Sunday, February 19, 2006

What and who I am is not how I look

Late last week, I had a long talk with a young man (ok, not that young...he's 33) who I used to sponsor in AA back in Kansas. He's been through some rough times, and we kind of lost touch. He'd heard through a friend that I'd come out, but we just hadn't talked since last August, when I was really getting ready to move out of the "private" phase and be more publicly out. So it was an interesting conversation...

He was every kind of supporting - delighted to hear about some of the steps I'd taken, curous (as many have been) about the "Why'd you wait until now??" question. Then, out of the blue, he asked, "So...have you met anyone? Anyone special in your life?"

I had to admit that it's only been in the last six or eight months that I've even allowed myself to look at other guys that way. And the standard excuses came out...too busy...too much work...not exactly a circuit boy...but they were half-hearted. And my young friend said, "Well, what are you waiting for?"

Damn good question, Jimmy...

Then, in the process of catching up with friend's blogs, I read Geek Boi's "general coming out" post, where he posted his picture. And I was really shocked...not by the picture (which is really quite nice, actually), but by the words. It was like my words were coming out of his post...

There's a part of me saying "Don't post your pic, don't cross the Rubicon. You're largely anonmyous -- you can always try to be straight later on if the pressure gets too much. Nobody needs to know that you're gay, nobody needs to know anything about you! Hell, you're not cute enough to be gay..." etc,etc ....This is also difficult for me as I have body image issues like you wouldn't believe. I can't help but stare at my picture and just see nothing but ugliness......
I read that and thought, "Sweet Jesus, someone's been reading my mind." Because, you see, I'm right there with ol' GB, folks.

I've been spending a lot of time this weekend thinking about this. I've got pictures of me in high school - and while no one would ever mistake me for a member of the gymnastics team, I was not that hideous a fellow. But I have always had this image of myself as the ugly duckling...and have always been waiting for the magic to happen, and turn me into the beautiful swan. (Hasn't happened, as of yet...) But remembering brought back this set of events that sort of cemented that ugly-duckling image in my head...

Back in my junior year of high school, I was invited to join an all-guys youth group. A group of us got to be good friends, drinking buddies (yes, Virginia, in high school), and hung around together a lot. While I was significantly less rotund than I am now, I really saw myself as horribly obese back then - and showers in gym class showed that I was well behind the curve on the male-endowment scale.

But somehow I fit in with this group of guys - a couple of whom were rather unattractive (even to my jaundiced eye) but most of whom were quite fit and attractive (in what seemed at the time to be a disturbing way). It was a strange mix of jocks and geeks and misfits of all kinds from across several school districts, and yet we still seemed to click in many ways.

One of the ways we'd blow off steam in the summer was going up to a cabin on Lake Erie near Vermillion, Ohio for the weekend. It wasn't much of a cabin - but it had beds, a TV, a flush toilet, and a refrigerator, which was just enough for eight or ten guys planning on spending a weekend drunk and goofing off. I was already an 80th-percentile alcoholic by that stage of the game - so the idea of a weekend drinking sounded like a good deal to me. And, as one of the three guys who were "of age" at the time, I was part of the "bucket brigade" for the weekend, which made me an essential part of the fellowship and guaranteed me an invitation and a comfy bed spot.

There was a lot of sleeping in, swimming, a lot of horsing around, and of course the requisite smuggled straight-porn mags (no porn tapes in those days - the VHS VCR wasn't introduced until later that year, Christmas 1977). (Yes, I'm that old). Sometimes we'd start off with a trip to Cedar Point (not much drinking those weekends until we got back from the Point, of course). But for the most part, it was just hanging around the cabin, the beach, and the barbeque.

After the first couple weekends, it sure seemed like several of my buddies were getting to be much closer with their youth-group brothers than I was. Though all but three of that group ended up well down toward the "zero" end of the Kinsey scale, you'd never have known it from the sounds coming from the sleeping bags on the beach, or the squeaking of the bedsprings in the cabin. Despite the complete absence of women, almost everyone (it seemed) was getting some on those weekends.

Everyone, it seemed, except me.

It was painful enough to know that my romantic life in high school had been pretty bland, never getting past third base with any girl (even my 2-year steady girlfriend). I knew I was no prize physically; but I also knew that these guys weren't going for "attraction" or "beauty"- they were just getting off with whoever was around.

Again - except me.

I started to understand how the red-nosed reindeer felt when "they never let poor Rudolph/play in any reindeer games." I started trying to work my way into the groups - joining them when they took their sleeping bags down on the beach - but when I did that, it seemed there was complete stillness until they thought I was asleep, and then the action slowly started, often with a couple sleeping bags pulled away a bit so they wouldn't wake me.

I remembered waking up one morning with a pounding hangover as the sun was coming up, to find two of my friends asleep on top of their sleeping bags, bare-ass naked and holding each other spoon-style. The lake breeze had picked up just a bit, and they were both covered with goose-bumps. Yet they both had this air of bliss about them, and I could see the navy-blue sleeping bag was sprayed with the dried remnants of the prior night's entertainment. Further down the beach, I could see what looked like two more sleeping-bags zipped together, and another pair of my friends snuggled together in what looked like an excess of "brotherly love."

I looked back at the naked pair in front of me, both turned on and infuriated by what I saw. Standing there, watching these two guys who I'd always considered to be my friends, I had this irrational desire to kick both of them until I smashed their naked ribs in. I remember wanting to find a large rock and smash their skulls. I don't think I'd ever before felt that kind of murderous mixture of envy, disappointment, rejection and rage.

I'd had the empty fear that I'd get old and be alone before, but I think that morning was when I decided that I was never going to be desirable to anyone, period. I eventually ended up having a series of one-nighters with my best friend (the first, and only, male "love of my life"), but only when both of us were drunk. Right about that time, I met a woman who found my personality attractive, and did not seem to find me physically distasteful. Even though I eventually married her, I still felt deep inside that I was truly unattractive and sexually not too competent. And that self-loathing, combined with my dark, skulking doubts about my masculinity, didn't do much for our intimate lives. By the time we divorced, any pretense of intimacy had long since vanished.

When I was first considering coming out, one of my arguments to Tom and Damien went like this: "Let's see...I could either be an overweight, greying, middle-aged, under-endowed gay man, and put myself in line for all the abuse gays get. Or I could be an overweight, greying, middle-aged, under-endowed straight man, and skip all the gay bashing and prejudice. Either way, I'm going to bed alone, it seems..."

That's why when I read GB's "Hell, you're not cute enough to be gay..." comment, it was like I got slapped with my own words.

I've since come to realize that being hot is part of the gay stereotype - which is perpetuated by us average gay guys staying in the closet. While a lot of gay men do look fabulous, being a duckling doesn't make me any less gay - or any less worthy of caring or a relationship. True, I'm probably not going to attract someone like least, not without an offer of a lot of money...

(Ryan Carnes, from the great indie movie Eating Out)

But it doesn't mean I'm going to be alone for the rest of my life, either. It doesn't matter, in the end, what I look like. Being gay isn't about being attractive...I know that now. It's about a physical attraction to men - independent of how I look, or to what kinds of guys I'm attracted. And (though it took a while to see it) I'm now sure that, having come out to more and more people, there isn't any way I can go back into the closet - even if I wanted to. [Cue music: "I Am What I Am"]

But I definitely have to enlarge my gay social venues. Because of my schedule, I haven't had the chance to hang around much with my two favorite homo-mentors lately - and they're moving to Wisconsin Dells in the next month or so. So I've got to get out and get "out" with some of the gay natives - and at least find some friends.

Fantasy life to the contrary, I don't think I'm gonna be going out with Ryan Carnes any time soon- any more than any of my straight friends think they'll be makin' it with any of the Baywatch babes. But my hope (and my prayer) is that I'll find someone who can see past the outside and find some joy with the cuddly bear on the inside.

It'll be worth the effort - and the wait.


  1. Steve, there's a lot to digest here -- a lot to think about. I can feel your emotions about being left out of all the gay shenannigans of your youth (I got left out of quite a bit myself) -- just the rawness of your emotions has startled me.

    You can't go back in time, but you can start living today, can't you? On a practical front, have you thought about going to some local events where you might feel at home? I swear, if I lived in a Gayopolis like Chicago, I'd be all over clubs/groups/events like that. Maybe a gay book-of-the-month club for those of us who are intellectually minded?

    And you are right, it is worth the wait.

    PS- this is probably a better picture of myself. Gotta keep up appearances, you know....

  2. An interesting site, GB - and it might be interesting to see who shows up for Bear Pride in late May, even if bears (or otters) aren't necessarily my first choice...

  3. This is the kind of post I've been hoping to see coming out of you as you loosen up and accept yourself more and more. Watching you grow into yourself has been a bit like waiting for the ice to start breaking up on a farm pond in the spring, watching the earth prepare itself for a new round of life.

    All the years you've spent in the closet has had an effect on you. And the ice has to break up before the pond can begin another round of new life.

    As I think back to the days when you were so strongly resisting coming out -- and I can remember several rather heat-butting conversations we had about it -- I, too, remember you saying this:

    When I was first considering coming out, one of my arguments to Tom and Damien went like this: "Let's see...I could either be an overweight, greying, middle-aged, under-endowed gay man, and put myself in line for all the abuse gays get. Or I could be an overweight, greying, middle-aged, under-endowed straight man, and skip all the gay bashing and prejudice. Either way, I'm going to bed alone, it seems..." That's why when I read GB's "Hell, you're not cute enough to be gay..." comment, it was like I got slapped with my own words.

    At the time, I thought that it was an excuse for avoiding the pain of coming out -- after all, there are plenty of overweight, greying, middle-aged and (presumably) under-endowed men walking around our neighborhood, and you knew that as well as I did. And a whole lot more men of all types and kinds who are not coupled, and live rich and happy lives, enjoying the company of friends. I thought it was lame, and I was, as I remember, pretty impatient with you about it.

    But over the last year, as I've gotten to know you better, I've come to suspect that I was wrong in my initial reaction to the "Either way, I'm going to bed alone, it seems ..." line.

    I've begun to wonder whether it was part of a pattern of behavior and attitude -- the weight, the insistence on being in a teaching role, and so on (we've talked about it face-to-face, so I don't need to talk about it here) -- developed since you were a kid, for avoiding the joy of coming out, that is, a pattern of behavior and attitude designed to keep you are arm's length from other men, allowing you to avoid the possibility of physical and emotional intimacy with another man.

    It sounds to me, from this post, like you are starting to give yourself permission to think about possibility and potential for real intimacy, and not just "going to bed". The ice is starting to break up, and the potential of new life is starting to show itself.

    As you know, we have different life histories. I was lucky enough to have had a love affair with another young man when I was in college, a man now dead and who I still miss. And I was lucky enough to have had a love affair with a woman that lasted almost thirty years, and which has grown into a new relationship since our divorce. And, of course, I stumbled into a relationship with your "other homo-mentor", almost by accident, and I'm looking forward to having my life unfold with him. So I did not have to share the struggle you face right now.

    But I've faced my own struggles, as you know.

    I am glad to see the ice beginning to break up. The ice breaking is an inevitable consequence of coming out, because the inner walls and defenses within us -- all ways to deal with our internal adoption of our culture's rejection of being gay or lesbian -- crack and fall away over time. As another friend put it to me when I was able to come out beyond the circle of family and friends, "Your limbs will get looser over the next year ..."

    But I definitely have to enlarge my gay social venues. ... I've got to get out and get "out" with some of the gay natives - and at least find some friends.

    Your instincts, it seems to me, are dead on.

    You will, I suspect, need to make time for yourself for a while, spending less time sponsoring and mentoring, and finding things you enjoy doing with other gays and lesbians. I don't know what shape that will take for you -- maybe volunteer work, maybe the Windy City Squares, maybe gay/lesbian theater, who the hell knows -- but anything that will put you in contact with a wider circle of gays and lesbians will allow you to find your own way to be gay and put you in contact with other gays and lesbians of like mind. And from that, if Ann Landers is to be believed, friendships will grow.

    Michael and I are moving to Wisconsin soon, and we are going to have to develop contacts and friendships in our new community, in the gay and lesbian community as well as in the larger community. As it turns out, I've had an opportunity handed to me, out of the blue. I've been asked to be a co-organizer of the Sauk County "BlockOut" group to defeat the proposed anti-marriage amendment that will be on the ballot next November. It suits me -- I've always loved political organizing -- and by the time the election comes around, I expect to know 30 or 40 gays and lesbians in the county, as well as a like number of straight folk who are gay friendly. My guess is that of the group, I'll "click" with four or five, and those friendships will be the beginning point for a wider circle of friendships that will develop over time.

    That's how it works, anyway, according to Ann Landers. Get involved, and you will find people you like and who like you.

    So give yourself permission to reduce, over the next year or so, the time you spend sponsoring and mentoring, the time you spend teaching and preaching over on your other blog, and so on. Don't abandon your present life entirely, of course -- balance in all things -- but shift your priorities and take the time to take care of yourself, moving away from the "roles" that have established the patterns of your closeted life and moving into life itself. The ice is breaking up, so let loose of the habits of bleak midwinter and go out and enjoy the coming of spring.

    Do what comes natural.

    I've been watching the Olympics a lot this past week -- men's figure skating and short track are sports I like to watch almost as much as NASCAR -- and a commercial has been running every so often that has, as a punch line: "So what are you waiting for? A written invitation to live your life? You've got one. It's called a birth certificate."

    I don't know what the ad is hawking, but the punch line is dead on.

    It'll be worth the effort - and the wait.


  4. 1) Listen to the wise elder and youngster who have spoken.

    2) Two things come together for me in those comments. One, the need to go somewhere and just be another Bozo on the bus. Not as a mentor or someone with lots of experience to share -- in this arena you don't have that yet, although you can share what you have with us: your story thus far. Two, going someplace where you can be comfortable. I don't know if the Bears is that place, but it probably would be a place where you would find yourself attractive to others. Even if Bears are not your own turn-on, part of the healing from past hurts may take place as you see that you AS YOU ARE TODAY can turn someone's head. Who knows? You may find someone who clicks with you not BECAUSE he is a Bear, but because he is who he is.

    My Partner and I didn't stumble into one another because of the way we look. And our heads still turn for different sorts of guys. He will say, "There's one of yours." I will describe someone as "You would have loved this guy." And the ones he points out for me don't look like him, and the ones I think he would love sure don't look like me.

    Also, as far as appearances go, that is one of those self-perpetuating things. I know when I hated the way I looked, I didn't have the psychic energy to do anything about it. So I ate and drank more to kill the pain, just gained more weight and was less likely or able to do even basic exercise. Once I started losing weight, I became more conscious of feeling better, began to walk a little further, ate more healthily, bought better-looking clothes, smiled, felt better, and the good cycle could perpetuate itself. And thus I became the hottie that I am today. ;-)

    So taking one small step each day can change the way you look at yourself, and over an accumulation of 24-hours, can change the way you look to others. And visits to the doctor become a lot less stressful, too! Better health and longer life are real benefits. And when you feel better about life, a longer one seems worth having.

    Mainly, though, I want to second all the thoughts -- yours, GB's, Tom's -- about the time having arrived to just go have some fun. I know you too well to think you are going to go fall in bed with the first person who shows an interest, anyway. Go out there and enjoy yourself. When you are enjoying yourself, others will enjoy you, too.

    (Phew! And I thought Tom was going on and on...)

  5. Steve;

    Each day, at least twice a day, I check for updates on both your blogs, and I have been a little worried about you. I feel more connected when I see you writing. I know you are going through gargantuan struggles of identity and self acceptance and personal sense of validity, legitimacy, reason for being or right to be yourself, whatever that turns out to be. I am going through much of the same right now, even though it may not be as evident.

    I will write more soon....I figured you would be checking for comments here....just wanted to get on record to say in a genuine, not in a superficial "go get em tiger!" kinda way, that I hope and wish you happiness and I know you deserve it.