This morning, Elizabeth Gilbert let the world in on the tender and vulnerable reason for her divorce from the man with whom she fell in love in Eat Pray Love. Another love of her life, her best friend, Rayya Elias, is dying. And the realization that she will lose her dearest friend caused the immensity of that love to make itself known. What a wonderful and terrible time for her.
So much confusion about sexuality and love keeps people from realizing all of the options for their hearts, and keeps people from accepting and celebrating different packages in which love exists.
I’d like to offer to straight people some insight into how someone could fail to realize that they’re queer until later in life (which may or may not be the case for Gilbert). When people come out late in life, like Elizabeth Gilbert might be doing, they’re sometimes met with skepticism, judgment, and shaming from family and friends. “How could they not know?” “They must have gotten hurt too many times [by the opposite sex].” “It’s a mid-life crisis.” “I wonder if she was sexually assaulted.” “Being gay is just so trendy right now. Maybe they just want to feel unique.” It’s important to understand how to make safe spaces for everyone, including older adults, to come out.
I have an analogy that’s barely an analogy, it’s so accurate.
Imagine that you’re writing a story along with your parents, your church, your teachers, your friends, and your society. Everyone is adding to the story, like a chain. But certain people get first crack at writing it. They start the characters out, they write the plot, and then you get to add to it later. When everyone agrees what should be in that story, it’s easy enough to write, there are fewer corrections made to the text, and it gets written speedily. Maybe the writers of your story write a formulaic romance novel, so it’s easy to finish writing, and you’re fine with this direction because, as it turns out, you fucking love romance novels. Or, maybe it’s written by wise and experienced literature writers and editors who know how to write a believable story that has options for the characters, in which case, you have better, more malleable material to work with from the beginning. Whew! Lucky you.
Now, imagine that the people who started writing your story are not very smart or imaginative. They aren’t great writers but they’re the only writers you know, so you think they are experienced and amazing. You are a natural writer, but you don’t know that yet. You’re inexperienced and humble enough that you keep deferring to the super confident shit writers who keep trying to add to your story. You try to work with their material, but the characters are so flat, or the plot is so set in stone that as you keep trying to make your characters go one way, it doesn’t seem believable, but you don’t know why. You keep blaming yourself. You must not be a good enough writer, you think. Meanwhile, you have all these great ideas that keep coming to mind. You were just born a creative person. How lucky for you! And how difficult! If you’re brave enough, you workshop pieces of your story around with enough writers, and they point out some problems with the writing. You try to edit those pieces to make them fit. But now it seems disjointed with the other parts of the story. If you’re lucky, you will find the right editor, a smart editor, who will read the whole story, zero in on where the problems begin and how you can fix them. Then, if you have enough energy and you believe in yourself enough, you will rewrite the whole damn thing. If you don’t believe in yourself, or if you’ve only encountered shitty editors who are jealous and competitive and don’t want you to succeed, you will either keep writing your bad story into absurdity, or you will throw it into a fire so that no one has to ever know how bad it was.
(Is it a clear enough analogy? It might only be clear to someone like me. If you need further clarity, leave a comment!)
Knowing how our parents, our school system, our churches, our culture raises us to be straight, how would a kid or teen come up with a new way of being a human, and believe it to be just as valid as any other way, when they have not seen an example of it working anywhere? Isn’t that the definition of either insanity or genius? Why would a teenager ever think, “I’m not going to live in a house like everyone else. I’m going to live in pine tree and it’s going to work just the same! And everyone will love and accept me!” How much harder would it be to think that having a gay family would work out great? (My partner’s plan as a teenager was to eventually fake her own death, so she could live the life she wanted. Seriously.)
Have you ever thought that you’d like something because everyone else likes it, then when you tried it, it was just okay at best, but you tried to make yourself like it so you could be a part of the crowd? Maybe you focused on the good parts and pretended that the bad parts didn’t bother you that much? I tried to like The Office and 30 Rock to be part of the zeitgeist. But, truthfully, I find them way too painful to watch, wanting protect and “fix” the socially awkward characters instead of laugh at them. If we try so hard to like TV shows and fashion trends and foods that other people like, so we can feel included and “normal,” how much more would a person try to like heteronormative livin’?
And have you ever tried something because you had a mild interest in it and then in actually doing it you realized it was THE BEST THING YOU’VE EVER DONE? Maybe you thought you’d like flying or parasailing or bungee jumping or sailing, but had some understandable hesitations, but then all your fears were nothing compared to how much joy it gave you?
How do you know that you’re living in black and white, if you are? Eventually, someone describes something in colour and you realize that you’re not experiencing the same thing. But how often do other people describe the nuances of their sexual lives and feelings? Do you know if your friends keep their eyes closed during sex, all the time? I didn’t know that probably wasn’t normal until I was sleeping with women. What if you love someone, and care for them, and you’re not grossed out by their gender/sex, and you figure out how to have physical pleasure together? Wouldn’t you just assume that’s all there is? It’s kind of like how I used to think that I loved dogs. Then I met my partner and now I know that I just like dogs. She loves dogs. There are more levels of dog appreciation to be discovered.
Perhaps you tell yourself that you’re asexual. Perhaps you tell yourself that you’re just tired, stressed out and have been that way for thirty years. You tell yourself that you’re a late bloomer. Perhaps you blame a childhood sexual assault on not being into sex with your partner. (This is a totally valid thing that really happens, which is why it can so easily be credibly blamed without being the entire problem.) You might tell yourself, “I’m just not a breast man, I’m a leg man,” to explain your complete disinterest in breasts. Maybe you’ve learned how to at least physically enjoy sex with your partner(s), and you just think that’s all there is to sex, and you equate the quality of it to how good your orgasms are; so, if you have satisfying endings to sex, you must be having great sex and if you’re having great sex, it must mean that you are straight. (I think this is an extremely common thought process.) Perhaps you believe that you’ve just disciplined yourself so well to be pure, holy, and spiritual, that you’ve transcended bodily hungers.
These are just some of the things people tell themselves. I would venture to say that the more of them that ring true as things you’ve said, the more chance there is that you’re just gay.
For me, there was one additional rather tragic factor.
You see, while I am attracted enough to feminine women—I mean, if Rachel Weisz invited me to spend a weekend with her in Paris… or, frankly, in a hovel… I’d be beside myself because I’m a human person with eyeballs and she is delightful and charming in every way—and while I can appreciate how stunning this guy is the way some art or the beauty of my children can take my breath away, it is masculine women who make my scalp tingle and stop my breath and who interest me romantically. For the life of me, I can’t easily imagine having enough romantic interest in femmes. I’m a femme. It’s too weird, at least where my brain is at now. And, unfortunately, there aren’t many butch lesbians around! Certainly not in Alberta between 1998 and 2011. Then, of the tragically low number of butches, very few of them are as cute as this:
It’s just stupid, really:
I suppose it’s a blessing in disguise to have to wait until age 32 to have someone look at me like this, and to be thrilled instead of compartmentalized. Because I sure appreciate it. Some people never figure it out, or aren’t brave enough to love who they’d really, passionately love, or they are killed or fired or disowned by their family or church, for having enough self-love to be brave.
It’s kind of our job to create a world where people feel safe being loved the way they want, isn’t it?