Whenever I talk to people about my family and particularly about the fact that I still haven’t told them about my homosexuality – there, I’ve said it – an awkward silence immediately follows, and their questioning faces take on a tinge of contemptuousness. Why would one keep this defining feature hidden from the people who have defined one’s life? It’s so easy to do it, one just identifies the right moment and runs roughshod over it. And that’s it. Everything will feel so much better afterwards, I mean look at all those gay guys on YouTube talking about family vacations that include the boyfriend as well, their faces so sunny, so full of hope, so perfect. Just have a look at all those people coming out of their dark closets and into the blinding light of family acceptance and love.
Then, besides that recognizable tinge of contemptuousness, there’s the sense of reassurance that they’re trying to offer me: they did it themselves, their lives changed afterwards, their fathers refused to discuss it further, their mothers tiptoed around the topic by mentioning pancakes and every once in a while asking about that “special friend”, they are all now in a better place. Just look at them, they’re the living proof that there is life outside the family closet. And I reassure them about my intentions of coming out to my family in the same way they try to reassure me, in the same way I reassure my parents that I am going to get married with a smart girl (university degree required, as my grandparents keep pointing out), and have kids, and teach them the beauty of family life. Life has no meaning without kids, as my middle-school teacher keeps telling me every time we meet. And maybe there have been times when I had fallen into that trap, fleeting moments in which I imagined a quiet university-professor life, a house brimming with books, a desk filled with papers that need to be graded, and the occasional affair with a female member of the faculty. The pull of this trap curves space around it and pulls everything into its big mouth because its success rate is outstanding by scientific standards. I can see it happening around me. Every afternoon, my father comes back from work and kisses my mother, and sometimes that kiss is accompanied by a light ass slap. My brother, recently married, does the same. Just the other night, while we went on a walk, he and my sister-in-law told me that time is closing in, and they need to have a kid, purchase a family car, go on vacation. Adventure time is over. No more fancy cars, no more gadgets and fancy smartphones. It’s time to settle down. You just need to devote a little bit of your time to it.
Looking at this family picture you’d naturally think my fear of coming out to them lacks substance. It would be irrational to think these people, my family, could be capable of shunning me from the hearth, push me away from the family turf. After all, I’ve been a good boy, I’ve never transgressed the family rulebook, I did everything that was expected of me. I clean my room, I pay some of the bills, I buy them birthday gifts, I go grocery shopping with them. My family does not seem overtly religious, they’re not religious fanatics, they agree with me whenever I point out the hypocrisies of religion and its institutions, they did not frown upon me reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, nothing of the sort. They have never shown homophobic behavior, even though I can sense my father’s hesitation when it comes to using the word “gay”. A sort of hush comes over his voice, the same kind of hush one hears when adults don’t want to be overheard by children.
Though, like me, they have been raised in families whose ecosystem did not go beyond their front- and backyard, in time they have acquired the superpower of being silent about the things that could disturb the balance of their own life circles. I have never seen them even try to be righteous regarding family values, I have never heard them preach those values to the less fortunate, or talk about God and religion with the kind of glint in their eyes that would betray fanaticism or fundamentalism. Just a few days ago, while I was helping my mother change their bedsheets, my father mentioned that maybe it would have been better if I were a girl. Maybe it would have been better, I thought the instant my father made that revealing comment, it would have been so much easier for all of us. I would have carried on with my preference for men with a clear conscience, I wouldn’t have had to hide all this time, I would have found my man by now. Well, I replied, I was born with a dick, unfortunately, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I mean, at least I’m not willing to do anything about it. Yet, between my father’s comment and my reply there had been a mental instant in which I thought of telling them on the spot. The words were in my mouth. I wanted to say my current situation is not far from what they’d envisioned for my sake, the only difference is that I’m a guy, who likes other guys, and that my predicament is dictated by the way in which my body chose to perform its gender. It would have been the right moment to just say it: they were both there, my father had opened that secret door himself, all I had to do was just utter those words. I would have killed all of those birds with just one stone.
Considering all of these aspects, I believe it would be ludicrous to say I’m afraid of my parents’ reaction. I’m a grown man after all, I have a living stipend, I own a MacBook for Pete’s sake, I have social status, I’ve been studying and doing stuff ever since I can remember. I have never rebelled against them and I believe all of my life choices have been in line, if not with their vision of my future, at least with a statistically natural vision of the future. Whatever awkwardness might result from me coming out to them would wane in a couple of days, weeks, months. I’m not afraid of them. I’m afraid of my brother because he has never in his life missed an opportunity to show his righteousness and moral superiority. When Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014 my brother made a show of it by swearing and repeatedly using the Italian word “schifo” meaning “disgusting, revolting”. I nodded, wishing to just end the whole discussion, even though inside I was celebrating, along with all of those encouraging voices on the internet who pledged to support Conchita in the song contest. I even thought of the reaction my high-school religion teacher would have had at the sound of such news. When Lord, the Finnish heavy metal band, won the contest in 2006 with Hard Rock Hallelujah, he prophesied the end of times. However, what I wanted to tell my brother in that instant was that his perception of LGBTQ people had been wrongly shaped by these occasional glimpses of gay people. He had seen and identified, and by extension built his own idea of homosexuality on, only those who had chosen to make their “gayness” (if there is such a thing) as a defining feature of their behavior and wear it on their sleeve. As a consequence, by “homosexuality” my brother understands exceedingly effeminate men, drag queens, bright colors, colorful hair, eccentric clothing, and limp wrists, aspects that in his mind trigger violent reactions, things he feels the need to counteract with bullying and swearing and shaming.
Of course, he doesn’t know better, and when people don’t know better their instincts kick in. A despiser of culture and literature (and a serial high-school dropout), he’s never been aware of the double life one needs to live in order to survive, he’s never learned the vocabulary of that doubleness. When you believe your values are simple enough because they give the impression of being natural and universal then you choose to enforce them, to feel entitled to enforce them, to perceive yourself as a guardian against deviation and foreign bodies. Add to that the arrogance of having made it, of having reached the epitome of those values, namely the formation of a “natural” family, one reinforced by the state and the church, and you’ve got yourself a preacher. I remember that when I was in middle-school and our teachers asked us to dress elegantly because of some external inspection, I happened to have the same blue shirt a classmate of mine had, and so the two of us had come up with the idea that we should all wear the same blue shirt. Both of us were scandalized when another classmate suggested we all wore red shirts because he was wearing a red shirt. We already had the blue shirts, no further action was required on our part, and we took comfort in it, so why bother with the red shirt? Couldn’t the others just buy the blue shirts and be happy? My brother, too, already has the blue shirt of his heterosexuality, he acts on feelings that are readily accepted on a daily basis because they are “statistically natural”, so why would we even suggest the existence or the need of a red shirt? Why such stubbornness?
My brother and I have always worn different shirts for as long as I can remember. We have looked up to contrastingly dissimilar people, have chosen to spend our time with incredibly different people, and if there had been a time during our idyllic childhood when I chose to spend time with the same people that was chiefly due to the fact that I felt lonely. He played with toy cars, I played with teddybears and dolls. Those were our signature toys. On Christmas I got the colorful toy rabbit, he got the Nintendo. I spent my time playing with girls, picking flowers and playing house, while he spent it with other boys, stealing cherries and strawberries from distant neighbors. He watched UFO Robot Grendizer, I watched Sailor Moon. During the summer I spent my time with a distant female cousin of ours, he spent his time with the distant cousin male counterpart. And whenever these two worlds came to a junction violence would ensue, along with ruined sandcastles and collapsed blanket forts, as well as gruesome threats coming from my mother who, on a couple of occasions when her despair was at fever pitch, even threatened us that she was going to force us to kiss each other’s butts. The only time when we got along was when our desires seemed to somehow strangely align, like when we both wanted to just watch more cartoons.
We lived at the countryside, seemingly light years behind the wonders of cable television, which only came to us through distant rumors and the promise of local politicians. And so we had only one channel, and it so happened that more often than not soccer was much more important than broadcasting cartoons for children. We envied the kids that came from town during summer vacations. They had Cartoon Network, the Mecca of all cartoon aficionados around the world. Just the thought of being able to watch cartoons all day every day was exhilarating, simply beyond our imagination, beyond the limited grasp of our little minds. That is why, when a distant relative suggested we spend a couple of days in their apartment in town, my brother and I chose to put our differences aside so as to enjoy endless hours of cartoons. It did not matter that they were in English (a language as foreign to us then as the language of adults), as it did not matter whether or not we had pocket money, as long as we could watch them all day. Needless to say, our initial excitement turned to bitter disappointment. Being able to watch cartoons all day every day did not imply that you’d enjoy all of them. We liked Dexter’s Laboratory but found Ed, Edd n Eddy to be dull and meaningless. As you’d expect I loved The Powerpuff Girls and my brother went out of the room whenever it came on. Yet, I distinctly remember the fascination with which we both watched Courage the Cowardly Dog and Cow and Chicken, and though both these shows went very much against our idea of cartoons we kept on watching.
What struck me most though about these two shows, besides all those ugly-looking aliens the dog Courage had to fight against in order to protect his family, and the red devil who walked on his butt cheeks, was the way Cow and Chicken’s parents were represented. As opposed to all the other characters these two had no faces, just normal-looking feet and voices. I did not realize at the time, of course, what their half-presence implied, I wasn’t that smart so as to brood upon the hermeneutics of that representation. They were the faceless symbols of parenthood. They did not need to have a face as long as their mere presence fulfilled that role. Imagine my shock when, in another episode, probably later on in my life, they were revealed as having no upper bodies. They were just feet and voices, yet they were the parents. In our childish innocence we filled the absence of their upper bodies with our own conceptions of parenthood. They could have been our parents, as they could have been anyone’s parents for that matter. Thinking back, I now realize the degree of maturity that that kind of representation of parenthood required of us children. Throughout our lives we encounter people who spend so much time around us that at one point they just blend in with the environment in which we spend our lives. A household like that in which Cow and Chicken lived needed that prop, parenthood, to keep the whole household imaginary glued together.
Yet it also shows how little of a stimulus we need in order to automatically generalize and create a full picture. I know I was okay with the fact that I couldn’t see their faces. I knew they were mom and dad, because that’s how they were called, despite the fact that it seemed weird a human couple could give birth to a cow and a chicken, both of them animals pertaining to different genera. Parents are all the same, I thought, the same nagging creatures who stubbornly refused to fulfill our every wish. Just as all gay men must be the same, at least in my brother’s imaginary. Out of all the gay men my brother must have encountered throughout his life he must have picked only those easily identifiable. For him, it must have been enough to see Conchita Wurst to then create a whole picture in his mind. He did not need the rest of the stimulus just as I did not need, when I first watched Cow and Chicken, to see the parents’ faces, I knew what they were, I was aware of how I was supposed to feel. I did not need the rest of the story. I had everything I needed to know.
And sometimes, we lose so much when we refuse to hear the rest of the story, when we choose not to reason with our interlocutor, a stubbornness akin to that of children who refuse to eat something because it doesn’t smell good or it doesn’t smell the way they want it to smell. This might sound like a tedious excuse, but I’m afraid my parents, and particularly my brother, won’t want to hear the rest of the story because the very idea of homosexuality would trigger in their minds a whole baggage or perceptions and reactions. And I’m afraid that who I actually am will become so tiny that it will get lost among that baggage. They won’t want to hear about the struggles I’m still going through so as to finally accept my attraction for guys, as they probably won’t want to hear about how all of my attempts at building something meaningful with a guy have failed repeatedly.
I don’t want to point fingers here. We all make mistakes. Generalizing has been for a very very long time one of the features of the brains of our species. It’s how we work. We learn to open a door and then we know how to open all doors. It doesn’t mean that we, gay people, are free of it, on the contrary I feel like we often make the same mistake. Maybe even the word “mistake” is used wrongly in this case, since we are all hardwired to act in this way. The best example I can think of at this very moment is the way gay people often, and particularly on dating sites, reduce the complexity of others by way of fetishizing a certain feature. Even more often you understand their fetish from the very first message. Once, I was contacted by a German guy who apparently was an ophthalmologist and who kept asking me about the glasses that I wore, and what kind of issues did I have with my eyes? He never asked what my name was, or what I was doing for a living. None of that was interesting to him apparently. The messages stopped coming when I told him that I was suffering from myopia. Maybe myopia was not included on his list of sexually appealing errors of the eye. I never got to know because a couple of days later he deleted his profile. I never got to see his face.
The other recurring fetish on gay dating sites is the one related to feet. Nice feet, goes the first message. On a couple of occasions I got contacted by guys who told me, up front, that they’d love to smell my running shoes, or that they’d like to lick my feet. Just as in the case of Cow and Chicken’s parents, the rest of me did not matter as long as my feet were there, as long as my running shoes were smelly enough, the rest of my body was merely a prop, one prosthetic body built to carry around my feet. They ask you about the size of your shoes in the same way others ask you about the size of your dick. Others, on the other hand, have a thing for smokers and smoke-sex, whatever that implies. On one of the dating sites I still use (I won’t give names, kids are watching) there’s this guy who has contacted me repeatedly telling me that he is doing a survey on smoking habits and would I be willing to answer a few questions about that? The same question popped up on the same dating site coming from different profiles which means that the guy has been creating a series of profiles along the way. I’ve never mentioned it to him but his way of doing surveys does not seem scientifically sound: clearly he doesn’t keep track of the people he interviews, and on a dating site it would be very difficult to do that. People cancel their profiles often only to return after a couple of weeks. New profile, new me. And if in a survey you can’t keep track of your interviewees, their age group, their gender etc., then how could you be sure that the results you obtain aren’t false? Besides, why would you be doing a survey on a gay dating site? The premises were never explained to me. I guess I’ll never know.
Others have a fetish for hairy chests or chubby guys. One just needs to change his profile picture emphasizing one particular body part in order to be contacted by different people. Post a picture in which you are smoking and most likely you are going to be contacted by somebody who’s into smoke-sex. The same goes for your feet to the point it becomes predictable. It’s all about how your body performs its role and the amount of attention one particular body part attracts. When I told one of my gay friends over lunch that I was writing this piece he mentioned a guy who contacted him on a dating site by asking him whether he sneezed loudly. On and on he went about sneezing and ways of sneezing until the conversation stopped. I mean, how long could one talk about sneezing? It seemed funny to us, but maybe the guy finds sneezing loudly sexually appealing. Sneeze in my ear, my friend and I joked.
Yet, I wonder, don’t we all have this sort of limiting view of gay men in general? Haven’t we all stopped a conversation at one point when we found out that the person we were talking to, for instance, performed the same sexual role? If you prefer the bottom bunk and find out that the person you were talking to on a dating site, notwithstanding his charm and niceness, also prefers the bottom bunk, then that person suddenly becomes less appealing, and the prospect of a future together withers with that disarming realization. In the end, it doesn’t matter how great you are, how charming and good-looking, if your body fails to perform in the way the other expects it to perform. And gay culture has often been blamed for its emphasis on the body, for its overt lasciviousness, and I think those who do the finger-pointing fail to register one essential aspect: we need to be strongly aware of our bodies in order to engage into a relationship or whatever kind. In the case of heterosexual relationships that awareness is immediately visible and is predicated on physical features. A straight man does not need to ask a woman if she’s top or bottom, jokes aside. Their bodies have already defined the kind of encounter that they are going to have (unless the woman is gay, of course). Gay men don’t have that because their bodies are physically similar. We need to further define those roles, especially when the role one performs in bed is not manifest (more masculine men most often prefer the top bunk, as opposed to effeminate men and so on, you get the picture). This need to define these roles has in turn trained us to have a particularly acute sense of our bodies as well as those of the others. We look for signs, markers, symptoms, and sometimes we focus so much on one particular aspect that we simply fail to see the rest…