Trials of a Gay-Seeming Straight Male

I am sitting on her lap as she plays with my hair. I've got a longish late-70s do, and the strands are blond and baby-fine. She runs her fingers through them, massages my scalp.

She is a beautiful girl, probably sixteen, with white poreless skin, full eyebrows, a disarming stare and the naturally red lips for which Snow White was famed. At our performing arts school, run by a renowned theater in the Midwest, we wear black karate pants and gray t-shirts with a bluebird on the front, but she has cut a small V in the neck of her shirt. It's thanks to the V and the way her arms are raised to work on my scalp and the angle at which she is holding my head and the fact that she isn't wearing a bra that I can see her breasts, study them, without worrying that I'll be caught.

Her voice is smoker-gravely and she speaks with flawed grammar and an ease with profanity that to my suburban ears is very cool.

"Leif, you're not going to be one of them, are you?"

I laugh, it tickles.

"Huh? Are you? Leif? Listen to me. Promise me. You're not . . . won't . . . be gay. Promise me."

I turn back to her. Inside the shirt, her nipples have stiffened, extended.

My cheeks flush deeply, feverishly.

"I promise."

I am apparently not the straightest-seeming guy you could ever meet. I don't know what it is about me -- my pierced ears and pageboy haircut, perhaps, or maybe I'm just too clean. For whatever reason, my heterosexuality is frequently called into question. It happens all of the time. A total stranger will approach me, usually in a straight bar, and say "My friends wanted to know if you're gay or straight?" I feel like I'm in a Kafka novel as adapted for the screen by Woody Allen. How am I to respond? If I say I'm straight, isn't that exactly what George Michael used to say? And if I indicate that I am a practicing heterosexual, won't they then assume that I am headed toward an inevitable sexual epiphany, akin to the great John Cheever's? Most recently I joked, "I'm totally straight, but I can't resist sucking the occasional cock." It certainly ended the conversation.

When I told a good female friend I was writing about the topic of my misunderstood sexuality she said without a second's hesitation, "Oh yeah, everyone thinks you're gay." To the best of my knowledge I'm straight, but the question is hurled at me so frequently that I'm beginning to think everyone knows something I don't.

Sometimes, if there's a point, I'm willing to go along and play gay. Last summer, I was doing research in a Carnegie library in a small Midwestern town, a place best known for hosting the national lumberjack championships, when I noticed an adolescent boy between rows of books fixating on me. Taking in his delicate features, ivory skin and black clothes, I thought to myself, town loner, doesn't yet know he's gay, feels a connection with the effeminate stranger.

Not wanting to interrupt my work, I was relieved when he disappeared. Fifteen minutes later, though, he was back and bearing a gift. Blushing to his ears, he presented me with a scalding café latté from the town's new and only gourmet coffee joint. There was no point in explaining the misunderstanding, so while I drank the coffee, we cryptically discussed the difficulties of being different, talked around the terrifying subject. Gay-and-understanding-me encouraged him to hang on until eighteen and then get the hell out of town.

Until being sworn to heterosexuality by that suburban Snow White, the possibility that I might be gay never even occurred to me. I'd always had girlfriends -- from the vixen in first grade who, after some discussion, let me go so far as kissing her index finger, to the girlfriend in seventh grade who sanctioned a visit to "second base." I spent more time wondering if I was a vampire.

Only in high school, when a trusted older friend and homosexual told me, "One morning you just wake up and you know," did I start to suspect that homosexuality was not a question of choice. This was an explosive, frightening thought, with one unavoidable implication: I might be gay! Me, the kid with all the girlfriends, the reacher of second base, the suburbanite with loving parents and a great family, I might be, I might . . .

That was the beginning of a lot of adolescent soul-searching. But even now when I replay every kiss, grope, or penetration of my first thirty-two years, all I see are females. Even leafing through the scrims behind my countless solo sexual efforts, I only come up with women, just one depraved fantasy after another. Granted, throw dreams into the mix and we may have something there; I am willing to concede that I may have had a handful in which it suddenly dawned on me, "Hey, that's no woman, that's the guy who fixes my car!" just as I would have to admit there have been relatives, minors, family pets, inanimate objects and a brief but very kinky cameo by a genderless character who called himself Satan.

The doubting continued until one morning in tenth grade when I woke up soaking in what I initially misdiagnosed as a bed-wetting relapse. As the dream came back to me I felt something akin to what Zora Neale Hurston described as the pride of finding a first pubic hair when I realized that though the vision had not been Farah, it was a woman, and a relief on so many levels.

Finally, at seventeen I had a serious girlfriend. Fellow neophytes, we would fall deeply, crazily in love, lose our virginity together and be a couple for the next seven years. Like all males, I couldn't wait to tell my friends after the first time, and was thankful that the issue was apparently settled, but mostly I was just overwhelmed by the power of emotional and physical love that converged when I was with her. It seemed it would vaporize me. I have to think that those feelings at least make me bi.

To be frank, I am sick to death of this topic. I have been suppressing my homosexuality for so long it cuts too close to the bone. Just kidding! The fact is I don't particularly mind that what everyone's really trying to say is, "Leif, you are a gay man in denial." What drives me crazy is that they say these things with an air of not having their own secrets, aspects of their own sexuality that don't conform to whatever the cookie-cutter conception of normal sex is.

I feel a strong bond with my fellow gay-seeming straight males. I especially treasure the virtual queens who exhibit the mating habits of the homo sapien heterosexual. Strange as it may seem, there is such a category. I'm tempted to propose we all start a club or a support group and print up t-shirts that scream, I LOVE THE VAGINA EXPERIENCE!

I prize my gay-seeming straight male friends so much that when one of them crosses over to gay-seeming gay male, as not infrequently happens, I go through a little mourning, realizing as I do that they have just made it a little harder for the world to buy my sexuality. Most recently it was an old college friend. Talk about gay-seeming -- tall, handsome, former male model, voice well-suited for the fading matriarch of a clan in a Tennessee Williams play . . . He announced recently that he was divorcing his wife and was not, in fact, straight. In hindsight, there was always something forced about his collegiate stories of female conquest, like a teenage boy feigning enthusiasm for the taste of beer. I think I wanted to believe almost as much as he did.

I feel the same way about the other side: straight-seeming gay males. I sometimes go to a dance club where they are everywhere -- young guys I could swear were straight, except for the fact that they are all kissing each other. A woman I'd brought once cut in on such a couple and started making out with one of the guys. He took a pause and said, "You know I'm gay, right?" To which she responded, "Of course."

The shocking thing is that I think of myself and all my mixed-signal comrades as the normal ones. I wonder about everyone else, all the people who seem compelled to keep their mannerisms, interests and selves marching in step with the mores expected of their sexuality. How scary is that? And to be honest, I harbor the sneaking suspicion that my team represents the future, when the masses, including homosexuals, come to honestly accept the full range of sexual nuance.

In the meantime, I think I know what might help. There's a scene in a movie, or perhaps it was a comedic sketch, where the obviously gay character is accused of being gay. He nervously laughs, "Well, well, if I'm gay, well they're going to have to change the definition." Maybe what my people need is a new definition, a nice user-friendly label. Something that says, "not gay, but not straight in the way to which you're accustomed, and maybe not even willing to rule out the possibility of being gay in the future." I've been using "gay-seeming straight male," but since that's unwieldy, perhaps we could go with the abbreviation: GSSM. I guess that would be pronounced "jism," as in "No, I'm not gay, but I am jism." On second thought, maybe labels are not the answer.

Leif Ueland received a Master's Degree in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. He has written for public radio's Marketplace and several newspapers, and had a play produced in Minneapolis. His first book, Accidental Playboy, will be published by Warner books in November 2002.

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