I met Ian on a gay wrestling site. Unlike the other guys I had met on the site, who I’d wrestle and have sex with, usually more or less at the same time, Ian resisted even a rough kiss unless he was finally pinned on the mat. Once pinned, Ian surrendered, more to his own desire than to mine, I suspect. But it took a lot of work to get him down.
In the end Ian always lost, even though he was bigger and stronger than me. Maybe he wanted to lose, though I suspect it was more the advantage I had as someone who’d been on the high-school wrestling team. Perversely enough, the more Ian and I spent time together, the more I got bored with the whole grappling prelude and the more determined I was to get it over with as fast as possible so that we could get on with the more interesting stuff. But this just got Ian even more excited, which made it all the harder to pin him down.
We’d wrestle at my place, an open-space (smallish) loft with enough empty space for a mat. Not regulation-sized but big enough that weren’t crashing into a credenza or an armchair. We rarely met at Ian’s and when we did, we didn’t wrestle.
Ian lived with his widowed father in a small apartment in the city and slept in the same room he had slept in while growing up. Even his desk was the same. It barely fit his laptop, a table lamp and his notebook. When he sat down at the desk he looked like a hunter who had stumbled into a dwarf’s house.
He made enough money to afford his own place but not enough to hire someone to look after his father, who had been disabled by a stroke, and so he stayed. Ian was like that. He was a decent guy who owned up to his responsibilities, a provider, and a loyal friend. He liked fixing things that got broken and hiking and, well, wrestling. A regular guy who, in his own words, “just happened to be gay.”
Truth was, there wasn’t much about Ian that actually seemed gay, though I can’t say what exactly that this gayness is. It’s like a color; you know it when you see it, even when contained in a form you’ve never seen before. You can describe it in terms of its associations and manifestations.
Anyway I don’t think there’s any single expression of gayness, and that’s good. But Ian didn’t seem to express anything gay outside of sex. He was like those persons who acquire a certain degree of mastery of a second language without being interested, much less immersing themselves, in the culture of the people who speak the language as their native tongue. Even if they lose their accent, you can tell they’re not native speakers: their language is flat, devoid of colloquialisms and cultural references. It’s like one of those model homes in suburban developments. It looks like a real home but you can tell no one lives there.
Ian didn’t go to bars, where said he felt out of place. He only had a couple of gay friends, and one of them was me, and I was just a wrestling buddy. He couldn’t see why he should be concerned about equal rights (“I’m not interested in getting married,” he’d say). He had never read any of the greater or lesser novels of gay literature, and except for porn, which he did watch (you can imagine what kind), he hadn’t seen any gay films, classic or trashy. He didn’t know or care about any of the saints, divas and heroes that populate the stories of our shared heritage, the Jarmans and Madonnas and Cocteaus in the canon of this culture.
Of course, it doesn’t matter to me if a guy hasn’t read a single book in which a man makes love to a man or can’t share my enthusiasm for Weekend or A Beautiful Thing. And I don’t go to bars myself much either. But I always thought it was odd that Ian had absolutely no curiosity about anything that spoke more directly to our experience of being gay. And the friend part. That I couldn’t understand either.
A friend once said “The only thing we’ve got in common as gay men is what we do in bed,” upon which another friend, much into a very particular fetish scene, immediately countered, “And not even that.” Neither is true. Admittedly, apart from a very few common denominators that arise from anatomy, what we do in bed and who we do it with is hardly of a single pattern. But desire brings us together. However different we look or think, whatever our class or background, whatever our politics or dreams, the desire for another man is something we all share.
But there’s something else we share: we are all still subject to legal definitions of our standing in society and limitations on our rights. We are all still the object of discrimination, some more than others. Some risk imprisonment for simply being with another man, others a beating or a sneer. Other still, luckier than most, who live in places like New York or Massachusetts, can marry the man they love but they are not immune to prejudice or the risk of rejection.
One more thing we share is the experience of coming out. From the first inklings of feeling different to the point where you begin to grapple with this difference and come to accept and then welcome it, coming out is perhaps the single most defining characteristic of becoming a gay man. We do it in different ways, at different times in our lives and with different costs, and we reach different points. But we all do it. Depending on how far you travel, this journey to self-acceptance can also be a process of self-transformation.
We come out at least three times in our lives. The first time is when we come out to ourselves. We may still feel alone and may have not had sex yet, but we’ve realized that our attraction to other men is a fundamental, incontrovertible dimension of our being. We no longer can pretend that it’s not there or that it will go away. We know it won’t. Although this realization can be frightening it’s also deeply empowering because we realize that our happiness depends not on others but on us, on what we do next. We can act, and things will change.
The third and every time thereafter is when we come out to our friends and family and then to an ever broadening circle of friends and acquaintances. But although much is at stake here, at least in the beginning, and though this coming out is sometimes accompanied by the painful rejection of loved ones, there is no turning back. No rejection we suffer can undermine the core acceptance we have already acquired, however discouraging it may be.
Between these two times, and often overlapping with the third, is our second coming out, the one we undergo as we meet other gay men, and befriend and have sex and make love to them (not necessarily all at the same time or with the same man).This is not a coming out as self-revelation. Rather it is a coming out in the more traditional sense of a presentation to society. It is part initiation into a culture, part immersion in a community. Ian had come out to himself and to his father and to close friends. But he was still at the start of this second coming out. Stalled or stalling, I don’t know.
One of the films Ian hasn’t seen is Gus Van Sant’s Milk. I remember being struck by how Milk’s circle of activist friends in the Castro—the Harvard graduate, the hash dealer, the dancer, the runaway kid from Phoenix who used to turn tricks on Polk Street—form a community of friends that if not for their sexual identity would probably never have come together. Granted, Milk and, to a lesser extent, his campaign provide a kind of social glue that binds them together more closely. But still, this community of friends is worth noting for its heterogeneity and cohesiveness. And what is fascinating about this group of engaged friends is how its members learn and, particularly in Cleve’s case (the kid from Phoenix), come of age within this community of friends. This community may be unusual in some ways (how many of us have a drug dealer and a runaway in our circle of friends?) but is, I think, symbolic of the diversity in the communities of friends and lovers many of us make or find our way into. They are an important part of what I would call our culture and they teach us much about life and friendship and music and food and a hundred other things, our common history and the struggle of those who came before us.
Ian had never experienced this kind of initiation. I thought this was sad and once told him so. Ian said, “why can’t I just be gay and be the person I’ve always been?” I thought this was sad, too, this desire to remain untouched and unchanged by the encounter with others.
Ian was wrong. You can’t just happen to be gay, as if it were something like left-handedness (I wrote a post about how these two are and are not similar). Not in our world, not yet.
Desire, discrimination, coming out—these are the common givens of our identity. What we do with each—how we embrace our sexuality and speak out against injustice—is an act of individual choice, and these choices change us and shape the person we become. Ian, as I said, was a decent man, but less the man he could be. Like a wrestler who acquires a second sense of always staying within bounds while moving on the mat, Ian had chosen to live his life circumscribed within a narrow sense of the possible.
There’s a world of difference between saying, “I’m a gay man who happens to be into wrestling” and “I’m a wrestler who happens to be gay.” Yes, the latter is also a statement of fact—being gay doesn’t have anything to do with one’s skill as a wrestler—but one that is still contested by many in our society. It is less a fact than a vision of the world as it should be, but isn’t yet.