From Chapter One: About Fitting into the Gay Community
By Brian McNaught
My picture was in the paper when I was twenty-six years old because I was gay and bold, or crazy, enough to say so in 1974. I was a Catholic newspaper reporter and columnist who had just come out to my family and employer.
I didn't know many gay people and had only been to one gay bar, but when the religion editor for The Detroit News asked if she could interview me about being gay and Catholic, I said "sure." Only a few months before, I had attempted suicide by drinking a bottle of paint thinner and I was now no longer willing to pretend I was straight.
The day after the interview with me appeared, my newspaper, The Michigan Catholic, dropped my column. I was shocked and frightened. The day before the article appeared I was the privileged middle son of a prominent Irish Catholic General Motors family of seven. The next day I was "a homosexual."
CATHOLIC NEWSPAPER DROPS COLUMN BY HOMOSEXUAL proclaimed the eight-column headline in the daily paper. I was no longer Brian, the polite, pleasant, young man who taught religion after work to high school kids; who made people laugh with his good sense of humor; who, at age eighteen, had received the Christian Leadership Award by unanimous vote of his high school faculty. I was "the homosexual," and my name was taken off the award plaque in the high school.
My family members were mostly embarrassed, angry, silent, and hurt. Most of my heterosexual friends were also confounded and upset. At work, all but one of my colleagues signed and publicized a petition decrying my "use of the paper to call attention to" myself.
Then I received an invitation to come to Ann Arbor to speak of my experience to the gay and lesbian student group. I was thrilled but also scared because I didn't know what to expect. Nevertheless, I recall driving excitedly to the University of Michigan campus with the fantasy of being embraced by "my people" -- the loving, completely accepting family of my dreams.
"Perhaps I'll finally feel as if I truly belong ," I thought, reminding myself that in grade school, high school, and college I'd never felt as if I fit in. I had done all the "right" things -- played sports, dated, led the pep club, crowned the homecoming queen in my capacity as senior class president, and edited the university yearbook. I was "in" with the in-crowd -- but I always felt out of it. Moreover, I generally felt ashamed because of my lack of "normal" erotic feelings for women and terrified that my "dirty little secret" of being attracted to men would be discovered.
But those days were over, I now assured myself. No more hiding my sexual feelings as if they were dirty. No more shame for being different. And the prize for coming out of the closet and announcing to the world that I was gay was that I would finally know the feeling of being welcomed just as I am.
Or so I thought.
There was a chill in the student union room on the hot spring day that I came to speak. To my great disappointment, I got the immediate impression that some of the gay students didn't like me.
"You're dressed too nicely," I was told privately. Everyone else was in blue jeans, the uniform of the revolution. I came as the guest speaker, dressed up in shirt, tie, blue blazer, slacks, and loafers.
"Next time I'll wear jeans," I promised myself, feeling very self-conscious about my clothes.
More nervous now, but still very excited, I stood up to cautious applause and began to tell the gathering the story of how and why my award-winning column had been dropped. My stand in battle, I hoped, would earn me a comfortable niche in this important new group.
Just as I began to speak, the door to the room flew open and, amid whistles, cheers, and some rolling of eyes, in marched a bearded man in a wedding dress and veil. He was followed in procession by three men wearing mustaches and pigtails and dressed as bridesmaids. With smiles and waves of "hello" and "sorry, we're late" to me and to the crowd, they took their seats on the floor directly in front of me.
The room was silent again save the whispered observation of one bridesmaid to another about my attire. "Get a load of her," he said.
As I swallowed hard and stumbled into my first few words, I remember thinking to myself, "Oh my God! Now that I'm out, what do I do?" The people assembled in that room were my new family, to be embraced as replacements for my heterosexual family and friends. I was frightened and depressed.
Clearly there were many wonderful people in that room with whom I might have immediately made good friends. In fact, a colleague and dear friend of mine today assures me with laughter that in 1974 he could have been one of the bridesmaids, or at the very least would have been orchestrating the wedding procession. What I saw through my unsophisticated new gay lenses was a roomful of "them" I mistakenly assumed were all the same, whom I decided I didn't like, and who, I was sure, didn't like me. Once again, I didn't fit in.
I know there are lots of gay men, lesbian women, and bisexual people who can relate to my experience. Though we come from every imaginable background, we share the childhood sense that our sexual and romantic feelings disqualify us from membership in the heterosexual world of our family and friends. When we come out of the closet, most of us lose our status in the straight world. Nevertheless, we believe that once we make contact with the gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities, our isolation and our feelings of second-class status will end.
But for many of us, regrettably, our isolation doesn't end, and for some of us there's a sense of a new second-class status. In my life as an openly gay man, I've received hundreds of letters from strangers and had countless conversations with friends who are frustrated by their feelings of not belonging in the gay community. And many of them are at a loss for what to do.
"I think I'm missing the gay gene," one will say with exasperation. "I don't know why, but I'm just not into...," another will admit almost apologetically. "I seem to be too..." "I just can't get comfortable with..."
Some gay people I know even confess to worrying sometimes that other gay people might confront them with the accusation, "You're not really gay!" or "You're not really a lesbian!"
The truth is, after more than twenty years of being out and very active in gay social, spiritual, and political life, I still feel as if I don't completely fit in. One difference for me today is that I not longer expect to. And it's okay that I don't fit in.
I have been too Catholic for some and too disrespectful of the Church for others. I'm too butch for some gay people and too femme for others. I'm too radical for some and too conservative for others. I'm too out for some gay people and, believe it or not, too closeted for others. (My parents are rolling in their graves!) After many years seeking it, I now accept that I will never get the universal "Gay Seal of Approval." Furthermore, I now understand that it doesn't exist.
"But isn't there a test to prove that you're really gay?"
No, it's actually a question to determine if you're really homosexual. It is: Are you exclusively or predominantly attracted both emotionally and sexually to people of the same gender?
After that, the debate begins. Though no one agrees on how to make further distinctions, some people insist there are a lot more questions still to be answered correctly to prove that one is not just homosexual but truly gay or lesbian.
"Surely, you have done drag!"
Don't call me Shirley, and no, I have not. What's more, I like opera but I don't adore it. When I hear someone mention Special K, I think of a cereal and not a drug. I have no pecs to speak of and I don't like the pain I experience, and therefore don't engage in, receptive anal sex.
"Don't go on!"
I must. I have never finished reading A Boy's Own Story. S/M scares me, and some drag queen intimidate me. I have no body part that is pierced, I don't do much camp, and I don't think that "bitchy" humor is particularly funny.
"You've gone too far!"
I'm not done. I've only been to the baths once in my life and I walked around for forty-five minutes. I've never fully understood the fascination with Judy Garland (though I love The Wizard of Oz) and -- are you ready? -- I hate the world "queer."
"He's straight!" "He's unliberated!" "He's an assimilationist!"
The truth is I'm still just as "gay" as anyone else. I'm also just as proud of being gay and I'm just as feared and hated as anyone else who is homosexual. But I now feel more comfortable experiencing and expressing being gay my own way. I only wish that it hadn't taken me so long and I wish it hadn't caused me so much pain to learn to do so. I also regret and apologize for any pain that I caused others with my expectations of them as gay people.
During gay and lesbian pride marches, we often point our fingers at people holding anti-gay signs, or at church or government buildings, and yell in unison, "Shame, shame, shame." It feels good to make such loud public pronouncements about other people's inappropriate behavior. But it doesn't feel so good when it's done to you. Regrettably, some of us also angrily point at each other with the intention of creating shame and forcing compliance with preconceived notions of what it means to be gay.
For many years, I did feel some shame because I believed that I wasn't gay enough. I feared that I might be discovered as an impostor, kicked out of the group, and left with no community to which I could turn.
Now, I feel more relaxed about my style of being gay and I've found my niche in the world. What I've finally learned is that the key to my happiness is in knowing, loving, and being myself -- not in knowing, loving, and being what others expect of me.
For instance, I'm fascinated by and generally enjoy seeing gay men in drag, and at the same time I know it's not for me, at least not today. I love good gay camp humor, but I'm lousy at it. I affirm the rights of others to enjoy all forms of consensual sexual pleasuring, but I know that some behaviors aren't right for me now and perhaps never will be.
I think some men look great with an earring, and a ring through the nipple on a well-developed chest can be a real turn-on for me, but I'm not ready to pierce anything. I listen in awe as cofounders Tom Reilly and Karen Wickre describe the critically important computer networking efforts of Digital Queers. On them, "queer" works. On me, it doesn't, for now.
My happiness results when I find out and live what works for me today. I'm also happiest when I accept that what works for me will not necessarily work for everyone who is gay, lesbian or bisexual. Not knowing this truth, when I entered my new life as an openly gay person, caused me many years of heartache.
Copyright © l997, Brian McNaught.
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