For most of my life, being envious and being gay have almost been one and the same. I haven't been able to separate them. Out of necessity, one even became an excuse for not being the other––for a period of time, anyway.
Somewhere in all of this, attraction plays a critical role. Even as a kid, I was attracted to men. I was about ten years old when the neighbor across the back alley came over to have a beer with my father on a sunny, hot day. Spike Johnson sat in a plastic lawn chair next to my father, his torso bare, his forearms, chest, and stomach muscular, tanned, and covered in a layer of thick, curly, blond hair. I couldn't keep my eyes off of him. I imagined him wrapping me in those those bare arms, holding me tightly against his hairy body, making me feel wanted, and safe, and loved.
Even today, thinking back to that ten-year-old that I was, I can't sort out my feelings toward Spike. Was I turned on by him? Maybe, even though I was too young to know what that was. Was I envious of him? Probably, because, even then, he symbolized what I most thought a real man was, and what I most wanted to be when I became a man myself. Did I look to him for something I didn't get from my own father? Most likely, because, looking at the quiet, confident man that he was in that lawn chair, I fantasized that Spike would be closer to me than my own father was, emotionally and physically––that he would understand me, and, ultimately, he would accept me in a way that I'd never felt accepted before.
The confusion didn't get any easier when I became older. I was always attracted to what I thought were manly men, both by how they conducted themselves and by how they looked. In elementary school, there was Marc Hilton. In junior high, there was Julian Neale. In high school, there were Dan Evans, Chris Howard, Hank Grenda, and Don Moore. To my young eyes, all of these teachers were the type I most admired, certainly on a physical level, if not on a personal level (especially since I didn't know any of them personally). All I knew was what I saw, and what I saw was undeniable masculinity––manifest in how they carried themselves, how they controlled their classrooms, and how muscular and usually hairy they were.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to sorting out my feelings came from my peers, in high school, when many of them seemed to become the young men I most wanted to be myself, right before my eyes. I still remember their names all this time later––Rick Biggar, Chad Bodnar, Don Ungaro, Terry Mann, Todd Carruthers, Cliff Rousell. All of these young men were my age, sixteen to eighteen, and all of them were what I thought young men should be, especially physically. They shaved before I did. They grew sideburns and facial hair before I could. Their chests grew hair before mine did. When I went to high school, most males were boys, a privileged few were men. I was definitely a boy.
Again, I couldn't keep my eyes off of them. I remember Rick's frizzy sideburns (that later turned into an impressive beard); Chad's unbuttoned shirt and patch of blond fuzz between his pecs (that soon covered his entire chest); Don's dark Italian body fur (in grade ten, for heaven sake––how does that happen?); Terry's plunging neckline and thick, dark chest hair (that excited and confounded me when I was fortunate enough to see it); Todd's curly, blond hair at his neckline (with the promise of so much more inside his shirt); and Cliff's completely unbuttoned shirt when he left Mrs. Cassidy's English class, his chest and stomach hair incredibly like that of a mature man's already. And the thought that came to me when I saw each of my masculine classmates was, am I turned on by them, or am I envious of them? At that point, the choice made all the difference in the world.
I decided I was envious of them. Could it be anything else? After all, I already knew that many of the kids in school thought I was gay. And that, based on how they'd teased me about it, being gay wasn't acceptable. I couldn't possibly be what everyone thought was unacceptable. Who could? So, when I encountered Rick, Chad, Don, Terry, Todd, Cliff, and their like in a classroom, or passed by them in hallways; when my eyes were locked on them and dazed by their early signs of masculinity, the very ones I didn't see in myself, then what I felt toward them had to be envy. Right? I wanted to be them. Surely, I wasn't turned on by them. Or was I?
I used the same excuse for many years. It was easy to use when I wasn't having sex with anyone, female or male. It explained my attraction to other males, why I was drawn to them, why I stared at them, why I wanted to be near them, why I felt so much worse when I compared myself to them, which I couldn't help doing. After all, when you saw in others what you didn't see in yourself, and wanted more than anything else in life, how could you not feel envy toward them? I spent most of these years beating myself up, one, because everyone thought I was gay when I was determined I couldn't be, and two, because my physical appearance and masculinity didn't compare with some of the young men I went to school with. My frustration levels over these rose higher and higher as time went on.
But, of course, the envy excuse became increasingly difficult to use. I couldn't lie to myself forever. It may have been easy to dismiss my attraction to men when I was in my late teens and early twenties, because I was envious of their early physical maturity, and because, I rationalized, almost everyone my age, male or female, was trying to figure out who he or she was, including which gender he or she was most attracted to and turned on by. But, by the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had to accept that puberty was over.
For years, I'd prayed to God to help me be attracted to girls, in the same way that every other boy around me seemed to be, but that ended up being a waste of time. In fact, if anything, I was more attracted to men than ever, particularly those who were physically what I wasn't, and I could no longer deny that I was sexually aroused by them, that I thought about them when I was alone and lonely, and that I wanted to meet and become partners with one of them. If only I could accept myself, come out as a gay man, and live my life authentically. Those were the first steps I had to take.
To this day, I'm still confused by whether I'm attracted to a man because I think is hot, or because I'm envious of him. Even though I'm out of the closet and have been for half of my life; even though I have a life partner I love very much; even though I'm in a committed, monogamous relationship––sometimes, I have to ask myself if my attraction to a man means I want to get it on with him, or I want to look like him. Invariably, my answer is that I don't want to be with him sexually at all, because, in Chris, I have everything I could ask for. And because that's not where my greatest need is.
Rather, my ongoing attraction to men in general, as symbols, and to specific men in particular, representing what I believe true masculinity is, says more about my insecurities as a man and less about the fact that I'm gay. Physically, I was a late bloomer. Whatever facial and body hair I was to receive didn't happen until I was almost in my mid-twenties, and it remained disappointing in relation to what I'd always wanted, in my eyes, shortchanging my masculinity, and more or less sending me down the same road envying men for the rest of my life.
The world is filled with examples of what I always thought I would be, what I'd always hoped I would become, and that I never became, at least not to the degree I wanted to. The biggest favor I can do for myself now is to enjoy the wonderful examples of male physical beauty and masculinity that I encounter for what they are, and to avoid connecting them to any sense of inadequacy I feel about myself. That ship has sailed, never to return, and there's little sense continuing to make myself sick about it.