When I was a teen, growing up in a politically and religiously conservative family, an older acquaintance passed along a shoebox filled with pulp fiction novels he had outgrown. Although I can't remember its title, one of the books—about an adventure at sea—contained a passage that made my heart race.
As I recall, the author described an incident in which male captives were paraded on deck. The protagonist was ordered to fellate them to prove their virility. When he fumbled the task, another man took over. The protagonist was amazed at how quickly his replacement brought each man to orgasm. When the first man had to undergo this treatment, the other captives laughed at him. They grew subdued as it came their turn.
That short passage—surely no more than a page or two long—leapt out at me. Totally innocent, only through ignorance, I was unsure exactly what was being referred to. I assumed it was masturbation by hand, something I'd only recently discovered. (I had no concept of oral fellatio.) The account thrummed with sexual tension and titillation. I was sure it was sinful. Reading it was a guilty pleasure, and one I indulged in over and over again.
Yet I never stopped to wonder why the passage interested me, never pondered the implications of its attraction for me.
Never, that is, until after I came out at age 34. Until then, I resolutely refused to consider my same-sex attractions as anything other than sin, a vile temptation, the cross I had to bear. I hated myself. I felt depressed. I sought forgiveness and release in religion. I married a woman, hoping she would save me from myself. I tried to be the ideal church-goer, husband, father, son and employee. I failed miserably on all counts.
Since coming out, I find great joy (most days) in being myself, in celebrating my same-sex attractions, in following the poet Mary Oliver's admonition to "Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves." The world now looks different to me, as does the future, as does the past.
Still, I try to make sense of my growing-up years, try to piece together what I knew when, figure out how I could delude myself so long, how I could close my eyes to what I didn't want to see. Was it my need to please? The power of overt and covert societal messages? My wholesale acceptance of church doctrine? Sheer stupidity?
I want to believe in magic—that if I ever locate the book, find the passage I remember, it will serve as a wormhole in the space-time continuum, will suck me back into the past, put me right back to age 13 or 14. This time I will say, "Ah, yes! This is who I am! I am a boy who loves other boys! I am a boy who finds himself attracted to males. I will use this information to make sense of my life. I will make choices in line with who I now know myself to be. I refuse to live shut up and shut out of society. I will find others like me, who can like me and accept me as I am, for who I am. I will walk through this door, through this opening, through this invitation into a world of being and belonging where I know myself, accept myself, am accepted by others, can celebrate life and living in ways that are meaningful to me."
Whew. What will happen if I can go back and be that self-aware at age 13? Probably I will never know. After all, wormhole time-travel is still a bit iffy.
I thought I'd found a copy of the book online one day last month. A week later, my hands trembled as I turned yellowing pages to the opening line, "If I had known then what I know now, I would never have consented to set out on such a voyage."
Alas, while this was one of the shoebox novels, it does not contain the passage (and passageway) I seek. Perhaps time travel is not in my future. The hard reality and mixed blessing is that I cannot go back, cannot refashion past choices.
Better I take a hard look around me right now. To what self-knowledge am I closing my eyes today? What call on my life am I refusing to hear—an invitation to political action? To seek justice? To walk with integrity? To answer my heart?
I shape the future by choices I make in the present, not the past. The time is now. The job is at hand.
This essay appeared in The Community Letter, September 2010