If you’re a boy and a girl catches you looking at her a little too long or too intensely, she may, if you are lucky, reward your gaze with a smile. Or she may just turn her head and ignore you– for the moment. She might even sneer at you for pitching yourself beyond your league.
But if you are a boy and a boy catches you looking at him a little too long, you are likely to acquire an unhappy reputation that will follow you for the rest of your high school days.
Looking has consequences. Looking can get you into trouble. It can turn you into a target for bullies. It can even get you beaten up.
I sensed this almost instinctively very early on in my life and so, without really being conscious of doing so, I learned how to look at others. I developed an acute sense of knowing just how long was long enough before my gaze would be acknowledged by the other and become a statement. Out of timidity or just sensible caution, I always withdrew before this point was reached. For as much as I yearned for this acknowledgement, as much as I longed for my look to be reciprocated, I feared it. I was afraid—at some very basic level without being able to articulate it—that if he looked at me looking at him, he might see someone else, not me but the faggot I heard other guys at school being called. I couldn’t know for sure that he would react that way, but that’s exactly the problem with the look. Once it is intercepted, it is no longer yours. It becomes a projectile that can be used against you. “Your world is suddenly haunted by the Other’s values, over which you have no control,” Sartre wrote. “… it is shame or pride which reveals to me the Other’s look, and myself at the end of that look.”
If you spend most of your formative years trying to fit in just enough so that you don’t stand out, you’re likely to develop a heightened sense of convention—what is expected and what is permitted, what is non-negotiable and what is non-essential. What your straight peers find so natural, you adopt as if it were etiquette. You learn the rules and succeed in school and at practice, but it will always be at best a studied second nature.
At first, you see this as simply the way the world is and must be. You are the anomaly. But at some point—earlier for some than for others—you begin to realize that this set of values and expected behavior are not, in fact, given but constructed. You begin to see that convention is simply what is convenient for the great majority of people (it is perhaps not coincidental that both derive from the same root). Eventually you find your way into another world of like-minded friends and lovers, one with its own conventions and where it is natural to look at another man. Eventually, too, your accommodation to convention yields its place to its interrogation as you ask, why should the world be this way?
But all that came later. For most of high school I was a boy on the outside looking in.
This particular image of looking into a world I wasn’t fully a part of first came to me years later in Amsterdam. I was walking along the Prinsengracht one evening, looking up at the stately houses that line the canal. It struck me how few of these houses had curtains. I could peer into the warmly lit interiors of these homes and espy a couple setting the table for dinner or a man nestled in an armchair reading a book. The generous tall windows offered me a glimpse of an intimate and grand interior which I as a pedestrian was privileged to view in surprisingly close detail but was unable to visit. I was literally on the outside looking in.
It was somewhat like that in high school, except perhaps that I could visit more easily. I actually enjoyed school and had made good friends. I was on the wrestling team and ran cross-country. But I was a guest in this house nonetheless, and I would leave to go home to my own apartment of fantasies, to a world that books and imagination offered me.
At 15 I hadn’t yet had a real kiss, the kind that sends you a-quiver, but I had stumbled on a book that aroused me in the way that a kiss would later. Soon thereafter I would find other books that would move in an even more profound way. But I still remember that first book, as much as I remember the first kiss. The kiss was infinitely better but the book was important, too, in its own way.
I had discovered it in a discount department store in my home town, stuffed in one of the carousel wire racks that stood at the side of the store, between the smoke shop and the snack shop.
There was a rack for young readers, with books like Death Be Not Proud and The Chronicles of Narnia and other with teenage detectives. Most of the other racks were unabashed pulp fiction, which was the section I was browsing through on that day. My attention was caught by a cover with a picture of a well-built young man in tight white jeans. I don’t remember the title or the blurb—it must have been intriguing enough to make me want to read it—but I do remember the picture, as clearly as I recall the rancid smell of hotdogs turning in their film of fat on the concessionary’s roller grill.
The book itself was a rather seamy tale of a well-endowed street hustler who starts making money as a preacher at tent revival meetings. The book seemed to talk a lot about the hustler’s peter, which was not what we called it but I figured maybe that was the word they used in the South. I don’t remember much else about the book, except of course for that one small scene—it couldn’t have been more than a page—in which the preacher lets himself be serviced by a guy he meets on a train. The hustler didn’t reciprocate, but he didn’t reject the guy’s advances either. He didn’t jeer at him or threaten him.
The book was far from affirming, and none of the characters looked or talked like anyone I knew. It had absolutely nothing I could relate to, except for that scene on the train, and that only obliquely. But it was there, right on the page, flesh against flesh, desire incarnate. It was real.
I became convinced that there must be other books that talked about men having sex with each other. Or even making love to each other. Better books than this sordid story of a con man. I wasn’t exactly sure how I would find them, since I didn’t feel I could ask the librarian for help, but with a conviction fueled by hope, I was certain they were out there.
I went to real bookstores, biking over an hour to get to them, and spent countless hours browsing through the fiction shelves, scanning the images on the front covers and reading the blurbs on the back, looking for clues that said, “this book is for you.” And I found a few. The Front Runner, Maurice, The Persian Boy and Brideshead Revisited. And at some point it got easier to find more. At the back of the paperbacks I’d sometimes find a few pages promoting other titles in the publisher’s collection that had been selected on the basis of their affinity to the subject at hand. These were leads to the next book I would read. I discovered Yukio Mishima, Isherwood and Baldwin and then other, more contemporary writers. Some of the books I read were bracketed by anxiety and tragedy but even in those books there were resonant, authentic moments of connectedness and passion. And sometimes of great love.
It would be another two years until I experienced my first true kiss, the one that spoke to the core of my being, that would arouse me in a way far more powerful than any book had. But in the interim these books fashioned a kind of small world for me, one suffused with hope and expectation, an unassailable and beautiful place from which I could look out on the larger world and believe that one day I would know the love these novels described.
That day did come and sooner that I had thought, and then came more like them, until the days became years. But I am still grateful to those books and the company they provided, on the inside reading out.
Recent years have seen a considerable number of books being published specifically for GLBT teenagers. Alex Sanchez, who wrote the wonderful Rainbow Boys, a love triangle between three teenage boys that garnered an American Library Association’s award for “Best Book for Young Adults”, lists his recommendations of the best on his site.
Image: Andre Kertesz, young man reading