Joan wasn't wearing lipstick. And maybe this wasn't a date. We had reconnected on Facebook. We tried to remember why we dated so briefly 25 years ago, when we were both 27.
"Oh boy," she said, "I was recently divorced, had a baby, my mom just died. I was a mess."
"Yes, I was all confused, too," I said, adding, "It's not like I'm not a mess now, I'm just more willing to be seen." Joan smiled and put on lipstick.
Within two months, Joan and I were falling for each other. Hard. My nascent willingness to be seen was tested one night when Joan asked, innocently, "I can't believe it—seven boys in your family and no one's gay. How'd that happen?"
"Well, I come the closest," I joked.
Whatever we talked about that next half hour, I have no idea. All I heard was a nagging voice inside my head saying, "Tell her!" I sensed Joan would be OK with it, but what if it turned her off? I didn't tell my previous girlfriend until after we had broken up. That relationship allowed me to see that not sharing myself completely caused trouble and eventually, pain.
"Joan, you mentioned you were surprised that no one in my family was gay," I said finally. "To be honest, I've had gay experiences."
She simply said, "Wow, you're even more interesting than I thought."
What?! Really?! I was seeking acceptance, and I'm getting praise? All those years of coming to terms with my sexuality gave me character?
It felt wonderful to share so openly with Joan what I had once fought so hard to be rid of. My biggest fear since childhood was being gay, looking gay, seeming gay. So often I'd suppressed my enthusiasm, making sure I didn't appear "poofy." I didn't know why. I just knew it was the worst thing you could be, and its slippery slope included emotionality, flamboyance and sweetness.
My older brother Chris was plugged into all things gay. When I was five, Chris told me that playing with my action figures—Johnny West, Jane West and their horse—was gay. I was playing with dolls. So I put them away.
In Catholic school, we had no sex education beyond knowing that pleasing yourself was a sin. It was a sin to think about it. All my other sexual wisdom came from Chris, who, when I was 12, told me, "Anyone who masturbates is gay." So I didn't masturbate. It made sense to me. I believe my thinking went like this: "What would I be doing touching a penis? I know it's my penis, but I'm a guy. I'm attracted to me. What if I meet a guy who looks like me?" I didn't want to get started. I used it to pee and put it away. Good job and good night.
In my twenties, I learned that masturbating was normal. At which point, I became very normal. But I did it to get rid of my feelings, not to enjoy them. I craved sex, but barely enjoyed it, with myself or with women.
My black-and-white world turned gray at 26. Vacationing in Sydney, Australia, and walking along the street, I was greeted by Nina, beautiful and voluptuous, with a salacious smile. She asked, "Where you going?"
"Right here, I guess," I said.
She invited me into her beauty salon for coffee. We immediately cracked each other up. Before long, we were downstairs, making out. Nina whispered, "I'm a transsexual." "Wow," I thought, "she is funny!" As we undressed, I saw her punchline. She could tell I was uncomfortable and asked, "Do you want to stop?" I smiled and said, "In situations like this, I always ask myself, what would Jesus do?" We continued. I let her please me, then I left thinking I'd never see her again. She was disappointed I didn't touch her penis. Hell, I had just begun touching my own.
The next two nights, I kept fantasizing about Nina. Nina was funny and oozed sensuality. I wanted her—or him. Them? Nina. Why make such a big deal about a particular body part? Why deny myself what I wanted? Two days later, I went back, expanding my sexual guidelines: it's OK to touch a penis, as long as it belongs to a woman. We set up a date for Friday. On Friday morning, I told Nina I couldn't go through with it. I'd be too self-conscious with her in public. She shouted, "Oh, for Christ's sake, be a man!"
Since Nina, I slept with transsexuals and men and kept it a secret. I've mostly dated women, keeping both worlds apart; I didn't belong to either. Each time I had an experience with a transsexual, it felt like I was betraying myself, who I thought I had to be. Ironically, by having to be a certain way, I was betraying myself. Being yourself is the hardest thing in the world.
Nina and the transsexuals I met showed me how to honor my own way, my soft side and my enthusiasm, over the possibility of ridicule or rejection. On the surface, a man living as women may seem deceptive, or confusing, or unaccepting of who they were born to be, but I see now I was the one being dishonest, hiding every vulnerable part of myself. They showed me courage and the hollowness of my borrowed life. I got to see for myself that sex was OK, gay was OK and I was OK. And to paraphrase a popular axiom: You're only as healthy as the secrets you're willing to reveal.
Now, I can carry the torch of freedom—ready, willing and free to flame out.