I first came out when I was 13 years old, and my gay beginnings were mostly positive. I grew up watching Will and Grace reruns on TV and ordering Rent on Netflix, back when you still had to wait for movies to show up in your mailbox.
I surmised from an early age that being gay was great, and, as I grew up, I learned that being gay is also an opportunity to reach for those things that are always just beyond our grasp, an innate ability to view and move the world in ways that not everyone is afforded.
Along with these lessons about queer potential, I learned about queer sex lives. I read books on gay sex (shoutout to my mom for being cool enough to buy those for her first-born); I watched plenty of porn; I read people not much older than me pouring their hearts out on all kinds of gay forums. Everyone seemed to, for the most part, agree on at least one thing: the queer community is a sex-positive one, especially in comparison to long traditions of sex negativity in straight communities.
I heard these lessons, and I internalized them. As my high school career came to a close, I would lie in my twin bed and stare at the ceiling, excitedly musing on the sex-positive life I’d soon be living once in college. I dreamt of swapping hookup stories with friends. I yearned for openness and acceptance.
And then my parents drove me to school five hours away. I’d never rounded the bases, but I felt knowledgeable enough about being gay. I had a definitive understanding of what it meant to be queer, and I was ready to live that understanding in my daily life.
At first, the reality of college was exactly as I hoped. I found a few groups of friends, and I fell in love with many of them, and I lived my life as a completely openly gay man for the first time. I was having the sex I’d wanted for so long, and the sex itself felt freeingand yet something was still missing.
I quickly found that I didn’t want to talk about my sex life with my friends. I felt fine talking about my more PG-13 hookups and dates, but everything else felt off-limitsand I couldn’t figure out why. I’d been out to my parents since middle school, and I felt great about having great sex. If asked at the time, I wouldn’t hesitate before answering that I was sex-positive. But something held me back when it came to putting this sex positivity into practice in conversations with my friends.
For a very long time, I didn’t want to think about where this disconnect might stem from. I lived my entire undergraduate career hooking up in the shadows. I’d only bring boys back to my place when I knew no one was home, and not because I wanted privacy. I didn’t want my friends to know I was having casual sex. Just the thought of them finding out about the reality of my sex life made me cringe.
I felt ashamed of the sex I was having, but, worse, I felt ashamed about my shame. And I felt like I couldn’t talk about the sex, or the shame that came with it, orgod forbidthe shame about my shame. In particular, I couldn’t discuss this shame with my queer friends.
It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand (or at least attempt to understand) why I felt this way for so long. I began to talk through my shame with my boyfriend, and, as I fell in love, he helped me put my shame into words.
I felt ashamed because of a long series of microaggressions from the queer people I encountered on a daily basis. I would hear my queer friends casually poking fun at the number of hookups their friends had had the previous weekend. I heard them speaking to how gross their friends’ sex partners were. These conversations were frequent and seemed status quo to mosteven those who branded themselves as sex-positive.
Time and time again, I heard the queer community, of which I was a part, using sex-negative language in an offhand manner in response to stories shared under the assumption of sex-positivity. And so I felt ashamed of my own sex life. I kept my hookup stories to myself. I internalized my shame, because I didn’t know what else to do with it. I couldn’t talk about it, because shame about sex wasn’t queerI’d learned that long ago. Queer people didn’t sex-shame each other. I was promised a community that stood against sex-shaming.
I remember waiting in the cold to enter a gay club for the first time. The crowded line held the highest concentration of queer people I had ever seen in one place. These were the very people I’d hoped to bequeer and proud. Then I heard a group of men speaking about hookup culture and how they weren’t “like those gays.” I ended up making out with a hot guy on the dance floor, and, after the initial excitement, I felt disappointed in myself. Did I want to be one of those gays?
And these offhand comments seemed to go against all I knew and loved about the queer community. The queer community is, as a whole, stunningly progressive. We live so much of our lives being pushed down that, when we come together, we can’t help but hope for better in the future.
But we, as a community, often believe we’re more progressive than we actually are. We invest ourselves so deeply in being “better” than straight people (who are very often grouped together like this, creating an us vs. them mentality), that we unintentionally put ourselves on sky-high pedestals in the process.
We believe ourselves more fit than those who do not identify as queer. We are better people, more kind, more open; the list goes on. We are, as I’d been told throughout my teenage life, more sex-positive.
Because of the enormity of these overarching sentiments, it can be incredibly difficult for queer people to speak about their feelings that do not match this queer narrative of superiority. It felt impossible to bring up my shame, because I wasn’t meant to be ashamed about my sex. I became ashamed of my shame. I felt like I was bad at being gay.
I’ve since come to understand that this was not true. My boyfriend has, over the past two years, helped me to talk through these experiences, both with him and with other friends in the queer community. I feel better than ever about my sexbetter even than closeted high school me could have imagined. My friendships are stronger and more intimate than ever before; my shame no longer weighs them down.
I’ve been able to unpack the reasons for my shame, and I’ve found their roots at the inherent tension between the queer community’s professed sex-positivity and its nonchalant sex-shaming, of which I found myself on the wrong end.
I understand, now, how my expectations of a spotlessly progressive queer community contributed to my shame. I also understand on many levels the ways in which microaggressions can have unintendedand, often, detrimentalconsequences.
And I understand that we all need to keep talking, and listening, and learning.
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