When Did You Know You Were Gay?

I was amazed when my professor asked this question.

Posted Jul 15, 2014

My very first women’s studies class: a clause so momentous, it requires no verb.

The course title was actually Women’s Studies 101. I took Women’s Studies 101 the very first semester I was in college. I arrived without the slightest clue about what to expect, which did nothing to counter my lifetime’s worth of expectations. Since my early teens, I had been getting by on a haphazard assortment of Simone de Beauvoir, Anais Nin, and Bust Magazine. I was riveted by the idea of an expertly curated reading list. While we mostly deconstructed theoretical texts, we did do a unit on Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg’s classic tale of heartbreaking masculinity. It was a thrill to witness living humans discussing all of this.

I remember walking into the classroom on the first day and sitting in the center of the front row. In high school, I had been a slacker of the highest order, but I was not going to miss a minute of Women’s Studies 101. The seats began to fill up and once there weren’t more than one or two still free, our professor walked in, at which point I did a reluctant double-take: My Women’s Studies 101 teacher was a man, which is a story for another time, but let me say that my expectations were shattered. My sense of (unpleasant) absurdity met with a deep-seated outrage, and in that moment I lost a great deal of hope I hadn’t imagined losing in a women’s studies class.

My disappointment lasted a few weeks, at least, but I would work through it. This, again, is for another time. Within minutes of class starting, it became clear to me that this disappointment had more to do with my own projections than it did with the professor’s abilities. He spoke with great eloquence about topics I had never heard a person speak aloud about. He drew diagrams illustrating intersectionality, as if concepts of identity and power dynamics weren’t abstract, half-formed thoughts at best treated like irritating conspiracy theories by those unlucky enough to have to hear about any of this; as if there was a science to it; as if feminism was real.

After a walkthrough of the semester’s course syllabus, our teacher stepped away from the blackboard, toward my desk. Standing in front of it, he surveyed the room. I examined him closely. I couldn’t establish a context for him; he didn’t fit into any of the categories for the kinds of humans I was used to categorizing, and I was still annoyed with him for not being a woman. I really didn’t know what to make of him. Then he addressed the class, instructing us each to take out a piece of paper and a pen and write down the moment when we all realized we were gay.

Well, or straight. Or bisexual. Or queer. Or whatever sexuality we identified with. Whatever we were then. He wanted to know the moment when the realization of our sexuality descended upon us. I had already been asked a million times, "When did you know you were gay", but I was thrilled to have someone state the question aloud, in the context of an academic exercise. I was also totally amazed by the fact that non-queer-identified students were being asked to recall their sexual awakenings, too. I hadn’t conceived of straight-identified people being asked to state their sexual orientation, then understand it well enough to present it—to come out—to a room full of strangers.

Of course, each of the queer kids had a story—typically many stories—about first crushes, gender identity, sideways haircuts, and sexual awakenings. It was easy for us to recall these memories we spent so much time reliving, asking ourselves who we are. What does it mean that I’m more interested in my best friend’s sister than I am in him? What does it mean that I’m vegetarian? That I’m left-handed? Some of us were eager to speak these coming of age stories aloud, and some of us preferred to keep them committed to paper. The point is that the queer kids had all been asked this question countless times before; lovingly, confusedly, angrily. And more frequently still, we had asked it of ourselves. So we wrote furiously for the allotted amount of minutes.

I wrote about having a crush on my babysitter, the older sister of the boy I played tennis and smoked my first cigarette with, my best friend. I wrote about watching a Brandon Lee movie as a kid, and not knowing which character to identify with in the romantic scenes. I wrote about being 6 years old and imagining a formal event—it’s unclear in my memory but it may have been my wedding—where I would be required to dance in front of a large group of people. I remember visualizing myself in a tuxedo, my arms wrapped around the waist (I guess) of a woman in a dress. I remember feeling unsettled about possibly having no choice but to become a man, if this was how I wanted to dance, and I remember thinking that becoming a man was a better option than having to kiss one. I remember liking how the woman looked in the dress, and I remember wondering what it would feel like to have her look at me the way Brandon Lee’s love interest looked at him, her fingers linked behind my neck as we stared into each other’s eyes meaningfully.

I also remember being 6 years old and wondering if the way I envisioned this dance meant that I was a lesbian. And I remember not quite understanding what the word meant. If I was gay, I wondered if it meant that I would be required to cut my hair into a buzzcut like the (first, ostensibly) lesbian (I had ever confirmed as such) my mother had pointed out to me at the Ralph Lauren outlet in a middle-class country town you might find somewhere like Vermont; a country town where you might find lesbians.

I don’t recall any non-queer students sharing a story aloud on that first day of class, but I do remember wondering if the night I watched that Brandon Lee movie was the moment I knew I was a lesbian. Maybe it was earlier still, when I insisted on playing with G.I. Joes instead of Barbies, or maybe it was when my G.I. Joe seduced a Barbie.

Next week in Queer Studies: Intersections of Sex and Gender.