the same way in other gay men's lives, you wonder if it's all more than mere coincidence.  I've had a friend for many years, who exhibited some effeminate characteristics; who always assumed he was straight; whose father was passive and ineffective; and who has come, over the years, to the realization that he's gay, and who needs something from being with men that he was never able to derive fully from being with women.  When I ask him what that is, he's not sure because he hasn't spent time thinking about it--he's merely responded to it--but I know in my case that it's partly masculine identity and partly approval, love, and validation from what I consider to be a masculine male.  Hence the reason why in most gay male relationships, one partner is often effeminate and takes on the female role, while the other partner is more masculine and takes on the male role, within the framework of the traditional male/female relationship.  (Of course, many gay men would argue that I've perpetuated yet another stereotype by making this statement.  So be it.  I can only speak for what I know to be true in my own relationship, and what I've seen to be largely true in other gay relationships around me.)

I could be wrong, of course.  Everything I've written above may be nothing more than complete nonsense.  But, as I said before, when you think, explore, and study long enough everything that goes into forming the dynamics of what it means to be gay, and what gay relationships are all about, specific truths emerge, all of which may be used to explain who you are and how you got that way.

It's been said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and I couldn't agree more.  For me, that's what writing these blog posts has been about. Every time an aimless, wayward piece of my life finds a place with the others that I've figured out and that now make more sense, I know I'm one step closer to coming to terms with who I am, and to accepting and loving myself unconditionally, which, I believe, must be the ultimate goal of every living, breathing human being.


  1. For the record, I had no idea you were gay when I first met you. I remember asking you if you were married, because you appeared to me the type of man who had a lovely wife and two cute little girls at home. You've brought up a lot of good points in this post, many of which I will ponder and respond back in an email at some point. As for the man at work you mentioned, could he be the same one I replaced when I came to Vancouver?

  2. Good to have you back home, Wendy. I hope you had a wonderful trip.
    You create an amazing image of me, perhaps in an alternate life. Obviously, it wasn't to be in this one. But thanks for the vote of confidence.
    I guess it just goes to show we think we come across a certain way to other people, but, in reality, we don't at all.
    I'm sure the man at work I mention is not the same as the one you replaced, but I don't know who you replaced. Who are you referring to?