When people use the term “Gaydar,” it’s hard for me to resist zoning out. I become unresponsive, ignoring what they have to say next, partly because I find it a bit arrogant to declare yourself the ultimate authority on someone else’s sexuality, but mostly because I’m too busy imagining what such a sophisticated, homosexual-tracking system might actually look like.
The scene is usually pretty consistent. Far below deck, tucked into the innermost bowels of a Cold War-era nuclear submarine, I can vaguely make out the features of a squat, bespectacled Gaydar operator; his face illuminated ever so slightly by the greenish hue of a single monitor. His sense of purpose borders on the fanatical, and as he sits hunched over his station, peering endlessly at the small display before him, I imagine him hungrily scouring the skies for those ever-elusive gays.
“Where are you…” he mutters quietly to himself, frustrated, no doubt, with the chicanery of the global homosexual conspiracy, when a sudden Ping! brings him to attention. He eagerly studies the readout, but, after a brief moment of inspection, slouches back at his post. It’s just metrosexual me, streaking across the screen like some kind of phallic, faux-fabulous cruise missile.
Despite my fervent protests to the contrary, I can remember people either thinking I was gay or calling me gay from the very first time I donned a button-up. It didn’t matter if I dutifully clung to the wall at Jr. High dances with my chicken-shit friends, or how I used Safari’s “Private Browsing” setting while furtively exploring the internet later that night, something about my personality seemed to demand displays of pre-pubescent homophobia. That, and misguided flattery from my female friends.
“Oh my god, I love you!” I remember my 8th grade crush Lizzie exclaiming over the phone, following a multiple-month campaign to win her heart, “it’s, like, you’re one of the girls!”
There’s being “Friend-Zoned,” and then there’s being treated like the token gay friend. Though, to be fair, people weren’t completely without their reasons. Maybe it was my love of Romance languages and my commitment to pronouncing croissant the correct way. Maybe it was the shrill, Sharapova-like sounds I sometimes emitted when prancing across the tennis court. Then again, maybe it was that September day at Target, when I plucked the last ironing board from the “Back to School!” shelves seconds before a mother-daughter pair could reach it.
“Do you really need this..?” the two asked indignantly, hands on their hips.
“Yes…” my dad sighed.
Needless to say, by the time I arrived at Brown my freshman year I had grown pretty accustomed to people teasing me about being gay for any number of reasons. I’d come to see jokes and accusations about my sexuality as inherent consequences of my character, and was unfazed when a similar pattern seemed to manifest itself again.
“You’re a Twink,” I remember my flirtatious RC jokingly telling me, referring to the blond, boyish teens fetishized by some members of the gay community. “Just putting this out there but… let’s have sex.”
Nor was I that surprised by the bleak prospects of my first frat party.
“MY FRIEND THINKS YOU’RE CUTE”, a smallish girl shouted into my deadened eardrum, struggling to be heard over the pounding bass, “WHAT IS YOUR SEXUAL ORIENTATION?”
As I watched Netflix alone in my room later that night, I concluded that had probably been the wrong response.
By this point, however, I had long since abandoned my strategy of denying my homosexuality to those determined to say otherwise. I’d realized that if I just agreed with what these people were saying – earnestly nodded my head that, yes, there was a reason I always seemed to have a pen in my mouth – I could at least take some ownership over the taunting.
“So, what, are you guys butt buddies or something?”, I remember a particularly ogrish member of my high school soccer team guffawing, having realized that I, an 18-year-old legal adult, had spent my Friday night playing Wii and eating fruit rollups in my best friend Dylan’s basement.
“Well, not exclusively,” I replied, “I mean, we blow each other too.”
Gradually, over time, though, what started as a defense mechanism slowly evolved into a style of humor that pandered to precisely what I despised. I started to anticipate homophobic remarks before others could think of them, fabricate them when they weren’t there, and mastered a flamboyant lisp that I could employ at a whim. Almost everyone found it riotously funny.
“Do the voice!” my mom would beg, laughing hysterically before I could even start, “Come on, do it!”
Somehow, I felt like I was being honest with myself; that I was embracing my stereotypically gayer tendencies while simultaneously demonstrating just how comfortable I was with my sexuality. I was embodying acceptance, personal expression, and breaking down bigotry with my disarming, self-effacing humor.
Then, while passing under Faunce Arch a few weeks into my freshman year, I came across a flyer. “Get Paid to Get Your HPV Shots!” its cheerful font declared, like some kind of birthday invitation to the world of STD’s. “HPV is one of the leading causes of anal and penile cancer! Seeking sexually active homosexual men to participate in a compensated vaccination program!”
Maybe I was grasping at anything that wasn’t the phrase “penile cancer,” but I liked the sound of “compensated.” “How much are we talking about..?” I cautiously wondered, “Do I actually care?” At this point, I’d received only one of three rounds of the HPV vaccine, and the prospect of being paid to finish the dosage was enticing if not outright fantastical. Of course, there was still that pesky “you-have-to-be-gay-to-participate” caveat to contend with.
A radically funny thought entered my brain. “What if I just say I’m gay?” I asked a few of my dubious hall mates, “I mean, it’s not like they can prove I’m attracted to guys, right?”
They looked at me quizzically. “I guess not… but if you are, that’s also not like a big de–”
“I’m not. That’s why I’m asking.”
“So when you talk about your crush on Mark Benz–”
“Well, who can resist that nose ring.”
“No. Come on. I’m joking. Obviously.”
They squinted, puzzled, looking for me as they looked at me, before finally shrugging their shoulders in resignation. “Ok…then isn’t that, I dunno… kind of offensive?”
These people didn’t understand. If only they could have seen me in Minnesota; understand that, at heart, I’d always been a proud proponent of gay rights. How I’d bought that bracelet from my high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. Dutifully worn it most days in solidarity with my queer and questioning peers. How I’d plastered that “Vote No” sticker on my minivan in support of Minnesotan marriage equality, and righteously stolen that “Vote Yes” sign my cowardly neighbor hid on his porch at night. For God’s sake, the emblem of my church was a fucking rainbow. I wasn’t being homophobic, or narrow-minded, or insensitive. I was just finally capitalizing on an act I’d put on for the better part of my life.
I went ahead and made the appointment. In preparation, I laid out a pink-striped Lacoste dress shirt, some skinny, crotch-constricting khakis, and a slender, down vest to tie the whole ensemble together. If asked about my personal life, I decided my Italian Studies concentration would probably speak for itself. I may not have been a “sexually active homosexual man,” but, if pressed, I was pretty sure I could plausibly pull of “socially active.”
On the day of the appointment, a nurse named Gail greeted me at the clinic doors, beckoning me inside almost maternally. “So glad you could make it!” she gushed, her lab coat as white and unblemished as my moral compass, “it’s Ian, right?” I shook her hand, nodding hesitantly as she flashed me a reassuring smile. There was a blur of winding, sanitized corridors, some paper shuffling, and then the cool, rigid plastic of an exam room table beneath my palms.
“So we normally start with a brief questionnaire,” Gail began, making herself as comfortable as she could on her rolling stool. “But at this point, do you have any questions for me?”
Is the vest too much? It seems like the vest is too much.
“No? Great. Well, as you hopefully know, this is research initiative targeted at sexually active gay men…”
You don’t say.
“…which means I’m obligated…”
Here it comes…
“…to provide a brief sexual history of the patients that come through this facility. Of course, if you feel uncomfortable at any time during this interview, you are free to leave, no questions asked.”
A “brief history…?” I’d anticipated a “Yes or No” question about my sexual orientation, not a detailed investigation into it.
“So how many sexual partners have you had in the last month?”
Gail was cutting right to the chase.
She nodded. “In the past 12 months?”
I looked wistfully upward, trying to recall sexual encounters that had never actually taken place. “Yeah…I think it was…two…”
It occurred to me that even in a wild, alternate universe of my own creation, I still couldn’t imagine getting laid more than a couple times a year.
“And what were the circumstances of your last sexual encounter?”
“Was this someone you were in a relationship with?” Gail asked, “Or more of a one time thing?”
“Oh…definitely a one time thing.” That much I was sure about. I imagined my gay alter ego as a strong individualist, not a man to be tied down by monogamous orthodoxy.
Gail made a few pointed scribbles on her notepad. “So what happened, specifically?” she continued, “What was the context of this encounter?”
I began to weave the kind of gay erotica one might turn up when Google searching “bad gay erotica.” The kind where I was an innocent, incoming freshman, he was an older exchange student, and we had just one endless summer night to consummate our forbidden love.
“Did you engage in anal or oral sex.” Gail interrupted, cutting through the tired tropes.
“And did you perform oral sex on your partner, or receive it from him?”
“I received it.”
“Great!” she said exuberantly, turning the page like it was the best thing she’d heard all day.
For a moment it looked like the interrogation was over. Gail put a few more thoughts to paper, scanned her notes, and seemed to confirm that everything was in order. “One last thing here…” she slowly murmured.
“Where did you ejaculate?”
I could literally feel my pupils dilate.
Somewhere between speechless and sputtering, I unsuccessfully tried to respond. Gail just nodded her head knowingly. “I was surprised to see this one on the survey too,” she commiserated, trailing off for a second, “but hey! I just read the questions!”
“So you want me to…erm…where I…?”
“I…Well, I…Uh…” Somewhere amidst my awkward, halting mumbles, I suddenly found composure. I took a single steadying breath, met Gail’s sober gaze, and then calmly delivered that single, terse sentence she so desperately needed to hear.
It was, in many ways, the climax of the conversation.
Having provided a sufficient description of my fictional sex life, I was rapidly and mercifully shepherded through the rest of the proceedings. I listened intently as Gail described the objectives of the inoculation initiative, winced appropriately at further mentions of penile cancer, and, after a brief spiel on the merits of Safe Sex, accepted my 2nd HPV shot to the tune of $40. Then it was time to go.
“See you for round 3!” Gail called from the door, merrily tossing me a sack of rainbow condoms, “And make sure to tell all your friends about the study!”
Naturally, I didn’t need the encouragement.
Entering my dorm, I expected to be received as a conquering hero. I marched triumphantly down the halls, pelting bewildered neighbors with candy-colored contraceptives, but instead of being applauded for my sexual subterfuge I was met with renewed skepticism.
“So wait… was any of that story true?” a few confused hall mates asked, referring to the hackneyed literotica I’d authored on the fly, “Or was that just, like, a personal fantasy of yours?”
Others grasped that it was an elaborate joke, but were still unsure who I was kidding. Was I trying to trick Gail into thinking I was gay? Persuade them and Brown and the world that I was straight? Tell myself that I could pull off whatever I wanted? That I was whatever I wanted? That I couldn’t stand feeling sexually one way and socially another, and that I was neither and both and nothing and everything and that if I could just keep up this fucking charade I could like who I wanted and not have to feel bad about how I showed it?
On National Coming Out Day, my RC sent an email out to our entire hall. He described the struggles he’d faced coming to terms with his identity; what it had taken him to finally come out his freshman year. Then, a few minutes later, he sent another email just to me.
“Ian,” it began, “I know we joke around a lot, but it occurred to me that if you are indeed questioning, my generally stupid banter probably belies the seriousness with which I take these issues…”
He explained that he knew how it felt to be confused about your sexuality, to hide behind jokes to protect yourself; that his door was always open if I needed to talk.
I dismissed him with the usual innuendos.
People were always reading too far into my humor, inferring things about me that had never been true. That was their problem, and this was no exception. As long as my best friends understood me, why should I care what one flirtatious RC thought? About something he just wanted to be true anyway? Unless, of course, it was more than him.
“So…I really shouldn’t be telling you this,” my soon-to-be roommate Otis mentioned shortly thereafter, “but… Rachel thinks you’re gay.”
I felt it hit me directly in the gut.
It wasn’t the idea of being gay – if anything, I’d been pretty willing to imagine such a scenario in Gail’s office – but the horrible realization that something as basic as my sexuality was still up for interpretation among the people who supposedly knew me best. Rachel was my best friend at Brown, and I’d thought she’d understood. She’d heard me talk about past girlfriends, joke about my HPV study, and on a drunken night before we knew what our friendship was, had even hooked up with me. Who was she, now, to negate all of that? Who was she to personally decide who I was and wasn’t attracted to?
I was hurt, confused, betrayed and angry. Our friendship suddenly felt like a sham. After a few days of festering in bitter silence, I finally barged into her room one night and laid into her.
“What gives you the right!?” I demanded, “How are you supposed to know me better than I do!?”
“I don’t know you better than you do!”
Concern flashed briefly across her face. “But what am I supposed to do when I can’t tell if you’re joking?”
I stared at her.
“When you do the voice, and the studies, and pretend to hit on other guys,” she continued, “or maybe seriously do, I don’t know. How am I supposed to tell?”
I clenched my jaw. “You’re supposed to trust me,” I said, “In Minnesota, at least I knew that deep down, at the end of the day, my best friends didn’t doubt me. That they didn’t need me to explicitly tell them I was straight: they just knew.”
“Ian,” Rachel murmured, almost tentatively, “I hate to use this word, but that’s heteronormative,”
And suddenly my diatribe came to a screeching halt.
Sometimes, you can see a lot by looking at a word. In the span of syllables, memories can be redefined, reorganized and reevaluated, and self-perception irrevocably altered. You see new defining patterns in your life, connections never made before, and find solace in this knowledge. You see yourself in a pair of women’s corduroy pants. And you don’t bat an eye.
By Ian Shank, Contributor
All Images via Google Images