Am I gay?
It is impossibly ironic to be asking this question after thirty years of thoroughly gay existence. But now, as a trans man who passes almost always, proclaiming my gayness translates as a whole new thing for most of the world.
A few weeks ago, I was teaching a workshop with high school seniors in my Cincinnati hometown. When I came out as trans one of the students in the class said, “Oh wow! I didn’t know you were trans. I just thought you were gay.” There were so many things I needed to say to her, but there was no time, so I ended up responding with something like, “Well, those aren’t mutually exclusive, but no, I’m not gay.” Forming the words “I’m not gay” with my own mouth felt like a betrayal. Like I had broken a vow and a thousand fairies dropped dead when I spoke, littering the rainforest floor.
Forming the words “I’m not gay” with my own mouth felt like a betrayal. Like I had broken a vow and a thousand fairies dropped dead when I spoke, littering the rainforest floor.
Words are tricky. Their value depends entirely on our collective comprehension of their meaning, but conversations are between individual minds, so a unanimous understanding is not guaranteed. Context matters. Who someone is, how they say it, who they are surrounded by, where they’re from, tone and tempo- words are wearing all these things. So in this context, I knew what the student meant- that she assumed I was a cis man who dated other men. I am a trans man who has only ever dated women. So, in her language and her world, I am not “gay”.
But the truth is, I’m so gay.
Even though the concept and understanding of ‘queer’ lines up more with my identity, expression, and vibe, I still always chose to identify as ‘gay’; it just fit me better. I am not gay in the way most straight people think, but the way other people think, especially straight people, should not have determined my response to the surprised student.
I regret how I handled her remark.
First off, she was acting very entitled to my personal information, which is often the case when queer people interact with the straights. I could have told her it was not really her business. But this was a small circle of genuinely sweet, open, and smart seventeen-year-olds that had come to hear the story of my transition as a starting point for honest and intentional discussion. It was a ‘pick your battle’ kind of moment.
There was also the issue of her surprise at finding out I am trans. When people tell me they are ‘surprised’, they are really saying they think they know what trans people are supposed to look like and I don’t match. Or that I ‘succeeded’ in looking like a cis man. Or that the existence of trans people is so far down on their list of options for the human experience, that me actually being a trans person took them by surprise.
And there was the issue of her assuming anything about my identity, let alone guessing who I love and fuck just based on my voice or hand gestures, my sensitivity or my impeccable top knot.
But there was also the issue of me allowing her definition of gayness to lead in our conversational dance. That was a moment filled with opportunity, for me to share my definition. To show her how gayness, queerness, transness, humanness are without boundaries and ever-expanding. Just like space. The everything that birthed us all.
To me, gay means more.
More ways to see and sex and sweat, more skin, and dancing, more bodies, and more than a body. More than they expected and more than what they gave me. Gay means invention and imagining, being a myth and a plain person at once. Gay means being magic with muscles, a centaur of sentience, saying “Yes, I have hooves and wings and a human face. But my hooves are planted firmly on this earth and my wings are an item of your envy. I know you find my face familiar and you can see me, I know you can, even if you say I am not here.”
The way my hips sway- gay. The things my lips say- gay. The fact that I just slipped in some spoken word poetry- gay. Gay means I swoon for a drag queen and had a fling as a drag king. Gay means I make people uncomfortable, sometimes, and I swallow their discomfort, sometimes, and I burp up funny, feisty things to say, sometimes. Gay means you can find me at the party wearing a high ponytail with my chest hair out, on the dance floor with some queens, taking turns backing it up on each other.
And then you can find me after the party wearing nothing but my Timbs, gripping my girlfriend’s curves. To me, saying “I am gay” has everything to do with freedom and flavor and family. It has little to do with who I am sleeping with.
My story was like air pressing the plastic of their brains’ balloons, tight and shrunk down at first, then blooming into a whole new shape, filled up.
If I had said to that student, “I am queer”, she actually might have understood more of this. But I want to be able to still say ‘I’m gay’, even though I am a man who fucks and partners with women. That’s the point of being who we are- less confinement by definitions, assumptions, ancient ideals. When we are gay and/or queer and/or trans, we fuck up the dictionary on purpose, we are living addendums. We insist on making room. Just by existing, we are expanding notions of what a man or woman is, what a person is, what our options are, and what relationships between people can be like.
Next time I will say, “I am gay. People can be gay in all different kinds of ways. Let’s talk more after class.”
As we wrapped up our session, I saw it in all of the students’ eyes- my story was like air pressing the plastic of their brains’ balloons, tight and shrunk down at first, then blooming into a whole new shape, filled up. I could see it- there was room in there for my gayness, too. All the youth, minds filled with stories, ideas, and imaginings, like a cloud of balloons, all blimp-size, and every color, dancing on the wind?