Jim Palmer Jockey Ad 1983

Finding My True Self Since Coming Out

I mentioned in my last post that it’s coming up on a year since I finally let another human being behind the curtain. My coming out experience has been textbook in some cases and probably unorthodox in others. First in the unconventional category is that when I started coming out last year I was convinced I was on the Asexual spectrum. I had read books on the subject and it felt like the closest fit to my experience at the time.

I don’t even entirely know where to begin explaining how I found more clarity on the subject. A month or two after coming out individually to a handful of friends, I started working with a therapist because I was still a bundle of anxieties and none of those feelings seemed to be subsiding as I had hoped. I have no idea if the therapist I was working with questioned my belief or not. He never suggested I was wrong but when we started making headway getting into the things that caused me anxiety, I realized that interacting with men was high on the list. Like any time in everyday life I had a choice, I would talk to a woman over a man. It felt “safer.” I knew I rarely developed friendships with men but I hadn’t realized before there was such a big differential in how I felt in what would normally have been non-threatening interactions. Once I started tugging at that thread I started to realize the tension was essentially sexual. Not that I was attracted to every man I saw but that the alarm bells of my anxious self went off just because the possibility was there. That’s as well as I am able to explain how my brain was working.

I have zero question that Asexuality is real. I just realized that my issue was being deeply inhibited in real world interactions. And once the proverbial blinders were off the picture was much clearer for me in that respect. But I still have work to do finding my true self as it were. Hopefully not a lifetime of work but it took 50-ish years to get here, it’s unlikely that a year of self-reflection is all it will take.

Lately the questions that have been most on my mind is about what my real personality is. I’ve been an introvert and tended towards being a loner most of my life. But is that the real me? This was a question that came early in therapy as I recounted a story my Mom used to tell. When I started public Kindergarten, it was a fairly new thing in my community. There was a choice parents could make about whether their child would be there the full day or come home at lunch. My mom planned for me to be a half-day kid. And on the first day when she came to pick me up, I refused noting there were other kids still there. And the teacher assured Mom that I could stay if she wanted to change her plans. So she did. And at 3pm, when she came back I still didn’t want to leave. Basically I wanted to be the last one out the door. As an only child, I guess it was novel suddenly having a pile of other children around. Now that feels alien to my introverted “nature.” And that has been the question in my mind lately. Was I meant to be an introvert?

I had that thought at the back of my mind from the beginning of therapy but it’s gotten louder lately. Looking at old photos recently I started to become aware that there’s a mood shift in there somewhere. Really young pictures there’s an unrestrained smile. It looks more genuine to me than some of the later smiles. But more noticeably there are simply more pictures later where there’s no smile at all.

Until I was about 12 or 13 years old, my father was a teacher and high school coach. So I spent a lot of my really early years at ball games, on buses, etc. So there are lots of unrelated people out there who remember me early on. I recently posted a photo of myself on Facebook. It was a photo when I was about four years old. One of the people who knew me back then commented from her memories of younger me how talkative I always was then. She said that on away game bus trips I never ran out of things to say. I remembered it when she said it although it felt like lifetimes ago. But it brought back other memories of that era. Like my parents would chaperone the high school dances after the games. They had no close family to leave me with so most of the time I was in the lobby of the gym with them. And I remember dancing or approximating it to whatever was playing at the dance. I would wither of embarrassment now! But I remember a much less fearful version of myself.

I’m not entirely sure what happened to that version of me. I don’t think it was entirely living a closeted life for so long. I mean, I have zero doubt that’s a sizable part of the puzzle but when I look back, I think it started before I would have likely internalized any shame for who I was. Then again, who knows. In conversations, articles, and a plethora of podcasts, a common thread is that a lot of small LGBTQ+ children seem to instinctively know from an early age that there are aspects of themselves that are not safe to express. I hope it’s becoming a little less common, but I’ve heard it from others and I can confirm the same experience.

The Unexpressible Part Of You

…the boy may develop doubt about his internal sensibilities because they are disapproved and cannot be safely expressed. Naturally seeking a sense of integrity and caught between a hostile world and his unexpressible internal life, he sacrifices his internal life through conscious denial and unconscious repression. Such a boy has created an injurious internal rift, and a life in the world that is substantially inauthentic.

Out Of The Shadows by Walt Odets – Chapter 1 – Developmental Gender Split

I’ve shared that quote from Out Of The Shadows – Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives by Walt Odets before. And since then a perfect example made itself known to me through a December article about Jim Palmer over at Queerty. The childhood memories that rushed back. I remembered stealing glances at those Jockey ads in, I think, Cosmopolitan. I know they appeared in women’s magazines my Mom got because the memories are soaked in those heavily scented perfume ads that came in those magazines. Looking through scans of some of the ads there were quite a few that I recognized but this was the oldest one that I clearly remembered and it was from 1983 which means I was probably 11 years old when I saw it.

I don’t ever remember being told that content like this wasn’t intended for me. Yet certainly somehow I already had the message that there was something illicit about my viewing it. Maybe it was simply because it was a “women’s magazine.” Regardless it was something I did on the sly. And I can remember similar titillating observations like that I kept to myself which had to have been at least a year if not more before. So many unexpected old memories on memory lane.

I was definitely aware these things interested me for some reason and at the same time felt it needed to be hidden. This is well into school so the message it was taboo could have come from a wide variety of sources such as my peers, teachers, other adults etc. Was it simply so pervasive in the world then it was unavoidable? If the message came specifically from my parents it may have simply been the lack of any messages about sex. They never discussed the subject at all and saying nothing says a lot. What I knew growing up literally came from a large Medical Encyclopedia in our home and ultimately 9th grade health. For younger readers, this is all before the internet entered our lives! Our resources then were TV, people and printed media.

So pre-teens I was already splitting off a part of my world that I didn’t feel free to talk about. Or even entirely able to reckon with myself. And this is also about the time that I had a teacher that made a year of my life so miserable that my parents offered to pay to send me to a private school for the year to escape her. I’m really not sure how they would have afforded it but the idea of a new school seemed more frightening than sticking it out. I will never know if that was the right choice. My parents may not have been as emotionally available as I needed but they were willing to sacrifice personal comfort when it came down to it. I do give them their due on that.

Shall I Compare Me To The Moon

With apologies to Shakespeare, what developed was an unexpressed shadow self that is hard to describe now. I kept trying to come up with a good analogy. Jekyll and Hyde is entirely wrong because it was not a separate personality, never mind was either a monster. I think the best analogy is our moon. One entity but one side faced the world and the other always faced away. And the longer it went on the more I learned not to examine the contradictions. Like how did I know about International Male catalog? I think this was slightly before the internet so I don’t recall how I signed up, but I was on their mailing list and got those glossy eye candy catalogs like clockwork for years of my 20s. And I really wonder what my parents thought about those issues arriving in our family mail box in the early to mid 90s. My wardrobe was never stylish enough that it was reasonable to think I was going to place an order.

And any time I’ve mentioned this catalog to other gay men near my age, they have no difficulty remembering it. In fact there’s a documentary on my watchlist. If you’ve seen All Male: The International Male Story – let me know what you thought in case I need to push it to the top of my watchlist sooner.

Regardless it started early and it became second nature to live a divided life. As a result I was so uncertain that when I was finally prepared to exit my home in the closet last year, there was a lot of uncertainty around who I really was. So some of this past year has simply been a time of soul-searching as I grapple with what I really like. Some fundamental things like sexual attraction I’ve discussed before but gradually feel a bit more confident.

Was it really only ever just men? At this place in time it seems like it. After finally feeling free to not compartmentalize my feelings, I think where women are concerned I appreciate them aesthetically. And I have felt what I think I would now classify as strong platonic feelings but not the same sexual and romantic attraction I feel for men. I remain open to adjust that down the line but when it comes to women the only thing beyond friendships I can easily imagine are referred to as queerplatonic relationships. In fact in retrospect I think a few past friendships along the way bordered on that territory but I didn’t have the language for them. One of the wonderful things the past year has been learning there’s a rainbow of options that the heteronormative world doesn’t readily accept. The gamut there is much more black and white. The world at large only advocates room for one romantic partner and all friendships are automatically seen as less in comparison. I don’t necessarily desire or expect to experience the whole smorgasbord of possibilities but it’s liberating knowing that there’s more out there and that we are free to negotiate how our relationships work with one another.

Less seriously, I’ve also found myself looking at random things like music. For context, listening to some old Madonna music recently and wondering why I quit following her music? Was it subconsciously because my first gay friend in the early 90’s loved Madonna? Or did my musical taste simply shift as I got older? On one hand that’s hardly life changing but it all potentially comes from the same well of internalized shame and stigma. And once I started pulling at the threads of the fabric that make up my life I find it hard to leave any of it unexamined anymore. What might I have subconsciously denied myself along the way because of “how it looked?”

The Impact of Coming Out of the Closet

The start of my journey out of the closet has been a year of self discovery. And the biggest thing I can say is my mood is much lighter. I just feel lighter. That’s the single word I’ve used to describe how I feel to anyone who has asked. It’s like a weight was lifted from my soul. On its own, that’s not a small thing, but there’s been the chance to make new gay friends. And also the chance for old friends of all stripes to finally more fully know me. Plus all the little moments of queer joy I mentioned in my most recent article.

It’s not that life before was utterly empty. I’ve traveled to places I loved. I had friends who may not have known me fully but I nonetheless really valued their friendships. There were limits on my life that were a mixture of consciously and unconsciously imposed, but within those limits I enjoyed life. I feel like I took the long path to authenticity but it was all part of the journey. Unquestionably it would have been nice to have some of those past life experiences with someone special instead of as a solo act. However I still have faith that’s in the cards.

Whenever I think of the relative lightness of my inner self today I think of this scene from the movie Love Simon where Jennifer Garner’s character tells her son Simon (Nick Robinson) that he can exhale now. To me hearing her say those lines the first time almost felt like a message to a younger version of me that was still waiting for that permission to be free. I think I will always choke up watching this scene.

And as I navigate that next chapter at last I am curious what will come next. Will I unlearn the reticence to share with others? To initiate conversation? Will I discover new things about myself? I was part of a Zoom call recently where the featured guest was a man who came out in his late 50’s and one of the things he mentioned that made my ears perk up was that he had spent most of his life considering himself an introvert but after coming out discovered he was actually an extrovert.

I don’t have ironclad expectations really. When I took the Highly Sensitive Person test last year I scored highly. So it’s possible I’m a bit predisposed to being more reflective than typical. However I also ponder about how much of it is coping strategies I may have developed. Ultimately I’m very curious about what the impact of finding authenticity will be. Maybe some of that less restrained version of me still lurks within. What do you think? Even if the real me is every bit as introverted I look forward to knowing that is authentically me rather than wondering.

At a bare minimum I can already say that I’m more open with people one-on-one than I’ve been in years if ever. It’s a learning experience opening up about things that I previously couldn’t talk about. And I’m still sometimes surprised after the fact but I want to be less locked down and I enjoy people who are more out there than I have ever been. It’s simply inspirational. Maybe even aspirational?

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