It wasn’t even 9 a.m. yet and I was practicing my worst dance subject — hip-hop — in the gap between the bed and the dresser of my parents’ bedroom. I was home alone, and it was a celebration of sorts, the kind of merrymaking I reserved for days when I convinced my mom I was not well enough for the politicking of seventh grade. I was mid-spin when the thought stormed in.
How do you know you’re NOT gay?
What begged the question at that moment? I can only assume dancing made me think of my dance studio. Miss Susan and Miss Linda* were “you know,” as my mother had recently explained to me after I insisted they were roommates, and Mr. Leon* knitted between classes. Even I could “you know” that.
Until that moment I never questioned I would date men — straight until proven gay remains the gold standard of compulsory heterosexuality — but suddenly it seemed like anything could be true. Anything, until I asked myself the question again.
How do you know you’re not gay? If you were gay, you would know.
No LGTBQ person I ever heard talking about their sexuality on “Ricki Lake,” or the “Real World,” or wherever people publicly discussed such things in the ’90s appeared blindsided by the revelation. The sky was blue, the grass was green, and they were gay. “I knew I was when I was seven,” they would say, or “I knew I was different for as long as I could remember.”
Did I think I was different? Yes, but in the way the heroine of every story thinks she’s different. If I were gay, I would like girls. I would have crushes on friends, and what I had were enormous, all-consuming, even downright creepy crushes on boys.
My type was tall, smart, and unobtainable — if not the last one, I willed them to be so by telling no fewer than five people my intention to marry them. They possessed a distinct quality that could only be described as pretty, a “Romeo + Juliet”-era Leonardo DiCaprio.
I pined. I stared. I threw parties at my parents’ house to see if I could get them there. When, at 17, I wooed one of these Leos into a room alone with me, I discovered an altogether new sensation: the complete and utter urge to run.
“Maybe you’re gay?” my roommate suggested 10 years later after I had just fled yet another crime scene where a guy liked me too much. “No, no,” I panted. “I’ve thought about this, and that’s not what it is. It’s that I only want what I can’t have. A guy who likes me is turn-off.”
While I don’t have the word count to unpack all of that, it’s important that you know I accepted some version of it as truth for years. As a high-key INFP, I’ve always had a bit of intolerance to reality, liking things so much better when they were high up on a pedestal. I saw no reason dating should be different. Besides, there was one guy I managed not to run from.
I met Mike when we both worked on our college newspaper. Well, I didn’t meet him so much I saw him and stared. But when I stared, he stared back. This must be what love feels like, I thought as I gazed out my kitchen window and into his bedroom across the quad. Mike became my first boyfriend, my only boyfriend. He was a tall, dark-haired, brown-eyed Leo, and when we finally spoke, he made me laugh more than anyone I’d ever met.
It was not that my flight response never kicked in; it was just that by the time it did, I had never wanted anything so much for so long. I willed myself to stay until I no longer wanted to leave. Our relationship was an on-again-off-again mess, extending over a decade. When we’d break up, he’d have full-on relationships with other women, and I would wait for him to be single again. But when things were good, things were great, and I spent my 20s 100-percent sure I was straight.
Plus, I successfully dated another guy for nearly six weeks. The dalliance ended the first night he was going to sleep over. We were watching TV in my darkened living room, lit only by the screen and the street. I was thinking about what he’d written on his dating app profile when I leaned over and said, “You know, I don’t think you’re really six feet.” Needless to say, he didn’t end up sleeping over.
By the time I turned 30, I could not bring myself to date another guy. It wasn’t just anxiety; it was that I did not want to do it. I could not imagine it. “You can be alone the rest of your life, or you could date,” a friend said in a last-ditch attempt to illustrate my ridiculousness. “I’ll be alone then,” I replied — and I meant it. However, it was not long after that an age-old question returned.
How do you know you’re not gay?
I didn’t. By then, we had Portia de Rossi, Cynthia Nixon, and the insufferable term “late-in-life lesbian” for any woman who couldn’t see her own gayness before 30. I knew now it was possible to not know, it was okay to change your mind, and there was really only one way to find out.
Tzipporah knew she was gay by age 13, but she didn’t see anything odd about me not knowing until my 30s. After every text, every phone call, every IRL meeting, I waited for the freakout, the overwhelming urge to bolt. It never came. Instead, I found the most normal, healthy, two-way relationship I had ever experienced. Maybe it was because I was older, but there was no pining, no stalking, and no pedestals. It just worked.
You could call this my coming out story, but I’d rather you didn’t. It’s such a lose-lose term. You’re either coming out because you were hiding, or you’re coming out because you lived an unexamined life and just woke up to who you are. Both make me feel bad about myself, and I didn’t come all this way to feel that.
*Names have been changed.