When did you realise you were gay?
The first thing my dad said after I came out to him was, “How long?” I think he meant, “How long have you known you were gay?”
This seems to be one of the most frequent questions queer people get asked when they start opening up about their sexuality to their families. It has always felt like a strange question to me, but on further reflection, I’m convinced it stems from a number of other underlying questions people are dying to ask:
“What turned you gay?”
“How long have you had to carry this burden alone?”
“How did we fail as parents to make you turn out this way?”
“What can we do to fix things back to ‘normal?’
“Did you choose to be this way?”
I have to say I’ve always found it completely bizarre to hear people talk about sexual orientation as some sort of conscious choice. That is just so far from the realm of my experience that I just find it impossible to relate to at all. As a young child, I remember hearing my mum speaking in horrified, hushed tones about a friend’s son who had moved to New York to study music, fell in with the wrong crowd and “turned gay.” I remember thinking how strange it was that anyone would choose to “turn gay,” especially with the sort of treatment it sounded like this person was receiving from his family and church community. Why would anyone choose that sort of marginalisation? I remember this story being used to warn me against the danger of “turning gay” especially as I considered studying music and moving abroad myself. I promised my mum—and myself—that my faith was strong enough that I’d never make the mistake of choosing that for myself. I’d never choose to become gay.
It must have been around the same time that I started to notice more and more that I was attracted to men. At the local swimming pool change room, I was simultaneously attracted to an older man’s body and also extremely self-conscious of my own body; attraction coming hand-in-hand with deep shame become an ongoing pattern. Reading through nature magazines of adventurous scientists battling nature had me feeling extremely excited about the large colour photos of shirtless men with muscular physiques crossing rivers or climbing boulders.
As well as being drawn to the physical beauty of other men, I also felt strong emotional connections to men. Every Wednesday as weekly 6-a-side soccer games came around, I would approach the afternoon with both trepidation and anticipation of seeing a guy I thought was really special. He was kind and warm and friendly, and always made an effort to speak to me even when others gave up trying because I was too shy and socially awkward at the time. He was confident, very popular with everyone, and a godly man I really respected. I always hoped he would notice me, and I fantasised about our becoming best friends and sharing all our deepest thoughts together one day. I was also terrified and ashamed of the intensity of my feelings for him, even though at the time there was nothing sexual or impure about them. I would feel so overwhelmed, so crushed by desire that it literally brought me to my knees in prayer. I remember running out to the barn and kneeling on the dirty floor, crying out to God to please grant me the friendship I longed for with this guy: to be known and loved, and to walk alongside each other in following Jesus.
This all happened after I had hit puberty, but to this day I don’t think I’ve ever had a sexual fantasy about being with that guy; the emotional intensity of wanting to be deeply known and intimately loved remained purely platonic. When I develop feelings for guys, it’s often this sort of desire which consumes me rather than a raw craving for sex. Don’t get me wrong; I definitely have a more active libido than I would like most of the time, and offering those feelings to God in a pure way is always an ongoing battle, but those sexual desires are only a fraction of my experience of same-sex attraction.
Maybe this is why it took me so long to realise that I actually was gay. The sort of gay that I heard people talk about in those horrified, hushed tones sounded like a rebellious choice driven by promiscuous sexual behaviour – and that just didn’t resonate with my experience. If that’s what being gay was, I told myself, that I couldn’t be gay… I just liked men. Surely having strong desires for intimate friendship with a guy was normal, just a part of being human? Of course I found the male body beautiful and eye-catching; but that wasn’t the same thing as making a decision to be gay and embrace a certain lifestyle, was it?
Over my later teenage years, my understanding of what ‘gay’ meant gradually expanded. It wasn’t a certain ‘lifestyle’, it wasn’t all about sex, and it certainly didn’t mean everyone who felt a particular way was destined to make the same moral choices. On the contrary, it was possible for ‘gay’ to describe a range of unchosen desires and experiences (not all of them sexual), and no matter what their orientation, each person still had the moral agency to decide how to live with such desires. I read Sam Allberry’s book Is God Anti-Gay? at the end of high school and realised it was possible for Christians to not only experience these desires whilst seeking to follow Jesus faithfully, but also speak about them without shame. Through reading and thinking, I eventually developed a category for a Christian who experienced same-sex attraction, and from that point on it was easier to admit it to myself: “I’m same-sex attracted. I am attracted to guys. I’ve never been aroused by a woman, and it’s likely that I never will.” At that stage of my life, I felt more comfortable use the term “same-sex attracted,” and it would be a couple of years before I felt comfortable using the word “gay” without worrying about the complicated connotations. But regardless of the terms I used, by late high school, I had definitely become conscious of my sexual orientation and I’d started developing the vocabulary to think about it for myself. (Actually talking out loud about it to other people would come much later. For now, I thought, it was best kept secret.)
So when did I realise I was gay? Probably some time between the ages of 12 to 14. When I look back, though I realise I liked guys long before that, but just didn’t have the framework to recognise those desires as sexual orientation.
Interestingly, I have vivid memories of being infatuated by another guy at the age of 6. This was in a period of my life where I have very few childhood memories—I can scarcely remember the house I grew up in until I was 9—but for some reason I can distinctly recall the emotions I felt about this guy. I would never have identified it as sexual attraction at the time… in fact, it wasn’t until three years later that I even heard and understood the word “gay” for the first time (yep, that’s how sheltered my childhood was). I met this guy at church. He was the son of a visiting missionary family. He was my age, and we enjoyed playing together the sort of things that 6-year-old boys play: tag, hide-and-seek, and wrestling matches. I wasn’t into the wrestling thing so much, but he was obsessed, and loved to physically tackle random people when they weren’t looking. He seemed strong, confident and manly. At least, to 6-year-old me he seemed manly. He also seemed to have an emotional depth that drew me in. I can still remember looking into his serious brown eyes, seeing his ruffled hair and his green knitted jumper, and fighting an overwhelming pull to embrace him in a bear hug. Something in me just felt like we needed to connect. I only saw him two or three times in total, but something about our friendship felt different, left me wanting more. I would go home and literally dream about a future together. I had a dream about us both living overseas as missionaries together, sharing a house but as best friends, not a couple. At that age I didn’t even have a concept of a same-sex couple. We would encourage and support each other in the work we were doing, and we were each other’s dearest companions. It was beautifully intimate and innocent, and heart-achingly real until I woke up and realised these strong desires were still unfulfilled (the first of many).
The more I uncover of my early memories, the more I realise that this is the way I’ve always felt, even long before puberty and sexualised thoughts complicated everything. Whether I was born hard-wired this way or whether it was determined by environmental factors in my early childhood, my lived experience is the same: my entire conscious lifetime has been shaped by attraction to the same sex. While the exact nature of that attraction may take different forms and the language I use to describe it may differ, this is the way I’ve always been for as long as I remember.
I’m sometimes surprised that straight people can’t pinpoint a comparable point in their lives where they realised they were straight. I have one friend who has a fascinating story of realising he was straight when he was 4, but he remains the only straight person I know with a story like that. I suspect this is because they live in a heteronormative world where it’s harder to notice things in yourself that are also true of most of the other people you see. It’s much easier to be self-aware when you’re self-conscious of the things that make you feel different. If straight people do have a point of realisation, it’s probably around puberty when sexual desire really kicks in. Any platonic attraction to the opposite sex seems to go unnoticed, overshadowed by physical desire, in contrast to the experience of many gay people who may be painfully aware of platonic attraction for years before reaching puberty. This is why I have different answers to the questions, “When did you realise you were gay,” and, “When did you realise you were attracted to men?” Looking back, I can remember crushing on guys as early as 7 years old, only realising I was attracted to men years later, and then waiting a couple more years before I admitted to myself I was gay.
When did you realise your sexual orientation? Did you experience different stages of this too?